The apostle Peter, by the time he wrote this letter, had been following Jesus for a long time. And while he might not have been really sure just why he’d agreed to leave his fishing nets behind on that long-ago day when Jesus called him, it didn’t take him long to realize the enormity of the gift Jesus was offering. Now at least 30 years have passed—Peter’s a lot older and he seems to know that it won’t be long until the time of his death is at hand. He’s still working hard to share the good news of the gospel. And, finally, God has called him to write some things down.
So I imagine Peter sitting and thinking about all the things he’s seen, all that he’s experienced since that day by the Sea of Galilee when Jesus first came into his life. Remembering walking on the water with Jesus; remembering Jesus calling Lazarus to come out four days after his dead body had been placed in the tomb. Remembering Jesus’ empty tomb on Easter morning and seeing the risen Christ with his own eyes on Easter evening. Remembering the day of Pentecost and the way that Peter had been so filled with the Holy Spirit of Jesus that he’d gone outside and preached to the multitudes in a way that was surely more astonishing to himself than it was to anyone else. Remembering when he’d been arrested during another Pentecost season and how he’d been certain that the time of his own death was at hand—until an angel of the Lord showed up and walked him out of that prison, walked him right past the guards, seeing the prison gate swing open all by itself. Remembering how God had worked through him to heal the sick and even to restore life to Tabitha.
And given the things that Peter writes in this letter, it’s not hard to imagine that the wonder of being called by Jesus has never diminished for him. I picture him thinking about that day that he first met Jesus—and remembering that there were lots of other fishermen working along the water that day. Wondering how different his life would have been if Jesus had called one of them instead of Peter. I imagine him filled with praise and thanksgiving that Jesus chose him.
And then I wonder about us, you and me. How often do we wonder what our lives would be like if Jesus had not called us? How often do we get caught up in thinking of Jesus’ call as more of a burden than a blessing? How often, as we pray, do we thank God most of all just for choosing us?
Peter begins his letter by stating that he’s writing to “those who are elect exiles” (I Peter 1:1)—language that many of us aren’t very comfortable with. Because, in our view, it seems that if some are chosen, that must mean that others are not. And, too, we often like to think that we had something to do with our being chosen, that it was just as much about our decision as it was about Jesus’ invitation. Because if we can claim even a part of the credit for our salvation, then we can continue to think that we’re somehow better than those people out there who don’t know Jesus.
Peter’s having none of this—in fact it’s clear that a major purpose of his letter is to debunk any such thinking. He knows that Jesus chose him—he’s well aware that he wasn’t any better than any of those other fishermen that Jesus didn’t call that day by the Sea. And he knows that to be chosen by Jesus to be a part of His group, as Peter was all those years earlier, is cause for great rejoicing. He knows also that the idea of election was one that Jesus Himself clearly believed and used regularly throughout His earthly ministry.
Matthew 22:14 “For many are called, but few are chosen,” in the parable of the wedding feast.
And in Mark 13, speaking of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus said Mark 13:20 “And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.” And in v 22, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” And 13:27, “And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds ….”
And speaking to His disciples in John 15:16, “You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you … ”
So Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9 that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (I Peter 2:9). Every one of those terms comes directly from Old Testament scripture. Peter is using Old Testament language to describe the New Testament church—he’s doing it deliberately because he wants us to understand the direct connection that exists between God’s choosing the nation of Israel and the New Testament Church. He wants us to understand that everything that came before Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was leading up to the new covenant that we call the church era. Peter wants to be certain that we never think that “Church” is God’s alternative to a failed plan A. The church is what Israel was always promised it would become.
Peter writes, beginning with chapter 2, verse 9: “But you are 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.”
These four verses in the middle of Peter’s letter mark an important turning point in the letter. Up to this point, Peter has been reminding us that we have been chosen by God, that we have been born again, and that our salvation is assured; the second half speaks of how we are to live as a result of our election. The first half sets us apart from the world as God’s chosen people, while in the second half we’re faced with the reality that, even as we’re chosen, we’re called to live in the midst of this world—a broken, sinful, world. In the first half, we’re reminded that we’ve received mercy and grace from a loving God, while in the second half we’re reminded that we should not be surprised to find that the immediate result of being chosen is rejection and persecution from a cruel culture.
What the two halves have in common, Peter tells us, it that all of it is for the purpose of bringing glory to God.
And in order to be able to live the way God calls us to live in this broken, sin infested world, we have to really understand who we are. We have to understand what it means to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” We’re very familiar with the words—we’ve all heard them many times. But do we really understand why Peter chose these particular words to prepare us for the difficulties of the Christian life? How critically important it is for us to understand them?
Several times in the first half of this letter, Peter has called us to be obedient to God’s will—but he knows that, because we live in the midst of a pagan culture, that our understanding of who God is can become twisted and distorted. He knows that from the very beginning the devil has been attacking man’s relationship with God by implying that obedience to God brings nothing but misery. Adam and Eve fell for his lies and, despite the fact that we have this book filled with evidence that listening to Satan brings nothing but trouble, we have continued to succumb to his evil whispering.
“It’s God’s fault.” “He doesn’t want you to be happy.” “He could fix your problem or give you what you think you want—but He’d rather make you suffer.” “He doesn’t care about you.”
Where, I wonder, do we imagine that we find that God in the Bible? From the very beginning, we find a God who is good, who creates good things.
GENESIS 2:5-9 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, but a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
God created Adam—and then as Adam watched, God created a perfect garden all around him. What must it have been like for Adam to watch God speak this beautiful environment into being and know that God was doing it for him?
I imagine Peter reading these words and remembering what it was like for him to see Jesus calm the storm at sea or provide massive quantities of food from almost nothing. When I picture God in the Garden of Eden walking with Adam, I picture Him as Jesus. And it seems to me quite likely that’s how Peter pictured Him, too. Imagined Adam watching Jesus speak and out of the ground there suddenly sprang up “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Creating Eve out of Adam’s rib when God saw that he was lonely. How amazing it must have been.
Adam was chosen by God. He was invited to be God’s friend—but instead he listened to the devil’s promise that he could actually be God. And suddenly being God’s friend didn’t seem like enough. Adam wanted more—and so sin entered the world. Sin that came not from some external source, but from the very heart of God’s beloved creature—the man He had created in His own image.
As a result, man was removed from the perfect garden.
Many years passed and sin continued to be everywhere in God’s perfect world. And then about 4000 years ago, God invited a man named Abram to follow Him. Abram grew up in a culture where gods were everywhere. Gods that were not only unfriendly, but gods that were believed to regularly perform malicious acts for no discernable reason, gods who threw temper tantrums from the sky on a whim, gods that everyone knew could never be trusted. The biggest business in the Middle East at the time was carried out by priests who worked day and night to protect the people by following elaborate rituals, performing sacrifices and keeping rules.
Of course, not much has changed in 4000 years. It’s abundantly clear in the midst of our current crisis that many of the people living in our nation aren’t much different from those Chaldeans of Abraham’s childhood, certain that there are malign forces at work that can’t be anticipated or controlled, whether they be coronavirus or cancer or random shootings or accidents. Many people who think they know God believe that He wants us to suffer, that He is a harsh taskmaster ever watchful for opportunities to punish.
Because the devil still whispers those same words that he spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden. “God doesn’t care about you.” “He could make things better if He wanted to—He enjoys seeing you suffer.” Even sometimes in the church we’re told that God care more about how good we are than anything else—about how well we measure up to His strict standards.
This was already happening in the church in Peter’s day. The Jews coming to Christianity were coming out of a religion that had become almost entirely about keeping and obeying the rules, a list so long that it was impossible even to remember them all.
Peter knows that this is not who God is—and he wants us to know that, while there are many things to be afraid of in this world, and many things that can endanger our security, God is not one of them. This is just as true today as it was 2000 years ago. First century Christians feared persecution and death, they feared Rome and even fellow Jews who were opposed to Christianity—Jews like the apostle Paul before he met Jesus. We fear viruses and guns and economic collapse. But like those first century Christians, we need never fear God.
And 4000 years ago, God reached out to a man named Abram just as Jesus reached out to Peter that day by the Sea of Galilee. Reached out to Abram and invited him to follow. Peter could surely relate to the fact that the biblical record portrays Abram as just an ordinary man, a sinner just like Peter—just like you and me. But a sinner who had the great good fortune to be chosen—to be called by God.
The Bible calls Abraham a friend of God—but, as with Peter, we can see from Abraham’s story that being God’s friend is no guarantee of an easy life. For Abraham, God’s friendship meant leaving home, it meant long journeys and dangerous ventures; it meant doubt-filled days, and difficult obedience—years of waiting for God’s promised child, followed by the trauma of being told to offer up that child, Abraham’s beloved son Isaac, as a sacrifice. It meant doing things that made no sense at all—such as making the long journey to the land that God had promised him only to find, as we’re told in Genesis 12:6, that “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”
Abraham arrived at the Promised Land only to discover that it’s not a frontier waiting to be settled. It was already filled with cities and people and commerce. And God is in no hurry at all to solve this problem or even to explain His plan as we might expect the director of history to do—as Abraham must surely have expected Him to do.
We read the story and we discover that being God’s friend is not an easy thing. And I wonder if the disciples were thinking about this when Jesus tells them John 15:14-15 that “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my father I have made known to you.”
Abraham was just an ordinary man—but he was a man who had faith in God. He wasn’t called God’s friend because God singled him out for special treatment. He was called a friend of God because he knew the one true God. He believed that God was for him, and he lived like he believed it.
Friends are people we care about just for who they are—not for what they can give us or do for us. And one of the things we discover as we read Abraham’s story is, that with the exception of his intercession for Sodom, Abraham never asks God for anything. His relationship with God wasn’t about the inheritance he hoped God would provide. He wasn’t trying to build an insurance policy against disaster.
Abraham believed that God cared about him and he responded by making God the center of his life. He obeyed, he journeyed, he prayed, he believed—and he built altars to God wherever he went. He did none of it perfectly. But perfect isn’t a word that we use to describe relationships. Because perfect isn’t a word that applies to people—with people we listen, respond, grow and act together. And Abraham did all these things with God, whom he was convinced was his friend.
Other than his friendship with God and his obedience to God, we really know very little about Abraham. When you think about it, the same is true for Peter.
But as a result of his relationship with God, Abraham is the only person in the Bible that’s called a friend of God—until Jesus says that we are His friends if we do what He commands us.
Peter was a friend of Jesus. But he says that, for those of us who have been born again, for those of us who belong to the Church, we’re even more: we’re “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” In saying that we are “a chosen race,” Peter is quoting the 43rd chapter of the book of Isaiah, where Israel is repeatedly reminded that she has been chosen.
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.
Now the Israelite people were, of course, God’s chosen—they knew it, everyone knew it. It was a major part of the identity of Israel, going all the way back to the exodus story. Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, but the servant role is also shared by the nation. So just as Jesus’ suffering was for the purpose of the salvation of the entire world, so too was Israel’s exile to Babylon and subsequent redemption for a purpose much greater than simply national restoration—it had to do with blessing for all people.
And we see that God’s election of Israel was not because He loved them more than the rest of the world, but rather that it was a part of His salvation plan for the entire world. Israel’s election serves God’s mission. So, too, does ours.
When Peter says that Christians are now God’s “chosen race,” he’s saying not just that the blessings of being God’s people will be ours—although they will be; he’s saying that we have been chosen for the purpose of bringing God’s blessing to our neighbors.
When Peter calls us “a royal priesthood,” he’s speaking of every single Christian, not just a set apart group like the Old Testament Levitical priesthood. This “royal priesthood” is what Martin Luther will later use as the foundation of his doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers.” And because priesthood has always been for the benefit of others, this “royal priesthood” of God’s people is for the benefit of the entire world—a priesthood committed to the expansion of the kingdom of King Jesus. Israel was called out of Egypt to be a blessing to the world and churches are to share that same commitment, to be about the business of extending the ministry of God’s presence throughout the entire world.
It is for that reason, Peter says, that we are “a holy nation.” We are owned by God. Just as the ownership of God’s people was sealed at Sinai by a covenant of blood, this new kingdom has been sealed by the precious blood of Jesus. We belong to Him for the purpose of reflecting His character and message in the world.
And being a people for God’s own possession promises to bring us into conflict with the world. For the first Christians, it brought them into direct conflict with Rome. Their King was Jesus, not Caesar, their citizenship was in heaven, not in Rome. They were brought into a different relationship to God, to one another and to their world, and accusations of treason were soon occurring at a fast and furious pace. We, too, are challenged to live lifestyles, both individually and together, that conform to God’s holiness rather than to our culture’s standards.
And when Peter says that we’re “a people for his own possession,” he’s saying that we are treasured by God—that we are the personal treasure of the King and His family. Bought, in Peter’s words, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (I Peter 1:18-19).
Ransomed for a purpose: “that we may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” In Isaiah 43, God says that He will rescue His people from Babylon in order that they might declare His praise or His excellencies. They were to tell the world not who God is, but what He had done for them. Their captivity in Babylonian is a picture of human captivity to sin and death—we, however, according to Peter, have been redeemed: “we were called out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9).
Almighty God has called us by name and told us to fear not—and now He tells us to go and proclaim His excellencies to all the world.
Peter is telling us that the church, by its very existence, is a demonstration right here and right now that our Lord Jesus means every one of His promises and therefore our life together should show that we believe them. Church is the place where God’s promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” is visibly kept.
Now, of course, it is the work of our Lord Jesus, not the work of His church, that transforms individual lives and whole societies, and it is our Lord Jesus, not the church, who will save us on judgment day. Our purpose as His church is simply to make Jesus known. It is the purpose of every member of God’s church—and it must be done with words. Each of Peter’s descriptions, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,” gives the explicit expectation that everyone who has been called by Jesus will be involved in telling non-Christians about Jesus. It’s why we’re here—it’s our purpose.
And Peter wants us to understand that we do it as Jesus’ friends. That we have received the greatest gift possible—we have been invited by Jesus to follow Him, to be His friend. Friends are what God is looking for. People like Peter and Abraham who will love Him above all else—people who want to be with Him, to be His friend, more than they want any of the things that He can give them. More than they want to be cured of their cancer or given immunity to coronavirus or have any of their other earthly problems solved.
Are you one of those people?