Melissa Highsmith was kidnapped by a babysitter when she was just 22 months old. Her kidnapper changed her name and raised her as her own in the city where she was born, but Melissa never had an inkling about her true identity. For 51 years, she thought her name was Melanie and that her kidnapper was her m other.
Late last year, her biological parents, who had never given up searching for her, located her and then proved to her through DNA testing that she was their daughter. For fifty-one years, Melissa lived a lie and didn’t know it. If you had asked her who she was, she would have answered with confidence, but she would have been wrong.
Melissa was part of a family she knew nothing about. She had younger siblings, a mother, and a dad. She shared their DNA, their blood ran in her veins, she belonged to and with them. But because of the abduction, she was not able to share their lives.
Like Melissa, we might be confused about our true identity. We might not realize who we are and to whom we belong. The human race has been abducted and raised to believe that we are someone we are not. We have missed out on our family heritage, family gatherings, and our place in the family business.
When Melissa Highsmith found her parents, or rather, was found by them, she began to live out of her true identity. There is something like this in our text. We who belong to Jesus have a defined identity and a family business, and yet we may not know it. Peter uses the Old Testament like a DNA test to prove our identity and establish our role.
Let’s read our text, 1 Peter 2:4-10. 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 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.
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. 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.
It is almost impossible to get across how dependent this passage is on the Old Testament. In the seven verses I just read, I counted 15 Old Testament citations and allusions That first phrase in verse 4 probably comes from Psalm 34, where the word we have translated “As you come” is used for coming to God in worship. As we come to the Living Stone – the resurrected Jesus, in whom the eternal life of God is bursting forth – we become living stones in God’s final temple building project.
In our Western, individualist way of thinking, we might read over that and yet miss its significance: you cannot come to Christ without coming to his church. There is no “just Jesus and me” mindset in Scripture. If you are united to him, you are united to us. “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”
Peter makes ample use of singular corporate nouns throughout this passage: priesthood (not priest), people (not person), nation (not individual) to bring out the truth that our identity is wrapped up in the family we belong to, the group of which we are members. We are what we are not because we are outstanding individuals, or even lucky ones, but because we are connected to Christ and his church.
And it is in that connection that we discover our identity and our role. We will look first at our identity and then we will come back to the special role that God has assigned to us in the world.
It is important that we understand our identity, and that for two reasons: First, so that we don’t end up like Melissa Highsmith, living a life that is not our own, missing out on our family, and failing to fulfill the role God has given us in the world; and second, so that we don’t mistreat others by failing to recognize their place in God’s people.
In the middle of the last century, a man was traveling overnight by train to Baltimore for an important business meeting. He told the porter that he was a heavy sleeper and would need to be awakened before they reached Baltimore at 4:00 AM. He said, “I’ll be completely out of it. I may even argue with you. But, whatever it takes, make sure I get off at my station. I can’t afford to miss this meeting.”
When he awoke the next morning, the sun was already up, and he knew at once he had missed his stop. He found the porter, yelled at him for three minutes, then got off at the next stop. A bystander said to the porter, “That was the most shameful display I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve never seen anyone so angry.”
The porter replied, “You should have seen the guy I forced off the train in Baltimore at four o’clock this morning!”
It is not just our identity that is at stake. We mustn’t misidentify others who are members of Christ. They belong to God’s family too and have a role in the family business.
Melissa Highsmith discovered her true identity through a DNA match. The genetic markers that showed up confirmed that she was part of the family. In the church, our spiritual DNA has markers too. Look at verse 9, where we see that those who belong to Jesus are a chosen people. That is an identity marker: we are chosen.
We need to remember to whom Peter is writing: Christians living as aliens and exiles. They don’t fit in the communities where they find themselves. Worse than that, they are persecuted. They are going through what Peter calls a “fiery trial” (4:12) They are distressed by various trials (1:6). Ongoing pain isolates people and can make them feel worthless. No wonder Peter reminds them at the very beginning of the letter, then here again in the middle section, and then once more at the end of the letter that they are chosen.
This is part of our DNA. We are chosen. We are wanted. But there is more to it than that. We are chosen like Christ and in Christ. Peter reminds these struggling believers that Christ is the chosen of God, yet he (like them) was discriminated against. He was (verse 7) “the stone the builders rejected.”
The background is this. When major building projects were undertaken – like a palace or temple – the stones used were inspected by the builders before being placed. Peter pictures the builders (Israel’s leaders) inspecting Jesus and rejecting him as inadequate. But it is not the builders’ opinion that matters; it is the architect’s. He overrules them and makes the stone they rejected the keystone of the whole building. Likewise, it is not the opinion of the Christian’s persecutors that matters. It is God’s, and he has chosen them in Christ.
Not only are they a chosen people, but they are also a royal priesthood. That is an identity marker. In Israel, only people who were from the tribe of Levi could be priests. That eliminated about 90 percent of the nation. But eligibility was narrowed down again. Only Levites descended from Aaron himself could be priests. And then it was narrowed down ever further. Only people from the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron, who were men could be priests.
But every man, woman, and child who belongs to Christ, whatever their race or sex or ancestry, belongs to Christ’s royal priesthood. The distinguishing mark of a priest is that he or she has access to God. Christians have unique access to God through their relationship with Christ. We belong to the priesthood. It is part of our spiritual DNA.
The next identifier is holiness; we are a holy nation. This holiness is not first of all about how we act: what we do and what we do not do. That is secondary. It is first about who we belong to. If we get that out of order, we will try to conform our behavior to a set of rules (at least when people are watching) rather than live out of our sense of identity. That way leads to legalism and joylessness and failure.
God has set us apart for himself and for his purposes, just as he did ancient Israel. When we understand this holiness to be a part of our identity, we can start using the “rules” as helpful guides rather than depending on them for motive power.
Think of rules as the bumper rails bowling alleys offer for the inexperienced. The rails don’t make the ball go; they just keep it in the lane. And no one wants to use the rails if they can help it. The better you get at bowling, the less often you need them.
People whose identity is in their connection to Jesus and whose motive power is God’s Spirit will gradually have less need of the rails (the rules) as they grow in Christ. It’s not that they resent the rules. They love them and are grateful for them. They come to realize how wonderful they are. But they don’t rely on them – they’d never mature that way. They rely on Christ.
A fourth important identity marker (still verse 9) is that we are God’s special possession. Peter borrowed the term from Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. The word translated as “special possession” in the NIV 2011 indicates something a person protects and treasures.
In the summer of 2021, we held a classic car show on the grounds here at Lockwood. The car that took high honors was a 1966 International Scout. When the show was over, I closed the hood of that scout, lowered it to within three or four inches of the latch, and let it go, and it slammed shut.
You would have thought I had mugged an old woman or spanked someone else’s two-year-old. A classic car owner – not even the owner of the Scout – looked at me like I was a two-headed monster. This was someone’s “special possession.” It needed to be treated that way.
That, Peter says, is how God feels about us. We are his special possession, and he takes care of us. You may not feel like God has taken care of you: maybe you lost your retirement savings in the stock market, or have contracted a serious illness, or got hurt in a bad relationship. But God is preserving you for something bigger than comfort or ease. He is preserving you for glory and inexpressible joy (to borrow Peter’s words). Even when you suffer, even when you die, he will keep you for himself.
Once we know who we are, we can understand what we are to do. Our responsibility comes out of our identity. Peter looks at our role from various angles. So, in verse 5, he says that we are being built into a spiritual house – a temple. We, not as individuals but together as the people of Christ, are being built into a temple.
What does that mean? To answer that question, we need to understand what a temple is. A temple is a place where a god manifests himself, a place where people come to meet a god and connect to him. In the Old Testament, people came there from all over the world to Solomon’s temple to worship God, inquire of him, and seek his blessing.
But in 586 BC, Babylonian troops breached the walls of Jerusalem, killed untold numbers of people, and razed the temple to the ground. The Jews rebuilt it (the final phase alone took 46 years to complete), and then the same thing happened in 70 AD. A physical temple has limitations. It is localized; people must come to it; it cannot come to them. A physical temple can be destroyed, can cease to exist.
So, God had a radically different plan in mind. The first two temples were built with dead stones. God intended to build the new temple out of living people. In this way, the temple could go to people rather than waiting for people to come to it. Instead of being local, it would be universal. And since it was not localized, it could not be destroyed.
As God’s temple, our role is to be the meeting place between God and people. We become – not primarily as individuals but together as a group – the place where God manifests himself. When we gather in Jesus’s name, God is among us and people can encounter him. (Perhaps you have encountered him today.)
But our role (still v. 5) is not only to be God’s new, moveable, indestructible temple but to be King Jesus’s priesthood. Priests have a two-part role: they represent God to humans and humans to God. Christopher Wright summed it up this way: “We are called to be the living proof of the living God, to bring God to people and to bring people to God.”
Because a priest has access to God, he or she can offer sacrifices. You may object: “But Christ ‘offered one sacrifice for sins for all time’ (Hebrews 10:12), ending the sacrificial system.” But you are mistaken. It’s true that there need be no further sacrifice for sin: Christ’s sacrifice is eternally sufficient. But God’s people have always offered other sacrifices besides sin offerings. There were fellowship offerings and thank offerings.
Peter describes the offerings we make as spiritual sacrifices. We may offer a sacrifice of praise, as the author of Hebrews describes it (Hebrews 13:15). When I am discouraged, or hurt, and everything is wrong, but I nevertheless praise God as the One who is right – that is a costly sacrifice that is pleasing to God. Some of you offered that very sacrifice this morning during our time of praise and worship.
Doing good to others is another type of spiritual sacrifice (Hebrews 13:16). When I see the opportunity to help someone and do so, that is a sacrifice, and it pleases God. And when I share what I have with them – my time, my money, my car (by driving them to a doctor’s appointment) or a meal, or even a listening ear, God receives that as a sacrifice to himself and our fellowship with him is real.
As priests, we also have the duty of blessing people in the name of the Lord. I have met Christians who seem to think it is their duty to criticize people in the name of the Lord. But criticizing is satan’s role, not ours. We better leave that to his priesthood. We bless people.
Criticizing can be easier than blessing. Yet blessing people is central to who we are, and it is right at the heart of God’s plan for the world. We must not forget that we, by the grace of Christ, are the children of Abraham, and it is through Abaham and his seed that God still intends to bless all peoples on earth.
As the chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation that is God’s special possession, we have yet another role (this is verse 9): to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are in advertising. Our role is to announce to everyone the great things about God. We tell people who’ve never heard, and we tell people who’ve stopped listening. We tell people who don’t believe a word of it, and we tell them in a way that evokes interest.
But we don’t just tell them. We tell them against the background music of a beautiful life of good deeds (verse 12). Everyone in advertising knows a good musical score can capture people’s attention and open their hearts. When persuasive words and beautiful music combine, the effect is powerful. God has already written the musical score for your life – the good deeds he has prepared beforehand for you to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). When that beautiful life provides the musical backdrop for your words about God, your advertising hits home.
But remember that this is not all about you as an individual, but rather about us as a group – God’s group, his family, his temple, his priesthood. The beautiful music is not a sonata for solo instrument, but a symphony for a large orchestra. In this way, the church itself becomes part of the advertising. Our relationships with each other and our good deeds toward each other add to the beauty and give our words credibility. If the soundtrack of loving deeds plays between us while we declare the praises of the One who called us out of darkness, people will glorify God on the day he visits us.
The application is simple: Love the church of Jesus Christ and take your rightful place in it.
 Christopher J. H. Wright, Biblical Theology for Life: The Mission of God’s People, © 2010 by Langham Partnership International