Corporate Unity, Part 1: Living Stones & Holy Priests – 1 Peter 2:4-5

Coming to Him–a living stone–who, on the one hand was rejected by men but on the other hand is to God chosen and precious, you also as living stones are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.


Rightly understood, we admit that 2:4-10 is a single unit that simultaneously functions as a conclusion to Peter’s present argument and a bridge to the next. Peter’s letter is formed around three cycles of exhortations. The text before us serves as a conclusion to the commands to be holy (1:15), to fear (1:17), to love (1:22), and to crave (2:2). For the first time since his doxology (1:3-12) we find indicatives instead of imperatives. Peter takes a breath, as it were, to produce the foundation underneath the commands he has issued. Once his readers rightly understand this foundation, he will venture forth to a second cycle of exhortations beginning in 2:11.


Even at a glance, this section before us rises as a daunting mountain range with deep valleys and hidden streams. The sheer volume of Old Testament references and quotations must be thoroughly explored. We must not move too quickly through this section for fear of missing the entire point of the passage. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.


The link from v. 4 back to v. 3 is found in the relative pronoun ὅν or “whom” simply translated as “Him” in most modern translations. These verses continue a commentary on the “Lord” of v. 3. This “Lord” is none other than Yhwh of David’s Psalm 34. This same one who Peter has clearly identified as the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ serves as the link between commands (1:13-2:3) and the foundation for those commands (2:4-10). By way of introduction, Peter puts forth two foundational principles which require and assume all his previous exhortations for believers to be holy.


The Centrality of Christ (v. 4)


We may not be taking on a large portion of text, but this is for good reason. Almost every word Peter uses here is carefully chosen. The ex-fisherman proves to be masterful preacher and theologian whose grasp of Scripture causes us to marvel and rejoice. We must tread carefully and methodically here.


Christ as Foundation (v. 4a) – “Coming to Him–a living stone–


We have barely begun to read before we are forced to stop and take several notes. First, as we have already mentioned, Peter begins with a reference back to v. 3 and his quotation of Psalm 34. The “Him” in v. 4 is the “Lord” of v. 3 and “Yhwh” of Psalm 34. This is not an insignificant detail and goes well beyond a Christological argument for the divinity of Jesus Christ (though that is certainly true). By identifying Jesus as the Yhwh of the Old Testament, Peter automatically invokes images of the unapproachable God of the Hebrews. This is the same being who ascended upon Sinai in fire and smoke (Ex. 19:16), who smote the Egyptian army (Ex. 14:26-31), who passed by Moses in the cleft of the rock (Ex. 34:6-8), and who was manifest behind the veil (Lev. 16:2). It is important that we understand this connection before reading any further.


Second, note the action assumed by Peter of his readers. He assumes that believers are coming to Him. The Greek participle προσερχόμενοι (προσέρχομαι) is the same term used repeatedly in the LXX of priests who came before Yhwh to present offerings (Lev. 9:7-8) as well as to prohibit others from approaching Yhwh in uncleanliness (Lev. 21:17, 18, 21, 23; 22:3). Peter assumes that his readers will in fact draw near and come to this same Yhwh in a constant, ongoing, and lifelong habit of worship. This worship is not assumed to be reserved for a priestly class but is assumed of all believers.


Third, Christ is here called a living stone. There are so many implications that stem from these two Greek terms. To begin with, we should take the time to consider how often Peter uses this term living. He has spoken of a living hope (1:3) and referred to the living word (1:23) only to now refer to Christ as a living stone. It is possible that Peter’s infatuation with this adjective stems from his great confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matt. 16:16).[1] That Christ is here called a living stone may be somewhat paradoxical since a stone is universally recognized as being devoid of life. Even in our modern English we refer to something as being “stone dead.” There is a reference to Christ’s resurrection here, even if it is a subtle one. Christ is a stone indeed, yet a living stone. But why speak of Christ as a stone at all?


If one is brave enough to look ahead to vv. 6-8, you will notice that Peter quotes several Old Testament Scriptures that make reference to God’s Messiah as a stone, Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 8:14; 28:16 being chief among them. But the concept of Messiah as God’s stone begins all the way back in the beginning.


Genesis 49 records the blessings of Jacob upon his sons. You may be familiar with vv. 8-12 which address Judah and the kingly role of his seed. While Genesis 49:8-12 reveal Messiah’s line and function, it is vv. 22-26 that reveal Messiah’s character. The coming savior of the world will certainly arrive through the line of Judah, the line of kings. But Messiah will come bearing the nature and character of Joseph as a shepherd and as a stone.


But his bow remained firm, and his arms were agile, from the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel)” – Gen. 49:24


Scripture is full of familiar passages regarding Messiah’s comforting, providential, and protective care as a shepherd (Ps. 23; Ez. 34). But what does it mean that He is a stone? The term Peter uses here is not the common word for a stone one finds in the field (πέτρος), nor even the generic term to identify a rock as opposed to a piece of wood or a clump of sand (πέτρα). This term refers to a stone that has been cut, quarried, and shaped for a specific purpose (λίθος). Jesus Christ, Messiah, is called a stone (λίθος) because He is the perfectly chosen and shaped foundation stone upon which God has placed His entire plan of redemption. There can be no construction until the foundation is laid, and Jesus Christ is that foundation.


Christ as Example (v. 4b) – In the phrase that follows we discover another μὲν…δὲ construction, a device in the Greek that translates something like “on the one hand…but on the other hand…” Peter used this same construction in 1:20 with a similar affect. His point here is to express the two opposing evaluations of Christ as the living stone in order to encourage his readers to follow Christ’s example.


Christ Rejected by Men – “who, on the one hand was rejected by men”


The term “rejected” (ἀποδεδοκιμασμένον) assumes that some sort of evaluation process has occurred. It describes what someone might do once something has been studied and evaluated only to decide that the substance in question is without value. It is cast off, discarded, or rejected. Humanity in general evaluated Christ for over thirty years and esteemed Him not. In the end, Jesus held little to no value in their eyes and so they killed Him.


There is an immediate implication for those who have been called to follow this same Christ. If the world did not esteem their Shepherd and Stone, they will certainly not value His followers. Christians should expect to be treated like Christ by the world.


Christ Elected by the Father – “but on the other hand is to God chosen and precious”


The other side of the coin reveals God’s estimation of Christ. Peter uses the same term to describe God’s choice of Christ (ἐκλεκτοός) as he did to describe God’s election of his readers as aliens and sojourners (1:1). The value of Christ as the foundation stone is given in the very nature of the Father’s selection, election, and choice of Him to be so. It is in this sense that He is also called precious (ἔντιμος) or highly valued. God chose and selected His Son to be this foundation stone because no other stone will do.


It would do well to bear in mind that God has also selected and chosen each and every Christian as He selected Christ. Christians should expect to be treated like Christ by the Father who chose them. Just as the Father selected Christ for the purpose of being the living foundation stone, He also elected Christians for a specific purpose.


The Community of Christians (v. 5)


Peter quickly turns from Christ to Christians in v. 5, yet maintains much of the same language. As Christ is a living stone, he now calls Christians living stones as well. But what is the nature of this comparison? Peter uses the comparative conjunction ὡς to describe the nature of Christians as living stones, yet when he called Christ a living stone, no comparative particle was used. The sense is that while Christ is inherently and intrinsically the Shepherd and Stone of Israel by virtue of who He is, Christians are only living stones on account of their relationship to the living foundation stone. Nevertheless, we as living stones have a purpose in God’s plan.


Purposed Stones (v. 5a) – “you also as living stones are being built up as a spiritual house


Like Christ our example, Christians are also living stones. Unlike Christ, Christians rest upon a foundation that is not themselves. And yet, Christians are part of the actual structure of a spiritual house. This house is spiritual (πνευματικὸς) not because it is an immaterial house. There is no part of Christian teaching or doctrine that emphasizes the immaterial over the material. That is a pagan and Gnostic teaching that has no equal in orthodox Christianity. This house is spiritual because it possesses the quality and character of God the Holy Spirit who indwells it. The house being referred to is none other than Christ’s church.


There is much we could say regarding Christians as living stones (λίθος – cut and shaped stones for a purpose) that are used in the construction of this house. First, we should observe that there is no such thing as a quarried stone (λίθος) laying by itself in the field. No man carefully shapes a stone for construction and then leaves it behind to remain isolated for the rest of time. Likewise, Christians are not caused to be born again by the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:3) isolated from the body of the local church.


Second, these stones are not found jumbled together in a pile. They are placed together in a particular order to serve a grander purpose in a larger design. Every individual Christian has a place and purpose in the church of Jesus Christ. Peter identifies what that purpose is in the final line of this verse.


Purposed Priests (v. 5b) – “for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ


The noun “priesthood” (ἱεράτευμα) is only used here in the New Testament and only in the LXX translation of Ex. 19:6 and 23:22. It should be obvious that Peter is pointing his readers to Yhwh’s own words in Ex. 19:6 where He calls the nation of Israel to be a kingdom of priests (βασίλειον ἱεράτευμα) and a holy nation. Christians have a similar function and purpose, to be priests who serve the Most High God.


The context of a priesthood forms our understanding of this house. Peter does not have in mind a normal domicile in which we reside. He is speaking of a temple, a house where God is worshiped. Christians are both the building blocks of this temple as well as the ministers therein. It is impossible to consider that he is thinking of a physical structure or even of a single group. As he addresses the Christians of the entire subcontinent of Asia Minor, he calls all of them parts of the house as well as priests who serve. We might explain this verse as follows: The house (the church) has been built (by God) as a place (the gathering) purposed for Christian service.


Again, we see that Christian priests are not like the priests of Israel, for there is no special sect among Christians set aside for this priesthood. All who are in Christ are priests. All Christians are able to approach God in order to serve and minister to Him. Our service is to offer acceptable spiritual sacrifices. Once again, we must not be so quick as to explain away the material by championing the immaterial. These spiritual sacrifices may in fact be tangible acts of service and worship that take on a very material form. By spiritual, Peter has not changed his meaning from v. 4. These are sacrifices that take on the character and nature of God the Holy Spirit who enables such acts of worship.


It is difficult to create an exhaustive list of such sacrificial worship, but we should include the offering of ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2), verbal praise to God (Heb. 13:15), dedicating ourselves in all that we say, think, and do (Phil. 2:17; Eph. 5:1-2), good deeds (Heb. 13:16), and material possessions used for God’s service (Phil. 4:18).[2]


These are the acts of worship that God finds acceptable and that we can only offer through Jesus Christ. Christ is our high priest through whom we might approach the Father (Jn. 14:6; Heb. 10:19-25). But it is only through and by the works of Jesus Christ that our works would ever be considered acceptable, for all our works are as filthy garments before the Lord (Is. 64:6). Our works are only acceptable through Jesus Christ.


Conclusion


The church of Jesus Christ is built by and for Him to serve. This is who we are. The implications from these two short verses are numerous. When we understand that we are called to be priests to the Most High, the call to be holy as only God is holy becomes even more sobering. The way in which we approach this God matters. All we need do is take a trip down memory lane to Lev. 10 where Nadab and Abihu took matters into their own hands and were consumed by fire from the presence of Yhwh for their troubles. The foundational basis for the commands already given is the fact that we have been born again to serve in the presence of God. How dare we think that we can approach Him with unrepented sin staining our hands.


Yet approach Him we can and approach Him we must! This glorious text underlines the blessed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. To be in Christ is to be drawn to Him, the living Stone. To be a part of His church is to be a priest to the God the Father. To speak, as the Papists do, in terms of a separate sect of priests aside from the assembly is to invalidate Christ as the living Stone. Either we can approach the Father through the veil that is the flesh of Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:19-20) or we cannot. Paul explains to the Hebrews that we can. Peter explains to the Christians of Asia Minor that we must.


It never ceases to baffle me how many professing Christians approach holiness as optional and the church body as a pleasant but unnecessary club. They treat the gospel as a “get out of hell free” card rather than a divine imperative to be made like Christ. They treat the church as a country club to belong to for social stimulation rather than a body that is knit together for the purpose of ministry. Peter demands holiness because he writes to priests who serve the Living God. Peter demands love of the brethren because he writes to bodies of believers who are together being built into a spiritual house. Praise God that He has enabled a way to draw near to Him! But may we lose sight of His majesty on account of His grace. That is to say, may we never grow so familiar with our Father that we forget that it is He who sits in judgement. May we never cease to fear Him.


Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 103-4. [2] D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1984), p. 134-5.