The Church’s Function – 1 Peter 2:9-10

But you are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for possession, so that you might proclaim the excellencies of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light, who once were not a people but now are a people of God, who had not been shown mercy but now have been shown mercy.


These verses form the conclusion of Peter’s explanation of what we are calling his exhortations of Practical Salvation. The imperatives given in 1:13-2:3 reflect the practical implications of a life that has been “caused to be born again” (1:3). Here, in 2:4-10, Peter answers the question of why the Christians of Asia Minor must hope (1:13), be holy (1:15), fear God (1:17), love the brethren (1:22), and crave God’s life-giving word (2:2). His explanation begins in 2:4-8 by explaining the form of Christ’s church. In 2:9-10, Peter completes his explanation by revealing the function of Christ’s church. In other words, this explanation focuses on two aspects of Christ’s church: (1) what the church is and (2) what the church is purposed to do.


In 2:4-8, Peter has made it clear that the church is founded upon Christ, the living stone. All the commands to love God (1:13-21), love the brethren (1:22-25), and love God’s Word (2:1-3) are necessary prerequisites if we are to come into such close proximity to this living stone and be built upon Him. The church cannot be what God has designed it to be unless the church (individually and collectively) is holy. As Peter moves from the church’s form (vv. 4-8), he explains that her function (vv. 9-10) also requires these same imperatives. In these two verses, Peter reveals three divinely initiated realities upon which the entire purpose and function of the church rests.


Position (v. 9a)

But you are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for possession

Notice that these verses begin with a contrast. Remember that the last thing Peter has mentioned is the predetermined destruction of the unbeliever (vv. 7b-8). This contrast is both encouraging and sobering. The adversative δὲ (but) is encouraging as it makes a distinction between Peter’s readers and those who dash themselves to pieces upon the rock which is Jesus Christ. This is certainly good news! Yet, it is sobering as it makes plain that they owe all that they are to the amazing grace of God.[1] Peter introduces this contrast to view the alternative position of his readers. Rather than being appointed for destruction, they have been set apart as God’s own possession. Peter makes this clear by using four descriptions to designate the church’s special place in God’s economy.


A Common Blood

This is the fourth time Peter has used the word “chosen” or “elect” (ἐκλεκτός) in this epistle. He began by calling his readers elect aliens (1:1), then twice referred to Christ as God’s chosen/elect stone (2:4, 6). In the same manner that God has elected individuals unto salvation and has elected His only begotten Son as savior, He has also elected the church to assume a particular position.


Peter uses a variety of terms to refer to this group that we call “the church.” He first uses the Greek term γἐνος to indicate a group that shares a connection by blood or ethnicity. A γένος or race identifies a people group that share a common ancestry and kinship. The phrase in question is a quotation of Is. 43:20, a passage that assures the future restoration of Israel through a second Exodus type of event. Israel is a race, a γένος, whose common ancestry points back to a common patriarch. Yet, even in the context of Is. 43, the prophet does not refer to Abraham as the basis for Israel’s common kinship.


But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!’” – Is. 43:1 (NASB)


The tie that binds Israel together is not bond of Abraham’s physical seed, but that of God’s spiritual seed. He is their Father, Maker, and Creator. This is exactly Peter’s point as he writes to the churches of Asia Minor. They too are a chosen race because they have been caused to be born again by the God and Father of their Lord Jesus Christ (1:3) by means of imperishable seed which is the enduring and living Word of God (1:23). The church is a people of common blood. We are kin because we are begotten by the same Father, the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.


A Common Privilege

With this common bond comes common privilege. The reference to a royal priesthood again takes us back to Ex. 19:6, yet there is a slight change in the nuance of Peter’s words here. Peter has already the necessity of a holy priesthood in 2:5. There is no man that needs to stand between believers and their God. But here he calls the church a royal priesthood. This indicates that there is no man that stands over the church.[2]


As re-born sons of God, Christians are joined to the only begotten Son to share in His priesthood and kingship. Every Christian may approach God through a singular high priest, Jesus Christ. And no Christian bows to another man, but only to the King of kings, God’s Messiah. Only through Jesus Christ can man reclaim the birthright of Adam, to rule and subdue to earth in service to God.


A Common Culture

Peter’s next description edges closer to the concept of purpose. By calling the church a holy nation (Ex. 19:6), he employs the Greek term ἔθνος which describes a group of people joined by common land, customs, laws, and leadership. This is the very idea of a nation. The church is a people joined by common land, the new heavens and new earth. We are joined by common customs and laws, the worship and obedience of our God through His Word. And we are joined by a single leader, the Lord Jesus Christ. The church is called a holy nation because we are a group set apart from all other nations. We have been consecrated and sanctified to serve our God. This separation has already been made clear in the previous verses.


Israel was also called to be a holy nation, a nation set apart from the pagans that surrounded them. Yet, unlike Israel, the church is not promised a land of our own in this currently cursed world. We are aliens and sojourners who await the coming of a future kingdom. The requirement for the church to be holy has not slacked but has intensified. To be joined to the pagans who surround us is to deny our future country and coming King.


A Common Subservience

Peter’s final designation, “a people for possession” echoes several Old Testament texts (Ex. 19:5; Deut. 4:20; 14:2; Mal. 3:17) which all point to the fact that Israel belongs to Yhwh. Peter now uses the most general term to describe a group of people, λαὸς. The term is used to either distinguish between the laity and a higher group of officials or (as here) to speak of people in a very general sense.


Israel was purchased by Yhwh to be His very own possession. Is. 43:3 reminds the reader of Israel’s redemption from Egypt. So too the church has been purchased by the most precious and valuable blood of God’s perfect and spotless lamb (1:18-19). The church is not simply God’s creation, but we are also His possession. Out of all the people of the earth, God has elected a people bound by the blood of the new birth to serve Him and rule the re-creation. Yet we remain in submission to Him and will never be autonomous beings. We belong to Him. This sense of possession is necessary to understand because it undergirds the church’s purpose.


Purpose (v. 9b)

so that you might proclaim the excellencies of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light


The English “so that” reflects the Greek conjunction ὅπως which introduces a purpose clause. Peter has laid out the contrast of the church’s position as God’s own people (v. 9a) with the pagan unbeliever (vv. 7b-8) in order to arrive at this juncture. God has elected His people for a very specific purpose.


Declare the Character of God

Peter again returns to Is. 43, this time to v. 21: “The people whom I formed Myself will declare My praise” (NASB). The English translation of “excellencies” (NASB/LSB) or “praises” (NKJV) reflect the Greek ἀρετή, a term that describes uncommon character that is worthy of praise. Peter states that it is the church’s purpose to openly declare that nature and character of God. We are to sing forth His attributes. We are to proclaim His perfections. We are to preach His virtues. The collective “you” points to each and every individual within these churches. This is not the duty of a single body, but the purpose of each member. We are all to declare the holiness, righteousness, justice, love, mercy, and grace of God. We must proclaim the Father’s omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. We have but a single purpose and reason for existence: to proclaim the excellencies of our Father who has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.


A necessary point of distinction must be made. Peter describes God as “the One who called you…” yet the content of what Christians are to declare is the very person and character of God. Put more plainly, we are not to proclaim our subjective experiences over the objective reality of who God is, what God has done, and what God will do. The gospel is not a subjective experience but an objective message of historical, contemporary, and future fact.


Declare the Beginning of Re-Creation

Peter’s description of conversion here is a common New Testament theme. Paul has recalled the transition from darkness to light on several occasions (Eph. 5:8; Col 1:12-13; 1 Thess. 5:4). It would be a mistake to focus all our attention on the New Testament’s use of this imagery without going further back and reviewing the first time this contrast between “light” and “darkness” first appears. This is not simply redemption language but creation language.


Just as Paul has already done, so Peter refers to God’s original good creation to drive home the point that Christ’s church is the beginning of a coming re-creation. Just as God spoke light out of darkness, so He calls sinners out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Elect sinners cannot escape this effective call any more than the light could reject God’s decree to shine. Schreiner sees this connection well as he writes, “God utters the word and the light becomes a reality, pushing back the darkness…Just as God’s word creates light, so God’s call creates faith.[3]


Provision (v. 10)

who once were not a people but now are a people of God, who had not been shown mercy but now have been shown mercy


Peter is clearly referencing the prophet Hosea here, though he does not directly quote him. Many briefly read this verse and conclude that Peter here teaches that the church has now replaced God’s chosen people of Israel and that all the blessings promised to Israel are hereby given to the church. That is a very difficult conclusion to arrive at if one reads the Scripture, though easy enough if one elevates the precepts and doctrines of men. The context of Hosea 2:23 (from where Peter’s words come) is within a larger prediction of Israel’s restoration (Hos. 2:21-23) as a result of a second Exodus type of event (2:14-20). Peter has already stated that the Old Testament prophets wrote better than we dare give them credit for (1:10-12). Surely, he is not correcting Hosea here but rather using Hosea’s words in their original context. The church has not, nor ever will replace Israel in God’s plan of redemption. Although there remains many similarities between the two.


God-given Identity

Peter returns to his use of λαὸς (people in general) to describe the absolute nothingness of his readers before God called them out of darkness. There was nothing that bound them together, no common bond, and no flag under which they might unite. They were nothing, not a people. The contrast between then and now is astounding, for now they are a people (λαὸς) belonging to God. Only as God’s own possession does the church have any identity. Only through God’s effectual call and supernatural re-birth can the church truly be said to be a common people. God is the uniting factor.


God-given Grace

Peter continues in a similar way to show that when in darkness, Peter’s readers had not been shown mercy. The perfect tense of ἐλεέω (to be merciful, to show mercy) marks a point in past time when they had never known the mercy of God in an experiential way. If left in darkness, they too would be appointed to destruction. But now they are those who have been shown mercy. Peter changes from the perfect tense to the aorist (ἠλεημένοι) to present a complete picture. They are those who are recipients of mercy. The transaction is complete! God has acted upon their behalf and thus terminated their former state.[4]


Conclusion

Rather than suggesting that the church has replaced Israel (a concept that is never even hinted at in Scripture) this text affirms the very opposite. Peter’s allusions to these Old Testament texts would cause nothing but panic and anxiety if God had rejected the people to whom He had sworn restoration in favor of a different people group. Yet these words bring comfort and understanding. These words bring comfort to the Christians of Asia Minor, for now they can rest assured that God will never leave nor forsake them because He will not leave Israel to damnation. These words also bring understanding because as God’s chosen implement in this current dispensation the church must be holy. We cannot fulfill our purpose if we linger in uncleanliness. We cannot declare the excellencies of God while we remain in unrepentant rebellion to His order. We cannot preach the gospel of light while living in darkness. We are those who had no people and have been made the people of God. We are those who never knew the meaning of mercy until God bestowed His mercy upon us. Considering these realities, it is time for the church to get to work.


Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1984), p. 141. [2] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), p. 100-2. [3] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 116. [4] Hiebert, p. 147.