Peter begins his letter to scattered Christians by addressing them as “strangers in the world” (1 Peter 1:1). He comes back to this description in 1 Peter 2:11, calling believers “aliens and strangers in the world.”
Early Christians understood those terms quite personally because of two great struggles they faced: one from without and one from within. From without, they were treated as unwanted people in the Roman Empire and subjected to severe persecution, even martyrdom, because they refused to burn a pinch of incense at the emperor’s altar and declare that Caesar was Lord. From within, they faced the temptation to become so enamored with their spiritual life (their heavenly citizenship) that they would gladly disassociate themselves from more mundane and less pleasant earthly responsibilities.
Peter addresses these struggles for Christians then and for Christians today by drawing our attention back to that which ought to be of highest importance for us. What ought to be of highest importance for a Christian is faithfulness to Christ that is lived out in practical ways in how we live as people in this world.
It is in how we live in this world that we get opportunities to practice trusting God, and to grow in closer relationship with Christ, and to bring honor to God through our lives, and to be worthwhile witnesses to Christ to those around us.
In 1 Peter 2:17, Peter provides very specific instructions to us of how we are to conduct ourselves in this world: “Show proper respect to everyone; love your fellow believers; fear God; honor the emperor.”
The original recipients of Peter’s letter were the people who lived in the Roman Empire. There were 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire. Every one of those slaves was considered by law not to be a person but a thing, with no rights. But in dying for the whole world, Christ affirmed the worth of each individual, so Peter instructs us to “show proper respect to everyone.” In our modern world where people’s identities are stolen, where children are bullied, where people are profiled, where people are dehumanized in a variety of ways, what an expression of love we could show and what a witness we could make if we showed proper respect to everyone.
Helen Keller observed, “Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all—the apathy of human beings.” What a witness we could make to the world around us if we would genuinely “love your fellow believers.”
To “fear God” is to honor God over anything else in our lives. What a difference that would make in our lives if we would do just that: Honor God above everything else in our lives!
Disrespect toward our emperor, king, or president is contrary to Biblical instruction, is dishonoring of God, is a lousy witness of our trust in God, and poisons our soul with bitterness and arrogance when God is calling for our souls to be filled with trust in Him in all things. If Peter could instruct the early Christians to honor Nero, can we think to justify ourselves in dishonoring our president even if we disagree with him politically?
It seems to me that 1 Peter 2:9-12 addresses a vital dynamic about how we live: Who we understand ourselves to be significantly shapes the way we live, and the way we live significantly shapes the health and well-being of our soul.
Charles Martin’s novel, Chasing Fireflies, tells the story of an abandoned young boy and a search for his mother and a search for his sense of identity. After a visit from one woman, Martin writes of the visit between the boy, who would not speak but would only write in his notebook, and the man who was caring for him temporarily:
“Sketch shuffled out of the house wearing his Spidey pajamas. He sat down next to me, his notebook on his lap. He scribbled quickly and held it up for me.
“WHO WAS THAT LADY TODAY? [He wrote in his notebook.]
“‘She’s a momma…looking for her son.’
“DID SHE THINK I WAS HIM?
“He wrote without looking at the page. AM I?
“His question pressed me against the railing. Men spend their lives asking Who am I when the real question is Whose am I? I don’t think you can answer the first until you’ve settled the second. First horse, then cart. Identity does not grow out of action until it has taken root in belonging.” (p. 233)
Peter addresses the question of “Whose am I?” in 1 Peter 2:9, describing us as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”
From there Peter moves on to discuss how we are to live. Once we know whose we are, he calls us “to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.”
When we don’t know whose we are, we tend to live out of desperation, trying to prove ourselves to ourselves and/or to others, or we give up. Low self-identity leads to low self-esteem which results in some bad actions on our part. Brennan Manning comments, “Self-hatred always results in some form of self-destructive behavior.” Peter describes our sinful behavior as that which wages war against our soul.
Not knowing who we are and whose we are significantly shapes how we live, and how we live significantly shapes the health and well-being of our soul. One of the wisest things I can do in life is to get to know who I am by discovering whose I am so that I can begin to live in ways that are more conducive to the health and well-being of my soul.
Peter says something interesting about us in 1 Peter 2:5. He describes us as being “like living stones.”
What does it mean to be like living stones? In what way can an inanimate rock be a living stone?
The ancient Jewish people were quite familiar with the concept of “living stones.” At various times they were instructed by God to set up stones as a memorial of what God had done. But the stones were never intended to be only a relic of times past—-a reminder of what God had done years before. They were meant to be a living monument—-an ongoing witness—-to who God is. The aim of the stones was not just to point to what God had done in some past age but to who God continues to be. An early example is found in Joshua 4. After the Jewish people entered “the Promised Land” by walking across the Jordan River bed on dry ground, Joshua told the people to set up 12 stones as a memorial, and this explanation was given: “In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’… [God] did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God” (Joshua 4:21-22 & 24). The rocks were like “living stones” giving an ongoing testimony to the power and the love of God.
When Peter describes us as being “like living stones,” this is a significant part of what he has in mind. God continues to want people throughout the world to see and discover His love and character and power. Where will people find such evidence now? Not in a pile of stones, but in us! God’s call to us now is not to set up a bunch of stones but to be living stones ourselves. God’s design is that people will look at us and see evidence of who God is and what God has done and what God is doing.
That’s scary to me because I am not always good evidence of who God is and of the good work God is capable of doing. But I need to face the reality that whether I like it or not, people look at me (and at any who bear the name “Christian”) and form their judgment about God by what they see in me (and in us). God, may I be more shaped by Your love and goodness so that when people look at me they find a better bit of evidence of who You truly are.
In my personal devotional time I have been reading the book of Genesis. Today I was reading about the covenant of circumcision. I am particularly struck by the differences between the covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17 and the covenant God “cut” with Abram two chapters earlier, in chapter 15.
In the first covenant God instructed Abram to cut some animals in half and to arrange them on opposite sides of a rut in the ground. This was an ancient Middle Eastern practice of “cutting a covenant.” What would normally happen would be for both parties of the covenant to walk through the blood in the rut between the sacrificed animals. In doing so, they would end up with blood on their feet. The message was: ‘If I should break this covenant, may it be at the cost of my own blood (my own life); if you should break this covenant, may it be at the cost of your own blood (your own life).’ Interestingly, though, in Genesis 15 it is only God who walks through the blood, in the form of “a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces” (Genesis 15:17). What God reveals about Himself in this covenant is that God is the One who swears His love to us with the promise of His own blood (His own life). Indeed, when the covenant between us and God was broken by our sin it is God, in Jesus Christ, who gave His life for us to set things right between us and God.
The second covenant did not involve the promise of our lives but a ‘wounding’ of our skin. Indeed, it involves wounding a man at the point of his greatest vulnerability and greatest intimacy. In his book, The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan offers this insight: “To be circumcised is to permit, even invite, an act of violence—a sharp knife, a painful cut, a bloody removal—in that part of a man he otherwise most guards and hides. It is also the part he most intimately joins with a woman. Circumcision is being scarred in a place of deep identity, where a man understands himself to be a man” (p. 96). In this second covenant, God reveals us to be a people who, if we want to be in relationship with God, must face and acknowledge ourselves to be wounded at our place of greatest vulnerability and our place of greatest intimacy.
These two covenants reveal to us the vital foundation to our relationship with God. Our relationship with God depends upon His love that goes so far as to give His life to set things right between us, and it requires us to admit that we are people who are wounded at our point of greatest vulnerability and intimacy.
Curious about what more might be in that verse than what I, as a man, might tend to notice, I asked for insights from my friend Kelli who is a certified lactation coach. Kelli pointed to the amazing way in which God designed the human body so that the milk produced by a mom includes chemicals that are vitally important specific to her baby’s age and development. For example, Kelli pointed to a mutual friend who recently gave birth to a baby many weeks prematurely. (The baby girl weighed 1 pound 6 ounces at birth.) This mom’s milk includes chemicals that provide extra protection to an infant this young and this needy. As this baby (or as any baby) grows, chemicals within the milk change to fit the needs of the baby’s development. (By the way, this little girl is almost 3 months now and growing well!)
Bring this back to 1 Peter 2:2. It is not that a new Christian and a long-time believer read different words in the Bible, but the living God takes the Word of God and applies it to our lives in the way that is appropriate to us for where we are in our spiritual growth.
A baby is intimately aware of his or her desperate need for this life-sustaining and life-growing fluid from its mother, and the baby cries out to receive his or her fill of this wonderful milk. How often do I recognize my desperate need to be nourished by God’s Word? How often do I cry out to God to be fed by God?
At least two things that I need to realize from this verse stand out to me: 1: As desperately as a baby needs its mother’s milk, I need God’s nourishment in my life. 2: I need to recognize that when I feed upon God’s Word, God will apply to my life what I am ready for in my spiritual growth. I ought to be looking for how God will be feeding me for this point in my growth, and I ought to expect it to be different for me today than it was last year and different from what it will be next year.