This week we are studying 1 Peter 2:1-10. One way to think of it is as an extended metaphor of the church, that draws on and brings together several themes from Scripture – that is, Hebrew Scripture. The purpose may be to inspire the author’s audience to see their identity in Christ more clearly as that of a special people, a nation formed around a spiritual, rather than physical, birth. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: There is some dispute about whether the historical Peter wrote this letter, or whether it’s a later composition. [See Joel Green, “1 Peter” at Bible Odyssey.] The author is writing to Christians in Asia Minor, so the answer seems to depend on whether we think the author is responding to persecution in Rome (in which case it could be within the Apostle Peter’s lifetime), or to a later persecution (in which case, it wouldn’t be, and the author would be someone writing in the apostle’s name). Either way, we’re looking at early Christian literature, from the late first century or very early second century CE. Its purpose seems to be to encourage and instruct Christians in several churches in Asia Minor.
I think we suppose these Christians are mainly gentiles. The author, however, is clearly deeply familiar with Scripture (i.e., Hebrew Scripture), because Scriptural motifs are woven all through this text. He describes this Christian community in Scriptural language that, in its original context, describes the people of Israel. Would the first audience have known this?
Our text follows the letter’s introduction, thanksgiving, and opening exhortations to holy living (equally Scriptural). The author equates the word of God in Isaiah 40:6-8 with the gospel. Then, in our text, the author turns to encourage the readers to live into that word. After the imagery in these verses, the author will elaborate the details of the way of life of the “living stones” he is urging these Christians to be: respecting rather than resisting authority, doing good, and living patiently with whatever suffering arises.
This text (except v1) is in the lectionary as the epistle for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (A) – that is, this year. It may sound familiar to us.
CLOSER READING: Verse 1 lists actions or inclinations to “put away,” in preference to craving the nourishment of a whole new way of life, the way newborns crave pure milk. That pure milk is also “logos-like” – “word”-like or “reason”-like. It echoes the “word that will stand forever” that the author was just talking about a few verses ago. As in: consider yourselves born into a whole new way of living and thinking, into which you need to grow up. “Salvation.”
This is assuming, as in Psalm 34:8, they have indeed “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.” Psalm 34, which speaks of “the afflictions of the righteous,” may be a good one for people who might be undergoing persecution to become familiar with.
Then the author begins talking about stones. At length. The Lord is a living stone, tested and rejected by mortals but “chosen and honored” or precious by God. They need to be living stones, too, built into a spiritual house, or alternatively a priesthood, both holy and royal.
The theme of the stones is central, repeating five times in vv4-8. It draws specifically on Psalm 118:22, a verse embedded in a longer psalm, and on Isaiah 8:11-15, a passage in Isaiah that’s connected with the child “the virgin shall conceive.” Both have received famously messianic Christian readings.
The theme of the priesthood is equally vital, framing the entire passage. This priesthood is chosen, precious, holy, and royal, and sounds exactly like the possession of the Holy God identified with the nation of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6.
If the readers have been reading their Torah, they might even remember that there are precious stones under God’s enthroned feet (in Exodus 24:9-11). [Living stones like THAT – cool.]
These priests will offer specifically “spiritual” sacrifices. It may be worth noting that there are three places in the psalms where sacrifices are identified as something besides animal sacrifices: Psalm 50 (where thanksgiving is a sacrifice); Psalm 51 (where a broken and contrite heart is the sacrifice God prefers), and Psalm 141 (where prayer is the sacrifice).
The chosen people theme is emphasized in v9, with three different words for “people” or “nation,” a specifically “priestly” nation. This people will proclaim the “excellences” – that is, the height of Hellenic value – of the one who has chosen this new people, and “called you out of darkness into his wondrous light.” Because the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. [See Isaiah 9:2.]
Verse 10 identifies the new Christians with the nation spoken to by Hosea in Hosea 2:23, who HAVE now received mercy and who ARE now God’s people, after having been reproved and punished in Hosea chapter 1 and the first part of Hosea chapter 2.
All in all, the text seems to be giving its readers an image of the Christian community as a new, spiritual temple. Its cornerstone is Christ. The Christians who follow Christ are both the temple, and the priesthood that serves within it, offering up thanksgiving and prayer to God through Christ. To grow into this identity as God’s people, for real, the readers need to set aside their (undesirable) earlier identity, and be nourished on the word – which here sounds a lot like Jesus Christ, and also like Scripture (i.e., Hebrew Scripture).
One last thought: I think we have to work pretty hard to read the “replacement theology” out of this text, and something more like Paul’s “you gentiles have been grafted in to the olive tree of God’s people” theology into it. I think that can be done, and that it’s worth doing. But I think this author – this human author, anyhow – has made it hard for us. I suspect that’s less “on purpose” than out of enthusiasm. If someone told me this letter had been written by a true-believing messianic Jew in love with Jesus Christ, and seriously into Scripture, I’d believe them. (Maybe I could relate to that.)
Images: Details of illuminated page of Epistle of St Peters, held at Cleveland Museum of Art, An image By Daderot [CC0 or CC0], from Wikimedia Commons