1 Peter 2

Fr. John A. Roop


The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).

In our first session, I suggested that there are three major themes that frame the letter of 1 Peter: identity, suffering, and praxis — who we are in Christ; the reality of, proper response to, and meaning behind Christian suffering; and the private and public practice of our faith as we live as resident aliens in any given culture. While the letter isn’t limited to just these themes, they are helpful as an organizing structure for our study, and we’ll continue to use them. That means that we won’t do a verse-by-verse exegesis of 1 Peter, but rather a theme-by-theme approach.

Take a few minutes to read 1 Peter 2:1-12 to notice/mark Peter’s descriptions/characteristics of Christian identity.

I noticed these:

• Living stones

• Spiritual house

• Holy priesthood

• Chosen race

• Royal priesthood

• Holy nation

• God’s people

• Sojourners and exiles

Living stones
Here Peter draws on imagery in the messianic Psalm 118 — which I commend to you in its entirety — and in Isaiah 28:14ff, which identifies the Lord’s anointed, Jesus, as a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious. In 1 Peter 2:4, Peter actually goes beyond the Old Testament texts to characterize this Messianic stone as “living.” And he says that, as Christ is a living cornerstone, we are also living stones being built into a spiritual house. That presents us a strange image: a living stone. What might Peter have had in mind with that image? Why might he have made that addition to the Old Testament text? What sense does “living” stone make?

The age after the fall — after the fall and before Christ — was an age characterized by and dominated by death; with two, possibly three, exceptions everyone from Adam to Christ died. But it is not so in this last age, this age of Christ’s reign. This is the age in which death has been trampled down by Christ’s death and in which life is given the final word. Death is undone; all that is dead will be made alive. Peter seems to go further — at least metaphorically — to suggest that all that was inanimate before, might be animated by the life and Spirit of Christ; an inanimate stone might become, in Christ, a living stone. This is very likely hyperbole, metaphor, but it shows the life giving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to renew the entire created order. C. S. Lewis expressed a similar notion when he made all the animals in Narnia to be talking animals. For those who finally rejected Aslan, the consequence was to lose the power of speech, to become less than what they were made for. In new creation, I don’t know if rocks will actually be animate beings, but that is not really Peter’s point. He is simply saying that the resurrected life of Christ permeates everything, that it conquers death, and that the life of Christ is in us; if Christ is a living stone — because Christ is a living stone — then we too are living stones. Life reigns in us; life animates us in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.

Spiritual house
The living stones have a purpose: to become a spiritual house. When Peter says “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house,” he is speaking not in the singular, but in the plural — to the whole church; “all y’all” are being built into a spiritual house. Our faith is personal, but never private; it is essentially corporate — not “you” singular, but “you” plural. When Jewish readers heard the words “spiritual house,” what would they likely have thought of? I suspect they thought of the Temple. So, what Peter implies is that his readers are stones imbued with the very life of Christ, being built up into a living temple for the presence of the Lord, with Jesus himself being the cornerstone of that temple. If this is temple imagery, what else do you need to have a functioning temple? You need priests, which brings us to the next mark of our identity.

Holy Priesthood/Royal Priesthood
If Peter was writing primarily to Jews, then they would have been very familiar with the institution of the priesthood. In your reading of the Old Testament, you have frequently encountered priests, as well; you know who they were and what they did. What were the functions of the Aaronic priesthood? What was the priesthood to do, to accomplish?

• To offer sacrifices

• To instruct the people in the Law

• To represent God before the people and the people before God

• To discern the will of God

I want to focus on just two of these roles: the sacrificial and the representative functions of the priesthood. I want to show how these roles form the context of, and how they are fulfilled in and by, the Eucharist.

First, let’s consider sacrifices. There were, broadly speaking, two categories of offerings under the Mosaic Law: sin offerings and peace offerings. The reality is more complicated and nuanced than this and there are subcategories of each, but the two-fold division is a reasonable way to think about offerings. Sin offerings dealt with the guilt of the people; they cleansed the people, the tabernacle/temple, and the land of defilement — the residual taint of sin — so that the Lord would not “break out” against the people or the land and destroy either. The sacrifice of the sin offering was primarily dedicated to God; the blood was applied to the altar and poured out at its base and the fat and kidneys were burned on the altar. In some other cases, the carcass was burned outside the camp. In some cases the priest — but never the people — was given a portion of the holy offering to consume in the tabernacle or temple precincts. In contrast, the peace offering had nothing to do with sin, but rather with worship. The general category of peace offering included two specific forms: the thanksgiving offering and the vow offering. God had preserved you through some great difficulty or had blessed you richly or you are simply overcome with his goodness and beauty and mercy and you want to express your appreciation and devotion; that is the thanksgiving offering. Or, you want to make a special vow of piety and devotion, e.g., a temporary Nazirite vow. Such a vow warranted a vow offering. The essence of these offerings was a fellowship meal; part of the offering was burned on the altar (God’s part), part was given to the priests to eat, and part was given to the person making the offering to eat: God, priests, and people feasting/communing together in a thanksgiving offering meal.

So, this is the context into which Peter writes, telling the people that they are now a holy and royal priesthood. In what sense is that true, particularly in terms of the sacrificial function? I want to suggest just one aspect of Christian sacrificial priesthood: we are priests in and through the Eucharist. First — and this is important — Christ is the fulfillment/end of sacrifice for sin; no other sacrifice for sin is needed, and no other sacrifice for sin is possible. Hear these words from the Eucharistic liturgy:

All praise and glory is yours, O God our Heavenly Father, for in your tender mercy, you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption, He made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and he instituted, and in his Holy Gospel commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again (BCP 2019, p. 116).

This part of the liturgy make clear that Christ’s death is the final sin offering. We do not offer that again on the altar. But, we do re-present that and participate in it by faith and sacrament in the Eucharist. That is part of our priestly function on behalf of the whole world. But now the language of the liturgy changes:

So now, O merciful Father, in your great goodness, we ask you to bless and sanctify, with your Word and Holy Spirit, these gifts of bread and wine, that we, receiving them according to your Son our Savior Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood (BCP 2019, p. 116).

Here we move from sin offering, which the people never ate, to thanksgiving offering which was a meal of fellowship between God and his people. The language that follows in the liturgy is explicit:

And we earnestly desire your fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this, our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (italics added); asking you to grant that, by the merits and death of your Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his Blood, we and your whole Church may obtain forgiveness our our sins and all other benefits of his passion (BCP 2019, p. 117).

Jesus offers himself for the sin of the whole world and we come to remember, to participate, and to thank God precisely in the fellowship meal; this is the fullness of the priesthood and it is largely what constitutes God’s people as a holy and royal priesthood.

And there is one last offering made in the Eucharist, one made individually but on behalf of the whole body. It has the nature of a vow of fealty.

And here we offer and present to you, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice (BCP 2019, p. 117).

The Eucharist is above all that which constitutes us as a priesthood; it is our participation in both types of offerings: the sin offering made once for all by Christ and re-presented in the Eucharist and the thanksgiving and vow offerings we make each time we participate in the sacrificial meal of bread and wine, Body and Blood.

The second aspect of our priesthood is representation: representing God to the people and the people to God. How do we represent God to the people? The words of the General Thanksgiving summarize this well:

And, we pray, give us such and awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days (BCP 2019, p. 25).

Lips and lives: what we say and what we do — in holiness and righteousness — in the sight of the people; that is the essence of how we represent God to his people. That moves us toward one of Peter’s other major themes: praxis, particularly in terms of our public behavior. More of that in a moment.

How do we represent the people before God? One of the most basic ways is through our prayers, which brings us again to the Eucharist. The Eucharistic liturgy always includes the Prayers of the People which are also truly “Prayers for the People by the People.” Various forms of these prayers are allowed, “provided the following concerns are included:”

The universal Church, the clergy and people

The mission of the Church

The nation and all in authority

The peoples of the world

The local community

Those who suffer and those in any need or trouble

Thankful remembrance of the faithful departed and of all the blessings of our lives (BCP 2019, p. 140).

The lion’s share of our prayers are directed toward representing the people before God. The Eucharist is not the totality of our priesthood, but it is the summit and source of it, bringing together all the major functions of our priesthood. The Eucharist is that which proclaims our Christian identity most fully. And here, we’ll leave the theme of identity and move toward Peter’s other themes of suffering and praxis.

Praxis and Suffering
Christians were often suspect in the communities where they resided as aliens. They were considered as atheists because they did not worship the local gods or the gods of the empire. This was a matter of local and national security; fail to worship the gods and they might visit disaster on the people. In this sense, the Christians’ failure to uphold their civic obligations was tantamount to anarchy. That is probably not the primary reason behind Peter’s instructions on the relationship between Church and state, but it is the context for it. He says as much in 1 Peter 2:15:

1 Peter 2:15 (ESV): 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.

Christians were not atheists and were not then — and should not now be — anarchists. And that should be clear in their relationship with governmental authority. Here is how Peter expresses it:

1 Peter 2:13–17 (ESV): 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

This is a challenging passage, especially for those who have suffered abuse at the hands of government or who view government as largely incompetent or self-serving. My best friend has moved from thinking the United States government is simply incompetent to thinking it is positively evil. And yet, we are told to be subject to the governmental authorities. We may have to grapple with this a bit. Let’s start here with a question: What is God’s purpose for government?

I might suggest these answers:

• To promote order instead of chaos in the public realm

• To promote justice for all

• To ensure the welfare of all

• To protect the public

I think of these as the minimal standards of godly government. Peter summarizes all this by saying that governors are sent “by [God] to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” That is the context for Peter’s instructions to his readers; he presumes godly government. But, governments that do not do these things are not godly governments. Here is the principle that I think the whole of Scripture endorses: we must be in submission to the authority of the government to the extent that it serves its God-ordained functions. When it fails to do so, we may be forced to disobey the authorities and to speak prophetically to them. Scripture gives multiple examples of this principle.

The Egyptian government — pharaoh — was not a godly government, and God called Moses to oppose it. Elijah opposed the wicked rule of Ahab and Jezebel. When Nebuchadnezzar required all people to bow down to his image, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused. When Daniel was ordered to pray to no one but King Darius, he paid no attention to the injunction, but continued to offer his daily prayers to God. When the Apostles were ordered by the authorities to speak no longer in the name of Jesus they answered that they must obey God rather than the authorities. Scripture’s teaching is consistent: when governments and their authorities exceed their mandate or fail to serve their godly functions, they do not have the blank check of our obedience. Peter’s instructions must be taken as part of that whole ethos. To the greatest extent possible, Christians must be subject to every human, governmental institution and authority, in so far as doing so does not violate godly justice and our supreme devotion and obedience to God. In principle, I think this much is clear. In practice, it is not so clear. We will sometimes reach different conclusions on the limits of submission to government; decisions require prayer, and corporate discernment. But, this much is also clear; even when we disagree with government, Christians must not act as hate-filled agents of anarchy.

I’d like to use two examples of this from within my lifetime — one positive and one negative. You are free to disagree with these examples, but they do point out the distinctions I’m trying to draw.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophetic voice against the government sanctioned injustice perpetrated against blacks in our country. He was pointing out precisely where the government was not serving its godly function. He did so through non-violent protest and not through hate-fueled anarchy. That seems to me in keeping with the whole of Scripture and the assumed context of Peter’s instructions.

In contrast, the January 6 insurrectionists at the Capitol — those who violently stormed and occupied the Capitol — were not acting in a Christian manner and were in violation of the whole of Scripture including Peter’s instructions here. They did not silence the false accusations of non-Christians against our faith, but rather brought the faith into disrepute. Theirs was an act of tribalistic, hate-filled, anarchy. No one can rightly claim to act as they did in the name of Christ.

Most of us will not find ourselves caught up in either of those extremes, though increasingly it may be difficult to support and obey our government as it moves farther away from godly justice and embraces iniquity. So, what is the “bottom line?” To the greatest extent possible, obey the government. Also, pay your taxes; that is most likely what the word “honor” in 1 Peter 2:17 refers to.

Now, let’s move from one challenging topic to the next. I’d like to start with a thought experiment. Imagine if Pope Francis were to publish an encyclical calling on all Roman Catholics — in fact, on all Christians — to immediately stop using combustion engine (fossil fuel) cars. What do you suppose would be the response? We do not inhabit a thought world — a way of looking at and imagining the world — in which such a thing is even conceivable. We lack the necessary infrastructure, not to mention the financial resources necessary to make the switch in the near term. But suppose that Pope Francis is truly convinced that this is a moral/theological issue and that, as Christians, we simply must end our use of fossil fuels. What might he do? Well, it seems to me that he would need to begin constructing a new thought world, one in which fossil fuels play no part. He would need to deepen — and more thoroughly explain — the Church’s theology of creational stewardship and our responsibility to tend the earth rather than to exploit it. He would need to call upon experts — particularly those who share the Church’s vision — to begin working out the details of infrastructure and finance. This is a long-term process and would certainly not be complete in his lifetime and probably not in the lifetime of his successor. But it is a reasonable starting place. And he would need to do one more thing; he would need to sketch out a vision of what the meantime looks like, of how to live responsibly in the present — with the use of carbon fuels — even as we envision and plan for a different future.

Now, let’s place ourselves mentally in the first century Roman Empire. Imagine Peter or Paul writing a letter calling upon all Christian slave owners to immediately set their slaves free. What do you suppose would have been the response? I think the Christians would have been incredulous, because they did not inhabit a thought world where that was conceivable. They lacked the infrastructure; the slaves did much of the work. They lacked the financial resources to pay for labor and the slaves lacked the financial resources to set up independent, free lives. But, suppose that Peter and Paul thought that this was an important moral/theological issue, and that slavery — particularly Christian masters owning Christian slaves — had to go. What could they do? Well, they could begin to inculcate a new thought world in which slavery no longer had a place. They could emphasize the spiritual equality in Christ of masters and slaves. They could insist that masters and slaves gather around the same Eucharistic table. They could call on some owners to release some slaves, as a signpost pointing forward to a new reality. And all of this is precisely what Paul did. He planted the seeds for the end of Christian slavery. But, they would need to do one more thing; they would need to sketch out a vision of what the meantime looks like, of how to live responsibly in the present — within the system of slavery — even as the first century Christians began to envision and plan for a different future.

It is this last task that Peter engages in this letter: the meantime task. He doesn’t address slave owners; Paul does, but Peter doesn’t. I wish he had, but we take the text we’re given. But Peter does something equally radical; he gives slaves dignity and agency by embedding their story in the story of Christ. Let’s read the text.

1 Peter 2:18–25 (ESV): 18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Peter writes into a world where some, perhaps many, of his Cristian brothers and sisters are slaves; many of them would be slaves of non-Christian masters. And that would not change anytime soon. So, what are they to do in the meantime? Actually, let’s focus first on what they are not to do. They are not to rebel. They are not to be disobedient. They are not to be haughty or disrespectful. They are to be subject to their masters and respectful of them: not only of the just and kind masters, but of the unjust and harsh masters.

It is difficult for us to look at those instructions objectively because of our national history with slavery. These words were used against Christian slaves by nominally Christian slave owners to justify cruel mistreatment of their black brothers in Christ. These words were used for domination and control. And that is a blasphemous misreading of the text. Far from subjugating slaves, Peter was giving them agency and dignity in this text. He recognizes the reality of unjust suffering inflicted upon these slaves. He doesn’t minimize it; he transforms it by embedding it in Christ’s story.

The train of thought goes like this. To the slave: be subject to your master and do nothing but good for him. It may be that, even so, he will be harsh to you unjustly and you will suffer. If so, God counts this a gracious thing; it brings favor with God, precisely because it follows the example of Christ. Your suffering bears witness to Christ’s suffering and is a proclamation of the Gospel. As Peter will say later (1 Peter 4:13), such righteous suffering is a share in Christ’s suffering. As Christ’s suffering was redemptive for the world, so too the slaves’ righteous suffering endured in the name of Christ and for his sake is redemptive. And that is agency, dignity, and meaning in the meantime until slavery is a relic of the past.

To do a full survey of slavery in both the Old and New Testaments is beyond the scope of this class in 1, 2 Peter, though it would be a very worthwhile study. If you simply take this instruction out of the context of the whole as many radical race theorists and despisers of Christianity tend to do, you will certainly miss what Peter is trying to do: to create a new identity for slaves in which they are evangelists and partakers of Christ’s redemptive suffering for the redemption of the world. This is elevation and not suppression. This is one of several Old and New Testament seeds that will blossom into freedom as a new thought world is created in which slavery has no part. This understanding derives from Peter’s themes of identity, suffering, and praxis which is to him the core of the Christian experience of being resident aliens in a fallen world.

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, you have chosen and called your people to be living stones, built into a spiritual house in which a holy priesthood might worship you in Spirit and truth, interceding on behalf of the world: Grant us so to live as chosen exiles in this world that all peoples and nations might see your glory and offer themselves to you as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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