1 PETER #14: AN ETHNICITY OF HOLINESS

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Jesus is the way of salvation, the only way. Every other path is doomed to keep a person separated from the goodness of God. If you reject Jesus, there are severe natural consequences – even more severe than rejecting gravity at the top of a cliff.

But rejecting Jesus is not the only possibility. Even those who once rejected him have the opportunity to turn back (that is, repent) and receive him, as long as they are still drawing breath. For those who do receive him, the consequences are wonderful: we are specially selected children, we are inducted into the priest-order of King Jesus, we are an ethnicity of holiness, and God’s specially-obtained people.

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1 PETER #14. 1 PETER 2:9-10

There are many advantages to going verse by verse through books of the Bible. There are also a few disadvantages. One potential drawback is that we might forget the larger context of a passage. It’s all there, if we go back and look at it, and it’s all there within the overall sermon series – but sometimes individual sermons are focused on very small portions of the text, as we are today.

Therefore, let me remind you of our context. The verses just before this were about the contrast between those who receive Jesus, the cornerstone, the foundation of everything, and those who reject him. We focused last time on those who reject Jesus. Truth is sometimes hard. Only one person actually wins a race. That’s tough on everyone else who competes. Two plus two equals four; not three, not five, and six is right out. If you choose to “reject gravity,” and jump off a cliff you will fall downwards, and your body will suffer severe consequences, and this will happen to every single person who tries it. Not a single person will get to fall upwards, just by chance. So, Jesus is the way of salvation, the only way. Every other path is doomed to keep a person separated from the goodness of God. If you reject Jesus, there are severe consequences – even more severe than rejecting gravity at the top of a cliff.

But rejecting Jesus is not the only possibility. For those who receive him, the consequences are wonderful. And even those who once rejected him have the opportunity to turn back (that is, repent) and receive him, as long as they are still drawing breath. Also, the larger context is talking about how we who trust Jesus are God’s people, people that God is blessing, and using to show the world his glory. It is in this context, and after speaking about the consequences of rejecting Jesus, that Peter writes these verses:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

(1 Peter 2:9-10, CSB)

In some ways, the key to these words is in verse 10, so I’ll go backwards. Peter is writing to primarily Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) Christians – this is obvious from verse 10:

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

God made many promises to the physical descendants of Abraham. He chose them out of all the people of the world to be his own special people, to show His glory, grace and goodness to the world. They were special, in a way that no other people were special. It was widely believed by the Jews that no one else could be called “God’s special people.”

Now, says Peter, all of those promises made to the physical descendants of Abraham are applied to those who receive Jesus – whether or not they are physical descendants of Abraham. Belonging to God is not about ethnicity, or ancestry, but about your standing with Jesus Christ.

So, when we read verse nine, we need to understand that Peter is talking about promises that were once thought to apply only to the people of Israel, and now, he is describing how they apply to everyone who receives Jesus Christ.

When we receive Jesus, a number of consequences cascade into place. First, we are a chosen race. In my amateur, Greek-hacker way, I might put the Greek like this: “specially-selected descendants.” Through Jesus, God has specially selected us to be his children. We find that all along, God wanted us. It is not a matter of an indifferent God waiting around to see if we would choose him. No, He was the one who chose us the whole time. I’m sure Peter had in mind some of the verses of the Old Testament:

Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.

(Deut 10:15, ESV)

And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

(Exodus 19:6, ESV)

We are chosen in Jesus. Because we have entrusted ourselves to Jesus, we have become the specially selected children of God. The promises above are for us.

Second, we are a kingly priesthood. In the Old Testament, there was an ancestral separation between those who could become priests, and those who could become kings. Priests had to be from the tribe of Levi, and from the clan of Aaron. In ancient Israel, no one else could be a legitimate priest. Kings, on the other hand were supposed to be from the tribe of Judah, descended from David. No priest could be a king, and vice versa. But in Jesus, the two came together. He is the rightful king because he is a descendant of David. He is the rightful High Priest because his sacrifice once and for all established the forgiveness of sins. So now God has chosen new “descendants of Jesus” who can be both royal, and priestly at the same time. Isaiah spoke prophetically about this:

but you shall be called the priests of the LORD;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;

(Isaiah 61:6, ESV)

John mentions it in Revelation – not prophetically, but rather as one of the things established by the work of Jesus:

To him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father ​— ​to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

(Revelation 1:5-6, CSB)

We talked about what it means to be priests in #12 of this series on 1 Peter. The short version is that it means: 1. We have direct access to God, 2. We have an indispensable place in the church, which is called “the body of Christ,” 3. We are all God’s representatives in the world and, 4. We offer spiritual sacrifices to God: through praising him, submitting to God’s will, and giving him our very selves.

Peter adds here that our priesthood is “royal.” This is added first and foremost to show that we are not priests like the Old Testaments Levites, nor even the descendants of Aaron. We are priests in the line of Jesus. He is the only royal priest, and so, we too, are royal, because we are in Jesus.

The next result of being in Jesus is that we are a holy people. The more-or-less literal Greek reads: “an ethnicity of holiness.” To be Christian has nothing to do with physical ethnicity. Christianity, from the very beginning, has been a religion of every nation, ethnicity and language, and our vision of heaven is firmly multi-ethnic. Part of the reason for this is that our physical/genetic ethnicity is now not as important as our spiritual ethnicity. Our spiritual ethnicity is the ethnicity of holiness. Another way of saying this is that our “true ethnicity” is based not upon physical birth, but upon spiritual birth; that is, upon the fact that Jesus Christ has made us holy.

We can praise God for our physical ancestry. We can see how God worked in our ancestors to bring glory to Himself, and grace to us. It’s good to celebrate it. It is also good to celebrate our positive or neutral cultural differences as part of the multi-faceted glory of God. So, for instance, be proud of being African-American. Be in awe of the glory of God that preserved your ancestors through slavery to bring you to this point in time. Enjoy your cultural traditions. Invite friends of different ethnic groups.

Or, be proud of your scrappy Irish ancestors, who overcame all sorts of obstacles in the past to bring you to where you are today. Celebrate St. Patrick’s day (as a Christian). Or, if you are a Scandinavian, celebrate your heritage with lutefisk festivals. You Germans, and German-descended, celebrate Bach, polka, and sauerkraut. Again, everyone invite your friends of different cultural backgrounds to celebrate together with you (except you Scandinavians: lutefisk could start a war).

However, all of us should recognize that there is something much greater and more glorious, and far more important than our physical ancestry: our spiritual ethnicity. If we are Christians, our spiritual heritage, our ethnicity as God’s people, trumps everything else. Peter is saying that all of us can claim the spiritual heritage of the Old Testament (and, of course, the new). The promises made to God’s people are made to us. Our identity as the specially selected people of God is more important, and should be more dominant, than any other possible identity.

On the negative side, I might put it like this: If you feel like race or culture separates you from a fellow-Christian, you have not fully embraced God’s promises.

On the positive side, we need to recognize that we have more in common (for instance) with a Christian from thousands of miles away, who is from a different country, and speaks a different language, than we do with a non-Christian neighbor who looks and sounds just like us. This isn’t to say that we should be uncaring toward our non-Christian neighbor. But our “primary group” so to speak, the group we call “our people,” is not defined by physical ethnicity, culture or language. It is defined by Jesus Christ.

The phrase is “ethnicity of holiness.” We’ve just talked about the “ethnicity” part of that. Let’s consider the “holiness” part. I think a lot of Christians, upon hearing that word, might say, “well, that’s not me then, because I am not holy.” My dear fellow holy-people, we really need to get over ourselves. The holiness of God’s people is not our own. I am not considered holy because I have been a particularly good person. I am holy for one reason only: because I belong to Jesus, and he has imparted his own holiness to me. For a Christian, being holy does not start with our behavior – it starts with the behavior of Jesus Christ.

Consider the following analogy: I am an indifferent gardener. Sometimes, I might leave a garden hose, with a sprayer nozzle attached to it, lying in the dirt for months at a time. When I finally decide to water something, I attach the hose to the tap, and then turn it on. It takes several seconds for the water to come through. When the water starts to come out of the sprayer, it comes in fits and starts, because the other end of the hose has dirt in it. Also, parts of the sprayer are clogged with dirt. Sometimes the hose is kinked, and I have to straighten it out to get more than a few drips. The water isn’t coming through steadily, and what does come through is actually kind of dirty. Now, does this mean the water coming out of the tap is dirty, or that the pressure is bad? Of course not. It is the hose that is kinked and dirty, and also the sprayer, and the dirt and kinks impair the flow of the water, and makes it look dirty. But the water itself is pure and clean at the source. Over time, I find the kinks and straighten them, and the water washes the dirt out of the hose, and out of the sprayer, and eventually, I have clean water coming through a fully functioning sprayer.

The hose is not the source of the water – it is merely a vehicle for the water. The same is true of the sprayer-attachment.

The water is the holiness of Christ. We are the hose and the sprayer. We don’t generate holiness – it comes through us. At first, that holiness doesn’t look very “holy,” because we have plenty of dirt in us. At first, it only comes through in dirty-looking drips and drabs. Over time, the holiness of Christ begins to unkink us, and clean us up from the inside out. Unfortunately, it takes a lifetime – the dirt is caked on thick and tough, and the kinks are hardened in. But over time, the holiness does begin to flow better, and look cleaner. Again, however, that is not because we are generating holiness ourselves – it is the holiness of Christ working its way through us.

I don’t think it is very helpful to ask how close we are to having pure water. The more helpful thing to do is to surrender ourselves more and more fully to Jesus, and let him take care of the unkinking, let him worry about how quickly, or slowly, the dirt is removed, so that the water flows freely.

The third thing is that we are a people for his possession. Another way to express the Greek is that we were “specially-obtained” by and for God. He went to great lengths to get us, to make us his own.

All that brings us to the final thing. There is a purpose for God making us his specially selected children, a royal priesthood, an ethnicity of holiness, specially obtained by and for God. To paraphrase the end of verse nine, the purpose is so that God can use us to show the world how wonderful He is.

Sometimes, I end with practical suggestions for applying scripture to our lives. Today my practical suggestion is this: Believe the word of God. Trust that it is true. God has specially selected you to be part of his people. Trust it! Lean into it! God has inducted you into a holy priesthood in the order of King Jesus. Believe it, then act like you believe it. The Father has made you an ethnicity of holiness. Trust it is true, and act as you believe. Receive your fellow Christians as family, no matter what they look like or sound like. The Father has gone to great lengths to make us his people. Believe it! Receive his special attention and love. Finally, let him work through you to show the world how wonderful he is. If we believe and trust all that these verses say, then we will naturally be letting God show his glory to the world.