After the ancient people of Israel escaped from their slavery in Egypt, God led them to a mountain in the Arabian desert, a mountain called Sinai. And there, at the foot of Mount Sinai, he told them this: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
And as part of the grand plan to turn Israel into a kingdom of priests, God told them that, when they entered their promised homeland, God himself would choose one particular place, one particular mountain, one central place where the whole nation of Israel would come to worship together three times every year.
And the point of this centralized worship was to protect the people from copying the false worship practices of the nations next door. By joining together on the mountain of the Lord three times a year, Israel’s worship would remain pure, their lives would remain faithful: they would keep God’s covenant. And if they did this, then just as God promised, he would set them in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made: they would be a kingdom of priests, a nation specially formed to lead the rest of the nations into true worship.
But that mountain of the Lord was some years in the future. In the meantime, the people of Israel were camped beside the mountain of the Lord in Arabia. And they were wondering how they were going to get from this mountain to that mountain safely.
So God told them, “don’t worry, I will be travelling with you.” And he gave Moses very detailed plans for a mobile sanctuary, a mobile temple, a sacred tent called The Tabernacle, where God would camp in the midst of his people.
And, sure enough, when we read Moses’ historical record of those years, we find that the Lord did travel with them in the form of a pillar of fire and smoke: a burning glory at night to protect them from the darkness, and thick clouds during the day to shade them from the desert sun.
But when we read Moses’ poetry about those years, we find that he also understood that the Lord travelled with them in the form of a rock, a rock that fed them with oil and honey, a rock that gave them water. In his poetry, Moses describes this Rock as the Father who gave them birth as a people, and he describes it also as their Saviour, a rock of refuge, a fortress.
So it is clear that Moses means all this figuratively: there was not a literal rock travelling with them through the wilderness, oozing honey and water, giving birth to people as it went. But through these metaphors we can begin to see how Moses was deliberately connecting the mountain of the Lord back in Arabia with the rock of the Lord in the wilderness, and how the rock of the Lord in the wilderness was really a preview of the mountain of the Lord they would one day find in their promised homeland. It was as if a rock had been cut out of Mount Sinai, a piece of the Lord’s mountain that could travel with them until they arrived in their homeland, and then that rock would grow unto a new Mountain of the Lord.
And, sure enough, later on in the Old Testament, the prophets further developed this connection between the Rock of God and the Mountain of God. They talked about how the Rock of God’s presence that protected the people in the wilderness has now grown into the sacred mountain of Jerusalem, a mountain called Zion, upon which God’s people find refuge from their enemies and their sins; they talked about how the Rock that accompanied them through the desert has now become the foundation-stone upon which God’s people have built their sacred temple at the center of their world.
And what this tells us is that, even in the Old Testament, the prophets understood that the centralized mountain of God in Jerusalem, the centralized worship of God, was only a shadow of a deeper truth: the reality that the Rock of God cannot be restricted to just one place and time. Just as a piece of Mount Sinai travelled across the wilderness and grew into Mount Zion, so also Mount Zion will one day grow to fill the entire earth; just as the Rock in the wilderness became the foundation-stone of the temple in Jerusalem, so also the temple in Jerusalem will one day become the foundation-stone of all true worship.
And these are glorious prophecies!
So, quite naturally the people of Israel rejoiced over these promises of expansion.
We find one of their songs of praise in Psalm 118, which was a song they would sing when one of their kings returned victorious from battle against an attacking nation — we read it together today for our Call to Worship. As the king approached the gates of the city with the army, he would sing, “The Lord has tested me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord!” And the people would sing, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad!”
The people of Israel knew that the great city-builders of the earth — the great nation-builders — despised their kings, their nation, and their God. But they also knew that their God, their Rock — this stone the great nation-builders rejected as small and useless — was actually going to grow up to become the cornerstone of the earth. So they would sing this prophecy every time their kings returned victorious.
And later Jewish theologians understood that Psalm 118 was actually a prophecy about the Messiah to come, the King who would be despised and rejected by the nations, but who would still rise up victorious over the whole world, and expand God’s temple until it covered every mountain on earth.
But even as the people of Israel rejoiced over these things, the prophets also warned them to be careful. Because the human heart is idolatrous; the human heart is always looking for other things to worship rather than God. So the prophets warned the people of Israel to remember that the expansion of their temple is only guaranteed because it is built upon the Rock. It is the Rock that delivered them from slavery and led them safely through the wilderness. Therefore, the prophets kept on saying, remember that we worship the Rock of our salvation, not the temple that we built over that Rock.
The original point of that centralized temple worship was to protect the people from falling away into the worship of foreign idols. But there was a very real danger that the temple itself could become an idol.
And that is exactly what happened. The people started to worship their temple as the source of their salvation; they started to believe that their temple was God’s eternal home no matter what; they started to assume that their expansion as a nation was inevitable. They forgot God’s words when he said, “if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then you will be a kingdom of priests.”
And whenever the prophets tried to remind the people that their temple and their priesthood depended upon their pure worship of God…well, the people would just accuse the prophets of conspiring against God’s nation. They would say, “Do not listen to these false prophets with all their talk of doom and gloom, they are just trying to discourage us and destroy our faith in in our great destiny! Instead, just look at how grand our temple is! There is no way God is going to let something so beautiful and so holy be destroyed! Remember, one day our temple and our nation is going to fill the earth, that is a guarantee!”
And so Isaiah responded to these false claims in his book of prophecy, and we read his response in our Prayer of Confession today. He said, “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread. He will be a holy place — in other words: God himself is going to replace our temple, God himself is going to be our temple. Which means that — for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”
In Psalm 118 the people of Israel would sing about how all the other nations have rejected the Stone upon which God’s people are built. Well, in Isaiah, the people of Israel were warned that, if they did not return to true worship, their nation would also end up rejecting the Stone upon which God’s people are built.
And if God’s people reject the Stone upon which God’s people are built…then, quite obviously, they cease to be God’s people. Right? You cannot remove the foundation-stone of the temple and expect the temple to keep standing!
And later on, after Isaiah’s prophecy came true and the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Jewish theologians understood that the stone Isaiah was talking about was actually a prophecy about the Messiah to come, the great King who would be despised and rejected by his own nation — but who would still rise up victorious over the whole world, rebuild God’s temple, and expand it until it covered every mountain on earth.
And it all happened just as the prophets and theologians predicted: about 2000 years ago, a certain Jewish man went to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, as God’s law commanded. And while he was there he stood up and announced to the crowds that, very soon, their temple would be completely destroyed — but that he himself was the cornerstone of the new temple, the final temple, the promised temple that would grow up to fill the earth with true worship and deliver God’s people once and for all from their slavery to the all-consuming empires of the world.
And, sure enough, the people stumbled over that stone, just as Isaiah said they would. This man, Jesus, was too small. Yes, he was descended from David. But he did not look like a king, he was a migrant construction-worker! He did not have an army, he was followed by a gang of fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes! So they sold him to the great nation-builders of the day — the Romans — and those foreign builders also rejected him: they cast him aside; they crucified him for sedition.
And the fact that Jesus could not escape from the terrible shame of this fate just proved to everyone that he was not actually the Messiah. Even his followers, who had hoped against hope that Jesus would finally unveil his power when he was attacked, and prove once and for all that he was the great King sent from God — even his followers went away believing that Jesus was a fraud, a failure.
And if the story had ended there…we would not be here now talking about it.
But just as the Psalms and the Prophets predicted — just as Jesus himself predicted — the stone the builders rejected was raised back up to life. And this proved that he is who he claimed to be: the Messiah, the Saviour, the King sent to redeem God’s people from slavery to the Egyptians or the Babylonians or the Romans, from every corrupted empire on earth.
And so, his followers — his disciples — when they realized all of this, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They wanted to know if he was going to get started right away: knocking down the corrupted old temple, rebuilding it properly, filling it with a true kingdom of priests. They wanted to know if he was going to get started on the great, final project of expanding the kingdom of Israel until it had defeated every evil empire and filled the entire earth with peace.
But Jesus’ answer was a strange one. He told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit was given to them. After that they would go and be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
And then Jesus was taken up into heaven.
And this left the disciples puzzled. Because Jesus’ answer did sound like an expansion project: to the ends of the earth, right? But the thing he said about the Holy Spirit was confusing.
And so, as they tried to make sense of all this, they went back again and searched through all the ancient prophecies about the Messiah: all the predictions about who he would be, what he would be like, what he would come to do. And when they got back as far as Moses’ poetry about the wilderness years, the disciples began to make the connections: Moses originally called the Rock in the wilderness the “Saviour” of Israel. So if Jesus is now the Saviour, then — according to Moses — he must also be the Rock, the same Rock of salvation that led God’s people safely through the wilderness. And if Jesus is that Rock, then he must also be the Rock upon which the true Temple of the Lord must be built, the Rock that is the foundation of the true Mount Zion.
And since Moses had meant all these things figuratively when he first wrote them down, clearly Jesus also meant all these things figuratively. Jesus was not a literal stone: therefore he was not talking about a literal new temple made of stones.
But what kind of temple was he talking about, then?
It was only when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them a few days later that the disciples finally understood: the new temple, Jesus’ temple, would be a temple made out of people, people that were also priests in that temple.
See, back in Moses’ time, while Israel was still camped at Mount Sinai, the fire and smoke of the Lord descended from the mountain and filled the Tabernacle and made it holy — and that was the moment the Tabernacle truly became the temple of the Lord. That was the moment when a “rock” from Mount Sinai was cut out of the mountain and brought down to travel with God’s people.
In the same way, the disciples realized, the fire and smoke of the Holy Spirit had just descended from the heavenly Mount Zion, had filled them and made them holy. In other words, the Holy Spirit had just transformed them into the new, living Temple of the Lord — and he had also just transformed them into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. They were the temple, and they were the priests who served in the temple.
And then, when the Holy Spirit kept on going, baptizing people from other, non-Jewish nations, then the disciples realized that this new temple of Jesus Christ, this new priesthood of Jesus Christ, was not going to be purely Jewish: it was going to contain people from every nation on earth.
It was everything the ancient prophets had predicted: He — Jesus, the Messiah — had become the holy place, just as Isaiah said he would. And Jesus’ people had become a truly holy nation, filled with the Holy Spirit of God, just as Moses said they would. And it would be this temple made of people that would expand to the ends of the earth, and become the center and the source of all true worship. And this temple, as it expanded, would not be defeating the evil empires of the world through military conquest, it would defeat them by stealing away their slaves, rescuing the oppressed and restoring their dignity as children of the living God.
Now all that history is the background behind this passage that we are looking at today, from this letter that Peter wrote to the Christians of ancient Roman Asia.
Peter was one of Jesus’ original disciples. He was an eyewitness of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and he had been part of the disciples’ discovery process, searching through the ancient prophecies, trying to figure out what was going on. He had experienced the confusion of seeing Jesus rejected, crucified, buried, and then raised back to life. So he knew how confused the Christians of Roman Asia would be also.
After all, they had once lived in darkness and fear as the children of terrible gods, gods who might love you one day, and then devour you the next. Then they had discovered a new God, a God who loved them with a covenant love, an eternal love, a God who had let death devour his own Son in order to save them from death and make them his children.
And as God’s children, they had discovered a whole new world of freedom, a world unrestricted by racial and religious slavery and the fear of death. They had discovered that they were related now to people from all kinds of different ethnicities and cultures. They had discovered that women are just as valuable as men. They had discovered that slaves and refugees are just as human as citizens of the empire. Their relationships were richer than they had ever been! And they rejoiced in all this. And, quite naturally, they shared this new-found joy with their friends and relatives.
But then they discovered that their friends and relatives were scandalized by these ideas. They discovered that Roman society feared these concepts. Christians were being called “haters of mankind”. They were being called “anti-social”. They were being accused of breaking up homes and families, ruining the economy, avoiding their civic and political duties. Christians were different, and different means dangerous, and danger must be driven out, destroyed if possible.
And all this was very confusing.
Just as Jesus’ disciples had been confused about how it could be God’s plan for his chosen Messiah to be rejected by his own people, so now these Christians were confused about how it could be God’s plan for his chosen people — them! — to be rejected by their own people.
Because this seems like a self-defeating plan, doesn’t it? After all, if Christians are supposed to win the nations through the preaching of the Good News, but the preaching of the Good News is exactly what gets Christians rejected by the nations, then how? If Christians are supposed to win the nations by loving the way God loves, but loving the way God loves is exactly what gets them labeled as “anti-social haters of mankind”, then how?
This is how:
So far in his letter, Peter has been urging these Christians of Roman Asia to live out their time as foreigners here in reverent fear. This means cutting themselves off from the false worship and the corrupted cultural practices of their society. This means loving other Christians deeply, from the heart, even if they come from different national or ethnic backgrounds, even if this results in rejection by their own friends and family. Peter has been saying that, as they practice these things, they will grow up in their salvation.
Now Peter finally reveals what is really going on behind the scenes, the purpose behind these commands, and how God’s plan to win the nations — through the rejection of Christ’s people — is going to work:
 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but 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 through Jesus Christ.  For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
Now we already know what Peter is talking about because of that deep history we just travelled through together: Jesus is the Rock who was rejected. That rejection looked like a failure. If that rejection was God’s plan, then that plan seemed to be self-defeating, because how can Jesus save the Jewish nation by allowing himself to be discredited by the Jewish nation? It made no sense!
— until it became clear that it was, in fact, through Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish nation that he became the tried and true cornerstone of the temple that will grow up to save people from every nation. It was through Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish nation that he became the sacrifice lamb without blemish or defect, whose sprinkled blood is still redeeming people from every nation.
In the same way, Peter is saying, as you come to him — as you are rejected by your friends and family — that might seem like a self-defeating plan, because how can you preach the Gospel effectively once you have been discredited and forced out to the fringes of society?
But it is, in fact, through your rejection that you are being built ever more certainly into God’s spiritual house, the temple that is destined to save people from every nation. It is through your rejection by the nations that you are being set apart ever more certainly as a holy priesthood, ministering before God on behalf of the nations, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
But even so, Peter also makes it clear that not everyone is going to come:  Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”  and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
Our human intuition says that the best way to reach people with the Gospel is by fitting in with them. People have to like you if they are going to accept your message, and they have to like your message if they are going to accept you — right?
But if that is right, then our human intuition tells us that the opposite must also be true: if we fail to reach people with the Gospel then it must be because we failed to fit in well enough with them. If they reject us, it must be because our message was not acceptable enough. If they reject our message, it must be because we were not likeable enough.
That is how we think.
But Peter says: no. The best way to reach people with the Gospel is by being completely honest about how completely different our faith is. The best way to reach people with the Gospel is by being completely honest about how our Saviour wants us to live in community. And then, if our communities do not want us to live as our Saviour desires, the best way to reach our communities with the Gospel is by joining a community of people who do want to live as our Saviour demands.
Basically: if they will not listen to the Gospel, then let them see a living example of the Gospel. And if people will not put their trust in Christ even then — well: this is also what they were destined for.
Peter’s point is this: as Christians, we are responsible to speak honestly and live honestly as a Christian community. But we are not responsible for what our friends and relatives choose to do with that information: that is between them and God. People are free to either accept God or reject him…God is also free to accept people or reject them. But this has nothing to to with us. The nations are in God’s hands, not ours.
And Peter’s larger point is this: no matter how well we preach, no matter how well we live, no matter how well we love, some kind of rejection is going to be part of the equation…simply because the human heart is idolatrous. The Christian message is an anti-power message, but people love power.
People rejected Jesus because he did not look or act like the Rock they wanted — because he refused to crush the people they wanted crushed; because insisted on loving the people they wanted crushed; because, in the end, he refused to use his power to save himself from being rejected and crucified on the fringes of society.
People are going to reject our Gospel for the same reasons: because we do not look or act like the world-crushing Temple of God that everyone wants on their side.
But…we are the Temple of God. We are the people of God. And that is Peter’s final point here today:
 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Peter is using the strongest possible terms here.
When he tells these Christians of Roman Asia that they are a chosen people, a literal translation would say “you are a chosen genus” — you are a chosen race. Peter is saying that these Christians are literally a new ethnicity. Whatever ethnicity they used to be — whether Greek, German, Jewish, Persian, Egyptian, African — that identity is gone. From now on, when people ask, “What is your racial background? What is your national background?” the answer is: “My ethnicity, my nationality, is Christian.”
And then, when Peter says they are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, these words are an exact quote of God’s words to Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, way back in Exodus Chapter 19.
At Mount Sinai, God commanded his people to totally cut themselves off from the false worship and the corrupt cultural practices of the nations next door. He told them to be holy instead, to love the way God loves. And to help them do this, he commanded them to put together a Tabernacle, a sacred tent where he could live with his people as the Rock of their salvation. That Rock would grow into a Mountain; that Tabernacle would grow into a Temple; that nation in the wilderness would grow into a kingdom of priests, a holy nation destined to lead the rest of the nations into true worship.
It has always been God’s plan to create a sacred center of such pure worship that it will draw people from other nations up out of the darkness, out of their slavery to the nations that gave them birth. Peter is stating, in the strongest possible terms, that these Christians of Roman Asia are the fulfillment of God’s plan. The reason God chose them, the reason God predestined their rejection, is so that they might declare the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his wonderful light. This is why the Church exists; this is why the great living Temple of Jesus Christ exists: to save people from idolatry by providing a place of pure worship centred around the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And Peter closes by repeating that central message of the Gospel:  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Once upon a time these Christians of Roman Asia were Greeks, Germans, Persians, Africans: nations who had rejected God and been rejected by God. But now they are a new race made up of all races, they are a new people chosen and united by the mercy of God, who sent his only Son to suffer rejection to redeem these strangers from slavery even though they did not even know who he was at that time.
And the only way to truly preach this Gospel is to live it: to gather together as one people in worship, to sing together the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his wonderful light.
That is what Peter means when he says that these Christians of Roman Asia are now a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices: the sacrifices they are offering are themselves, their own lives, their own previous identities. Everything they used to think was so valuable — their ethnic backgrounds, their cultural heritage, their good reputations in society — they are risking it all whenever they gather in worship with people from other races and backgrounds. They are risking rejection by their own friends and family every time they insist on treating foreigners like brothers and sisters. They are putting their faith fully in God’s chosen and precious cornerstone, trusting that no matter who rejects them and shames them in this life they will never be put to shame in the eyes of their Heavenly Father.
And all of this is just as relevant to us Christians of Modern Asia as it was when it was first written. None of us want to experience rejection. None of us want to be called narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-social haters of mankind.
And this is made even more complicated by this very natural idea we have that the best way to reach people with the Gospel is by fitting in with them. In fact, this idea has come to define our modern theories of evangelism and mission: there have been at least a thousands books written in the west in the last 50 years about how to fit into culture so that we can preach the Gospel more effectively. The idea that has come to dominate our modern theories of evangelism and mission is this: avoid rejection for as long as possible so that you will continue to have opportunities to preach the Gospel.
Peter disagrees. And since Peter is an Apostle of God, we are going to pay close attention to his theory of evangelism and mission. And in Peter’s theory, rejection by society is actually necessary for evangelism, because it is through rejection that the Church is set apart from the world, and lifted up as a holy light for the nations.
Now, Peter is not saying that Christians should be as offensive as possible — in fact, if you come back next week, you are going to hear him say the opposite: as Christians we are called to be as winsome as possible. But Peter is saying that, if we are truly preaching and living the Gospel, we will be rejected by our friends, our family, and our home cultures sooner or later. If we are truly preaching and living the Gospel in our societies, we will eventually become foreigners, we will be labeled anti-social haters of mankind. In large ways and small ways we will all be asked to entrust our reputations, our identities, our lives to the Rock of our salvation. We are all called to be rejected for the one who was rejected for us.
This is God’s plan. This is how evangelism and mission is supposed to work. Preaching the Gospel is supposed to result in people being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, set apart from the rest of the nations of the world, so that the rest of the nations of the world will have something to come to when they realize how empty their own ways of life are.
So…what is our application, then? Is Peter saying that we should withdraw from the world?
No. God’s plan of evangelism only works if the nations are able to see Christians living in community with one another. We are set apart from the world, but we are set apart spiritually and culturally — through our behaviour — we are not set apart physically. We do not go away and live at a distance. We are not the kind of temple made of stone that sits apart at the top of a holy mountain; we are a temple made of living stones that sits right in the midst of the peoples of the world.
We are the spiritual centre of the world, but physically speaking our temple is decentralized. And it is through this unique characteristic that Christ’s temple is able to grow to fill the entire earth while at the same time remaining the center of worship for all God’s people.
So, if we are not supposed to withdraw, what are we supposed to do?
Well…we have covered a lot here today, so let’s keep it simple; this is what we are supposed to do: rejoice in our rejection. We should rejoice just like the ancient people of Israel used to do whenever their kings returned victorious over death — because our King has quite literally returned victorious over death! We should join with our ancient brothers and sisters in singing Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad!”
I know that a number of us here today have had to literally give up friends and family in order to join Christ. You counted the cost, and you accepted rejection. If that is you, then Peter is telling you that you have made the right decision. So rejoice! You have put your trust in the Rock, and you will never be put to shame.
I know, also, that many of us are struggling with the strange winds of change that are blowing across our societies, these demands that we accept adultery, homosexuality, pedophilia, and racism as normal and good — or else suffer the consequence of being called anti-social haters of mankind. We are struggling to figure out a way to lovingly proclaim the truth about these things while also protecting the reputation of Christ and his Church in the eyes of the world…friends, Peter is telling us — and history has proven — that this may not be possible. We may be entering an age where all Christians everywhere are going to be despised and rejected no matter how well we preach, no matter how well we live, no matter how well we love.
Peter is telling us to rejoice in this. Jesus was called the enemy of all mankind, even though he was actually the friend of all mankind. The accusation was not true! — but through that false accusation he became the Saviour of every nation of mankind. Why should we expect anything different for ourselves? Of course we are going to be called the enemies of mankind! — because our Rock is not like anyone else’s rock. Our Gospel is not like anyone else’s gospel. We are weird and different, because we are literally a new race of people. We are destined for the fringes of society, because we actually live at the centre of God’s society.
This is the simple, inescapable truth!
So we might as well settle in and enjoy it.