This section is soaked in quotations, allusions, and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter depends heavily on Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, Isaiah 8:14, Isaiah 43:20-21, Exodus 19:5-6, Isaiah 42:12, and Hosea 2:23. Out of the 126 Greek words that lie behind the English text, almost half of them are directly from the Hebrew Bible (quoted from the Greek translation or LXX). No other text in 1 Peter is as saturated with the language of Israel’s heritage as this one.
The “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), if they were not fully confident previously, learn that they are part of a larger story. Their heritage is God’s ancient people, Israel. Their honor, identity, and glory are rooted in God’s continuous work in history to redeem a people, one that is God’s own possession. The “elect exiles” discover that they are part of Israel, God’s redemptive community in the world.
Jesus and His People
Becoming part of Israel’s story entails exilic living, which means rejection by others but inclusion by God. We become part of Israel’s story by “coming to him,” that is, Jesus, the living stone with which God builds a new temple. The temple of God is the people of God, the living stones that compose the substance of the temple.
Rejected by Others but Chosen by God
Peter uses the “stone” metaphor because of three significant texts in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The first is Isaiah 28:16 where Yahweh lays a “stone in Zion”—an elect and honored (or precious) “cornerstone.” The second is Psalm 118:22 where the “stone” Yahweh selected as the “cornerstone” is rejected by the builders. The third is Isaiah 8:14 where Israel stumbles over the “stone,” which becomes the sanctuary. The stone is rejected by others, but chosen by God.
It should be no surprise that the “elect exiles” are rejected and dishonored by the surrounding culture since that is exactly the experience of Jesus himself, the cornerstone. As we come to Jesus, we experience what he experienced, including rejection.
However, this rejection is a limited, one-sided perspective. The real truth is that the cornerstone Yahweh has laid is elect and honored, and this same honor will come to those believe. Believers, though humiliated by others, are chosen by God, and they will never be put to shame. Unbelievers—the disobedient—have no such promise.
[1 Peter 2:8 is a controversial text in Calvinist-Arminian discussions. Whatever the specific point, I think McKnight (NIV Application Commentary, 109) is correct: “God’s act of appointing Jesus as the living Stone has become both honor for believers and judgment for unbelievers; this was God’s design.”]
Formed into a Living Temple.
The cornerstone of the new temple is Jesus himself, and the other living stones are believers in Jesus. This is the “spiritual house” God is building; it is still under construction (“being built”), even into the present.
We should not think of this “spiritual house” as a kind of invisible house or house consisting of spirits. Rather, it is a house animated by the Spirit; a house sanctified and indwelt by the Spirit of God whose glory resides within us. The Spirit of God, Peter later writes, “rests” on us (1 Peter 4:14). The Holy Spirit is the animating life of this temple as the Spirit sanctifies us as God’s holy dwelling place, the temple of God.
In this house we are holy priests who offer sacrifices. We are not only the stones that form the material of the temple; we also have a function within the temple. Below we will note the meaning of priesthood here, but it is important to notice as priests we offer sacrifices. We do something.
What are these “spiritual sacrifices”? As with the house itself, which is animated by the Spirit of God (pneumatikos), so the sacrifices are also animated by the Spirit of God (pneumatikas). The sacrifices are empowered—given life and brought into being—by the Spirit of God. We participate (we offer), but the power belongs to God whose Spirit produces fruit in our lives. Our “spiritual sacrifices” are our holy (sanctified) lives before God, and those sacrifices are the result of cooperative grace as God works through our participation in the holy priesthood to which God has appointed us.
This picture offers another view of the Triune work of God: we offer “spiritual” sacrifices to God the Father through Jesus the Messiah. Our lives, our worship, are offered to God by the power of the Spirit through Jesus. We worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
Shared Identity with Israel
The “elect exiles,” a largely Gentile community spread across what is now modern Turkey, are deeply embedded in the story of Israel. Indeed, they are both the fruit and continuation of that story, which includes Jewish believers in the Messiah. Identified with the Jewish Messiah, they share the identity of Israel itself. Through Jesus the Messiah, God’s election of Israel and promises to Israel in the Hebrew Scripture also belong to them.
This language (genos eklekton) echoes Isaiah 43:20, which reads “my chosen race” (to genos mou to eklekton). Significantly, the context of Isaiah is God’s intent to ransom Israel from Babylonian exile, and the wilderness—the trek between Babylon and Palestine—will flourish with animals and water. God will provide for “my chosen race” in the wilderness on their journey back to their homeland
Genos refers to a common lineage; that is, a descent from Abraham in Isaiah 43. But now this “genos” language includes Gentiles. Though they have not physically descended from Abraham, they are now included as members of the genos. Their heritage is the same as Israel’s; they now carry the same “genes,” though these “genes” are rooted in the work of the Spirit through the Messiah (who is the seed through whom all become children of Abraham by faith, according to Paul in Galatians 3 and Romans 4). Like Israel, these Gentiles are also God’s chosen race.
This expression, along with the following two, is derived from Exodus 19:5-6.
The Exodus text is programmatic for Israel. When God gathered Israel at Mount Sinai, Yahweh announces Israel’s relationship to God and their mission in the world. This text, practically above all others, identifies Israel in the theology of the Old Testament. So, to link these expressions with the scattered “elect exiles” is to identify them with Israel at Mount Sinai.
To identify Israel as a “royal priesthood” is to recognize their royal and priestly functions, and this echoes the creation narrative where humanity is given a royal function (shared dominion with God) within the creation in Genesis 1, and humanity is given a priestly function (to guard and keep) in God’s Eden sanctuary in Genesis 2. In other words, Israel functions as a new Adam (humanity) in the world. Just as original humanity was commissioned to multiply and fill the earth with God’s glory, so Israel is also commissioned with such.
This is seen in the nature of Israel’s priesthood. They are not priests for themselves. Rather, they are priests for the nations. Just as the Levites mediated between God and Israel, so Israel (as a priestly people) mediate between God and the nations. They serve the nations and represent God before the nations. In this sense, all believers are priests because all believers mediate between God and the world; they exist for the sake of the world.
Their royal function, as an echo of Genesis, reflects their mission to bring order out of chaos, that is, to subdue and care for the earth. In relation to the nations, they represent the reigning light of God in the midst of darkness.
The “elect exiles,” though outsiders to the imperial interests of the Roman empire and its civil religion, are themselves a “holy nation,” appropriating the language that describes Israel in Exodus 19:6. As a “holy nation,” they are set apart by the sanctifying work of the Spirit and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, just as Israel was set apart by blood sacrifices. As a “holy nation,” they are a genos (race) that serves God as a community (or nation), just as Israel was a political as well as a communal reality in the Ancient Near East.
Consecrated to God and sanctified by the Spirit, they are a holy ethnicity—a people with a common bond in the Spirit, as God’s “spiritual house.” They are not a political entity, but they are a physical community that lives within the Roman Empire as a consecrated (holy) race (genos) or nation (ethnos). They are an alternative community, distinct from the Empire itself; but they are constituted by a new birth through the resurrection of Jesus.
Here I have combined 1 Peter 2:9 (“God’s own people” or “treasured possession”) with 1 Peter 2:10 (“now you are God’s people”). Literally, the former is God’s “special possession,” which quotes Exodus 19:5 (and also Isaiah 43:21). In other words, these are a people who belong to God and are highly prized or valued by God.
The latter (1 Peter 2:10) quotes Hosea 2:23. While Hosea speaks of the restoration of Israel and thus their inclusion in the people of God once again, Peter applies this language to the movement of Gentiles from darkness to light; that is, they were once excluded from the people of God, but they are now God’s people. In Hosea’s text, Israel is promised inclusion after the exile, and in Peter’s text the “elect exiles” are assured that they are even now included.
To belong to God as a treasured people and to be included in the “people of God” are deep affirmations of God’s gracious and redemptive disposition toward these “elect exiles.” They are counted among God’s people; that is, they are identified with Israel herself.
Shared Mission with Israel
God came to dwell with Israel who was chosen from among all the nations as God’s special possession. But this choice was never about Israel’s righteousness or its exclusive claim on God. Rather, Israel is chosen as a servant among the nations, as a priest for the nations. Israel is a light to the nations, and through Israel all nations were to be blessed. Israel was to lead the nations into relationship with Yahweh rather than ostracize and marginalize them.
The “elect exiles,” sharing the identity of Israel, now also share their mission. As a chosen race, they are servants to the nations. As a holy priesthood, they minister in the temple for the sake of the others. As a holy nation, they invite the nations to participate in their own, that is, to switch allegiances. As God’s people, they are the instruments by which others are included in the people of God, just as they were once outsiders who have now become part of God’s people. In other words, the “elect exiles” scattered across the world are missional communities that bear witness to God’s intent to redeem the world and include the nations within Israel through Jesus, the elect and honored cornerstone.
More specifically, 1 Peter 2:9 identifies this mission as “proclaiming the praises of the one who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This language, to announce or declare God’s “praises” or excellencies, comes from Isaiah 42:12. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (LXX) translates “praises” as aretas, which refers to moral excellence or virtues, and this is the word Peter uses. In other words, the mission is to announce the goodness (moral virtue) of God, which—in the Hebrew parallelism of Isaiah 42:12—is to give God the glory. It is, to put it another way, is to declare the mighty works of God that flow from God’s gracious and loving commitment to redemption.
The mission of the people of God, now inclusive of all ethnicities and nations, is to announce, proclaim, and tell of God’s wondrous redemptive activity in the world for the sake of the world. In other words, we tell the story of redemption. We tell the story of how God intends to move us from darkness to light, from outside of God’s covenant people to within God’s covenant people, from outside God’s mercy to within God’s mercy. To declare the moral excellence of God is to tell the story of redemption, and specifically to praise God for God’s inclusion of those who once not part of the people of God.
Conclusion: Israel and the Church
Through Jesus, who is the remnant of true Israel, God builds a living temple that includes Gentiles (those who were once not part of the people of God). This divine intent to include the nations, present in the Hebrew Scriptures, is actualized through Jesus the Messiah.
This community is called God’s people, race, nation, and priesthood, which is language that belonged exclusively to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. Now Gentiles are included. This is not a new community, but a continuing community; it is an expanded community.
The “elect exiles” whom Peter addresses are the people of God. They are the temple of God. They are the Israel of God. They are God’s elect.
This is not some form of secessionism as if the church replaces Israel. Rather, it is the consummation of Israel. The mission, purpose, and goal of Israel is expressed in the actual inclusion of other nations (Gentiles) into the people of God through Jesus the cornerstone of the living temple of God.