Victory on Earth Day – part 6

The effect of the cross on the People of God 

When Peter wrote 1 Peter 2:9 to Christians that “you have been chosen by God to be priests of the King, a holy nation and God’s very own people, holding all the titles that God gave to his people of old,” it must have been hard for those Christians to accept, because their world wasn’t a nice place to live in, and they had a tough time not taking on its attitudes, especially when they had to live and work with people who were a pain in the neck.

Peter could see Christians developing “feelings of hatred,” verse 1 (Living Bible). But it was easy for Christians to hate people, because most people they mixed with were only “pretending to be good” (verse 1). People were such fakes. In reality, most people were dishonest, deceptive liars, utterly hypocritical, eaten up with jealousy, and ripping people up and down behind their backs (all mentioned in verse 1). But if a Christian tried to rise above all that nonsense and he chose not to act that way, he was picked on, scoffed at, and made to feel alienated and utterly miserable. It was easy in those circumstances, therefore, to hate people who had no interest in Christian values and lived for themselves without a care in the world for anyone else. Imagine having to work beside people like that day after day too.

And Peter was totally sympathetic to that, that Christ was “rejected by men” too, verse 4, but TO GOD he was “precious,” and never for a moment would God disappoint their trust in him either (verse 6). On the one hand, then, Christians would always feel like “aliens and strangers” in the world they found themselves in, verse 11, but they were also “the people of God,” verse 10, and as the people of God they’d been “called out of the darkness of the world into God’s wonderful light,” so that in the way they lived their lives the difference would be so obviously right and good to other people that they would be drawn to God too, verse 12.

That’s the plan, says Peter, that “WE are the People of God now, so let’s make sure our conduct among unbelievers is so good that one day it will hit people that we weren’t so bad after all, and they too will then turn to God to do the same for them as he did for us.”

This is the way God works and has always worked, as the Jews in the churches Peter was writing to would have recognized, because as Jews they’d been chosen by God in the past to be his people too. Peter, therefore, was ringing a very familiar bell in their ears, that God elects and chooses people who are very precious to him, as we see in his choosing of Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6: “For you are a people holy to your God. He chose you and you alone, out of all the people on Earth, to be his people, his very own cherished treasure.”

So when Peter introduces his letter back in 1 Peter 1:1, “I, Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect,” that word “elect” would have brought Deuteronomy 7:6 to mind immediately for the Jews in the church. They knew what being the elect was all about. It meant they were extremely special. They were like that very special girl who catches a man’s eye and all he can think of is her, and that’s exactly how God felt about Israel, because he said as much in Deuteronomy 7:8, that when he looked at Israel he fell in love with her.

Imagine that: God falling in love and wanting Israel as his own. But this is how God himself phrased it in Exodus 19:4, that he’d “carried Israel out of Egypt on eagles’ wings to bring you to myself.” God was like the prince rescuing his princess from the evil witch’s clutches, and whisking her off on his white horse to his kingdom where he and his beloved would live happily ever after.

God had quite a surprise waiting for his beloved Israel too, because he lets his princess know in verse 5 that he’s actually King of the entire Earth, and as King of the Earth he’s chosen HER out of all the nations under his rule, verse 6, to be his very own “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Well, that’s wonderful, I hear his princess Israel say, but if you don’t mind me asking, she says, what does being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation actually mean? And that’s a good question for us to ask too, because Peter just told us back in 1 Peter 2 that WE are the King of the Earth’s priests and a holy nation as well. So what does it mean?

Well, the only kings and priests that Israel had ever known up to this point in Exodus 19 were the priests and kings in the nation of Egypt. That was the only picture of kings and priests they had. And in Egypt it was only a ruling class of chief priests and kings that had access to the gods. Only they could pray to the gods, make petitions to the gods, and bring the gods’ blessings on their nation. The common people in Egypt had no relationship with their gods whatsoever.

To quote one historian: “The Ancient Near Eastern peoples knew that the big deities were only in relationship with the priests and kings. The big gods were for the big people, not the common people. But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob changed all that.”

And the way God changed it was to make EVERY Israelite a king and priest, a radical move indeed, because for hundreds of years the Israelites had lived in Egypt where everything depended on the kings and priests. The welfare of the entire nation rested on the kings and priests doing all the necessary rituals to keep the gods happy, so that order remained and disaster didn’t strike. So “kings and priests” was a familiar term to the Israelites, but so was the idea that only the ruling classes could mediate between the gods and the people.

Well, God was having none of this upper class, hierarchy stuff for his princess. He was flinging the doors wide open to anyone in Israel having access to him. And to make that clear to the Israelites God now gave THEM the title of “kings and priests” too. In other words, every Israelite now had access to God in exactly the same way the kings and priests in Egypt had access to their gods.

So in God falling in love with Israel and whisking his princess away from the evil witch to bring her to himself, and then calling Israel his kings and priests, he was introducing Israel to a new kind of kingdom, where the common people could have a relationship with the gods too – AND it was a loving, trusting, wide-open relationship that went both ways as well. Israel’s God actually loved them, and they could love him in return too, by trusting and obeying him. The Israelites, therefore, were the first nation ever to enter into this kind of loving relationship with the gods. It had never existed anywhere before.

But what was the actual purpose of this radically new loving relationship between God and his princess?

Well, this is where the Egyptian model can help us again, because of the role that the Egyptian kings and priests played. It was their job to please the gods, and in pleasing the gods they could then appeal to the gods in prayer and petition on behalf of the people. The kings and priests, therefore, played an immensely important role in Egypt as mediators between the gods and the people. Without the kings and priests the people had no means of petitioning the gods, or of receiving any blessings from the gods either. When the Israelites heard the term “kings and priests,” therefore, this would be the picture that came to mind.

So imagine their surprise being told by Moses that they were now taking on that role of kings and priests as well. The surprise would have been even greater, though, if it had also dawned on the Israelites what God had just told them in Exodus 19:5, that the whole Earth was his, and in verse 6, that as King of the Earth he’d chosen them to be his “kingdom of priests and holy nation.”

It didn’t take a large brain to cotton on that if God was King of the entire Earth and the Israelites were the King of the Earth’s priests and holy kingdom, then it meant they were now kings and priests on behalf of the entire planet. They were now the mediators between God and all humanity.

But how on earth could the ordinary, common folk of Israel fulfill a gigantic role like that? And that’s not a bad question to ask ourselves either, when ordinary, common folk like us have been chosen to be the King of the Earth’s priests and his holy kingdom today as well.

Well, the top priority for the Egyptian kings and priests in fulfilling their role was their daily ritual in the temple. To quote one source: “Only the priest was allowed to enter the sacred area of the temple and approach the statue representing the god or goddess. In the morning, the high priest breaks the seal, lights a torch to wake the god, says prayers, lights incense, washes the statue of the god, places fresh clothing and jewels on it and places offerings of food and drink near it. Singers offer hymns of praise to the god. At the end of the day, the priest backs out of the shrine, sweeping away his footprints as he goes, and seals the sacred area again.”

And why did the priests do all that? Because if they didn’t they’d all be dead. The gods would wipe them out. And every day the nation faced that reality, that without the daily obedience by the kings and priests to the required rituals they all faced the judgment of the gods. It’s interesting to see, then, that God soon got that point across to the Israelites too. Yes, he loved them BUT, Exodus 19:5, they’d better “obey me fully and keep my covenant” too. And in the next few chapters God gives Israel all sorts of laws they’d better obey or there would be dire consequences for their entire nation if they didn’t.

It was crucial in their role as kings and priests, therefore, that they too dedicate their lives every day to obeying God, because their nation would face God’s judgment too if they didn’t. That was the bottom line, and any Israelite king and priest worth his or her salt woke up every morning with that in mind.

Grasping the reality of God’s judgment, therefore, was top priority, but that wasn’t the only reason God had for Israel obeying his laws. Obedience to his laws would also produce the attitudes, behaviours and character in the Israelites that truly reflected him. And that now put the Israelites in exactly the same position as the kings and priests in Egypt, in making the Israelites into effective mediators for others as well. HOW? Well, it was all rather simple and straightforward: The Israelites’ obedience to the law would reflect the lawmaker. By obeying God’s law other nations would then see what Israel’s God was like, so they could see how great he was by comparison to their own gods and be drawn to him too.

That was the plan, and it ties in perfectly with what Peter said God made us kings and priests for, that we live such good lives in obedience to God that it reflects God and what he’s like to other people – so that they too are drawn to him. And that was exactly God’s purpose for Adam as well, that he would be God’s image-bearer, representing and reflecting God to the rest of creation.

To be an image-bearer was exactly like being a mediator, because If Adam had done his job well, by obeying everything God told him to do, and by gradually learning his wisdom from God he would have represented God so well to people that they would be drawn to God themselves. But jump ahead to 1 Peter 2 and we hear Peter telling us the same thing, that we too represent God so well – or as Peter phrases it we “declare God’s praises” so well in how we live and behave – that people can clearly see God’s way is so much better, and they “glorify” him.

Nothing has changed in God’s plan, then, from Adam to Israel, and from the Jews to us. God has always had a “People of God” representing him so well that people glorify him. Call us image-bearers, or kings and priests, or mediators, they all mean the same thing and play the same role of bringing God and humans together in such a way that people are drawn to him and God can bless them.

That’s why the People of God through the ages are so special to him, because they are the ones who grasp his purpose. We grasp the fact in 1 Peter 2:4-5, that just as Jesus, “the Living Stone,” was “chosen by God and precious to him, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.”

And spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, according to Peter, are those that reflect God or “declare his praises” well, just like obedience to the law by the Israelites was their acceptable sacrifice that reflected God well.

And who was the first person to start this ball rolling, the first true king and priest to follow this principle of offering a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God? It wasn’t Adam, but remarkably it was his son, Abel, who somehow knew, despite his parents, what God treasured. So when it came to offering a sacrifice, Abel brought the choice parts of a firstborn lamb in his flock (Genesis 4:4). And God called Abel’s offering “righteous” (Hebrews 11:4). Why? Because in bringing the best he had Abel was openly declaring God’s praises. His sacrifice reflected his deep appreciation to God. And look how pleased God was with Abel’s offering. Abel, therefore, was the first human ever to establish a relationship between God and humans that went both ways. Abel, in other words, was the first true king and priest to fulfill the role of mediator in bringing God and humans together.

It would be interesting to know, then, if the spot God chose for these special offerings in Genesis 2 was also the place where the cherubim were guarding the tree of life, so that once a year, perhaps on the anniversary of Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden, Adam and his family brought offerings to the very place where they were reminded of what sin had done to them. But instead of Abel being all negative about being kicked out of the garden, and being miffed at his lot in life, or feeling cheesed off at God, he brought a sacrifice that was thoroughly acceptable and pleasing to God.

He could have reacted like his brother Cain instead, whose heart wasn’t in his sacrifice at all. Cain saw nothing in God worth praising, and his sacrifice reflected that. He didn’t see that their sin had truly deserved death, so he had no grasp of God’s incredible mercy allowing him and his family to continue living. But Abel brought the best sacrifice he could, and a blood sacrifice too, which certainly hints at his understanding of God’s mercy.

(SLIDES x5)   And how fitting that would be, when later, in the Temple that the Garden of Eden pictured, there was a Mercy Seat made out of pure gold covered by two cherubim. This was the spot in the Holy of Holies where God was seated, and once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on behalf of Israel as Israel’s mediator, and God extended his mercy on Israel so that their relationship with him was maintained.

Without this annual act of God’s mercy Israel would have died out as a nation, and deserved to die for its sins too, just as the Egyptians believed they’d die as a nation if the kings and priests did not do their daily rituals. And Abel clearly knew he’d be dead too if it wasn’t God’s mercy, and his sacrifice reflected that.

Abel, therefore, was the pioneer of our profession as the People of God. He became the first in a long line of God’s people through the ages – from his baby brother Seth (who replaced him), to Noah, to Abraham, to Israel, and to us now today – all of whom recognize that if it wasn’t for God’s mercy we’d all be dead. We all echo the words of Peter in 1 Peter 2:10, that “In the past you were less than nothing, but now you are the People of God. In the past you had no experience of God’s mercy, but now it is intimately yours.”

What identifies and characterizes the People of God, the true image-bearers of God, his true kings and priests, his true and effective mediators between him and sinful humanity, is the understanding of God’s amazing mercy. And that’s what drives us “to abstain from sinful desires,” verse 11, and motivates us to “Live such good lives among the pagans that they see our good deeds and glorify God,” verse 12, just as it stirred Abel to bring the best sacrifice to God that he could.

In other words, if someone asked us why we stand up for Christian values in a world that scoffs at such values and makes life miserable for us, our answer is simple: “It’s because of God’s mercy.” We live the way we do in recognition of God’s mercy. That’s what motivated Abel to bring the sacrifice he did. It’s also the motivation for us bringing the sacrifices we do, as Paul wrote in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship.”

Peter said exactly the same thing back 1 Peter 2:5, that just as Jesus, “the Living Stone,” was “chosen by God and precious to him, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.”

Either way you want to phrase it, as “offering our bodies as living sacrifices,” or “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God,” one thing is common to both, and that’s the recognition, verse 10, that without God’s mercy we’d be “less than nothing.” And Paul really gets that point across in Romans 9:25, that “God calls us his people who weren’t his people, and he calls us his loved ones who weren’t his loved ones.”

This is what sets us apart as the People of God; it’s that constant niggling thought in our heads, especially when we’re tempted to hate people for their hypocrisy, or criticize them for their selfish, cold attitudes, that God loved us and extended his mercy to us when we didn’t deserve his love or mercy either.

In other words, we exist today as members of Christ’s body and the People of God in this age, because of God’s mercy, and nothing else. And as the People of God we are the only people on the Earth who grasp that, that we’d be less than nothing without God’s mercy, and that’s what motivates our actions and thoughts as Christians.

And it needs to be our motivation as Christians so that our actions properly reflect God’s holiness, attributes and character, which is our way of declaring his praises or offering acceptable spiritual sacrifices, in the hope that people really see something different in us. They may not like us, and they may even accuse us of all sorts of things we never said or did, but one thing they cannot ignore is that we don’t treat them back the same way. They can gossip all they like about us, but we don’t gossip about them. Hopefully we can even shock them a bit in our attitude toward those in power, that in conversations about politicians and the like we’re strangely silent.

And why are we hesitant in our criticism? Because we’re the people of God, the one group of people on this Earth who accept the starkest fact of life there is, that in reality, Romans 9:22, we were “the objects of his wrath prepared for destruction.“ We were all headed for the city dump like smelly, rotten garbage, but he picked us off the garbage truck on the way to the dump and made us “objects of his mercy,” verse 23. Why? “To make the riches of his glory known.” This is what he extended his mercy to us for.

But HOW do the riches of his glory become known through God extending mercy to us? According to Peter it’s by our response to his mercy. Once we grasp that God whipped us off the garbage truck just like he rescued his princess Israel from the wicked witch, and that he called us out of the garbage attitudes of this world into the new ways of his kingdom, and that it’s his purpose for us now to become a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices that reflect HIS holiness, attributes and character, well what else can we do but get down to the serious business of 1 Peter 2:1, of “ridding ourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind,” and in verse 12, “living such good lives among the pagans that they see our good deeds and glorify God”?

It’s difficult to do that in this world, though, isn’t it? How can we not get frustrated and angry at stupid, uncaring people? But I left out three vital words in verse 5, as to how this gigantic role we’ve been given as ordinary, common folk becomes possible. The three words are: “through Jesus Christ.”

The Israelites didn’t have those three words as kings and priests when they were representing God and his kingdom to the nations around them. The Israelites had an awareness of God’s love and mercy, yes, just like we do, but from their example we see it wasn’t enough. Their life’s work was supposed to in response to his love and mercy, but they failed. They didn’t make it. It proved to be too much for them. Instead of being God’s princess reflecting God’s glory to draw other nations to him, she was drawn to those nations and took on their attitudes instead.

And Peter could see the same thing happening all over again to the People of God in his day too. It was tough not being drawn in by other people’s attitudes, especially when you had to live in such close proximity to people who had no interest in Christian values, and you risked being seen as odd and weird if you didn’t join in. And we’re in the same dilemma today, wanting to be different enough that people notice; but not so different that we turn people off.

So what’s the solution? Peter’s advice is simple: It’s either in three words, “through Jesus Christ,” or in five words in 1 Peter 2:4, “As you come to him.” We come to him because he was the first and only human to fulfill the role of king and priest perfectly. Despite the rejection of men he was still able to offer a lifetime of “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” that has caused billions of people to glorify God. And the secret was in his reaction to people, verse 23, that “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Imagine being able to do that, where instead of being drawn into a heated argument, or hating someone so much we can’t sleep, we “come to Jesus Christ” and entrust ourselves to him to sort the situation out to God’s glory.

Well, Jesus made sure that’s not just the stuff of imagination, because, verse 24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live the right way; and by his wounds our minds are healed.” Such is the effect of the cross on the People of God in this age now. The cross kills off those hateful feelings and heals the wounds of insults. This is what Jesus died on the cross for, so that we can, as ordinary, common people like the Israelites, and like Abel, really show something different to people, that’s also so obviously right.

This is an area, especially in such a critical, uncaring world, where the attributes and character of God can shine. It’s a great way of declaring the praises of God that any of us can do with Christ’s help. And his help is just waiting for us, because WE are now his very precious and much loved royal priesthood.

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