C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters is an imaginative portrayal of one demon offering advice to his demon apprentice about how to make sure the person to whom the demon apprentice has been assigned as a tempter ends up in Hell. In Letter number 12, the demon Screwtape tells Wormwood that he doesn’t have to lead his subject into great sins in order to destroy him. He simply needs to make sure that the subject’s trajectory is away from God. Screwtape concludes the letter this way: “Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. A sudden plunge into sin could easily awaken the conscience and move a heart to repentance. But what about the slow, gradual, imperceptible movement of the heart away from God accumulating over years, to the point that one day you look around and notice that there really is no meaningful sense in which your Christian faith shapes your life any longer? And to make it worse, your conscience has so gradually adjusted to the small movements over the years that you don’t even feel as though anything is wrong.
Does that happen? Yes, absolutely. From God’s perspective, of course, he will never lose any who belong to him. But since we can’t see from God’s perspective, we need to deal with this issue at the level of our perspective. And from our perspective, those who profess faith in Jesus Christ have been known to drift away from that profession over time. Perhaps some in this room are presently on that trajectory now. Or maybe you’re not, and you want to make sure the day never comes that you are. What do you think causes the slow fade of faith? I think it often comes from one of two things, or perhaps both combined. On the one hand, the mundane nature of ordinary life can numb our hearts to the realities of our faith. We confess profound and wonderful mysteries about God, Christ, and redemption, and then we spend our day after day in a routine that involves paperwork, diapers, a marriage that doesn’t have the same romance it used to have, or a classroom of rowdy kids. If our faith craves the spectacular, but most of our lives are taken up with the ordinary, the result will be a shrinking of faith over time. On the other hand, suffering can do this to us as well. We may not even know it is happening at the time, but suffering can have the effect of deadening our hearts to God. Perhaps for some of us, what is worse than the pain of tragedy and suffering is a deep sense of disappointment with God, that he would let us down with such an experience. For some of us, the more we suffer, the less we believe we can really trust that God is for us. Normally, I would say it is one of these two things (or both combined) that leads a person down the gentle slope toward hell.
So how do we fight the temptation toward drifting? We fight it by regularly engaging our hearts with the glorious truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We hold up the gospel and gaze at it from every angle, seeking to take in its multi-faceted glory. Peter holds up one facet of the glory of the gospel for us in this passage today, showing us the wonder of who we are in Christ. And when we grasp that reality—the reality of our new identity—all of a sudden the ordinariness of life is no longer deadening to the soul. It becomes the arena for gratitude and service. And suffering no longer drives us away from God. It drives us toward him, because while the pain of suffering is real, our faith in God’s love for us does not waver. No believer can take in the profound reality of what the Bible says about our identity in Christ and be unaffected by it. Peter has devoted the entire first section of his letter, which he concludes here, to laying out that truth for suffering believers throughout Asia Minor. If I could summarize this passage (and all of 1 Peter 1:1-2:10), I would say that Peter’s main point is this: know who you are, and live in light of it. Holding up this facet of the gospel, Peter tells us three things about who we are in this passage.
The story of the Bible is the story of an exile and return to God’s holy place. The Garden of Eden was the original temple, the dwelling place of God, where Adam served as a priest before him. The dwelling place of God was with man. But when Adam and Eve sinned, they were banished from the Garden, exiled from God’s holy place, and ever since humanity has been alienated from God. In the history of Israel, God established holy places where his presence dwelled among the people, but even then he held them at a distance. The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and then in the temple was a single cube-shaped room where no one could enter, showing that a holy God cannot dwell intimately with an unholy people. A veil separated God’s space from that of humanity. And yet, with the atoning work of Jesus Christ, all of that has changed. When Jesus died, the veil of the temple was torn apart, showing that God had opened the holy place to man once again. And so it is no surprise that, in Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven shaped as a perfect cube, the exact shape of the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple. The whole city is God’s dwelling place, and through Christ, we are welcomed into it.
Peter tells us here that, through Jesus Christ, we have been given the highest honor imaginable: the honor of welcome into God’s presence. The honor that God has given to us begins with the honor that he has given to Jesus Christ. Peter identifies Christ in verse 4 as “a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious [that word could also mean ‘honored’].” Peter is using the metaphor of a stone to refer to Christ. He says that Christ is a stone “rejected by men.” Notice that he quotes Psalm 118:22 in verse 7: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” In its original context, this psalm refers to nations rebelling against the Davidic king, who triumphs over them because of God’s power with him. And so the stone that they reject ends up becoming the cornerstone, the preeminent stone in the foundation of a building to which all other stones must be aligned. In other words, the Davidic king of Psalm 118 goes from being opposed and defied by the nations to being vindicated by God and thus honored above them. Jesus referred to Psalm 118:22 when he predicted that the Jewish leaders would put him to death (Matt. 21:42). The “builders,” or leaders of Israel, had no use for him, so they cast him aside by killing him. But God raised him from the dead (he is, after all, a “living stone”) and enthroned him, vindicating him over his enemies and making him the cornerstone.
And so, even though he was “rejected by men,” he is also “in the sight of God chosen and precious.” Where did Peter get those terms? Notice his quotation of Isaiah 28:16 in verse 6: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious.” In the context of Isaiah 28, Jerusalem is warned of a coming destruction of God’s judgment, and yet in the midst of it God will lay the cornerstone of a new temple, and thus of a new Jerusalem. That cornerstone is the Messiah, rejected by men but chosen and honored in the sight of God.
If that is true of Christ, then it is likewise true of all who are in him. And that brings us to Peter’s main point in this section. Peter calls Jesus a living stone on the way to telling us this in verse 5: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” We are pictured as stones aligned with the cornerstone in the construction of a temple. Joined to Christ, the true dwelling place of God with humanity, we have become God’s own dwelling place. This is true of us as individuals, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” That is one of Paul’s arguments against sexual immorality. But here, Peter’s point is that we are, as the gathered church, the temple of God. Paul makes that point in 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” No longer exiled from God’s space, we, the church, have become the very holy place, the temple for God’s dwelling through his Holy Spirit.
But Peter doesn’t end the metaphor there. What does every temple need? It needs priests, or those who minister in the presence of God. Peter tells us that we are being built up, not only as a spiritual house, but so that we can be a holy priesthood. As priests, what is our role? It is to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. What are those sacrifices? Hebrews 13:15 speaks of a “sacrifice of praise.” Philippians 4:18 and Hebrews 13:16 speak of giving to meet the needs of others as a sacrifice that is pleasing to God. And Romans 12:1 speaks of our own bodies as living sacrifices. Peter will go on in his letter calling his readers to live honorable lives among the Gentiles and to endure suffering for the sake of Christ. When Peter mentions sacrifices that we offer to God as a holy priesthood, he probably means our whole selves: our lives, our praises, our gifts, our deeds of love, our good works. All of these things, Peter tells us, are acceptable to God, which means God is pleased with them. Why is he pleased? Is it because our hearts are completely pure from every stain of sin and impure motives? No. If we had to meet that standard to please God with our actions, we would never please him, because even our best deeds in this life are stained with sin. No, Peter says our sacrifices are acceptable to God “through Jesus Christ.”
The great theologian John Calvin wrote of a double justification that believers experience. On the one hand, we are justified by faith alone in Christ, which means that we are declared righteous before God’s judgment because our sins have been counted to Christ, and his righteousness has been counted to us. But in addition to that, Calvin argued, we also experience the justification of our works. What he meant is that we are able to offer to God works that are genuinely pleasing to him, not on their own merits, but because we offer them through Jesus Christ. I think Calvin’s idea of double justification is exactly what Peter is talking about here. And isn’t that encouraging to hear? When you do the mundane tasks of life in faith—going to work every morning, changing diapers, helping your neighbor, gathering with the church to sing praises to God, and a thousand other things—you are presenting to God sacrifices that are pleasing to him. If you ever get the sense that your labors are not fulfilling any good purpose, isn’t that when you begin to lose motivation for them? But if your labors are a sacrifice that is pleasing to God through Jesus Christ, what more motivation do you need than that to persevere in doing good? Believer in Christ, when you stand before God on the Day of Judgment and hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master,” will anything else matter? If you could look at all the sufferings of your life, all the frustrations, all the failures, all the disappointments, all the pains and sorrows (those that have happened and are still to come), and know with certainty that at the end of this long and winding road of life, you will stand in the radiance of God’s approval, wouldn’t you say that whatever path God chooses to get you there, it is all worth it?
Brothers and sisters, you may look at the circumstances of your life and think, “I don’t feel very much like a living stone in God’s holy temple. I don’t feel very much like a priest whose entire life is a holy offering that actually pleases him. I’m just not worthy of that.” But what determines reality? Do your feelings determine reality, or does God’s Word? Whether or not you feel it, God has declared it to you, and so it is true. In Christ, you are the object of the greatest honor God can bestow. And of all the opinions of you that have ever been held by all people in the world (including yourself), there is only one that matters, and that is God’s opinion of you. Remember who you are: God’s own dwelling place, priests welcomed into his presence through Christ.
But Peter goes on to tell us more. Second,
The honor that God has conferred on us in his Son is not evident to the world. In fact, it is often the opposite: the world despises and rejects the followers of the rejected cornerstone. So it may be all well and good for Peter to tell us that we are supremely honored by God, but if that never translates into an honor that is publicly demonstrated, then it’s not really honor. But Peter says in verse 7: “So the honor is for you who believe.” That honor is mentioned in Isaiah 28:16, which Peter quotes just before that: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” What that means is that we will not be put to shame at the final judgment, when God’s opinion of his people will be made fully public. We who are in Christ have before us the hope that, when the final judgment comes, we will stand before God honored and vindicated, not shamed.
But at that same judgment, God’s verdict on unbelievers (those who rejected the cornerstone and us) will be made public as well. Verse 7 reads, “So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and, ‘A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.’” We have already seen how Psalm 118:22 shames those who rejected the cornerstone. The builders tossed aside the stone that became preeminent in the building. Israel’s leaders handed over to death the man who would inherit the throne of David by his resurrection. Peter also quotes from Isaiah 8:14, where God declares that he himself would be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to many in Israel who did not trust in him. The Old Testament Scriptures affirm not only the honor that we receive from God because of Christ the cornerstone, but they also affirm the stumbling toward judgment and shame that unbelievers will experience when we are vindicated over them.
Peter goes on to add, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” There is, ultimately, one major difference between those who are honored by God and those who are shamed, and that is their response to the word of the gospel. If you believe the word and embrace Jesus Christ by faith, no matter what the world says about you, God honors you. But if you disobey the word of the gospel, it doesn’t matter what else you might do with your life. In the end, you have stumbled, and you are destined for shame at the final judgment. Mysteriously, Peter even notes that the disobedience and stumbling of unbelievers to their ultimate shame is the result of God’s sovereign appointment. In Paul’s words (Rom 9:18), God has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. Why would Peter mention that here? As mysterious and difficult as the doctrine of God’s complete sovereignty is, it is also a doctrine that brings comfort. As we face rejection from this world, the same rejection that our Lord faced, we do so knowing that nothing that is happening to us falls outside of God’s sovereign plan. And that confidence in turn gives us the assurance that God will not fail to honor us as he has promised.
It is specifically our conviction about the coming judgment that enables us to stand for our faith today, even in the face of suffering and rejection. Whenever the Supreme Court issues a decision, it always ends with the words, “It is so ordered.” Those words convey a sense of finality and weightiness to them, as if to say, “This is the last court of appeal, and this matter is done. The court of all courts has spoken.” But we must keep in mind this truth: what we know as the Supreme Court is only the last court of appeal in our constitutional system. It is not really the Supreme Court, for one day the final verdict will be delivered over all of history by the highest authority, God himself. On that day, it will be so ordered, and there will be absolutely no appeal beyond that. So can you really go share the gospel with your unbelieving neighbor who might be offended and reject you if you do? Can you hold on to beliefs about God, humanity, and sexuality that are 2,000 years old and have become the objects of ridicule for late night comedians? Can you stand firm for a conviction that might end up costing you your job, your business, and your friends? In every situation like these, think of yourself as standing before a court of human opinion. Whatever verdict you receive, in the end, it will not matter. If you are living in faithfulness to Christ, every opinion of a human court that has condemned you will be overturned by the unimpeachable verdict of God Almighty. God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Do not fear the shame that unbelievers would seek to place upon you for following Christ. In the end, God will publicly honor you and publicly shame them.
But Peter is not finished mining the Old Testament to tell us who we are. So he goes on to say, third,
Israel occupies a privileged place in God’s story, and so by applying language from the Old Testament about Israel to his Christian readers, Peter is telling us that, in Jesus Christ, we are sharers in that same privilege. Verse 9 reads, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Peter is loading up language from the Old Testament here, from two passages in particular. One passage is Exodus 19:4-6, where Israel has been brought out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. God, having redeemed them from slavery, has brought them to Mount Sinai, where he is entering into covenant with them. At the mountain, he tells them, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession [‘a people for his own possession’] among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests [‘a royal priesthood’] and a holy nation [‘a holy nation’].” All three of these terms speak of unique blessing and privilege, that among all the nations on earth, Israel alone would be able to draw near to God as his holy people, welcomed into his presence, uniquely honored and valued by him.
Another passage that Peter is alluding to here is Isaiah 43:20-21, where God is foretelling his future deliverance of Israel from Babylon: “The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people [‘a chosen race’], the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise [‘that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light’].” Once again, we see language of supreme privilege applied to Israel: they are God’s chosen people. God formed them for himself, specifically so that they could bring glory to him. Peter tells us that not only have we been honored by God, but that we have been chosen by him and redeemed by him specifically so that we might honor him. And it is not only being honored, but being enabled by God to give genuine honor to him, honor that he finds pleasing and acceptable, that infuses our lives with a sense of genuine purpose. The purpose of our existence is to declare the mighty works of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. There is something bigger than ourselves into which we can throw our lives, and it is the glory of God.
But that’s just verse 9. The Old Testament language continues into verse 10: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Here Peter is drawing from the book of Hosea. Hosea was called by God to marry a prostitute, Gomer. Gomer bore three children, and the text hints that the second and third were not actually the biological children of Hosea. God commanded Hosea to name the second child, a daughter, “No Mercy,” as a way of indicating that God’s mercy on Israel had run out. And then the third child, a son, he was commanded to name “Not My People,” as a symbolic way for God to communicate to a faithless Israel, “You are not my people, and I am not your God.” As is typical for the prophets, the book of Hosea declares impending judgment for an unfaithful people, but with promises of a future redemption to come. And so in Hosea 2:23, God declares in the context of one such promise: “And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’” The naming of Hosea’s children tells the dramatic story of the rejection and restoration of Israel.
By telling his readers that once they were not a people, but now they are God’s people; that once they had not received mercy, but now they have received mercy, Peter is telling them that they are sharers in Israel’s redemption. If God can transform the status of faithless Israel from “Not My People” to “My People,” he can certainly do so for Gentiles as well. And Peter tells his readers that in Christ, this is what God has done. He does not say that we have replaced Israel, but rather that in Jesus Christ, the true and faithful Israel, we are incorporated into the family of Abraham. We are wild olive branches grafted into the tree, to use Paul’s metaphor in Romans 11.
When I read verses 9-10, I am struck by the value God places on the church. And if God values the church, we should value it as well. In all of the ups and downs of life, in all of the turmoil and disappointment, in all of the frustration and crisis, at least one thing will remain constant: we will continue to gather every Lord’s Day in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and we will continue to taste Heaven together every time we do. I can’t fix all of your problems, but maybe God’s purpose right now is not to fix them, but to direct your gaze above and beyond them. Verses 9-10 are the kinds of verses that help you do that.
Peter calls us to remember who we are in Christ: living stones in the temple of God’s dwelling, a holy priesthood, God’s people destined for vindication over our enemies at the coming judgment, and sharers in the blessings of Israel. These are rich and glorious truths, but they are so easy to forget. Almost a year ago, on August 21st, 2017, certain parts of North America experienced a total solar eclipse, when the moon completely blocked out the light of the sun for a few minutes. Of course, in reality the moon is nothing compared to the sun. It is about 400 times smaller. And, of course, the sun itself was not affected by the moon. It continued to radiate heat and light as it always has during the eclipse. But from the perspective of certain places in North America, during those few minutes on August 21st, 2017, it genuinely appeared as though the much smaller moon had extinguished the much larger sun.
Everything in life depends on perspective. If we begin from the perspective of our own experience, it will appear to us as though the dreariness of life and the sufferings we face have totally eclipsed the glorious truths of the gospel. When we speak of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, it may sound like overly familiar platitudes that don’t really have any bearing on the real life problems we face. And walking under the darkness of an eclipse like that one, we may well be on our way down the gentle slope toward hell. This is why we need the Word of God to reorient our perspective regularly and show us, over and over again, and from every conceivable angle, that the darkness we see around us is only from one perspective. The radiant light of the gospel remains there beyond it, untouched, shining as brightly as it ever has. Lord, give us eyes to see it. Amen.