Difference and Our Identity
by Paul Goebel
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.
1 Peter 2:9-12
For two millennia, the Christian Church has wrestled with its place in culture. Over the years, many Christians have held to a sectarian view of the Church. Sectarians believe that culture is hostile to the purity of the Church and should be avoided. This type of Christianity is marked by the strict boundaries often seen in fundamentalism. Others have understood the relationship between Church and culture to be quite the opposite. Syncretists believe that the Church should be accommodating to culture. In their view, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. The Emergent church movement has most recently exhibited this kind of thinking. Emergent or fundamentalist, syncretist or sectarian, it is clear that the tense relationship between the Church and culture remains just as relevant now as was 2,000 years ago.
I have found 1 Peter tremendously helpful in my own life as I struggle to live as a Christian in a changing culture. Vital to Peter’s understanding of Christian living in the midst of culture is the notion that the Church is a people. Peter writes in verse 9 of chapter 2, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own possession.” Peter’s description of the Church is astounding. Drawing from a host of Old Testament references, Peter ascribes terminology to the Church that was once reserved for Israel, God’s chosen people.
In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter first describes the Church as “a chosen race.” Taken from Isaiah 43:20, the word “race” refers to a people of common ancestry. Within the context of Isaiah, that ancestry is the line of Abraham, the people of Israel. But, within the context of 1 Peter 2:9, that ancestry is attributed to Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be a part of a new race, a new people of God.
Peter then goes on to describe the Church as “a royal priesthood” and a “holy nation.” These phrases are taken from Exodus 19:6. The phrase “royal priesthood” identifies the Church as a community of priests who now devote their lives and their service to the true King, Jesus Christ. The phrase “holy nation” describes the Church as a community that has been set apart to live differently in the way they conduct themselves. This distinction is rooted in Peter’s earlier command in 1 Peter 1:14-18, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”
The last phrase Peter uses to describe the Church in verse 9 is “a people of His own possession.” While similar wording can be found in both Exodus 19:5 (a proper people) and Isaiah 43:21 (My people whom I have acquired), this phrase is most intimately linked with Peter’s words in verse 10, “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.” Verse 10 is the capstone in Peter’s description of the Church of Jesus Christ. In verse 9, Peter ascribes the attributes of Israel to the Church. In verse 10, Peter implies that the Church is a fulfillment of the ancient prophecy found in Hosea 2:23, “And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are My people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’” This is what is so amazing about the Church of Jesus Christ. We are faithless adulterers who constantly turn our backs on God, yet He is faithful where we are faithless. He sent the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, to redeem His bride, the Church.
Of all the ways the Church is described in 1 Peter 2, perhaps the most pivotal is found in verse 11. Peter writes, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Peter refers to the Church as “sojourners” and “exiles.” Peter is essentially saying that to be Christian is to be different. So different, in fact, that Christians are like foreigners who have taken up residence as refugees in society. Yet how are we to understand the difference between Church and culture? Our identity as Christians in a secular culture is rooted in our union with Christ. We are sojourners because Jesus Christ was the ultimate sojourner. We are exiles because He was the ultimate exile among His own people, who rejected Him and condemned Him to die on the cross. It was He who was the real Chosen One, the ultimate Royal Priest, the true Holy One. As a people united with Christ, the Church then is a chosen race, a royal priest hood, and a holy nation. Our Christian difference is found only in our identity with Jesus Christ: our serving found in His servanthood, our suffering found in His suffering, our hope found in His death and resurrection. Redeemed, we are sojourners in a culture in need of redemption.