If You Thought the Temple was Impressive... (I Peter 2:4-5)
I. Sacred and Impressive
Mark chapter 13, verse 1 tells us that as Jesus “came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, 'Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!'” Clearly, this unnamed disciple was impressed by the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. And I think we would be as well, if we were able to travel back in time and see it in person. Though it was called the “Second Temple”, this temple was really the third version of a structure that King Solomon had originally built almost a thousand years before the time of Jesus. While the first building had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the second temple, built in the late 500's BC by returning exiles, was a pretty modest, a pretty basic structure. The version Jesus and his disciples knew was the new and improved temple, renovated extensively by King Herod over a period of (as John 2:20 tells us) “forty-six years”.
But beyond the impressive compound itself with its courts and walls and colonnades and massive stones and gold and marble, beyond all that was the function of this temple. As God told Moses regarding that mobile, prototype temple called the Tent of Meeting, it's there that “I will meet with you” (Exodus 25:22; 29:42, 43; 30:6, 36); it's there that I might “dwell among the people of Israel” (Exodus 29:45). As the permanent version, Solomon's Temple was even more impressive, was most impressive, because it was where the living God, a holy God, the Creator God, would dwell among and meet with his chosen people. But to do that, the taint and barrier of the people's sin would need to be addressed. So, to that end, God appointed both priests and sacrifices; priests to intercede or mediate, and sacrifices to make atonement for sin.
Scholars call all of these elements (temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system) the cultus. Now think with me for a moment about the ancient Israelite cultus. Imagine a journey to ancient Jerusalem at dusk. As you round the bend, imagine seeing the Temple itself rising from Mount Zion, rising up over the ancient city, catching the golden light of a vanishing day. Imagine what it would feel like to wind through the city, drawing ever closer to its courtyards, and then through its gates. Imagine seeing the priests moving in solemn routine in the outer courtyard, fires lit, sacrifices being slaughtered. Imagine being escorted into the Temple itself, through its massive doors, and finally into the first chamber known as the “Holy Place”. Imagine seeing the golden furniture and gilded walls, the Bread of the Presence, the massive lampstand. Finally, imagine meeting the high priest, and then, being escorted by him into the second chamber of the Temple, a room called the “Holy of Holies” or the “Most Holy Place”. What would you find there? You would see the Ark of the Covenant, the very object on which atonement was made through the sprinkling of blood; the very object over which God told Moses, “there I will meet with you”.
Now please consider this: what would be your frame of mind throughout, especially as you went even further and drew ever closer to the holiest precincts of the Temple? What would be your disposition as you moved through its sacred spaces? As you met priests appointed by God himself and consecrated for this sacred work? As you moved among sacred objects and atoning blood? Would you feel the weight of it all? Would you be humbled and quiet? Solemn? Would you be apprehensive? Would you be overwhelmed? Would you be in awe?
II. The Passage: “As You Come to Him” (2:4-5)
Hold on to your answers and turn over (if you haven't already) to a passage from Our Bible Reading Plan from last week, I Peter 2. This morning we're going to work together through verses 4 and 5 of I Peter 2. Listen to the stunning imagery that Peter uses here to describe his readers. I Peter 2:4...
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious,  you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (repeat v. 5)
That language is familiar, isn't it? Yes! That's the cultus! Temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system. And all of it is being used to describe the church to whom the Apostle Peter writes. Think about that for a moment. The sacred space, the sacred office, the sacred duty and rituals of ancient Israel are being transferred here to a spiritual context, and that spiritual context is... you and me. Aren't we co-heirs of salvation with Peter's original readers? We are! Based on a passage like this, along with several other passages in the NT, I think we can say that the Church (capital “C”), composed of local churches (lower case “c”), throughout all history and around the world, the Church is a radically important fulfillment of the old covenant's cultus.
So how does the Church fulfill the symbol-rich particulars of that ancient Israelite cultus (or what we'll call the Temple, etc.) ? Let me suggest two answers. To begin with, let's talk about...
1. How the Church Does Not Fulfill the Temple, Etc.
Notice how Peter puts the most important thing first in our main text. You and I are only (v. 5) “like living stones”, you and I are only “being built up as a spiritual house”, when we have done or are doing what? Verse 4... Coming to Christ! Yes, he's the “living stone” that has been “rejected by men”, a stone that “in the sight of God [is] chosen and precious”. The language Peter is using here is all OT language. We're reminded of that fact by the quotations Peter uses in the next several verses. Look at verses 6-8. We find there quotes from Isaiah 28, Psalm 118, and then back to Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 8.
Now, as you look over those verses, don't miss how the first two quotations identify the Messiah, not as a “living stone”, but as “a cornerstone” or “the cornerstone”. And if Jesus is a cornerstone, that implies a building, a structure grounded in and guided by the perfection of Jesus. That building or structure is, of course... us, the church, the “spiritual house” mentioned in verse 5.
So what does this have to do with church fulfilling or not fulfilling the temple imagery presented in our main text? I think it simply reminds us that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Temple, etc.; of the Israelite cultus. Peter has already alluded to this truth in the first chapter of his letter. Look over at chapter 1. In 1:2, Peter writes about Christ and Christians, reminding us that we have been chosen by God “for sprinkling with his [with Jesus'] blood”. Later, in verse 18 and 19, Peter is even more explicit about the work of Jesus. He call his readers to lives of holiness ('set-apart-ness'), “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers [that's one of many clues Peter is writing to a predominantly Gentile audience... you were ransomed], not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” We can only be described using this imagery of temple and priesthood and sacrifice, because Jesus was God dwelling among us, performing the ultimate priestly work, offering himself on the cross as the perfect, incomparable sacrifice.
So when we keep Jesus Christ first, we're then able to understand...
2. How the Church Does Fulfill the Temple, Etc.
Now, we could attempt to go through all three aspects of the cultus described here, and try to figure out the spiritual significance of each aspect. For example, we could talk about how believers are a temple (or “spiritual house”) of the Holy Spirit, that God dwells in and among us, in a far more profound way than he ever did among the Israelites. But 'temple of the Holy Spirit' is the language of Paul, not Peter; that is, Peter simply doesn't explain his temple language in that way. We could also talk about spiritual sacrifices in light of verses like Romans 12:1 or Hebrews 13:15 (i.e., the living sacrifices of our surrendered bodies or sacrifices of praise), but again, Peter simply doesn't define or explain his imagery in that way.
So how should we understand the language here in v. 5? I think the context helps us see that Peter's intention is to help his readers understand the profound reality of their new identity in Jesus, and the profound calling that flows from that new identity. Just as the temple, priest-hood, and sacrificial system in Jerusalem revealed the glory of God in a powerfully unique, a powerfully set-apart way, so too does the church of Jesus. Just look at 2:9-12, and listen as God speaks through Peter to those first readers... and to us here this morning...
But you are [from Ex. 19...] a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.  Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Did you see the common threads there? As Peter will go on to write in chapter 4:
...whoever speaks, [should do so] as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.... [AND] If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (4:11, 14)
The temple, etc., language in chapter 2 communicates to us the stunningly sacred nature of the church. But that stunningly sacred nature of the church flows from “his excellencies”, from “his marvelous light”.... that God might be glorified among us. You see, Peter wanted his predominantly Gentile audience (just like us) to understand that the divine distinctiveness, the solemn sacredness, the awe-inspiring gravity of the Hebrew cultus... the sacred temple, the consecrated priests, the holy offerings... that all of it was intended by God to find its fulfillment in us. And when it did, because of the stunningly sacred work of Jesus, our great High Priest, it would be critical for the church to understand what sacredness should look like in the real world.
Unfortunately, some Christians (and so-called 'Christians') have simply gone back to an emphasis on ritual and so-called sacred spaces. But as Peter makes clear, what is truly sacred are the honorable and abstaining lives of believer; what is truly sacred are the proclamations and good deeds of “a royal priesthood”; what is truly sacred today is a people who shine God's light in this dark world, so that God is revealed through them, in all of his glory.
III. In Light of the Sacred
So how can we, how should we, live differently in light of what God has revealed to us through Peter? Let me suggest three ideas for our practice in light of God's perspective:
First, we need to allow God to define what is and is not sacred. Sadly there are Christians today who still believe the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is more sacred than anyplace where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus. Sadly there are Christians today who believe worshiping in a cathedral or with an amazing band and worship leader is somehow more sacred than serving each other and serving unbelievers with the love of Christ. God is calling you to both recognize and realign yourself with his definitions of sacred space, sacred time, and sacred work. Do you need more help clarifying these divine definitions? If so, just keep reading I Peter. The rest of the book is simply an explanation of how to live as a priestly, set-part people.
Second, building on that first point, we need to reclaim God's appraisal of the church. Most of us would have a certain posture, a particular mindset if we were entering into what we believed was a sacred space. Or we might adopt a different attitude if we believed we were meeting someone who was especially holy, someone who was revered, or someone who occupied some kind of sacred office. I think we would come with a certain kind of humility, a certain kind of appreciation, a certain kind of carefulness or propriety, and/or a certain kind of solemnity or awe.
If this is true, why in the world wouldn't we enter into fellowship with the church with this very same posture? The church really is a “a spiritual house... a holy priesthood... offer[ing] spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ...”. But do we see it and treat it that way? Or are we tempted to see it as as an educational opportunity, or as a community enrichment group, or as morally commendable time-slot in my weekly routine, or as a spiritual supermarket, or as a social group that makes me feel good about myself... until it doesn't, and I have to move on to someplace that will. Whatever we're tempted to believe, the church is a sacred people, called to a sacred work. We must gather, and worship, and fellowship, and invest, and serve together in a way that is a fitting for, that is consistent with this sacred reality. Brothers and sisters, friends, if you through the Temple in Jerusalem was impressive, just wait until you really understand the truth about the church of Jesus.
Finally, third, we need to be built up in Jesus as we come to Jesus. Remember the opening phrase of our main text? “As you come to him... a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious...” Does this mean we are saved, when we're born again, a new brick is added to this “spiritual house”? Yes! But couldn't also mean that as we look to Jesus, as we worship Jesus, as we listen to Jesus, as we serve Jesus we are being built up in Jesus? Yes! I think we could say that our sacred identity is both established in Jesus and increasingly realized in Jesus. And that's not simply an individual thing. As more and more of us lean hard into Christ, as we want more and more of him, as we grow in the word of Christ, and are eager to do his will, I truly believe the sacred reality of the church becomes even more intense; that is, God is more glorified and our light shines more brightly in a dark and dying world.
So let's go to Jesus, brothers and sisters. Let's help each other come to Jesus. And if you've never truly come to Jesus, then today is the day to reach out to him in faith. May God enlighten our hearts, that we might understand the truth about the Church, so that we might be in awe of that God-infused, sacred reality of a called out and set apart people. And may we walk in step with such a glorious truth, encouraging one another along the way. Amen? Amen!
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
August 7, 2022Your Survival Kit for a 'Jesus-less' World (John 14:25-27)
July 31, 2022Hearing the Voice of Jesus (John 10:22-27)
July 24, 2022Seeing is Not Believing (John 4:46-54)