1 Peter 2:1-12
Beware! As you read this passage you may experience metaphorical whiplash. In verses 2-3 Peter urges his readers to look at God as an infant would look at the breast of her mother; they are to long for the life-giving sustenance that only comes from the food of God. That food is good. Now, in verse 4, Peter abrubtly switches from a feminine metaphor to a neuter metaphor as he refers to God as the Living Stone. From a life-giving mother to a living and supporting stone — a wonderful whiplash, don’t you think?
Within these rich metaphors Peter encouraged his readers to remember that as they drink from the breast of God that the nourishment they receive is working to build them up to become something strong and wonderful. Just as God is a strong cornerstone, so are they stones that are being placed together to become a beautiful and significant structure that is designed to direct not only their own focus but the focus of all people in the direction of God.
Throughout the first half of his letter Peter instructed his readers to live as strangers — resident aliens – in the world. In the last section we studied he told them that they need to renew their minds and sharpen their focus on God as the sole source of their sustenance. Now, in this section, he encourages them to renew their identity. Once again we must remember that Peter was speaking to a very Jewish audience. In order to encourge this suffering group he dug deep into the core of their Jewish self-identity and drew upon very familiar metaphors to remind them of who they are and why they should be willing to endure the hardships they were suffering.
What Peter does here is very similar to what Jesus did at the Last Supper. In that meal Jesus spoke to his very Jewish disciples and shared a very Jewish tradition with them — Passover. Jesus did not negate or deny this rich heritage. Instead he upheld it and encouraged them in it. But he also redefined it and breathed new meaning into it. In the past when they ate the bread and drank the wine it represented the lamb that had been sacrificed on the night of Passover to save the firstborn son of each household of the Israelites. The meal itself reminded them of God’s perpetual faithfulness to the covenant He made with Abraham and his ongoing plan of redemption for his people. It also pointed them to the hope of God’s Kingdom reigning on the Earth. When Jesus lifted his glass he continued that tradition and told his disciples that God continues to remain faithful to the covenant He has with the house of Jacob and that now a new lamb had come to shed blood and bring redemption for the house of Israel and for the world. Familiar images filled with new life and meaning.
In Peter’s letter he uses very familiar metaphors and breathes new life into them. Between verses 6 and 8 Peter quotes 3 different Old Testament passages and ties them together into a single message for his readers. Let’s take each quotation in its own context first and then see how Peter merges them.
In this chapter of Isaiah, the prophet warns the Southern Kingdom of Judah to become smug in their confidence. At that time in history the Northern Kingdom of Israel was facing imminent destruction at the hand of the Assyrian Empire. Judah, their Southern counterpart, was feeling safe because they had made a treaty with Egypt – a covenant with death, as Isaiah called it — that ensured that the Assyrians would not conquer them as well. Isaiah warned the leaders of Judah to not put their confidence in this treaty. The only treaty they should honor is the one they already have with God. Isaiah reminds them of God’s faithfulness to them and His covenant with them by using a vivid metaphor of stone, storm, and water. Assyria was like a rushing flood that would soon sweep through the land of Judah and go right down to Egypt, bringing destruction in its path. No amount of political alliances would protect them from this devestation and suffering. The only thing that would keep them strong would be their faith in the faithfulness of God. This faithfulness is like a strong stone that God would place in the middle of the torrent. It would be a rock of refuge and a strong foundation on which to build a house that would withstand the flood and be a beacon of hope to all who saw it.
this is a great Psalm of praise that was used as a Pilgrimage song as the Jews would approach Jerusalem for the great annual feasts. It was the Psalm that the crowd shouted out as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. They called out “Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” More importantly, for Peter’s quotation, it records the words of the victorious king returning to Jerusalem after battle. The King emphasizes the fact that it was only through his trust in the faithfulness of God, not in the power of horses or political treaties, that he was able to be victorious. The stone the builders rejected is reference to the faithfulness of God and the invitation to either place trust in it or to reject it. Those who choose to put their trust in God’s faithfulness will find that they can be victorious in the battles they face. This was an ongoing theme in Jewish theology that needed to be constantly reinforced in the face of oppression and dire circumstances.
Earlier in Isaiah’s life and preaching ministry to Jerusalem he used a very vivid metaphor to convey truth to the nation. His wife – the virgin – was to give birth to a child who was to be called Immanuel. Before that child was grown the nation would be flooded with invasion and suffering. Yet those who clung to God’s faithfulness would be able to join with isaiah, his wife, and his child and cling to the rock of God’s faithfulness.
In all three circumstances the image of the rock had a dual purpose. For those who cling to the rock it becomes a vehicle of deliverance, comfort, shelter, and hope for the future. For those who reject the rock and cling to their own wisdom, to political alliances, or to military strength, the rock becomes a stumbling block that seems to get in the way of their agenda.
Here, in Peter’s letter, he draws upon those same images. The situation was the same, only the names had been changed. It wasn’t Assyria that was about to sweep through their land like a mighty flood, it was Rome — specifically Nero’s wrath – the was about to ravage their existence with needless oppression and persecution. They were faced with a choice. They could either give in to the way of being that characterized their Roman peers, or they could cling to the promise of God’s faithfulness. They could save their lives by bowing to the Emperor as “the Son of God” “The Lord” and the “The King of Peace” or they could look beyond the immediate and cling to a deeper truth — a rock that forms a strong foundation.
Now, in the wake of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus, the “stone” had been redefined. No longer was the stone simply the vague promise that had been made by an abstract God to an ancient ancestor. Now the promise — the Word — had become flesh and made his dwelling among them. The stone had now become the Living Stone that beat and breathed the rhythm of real life in a real world. No longer were they invited to cling to empty words that left them feeling like “not a people”, but they were invited to embrace a person and a vibrant way of being. Now they were a people, a family, a temple that was alive with purpose.
What was their purpose? Actually, the purpose had never changed, nor has it to this day. Those who cling to the rock are called to be a holy priesthood. What does that mean? The role of the priest is to stand as a servant and a conduit between God and people. In the Old Testament law the people would bring their offerings for God to the priest and let the priest present them in a proper fashion. The priest was a servant.
The nation of Israel had been called out by God to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood to serve the nations in the same way. Israel was to see itself as a servant of the nations, helping to point their focus away from their own self-reliance and onto the rock of God’s faithfulness and love. The problem with Israel is that they misunderstood their roll of being called out and set apart as priests. They believed that “walls of their temple” were dividing walls that separated those who were “in” with God and those who were “out” with God. This exclusivistic and self-righteous attitude is what got them in trouble and what caused Jesus to deconstruct their worldview.
Now, in clinging to the Living Stone, the “new Israel” — the body of Christ — was invited to serve the same function. Peter reminded them that they were living stones. The walls of the temple were not lines of demarcation between the saved and the damned, but living walls of hope and blessing that, through their very way of being, demonstrated the love and faithfulness of God to all nations. Peter reminded them that there was no better time to demonstrate God’s faithfulness than in times of persecution. It was under times of pain that they had the greatest opportunity to demonstrate that there is more to life than the self-indulgence and “desires” that characterize the typical, self-destructive way of being. If they were able to love their persecutor and show grace in the face of injustice, then the Kingdom of God could be revealed and actualized in the societies in which they lived.
In 1 Peter 2:11-12 Peter urged the readers to abstain from evil desires that waged war against their souls. At this point it could be easy for us to assume he meant the typical vices like sexual immorality, drunkenness, cussing, etc. that continually plague us. While those are constant distractions for us, I don’t believe that is what he meant. In verse 12 Peter indicates that they were being accused of wrong doing. You see, the Romans had a distorted view of the Christian sect. Wild rumors had spread through the empire that christians were cannibals because they ate the body of their leader. They were also accused of incest because they considered their spouses to be ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in Christ. They were also accused of being atheists and a threat to society because they did not worship the emperor and hold to the gods of Rome.
The evil desire that most likely tempted them was that of vengeance. Think about it. What is your first knee-jerk reaction when you are falsely accused and your reputation is damaged? You want to speak out and correct the wrong. That only seems natural. Yet, what typically happens when you are taunted by a bully? You end up having to stoop to the level of the bully to beat him, and thus, in so doing, become the very evil that led you into action.
How did Jesus react to false accusation? He didn’t respond to it. He didn’t give it fertile soil to grow. He knew the truth about himself no matter what anyone else believed about him. He knew that the truth would set him free.
Peter reminded his readers of this foundational truth. They knew who they were and they knew what they were called to do. They were followers of Jesus. They nursed from God’s breast and clung to the Living Stone, being nourished and built up into a beautiful house that would invite all people to enter into the faithfulness and grace of God. If they caved into the pressure of their oppressors now then all that would be lost. It was now that the true test of their faith was at hand. It was the day of God’s visitiation — his leadership — when they would be given the opportunity to folow in the way of their Living Stone and love their oppressors even in the face of unjust suffering.
So, what’s the message for us today? There are many, depending upon your circumstances. One message that I glean from this comes in the form of a question. Do you know who you are? Do I know who I am? In my life right now I am experiencing a bit of an identity crisis. I have recently lost my church of which I was the full-time paid leader. Overnight I went from having a position that defined me to being adrift in the abyss of obscurity. I’m forced to ask myself the question, “who am I?” Has my identity been wrapped up in my role as a “pastor?” Has my security been in my steady paycheck? I realize that I am not experiencing persecution of any kind, nor do I pretend to associate my circumstances with the dire straits of Peter’s audience or those of my brothers that are truly suffering in other parts of the world. Yet, in my little life circumstances, this experience has been a bit of a flood that has swept through my “land” and threatened me.
Peter reminds me that God has laid a stone in Zion and invites me to cling to it. He doesn’t invite me to analyze it or understand it. He invites me to throw myself upon it. He invites me to rest in it and it alone. I am nothing more than an infant latching on to my mother’s breast and drawing in life itself. I am nothing more than a stone in the wall of a great temple that lives and breathes with the grace of God. I am nothing, and I am everything.
Whether I preach to crowds of people or draw caricatures for a two-year old’s birthday party, it doesn’t matter to God. What matters to Him is how I do those things. Do I do them as a living sacrifice, soaked in grace and love, or do I do them out of a desire to be “significant” in my own eyes.
Now the question is, “Who are you?”