1 Peter 2:9 - Our Identity in Christ
Just over five March 2003, as the British army was poised to commence battle with Saddam Hussein’s regime, Col. Tim Collins delivered a profoundly memorable and moving speech to the 800 men of courtesy of the battle-group of the 1st Battalion, Image the Royal Irish Regiment.
Collins had a number of important things to say to his men. He reminded them where they were:
Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly... He reminded them who they were: If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, you will be shunned... We will bring shame on neither our uniform nor our nation. He reminded them of their mission: The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. And he reminded them how to behave: if you are ferocious in battle, remember to be magnanimous in victory. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts; I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.
Two thousand years ago Peter wrote our text as a rallying call to encourage beleaguered Christians to fulfil the mission God had entrusted to them. Today these words serve the same purpose for us. They elucidate four great realities that are characteristic of every Christian and are therefore true of you, the Christians back home, and all who belong to Christ’s international Church .
Your Distinctiveness: But you...
A regiment’s distinctiveness is celebrated in its historic battle honours, embroidered on the ribbons stitched to its Colours. Old soldiers retain their sense of identity by wearing the regimental tie, socks or belt. Likewise Peter insists that those to whom he is writing are distinctive. They are out of the ordinary, quite remarkable and very special. Why does he say this? Probably because, in all modesty, they fail to see themselves as anything other than run-of-the-mill, even thinking they are worse than average. Whilst in v.1 Peter had to remind his readers of their sinful tendencies and failures, he certainly doesn’t want them to think more lowly of themselves than they ought to think. Given our Free Church tendency to excessive introspection and self-deprecation, too many of our people fail to see their Christian uniqueness. Peter says there is something distinctive and special about you. You do stand out from the crowd. You are a people apart. You are different!
Your Identity: a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.
The nouns race, priesthood, nation and people say something wonderful about the covenant community. But what is especially significant is the qualifying words: chosen, royal, holy, purchased.
The first reminds us that when God saw nothing in us deserving of reward, He wanted us anyway and lavished His love upon us.
The second inverts Moses’ words: he spoke of a priestly kingdom, a nation from which priests were chosen and separated from royalty. Peter, however, reminds us that every Christian is a priest with royal status, though once we all were profane.
Thirdly, we belong to a sanctified community: at one time our lives were shattered by selfishness and sin, but have been so radically transformed that it can be said that every single Christian is consecrated to God; we are each citizens of a holy nation.
Fourthly, we are told that this community of grace and faith has been acquired by God, from every nation, tribe and language and people, at huge personal expense, for His own possession. There is an indissoluble link between being the possession of God and being treasured by Him; cf. Exodus 19.5: Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples. The measure of the value He places on each of His children is the immense cost He willingly paid, in the humiliation, suffering and death of His only Son. What gives Christians their identity, what sets them apart from all others, is that they are the people of God, loved and valued by Him beyond imagining.
In his commentary on these words, Calvin adds a warning to his affirmation:
Moses of old called your fathers a holy nation, a priestly kingdom, and God’s peculiar people; now all these high titles more justly belong to you; therefore you ought to beware least your unbelief should rob you of them.
Most frequently we understand unbelief to be the attitude of the infidel, the person like Richard Dawkins who refuses to accept that God and the Gospel are true. Rarely do we see it as the sin of incredulity, the attitude that says this is too wonderful, too good to be true. But although it may seem almost too good to be true, accept it we must. We must follow the logic of Paul in Romans 3 when he insists that when it comes to an analysis of the human condition, what stands is God’s verdict, not ours. His profound words, Let God be true though everyone were a liar, shut down any possible objection to God’s verdict. But God’s Word is no less true here when it affirms us, reminding us of the privileged identity He has bestowed on us, despite the way we think or feel about ourselves. We sell ourselves short, as well as doing God a serious injustice, when we fail to allow Him to define our new identity in Christ. And we sell our people short when we fail to affirm them as God’s people, fully absolved from all guilt, cleansed from all stain, chosen to be His specially acquired, and therefore treasured, possession.
Your Mission: that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him.
It is a serious mistake to try to deduce the nature of our mission by concentrating on the nouns race, priesthood, nation, possession. By over-emphasising the connection between priest and worship, I think Clowney in his BST commentary diminishes the significance of the primary role of the Church, as spelled out by Peter, to be the Proclaimer of God’s Word. By these words, Peter does not represent our witness to the world as an incidental or inadvertent outcome of worship, even taking worship in its widest possible meaning as the service of God. I do not doubt that ultimately the Church’s role is doxological, nor do I want unhelpfully to drive a wedge between worship and witness. I simply want to put the emphasis where I think Peter puts it, which is, I believe, on the deliberate, self-conscious, active proclamation and premeditated exhibition of the excellencies of God to the world.
The word excellencies, or praises (AV), properly means heroism, manliness or valour. Such language reminds us of how we, as a nation, in our better moments, treat our heroes. We decorate them with medals, we invest them with honours, we parade them and make much of them. We certainly are not ashamed of them. Rather we want to tell the world how wonderful they are by proclaiming their awesome deeds with appropriate citations and testimonials and public memorials. And that is what Peter would have us do regarding the Divine Warrior, the ultimate hero. We are to advertise widely who He is and how wonderful He is and what marvellous deeds He has done, not least in our own lives. And as we think of that, we also remind ourselves that on active service, soldiers speak, act and dress in a way appropriate to their mission. They do not wear the uniform, carry the weapons or utilise the tactics of the past, or what accords to their personal fancies. In every way they gear themselves to the contemporary challenges they face. Therefore, to use the jargon, we must ask if we likewise are fit-for-task and mission-specific? Is the way we act, the way we dress, the language we use, the ethos of our public services and general tone of our church life mission-specific? Is everything about us geared up to proclaim Christ’s excellencies and promote His glory so that by all means we may win some for Him?
Your Spirit: once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Those engaged in a common cause are bound together by an esprit de corps, a sense of pride and honour at being part of something far greater than ourselves. Shakespeare evoked this spirit quite brilliantly in Henry V’s speech before the battle of Agincourt. You know the words: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile. In our day, Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks’ 2001 mini-series Band of Brothers eloquently testified to the bond that united the men of Easy Company, 101st US Airborne division, as they fought their way across Europe from D-Day to VE-Day. The Christian soldiers’ esprit de corps is also forged by a shared spiritual experience: once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. What binds each Christian with every other Christian, whoever they are, whatever church they belong to, is that we all have been touched by God in His mercy, when He could legitimately have lifted up the rod of His anger against them. All Christian may confidently affirm Paul’s great assertion: I am what I am by the grace of God.
Peter’s words remind us that the spirit in which we live and in which we conduct our ministry must be appropriate to those who have received mercy. Although, metaphorically, we are Christian soldiers, our ministry is not to be destructive, harsh, narrow, critical, faultfinding, condemnatory or judgemental. Nor must our conduct be pompous or pretentious, arrogant or self-assured. Rather we are to be like God Himself, who is rich in mercy. Katherine Hankey caught it well when in her hymn Tell Me The Old, Old Story she wrote: Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave; Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save. If we remember that simple truth as we formulate our policies, develop our strategies and debate our differences this week, we will impart to our work and ministry an authentic Christ-likeness. When we learn to minister like Jesus, with a light touch, rather than a heavy hand, we will find a ready hearing among our wounded, troubled, burdened and distressed contemporaries. They will hear us gladly when we speak in living echoes of Christ’s tone. He invited men and women, weary and weighed down with worries and burdens, to come to Him and find rest for their souls. And they did come, with mixed motives and inadequate understanding, with concerns we might think, as the disciples sometimes thought, quite inappropriate; yet Jesus received them all.
He assured them: whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
Such powerful tenderness breathes the very spirit of that heavenly kingdom, whose King can’t be seen and whose armies can’t be counted, but whose success is assured as soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase, And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace. May we connect with this kingdom of peace this week and throughout our coming days and years.
Amen, and may God bless to us the preaching of His Word. Let us pray.