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69

VI

THE PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS

"Unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Because it is contained in Scripture, Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner-stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on Him shall not be put to shame. For you therefore which believe is the preciousness: but for such as disbelieve, the stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence; for they stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed. But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light: which in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy."—1 Peter ii. 4-10.

Leaving the exhortation to individual duties, the Apostle turns now to describe the Christian society in relation to its Divine Founder, and tells both of the privileges possessed by believers, and of the services which they ought to render. He employs for illustration a figure very common in Holy Scripture, and compares the faithful to stones in the structure of some noble edifice, built upon a sure foundation. Such language on his lips must have had a deep significance. He was the rock-man; his name Peter was bestowed by Christ in recognition of his grand70 confession: and Jesus had consecrated the simile which the Apostle uses by His own words, "Upon this rock I will build My Church" (Matt. xvi. 18), words which were daily finding a blessed fulfilment in the growth of these Asian Churches.

A rock is no unusual figure in the Old Testament to represent God's faithfulness, and its use is specially frequent in Isaiah and the Psalms. "In the Lord Jehovah is an everlasting rock" (Isa. xxvi. 4), says the prophet; again he calls God "the rock of Israel" (xxx. 29); while the prayers of the Psalmist are full of the same thought concerning the Divine might and protection: "Be Thou my strong rock and my fortress" (Psalm xxxi. 2); "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I" (lxi. 2); "O God, my rock and my Redeemer" (xix. 14).

But the language of the New Testament goes farther than that of the Old. Strength, protection, permanence—these were attributes of the rock of which Isaiah spake and David sang. The life-possessing and life-imparting virtue of the Spirit of Christ is a part of the glad tidings of the Gospel. Through Him were light and immortality brought to light. The rock which lives is found in Jesus Christ. In Him is life without measure, ready to be imparted to all who seek to be built up in Him.

Unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious. By purification of thought, and act, and word, that childlike frame has been sought after which fits them to draw near; and they come with full assurance. Jesus they know as the Crucified, as the Lord who came to His own, and they received Him not. Generations of preparation had not made Jewry ready for her King's coming,71 had failed to impress the people with the signs of His advent; and so they disowned Him, and cried, "We have no king but Cæsar." But the converts know Jesus also as Him who was raised from the dead and exalted to glory. This honour He hath "with God." No other than He could bring salvation. Therefore has He received a name that is above every name. And "with God" here signifies that heavenly exaltation and glory. The sense is77   Παρὰ θεῷ ἐκλεκτόν speaks of Christ in His glory, in that place where the reward of the faithful is kept in store. Cf. the words of Matt. vi. 1. as when Jesus testifies, "I speak what I have seen with My Father" (John viii. 38)—that is, in heaven—or when He prays, "Glorify me, O Father, with Thine own self" (xvii. 5). From this excellent glory He sends down His Spirit, and gives to His people a share of that life which has been made manifest in Him. Their part is but to come, to seek; and every one that seeketh is sure to find.

Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house. Not because they are living men does the Apostle speak of them as living stones. They may be full of the vigour of natural life, yet have no part in Christ. The life which joins men to Him comes by the new birth. And the union of believers with Christ makes itself patent by a daily progress. He is a living stone; they are to be made more and more like Him by a constant drawing near, a constant drinking in from His fulness of the life which is the light of men. In this light new graces grow within them; old sins are cast aside. By this preparation, this shaping of the living stones, the Spirit fits Christians for their place in the spiritual building, unites them with one another and with Christ, fashions out of them a true communion of saints—saints,72 who, that they may advance in saintliness, have duties to perform both directly to God and for His sake to the world around. By diligence therein the upbuilding goes daily forward.

First, they are to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. From the day when God revealed His will on Sinai, such has been the ideal set before His chosen servants. "Ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. xix. 6) stands in the preface of the Divinely given law. And God changes not. Hence the praise of the Lamb's finished work when He has purchased unto God men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation is sung before the throne in the self-same strain: "Thou madest them to be unto God a kingdom and priests" (Rev. v. 10). Under the early dispensation God was leading men up from material sacrifices to pay unto Him true spiritual worship. The Psalmist has learnt the lesson when he pleads, "Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the Lord" (Psalm iv. 6); and Hosea's sense of what was well-pleasing to God is made clear in his exhortation, "Take with you words and return unto the Lord; say unto Him, Take away all iniquity, and accept that which is good, so will we render as bullocks the offering of our lips" (xiv. 3). The Apostle to the Romans is hardly more explicit than this when he urges, "Present your bodies a living sacrifice" (xii. 1), or to the Hebrews, "Let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to His name" (xiii. 15).

But the Apostles could add to the exhortations of the prophets and psalmists a ground of blessed assurance,73 could promise how these living sacrifices, these offerings of praise, had gained a certainty of acceptance through Jesus Christ: "Through Him we have boldness and access in confidence through our faith in Him" (Eph. iii. 12); and in another place, "Having Him as a great Priest over the house of God," that spiritual house into which believers are builded, "let us draw near with a true heart, in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb. x. 22). Thus do believers become priests unto God, in every place lifting up holy hands in prayer, prayer which is made acceptable through their great High-priest.

It was only from oral teaching that these Asian Christians knew of those lessons which we now can quote as the earliest messages to the Church of Christ. The Scripture was to them as yet the Scripture of the Old Testament, and to this St. Peter points them for the confirmation which it supplies. And his quotation is worthy of notice both for its manner and its matter: Because it is contained in Scripture, Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner-stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be put to shame. The passage is from Isaiah (xxviii. 16); but a comparison with that verse shows us that the Apostle has not quoted all the words of the prophet, and that what he has given corresponds much more closely with the Greek of the Septuagint than with the Hebrew. The latter concludes, "He that believeth shall not make haste," and contains some words not represented in the version of the Seventy. The variations which St. Peter accepts are such as to assure us that for him (and the same is true for the rest of the Apostles) the74 purport, the spiritual lessons, of the word were all which he counted essential. Neither Christ Himself nor His Apostles adhere in quotation to precise verbal exactness.88   For illustration of what is here said, Matt. xxi. 16 may be compared with Psalm viii. 2, Acts xv. 15-17 with Amos ix. 11, 12, and Eph. iv. 8 with Psalm lxviii. 18; and the list might be largely increased. They felt that there lay behind the older record so many deep meanings for which the fathers of old were not prepared, but which Gospel light made clear. To somewhat of this fuller sense the translators of the Septuagint seem to have been guided.99   Hence the New Testament writers quote from the LXX. in a very large proportion. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews quotes nothing else. They lived nearer to the rising of the day-star. Through their labours God was in part preparing the world for the message of Christ. The words which Isaiah was guided to use express the confidence of a believer who was looking onward to God's promise as in the future: "He shall not make haste." He knows that the purpose of God will be brought to pass; that, as the prophet elsewhere says, "the Lord will hasten it in its time" (lx. 22). Man is not to step in, Jacob-like, to anticipate the Divine working.

But "shall not be ashamed" was a form of the promise more suited to the days of St. Peter and these infant Churches. For the name of Christ was in many ways made a reproach; and only men of faith, like Moses and the heroes celebrated with him in Heb. xi., could count that reproach greater riches than the treasures of Egypt. Other and weaker hearts needed encouragement, needed to be pointed to the privileges and glories which are the inheritance of the followers of Jesus. And in this spirit he applies the prophetic75 words, For you therefore which believe is the preciousness. Faith makes real all the offers of the Gospel. It opens heaven, as to the vision of St. Stephen, so that while they are still here believers behold the glory of God to which Christ has been exalted, are assured of the victory which has been won for them, and that in His strength they may conquer also. Thus they receive continually the earnest of those precious and exceeding great promises (2 Peter i. 4) whereby they become partakers of the Divine nature.

But all men have not faith. The Bible tells us this on every page. God knows what is in man, and in His revelation He has set forth not only invitations and blessings, but warnings and penalties. Life and good, death and evil—these have been continually proclaimed as linked together by God's law, but ever with the exhortation, "Choose life." Of such warning messages St. Peter gives examples from prophecy and psalm: But for such as disbelieve, the stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner (Psalm cxviii. 22), and a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence (Isa. viii. 14); for they stumble at the word, being disobedient. Here the Apostle touches the root of the evil. The test of faith is obedience. It was so in Eden; it must be ever so. But now, as then, the tempter comes with his insidious questionings, "Hath God said?" and sowing doubts, he goes his way, leaving them to work; and work they do. Now it is the truth, now the wisdom, of the command, that men stumble at. But in each case they disobey. Those leave it unobserved; these despise and set it at nought. And the penalty is sure. For mark the twofold aspect of God's dealing which is set forth in the passages chosen by St. Peter to enforce his lesson. Spite of76 man's disobedience, God's purpose is not thwarted. The stone which He laid in Zion has been made the head of the corner. Though rejected by some builders, it has lost none of its preciousness, none of its strength. Those who draw near unto it find life thereby; are made fit for their places in the Divine building, in the kingdom of the Lord's house which He will most surely establish as the latter days draw on. But they who disobey are overthrown. The despised stone, which is the sure word of God, rises up in men's self-chosen path, and makes them fall, and at the last, if they persist in despising it, will appear for their condemnation.

Whereunto also they were appointed. The Apostle has in mind the words of Isaiah, how the prophet, in that place from which he has just quoted, declares that many shall stumble and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken. This is the lot of the disobedient. These penalties dog that sin. It is the unvarying law of God. The Bible teaches this from first to last, by precepts as well as by examples. The disobedient must stumble. But the Bible does not teach that any were appointed unto disobedience. Such fatalist lessons are alien to God's infinite love. The two ways are set before all men. God tries us thus because He has gifted us above the rest of creation, that we may render Him a willing service. But neither prophet nor Apostle teaches that to stumble is to be finally cast away. Both picture God's mercy in as large terms as those in which St. Paul speaks of the Jews: "Did God cast off His people? God forbid.... They, if they continue not in their unbelief, shall be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again" (Rom. xi.).

A hardening in part hath befallen Israel, and to the77 Church of Christ there is offered the blessedness which aforetime was to be the portion of the chosen people. But the offer is made on like terms of obedient service, and involves large duties. St. Peter marks the likeness of the two offers by choosing the words of the Old Testament to describe the Christian calling, with its privileges and its duties. Believers in Christ are a peculiar treasure unto God from among all people, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation, even as was said to Israel (Exod. xix. 5, 6) when they came out of Egypt and received the Law from Sinai. But among the dispersion, for whom he writes, there were those who had been heathens, as well as the converts from Judaism. That he may show them also to be embraced in the new covenant, and their calling contemplated under the old, the Apostle points to another of God's promises, where Hosea (i. 10; ii. 23) tells of the grace that was ready to be shed forth on them which in time past were no people, but now are the people of God, which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. Thus all, Jew and Gentile, are to be made one holy fellowship, one people for God's own possession.

And this kingdom of God's priests has its duty to the world as well as unto God. Israel in time past was chosen to be God's witness to the rest of mankind, so that when men saw that no nation had God so nigh unto them as Jehovah was whenever Israel called upon Him, that no nation had statutes and judgements so righteous as all the Law which had been given from Sinai, they might be constrained to say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people," and might themselves be won to the service of a God so present and so holy. And now each member of the Christian body, while offering himself a living sacrifice78 to God, while delighting to do His will, while treasuring His law, is to exercise himself in wider duties, that God's glory may be displayed unto all men. One of the psalmists, whose words have been in part referred to Christ Himself, testifies how this priesthood for mankind should be fulfilled: "I have published righteousness in the great congregation; lo, I will not refrain my lips, O Lord, Thou knowest. I have not hid Thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared Thy faithfulness and Thy salvation; I have not concealed Thy loving-kindness and Thy truth from the great congregation" (Psalm xl. 9, 10). These were the excellencies which the Psalmist had found in God's service, and his heart ran over with desire to impart the knowledge unto others. With juster reason shall Christ's servants be prompted to a like evangel. They cannot hold their peace, specially while they consider how great blessings those lose who as yet own no allegiance to their Master.

That ye may show forth the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. This theme fills the rest of the letter. The Apostle teaches that in every condition this duty has its place and its opportunities. Subjects may fulfil it, as they yield obedience to their rulers, servants in the midst of service to their masters, wives and husbands in their family life, each individual in the society where his lot is cast, and specially those who preside over the Christian congregations. Wherever the goodness of God's mercy has been tasted, there should be hearts full of thanksgiving, voices tuned to the praise of Him who has done great things for them. Lives led with this aim will make men to be truly what God designs: a holy nation; a kingdom of priests. And ever as79 men walk thus will the kingdom for which we daily pray be brought nearer.

The opportunities for winning men to Christ differ in modern times from those which were open to the earliest Christian converts; but there is still no lack of adversaries, no lack of those by whom the hope of the believer is deemed unreasonable: and now, as then, the good works which the opponents behold in Christian lives will have their efficacy. These cannot for ever be spoken against. A good manner of life in Christ shall, through His grace, finally put the gainsayers to shame. They shall learn, and gain blessing with the lesson, that the stone which they have so long been rejecting has been set up by God to be the foundation of His Church, the head stone of the corner, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.


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