Thoughts on Temple and Priesthood Imagery in 1 Peter Chapter 2

Many of you may know that I had the opportunity to contribute to a commentary on 1 Peter. It’s entitled 1 Peter: A Collaborative Commentary and you can purchase it from Amazon and most other online bookstores or directly from Wipf and Stock. You’ll find my contribution towards the back as an excursus. I was asked by our editor to share some thoughts on 1 Peter chapter 2 at a recent conference to promote the commentary. I thought I would post what I shared here for those who would be interested.

The transcript is presented below. Let me know what you think in the comments and please share if you enjoyed something that I said.


Chapter 2 of 1 Peter features many allusions and references to the Old Testament. In verses 4-9 which I will focus on today, contains at least five references to the Old Testament and could have more echoes and allusions within.

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals (Psalm 118:22)  yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 28:16) To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” (Psalm 118:22) and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” (Isaiah 8:14) They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (Exodus 19:5-6), in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (Isaiah 43:20-21)”

1 Peter 2:4-9

With the passage’s talk of corner stones, a “spiritual house”, and the priesthood, images of the Temple in Jerusalem and the priests who serve within should be at the forefront of our minds. To most readers of this epistle at the time it was written, most of these images and allusions would have been easy to grasp. However, the function of a priest and the centrality of worship at a temple is something that is completely foreign in a western cultural context. In fact, in our Enlightenment and post-modern inspired culture, spirituality and spiritual leaders are often siloed into very specific elements of life. The work of pastors and ministers are often only understood within the context of worship and church services. Even a regular church attendee might have a hard time explaining how their pastor or Sunday worship experience has an effect in their daily lives. How a worship song they might sing connects to their 9-5 work experience, how passing the offering plate connects to their home experience or how hearing the Scriptures read connected to the bread they ate or the rain they annoyingly wiped from their windshield on the way into church one Sunday.

Any ancient Jew (and most ancient people for that fact) would easily be able to make those connections. For our ancient ancestors, their day to day experiences were wrapped up and informed by worship in the temple and the functions that priests performed there. A song (or Psalm) would have been connected to their spiritual or national history, and helped remind them of their place in God’s grand story. The offerings (tithe, first fruits, sacrifices, etc.) would have been given as a reminder of the many blessings (agricultural, forgiveness of sins, restoration of friendships, etc.) in hopes for more in the future. Reading the scriptures they might be reminded of the God who provided bread from heaven during the exodus of the Hebrew nation freshly freed from Egyptian slavery. Or they might remember the rain that fell in Noah’s day and recall the rainbow as a continued sign of God’s providence and protection.

In short, worship in the temple and the actions of a priest bled into and informed practically every facet of an ancient Jew’s life. It gave meaning to their experiences, helped refocus their understanding and drove their communal identity and connection to one another.

What, then, can we learn from these passages in 1 Peter where we are called to be “living stones” built in a “spiritual house” and offering “spiritual sacrifices” as a holy and royal priesthood? What is it about the actions of a priest and the centrality of the Temple that modern Christians can implement in their lives to more fully embody that which the author of 1 Peter was attempting to get the readers of this epistle to understand?

Few, if any, things in our life stand as dominant in our cultural and religious understanding as the temple was for the ancient Jewish people. Festivals and holidays at the Temple marked the seasons of the year and many other, regular, temple cultic practices defined their lives. In the life of Jesus, he was brought to the Temple, “to do for him what was customary under the law,” (Luke 2:27) and then later, “every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival,” (Luke 2:41-42). So, even in the life of Jesus we can see how important the Temple was in the life of a devout follower.

But, for followers of Jesus, we have no earthly Temple setting those same rhythms and milestones. Very practically, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and both Christians and Jews had to grapple with what it means to live a devout life without a Temple in Jerusalem. For Christians, this new meaning is found in a life lived devoted to following Jesus who, as we also read in 1 Peter 2, is the “cornerstone” of this new spiritual house, or a new Temple. By following Christ, 1 Peter tells us that we become “living stones” placed into this great spiritual Temple. Thus, instead of a physical Temple in a limited physical and temporal space, the body of believers serves as the sacred-making and meaning-bestowing center of our life and worship. Even the end of this passage where it says, “that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” could be an allusion to the Temple and the image of a worshipper moving from the space outside the Temple in the world (also known as, “the darkness”) and towards the inner courts and ultimately the priest who approaches the holy of holies at the center where one is said to be in the presence of God, in his “marvelous light.” This, also in a way, acts out a continual exodus in the lives of the faithful as they move from darkness and captivity towards a more intimate relationship with God. So, as believers gathered in Christ’s name, being built into this great spiritual Temple, we are not only creating a sacred space where God can be experienced, but we are to proclaim his mighty acts, both in worship and testimony, so that those in the “darkness” might be welcomed into God’s glorious light. Not a light that is experienced in any specific place like the Temple, but a pure light that is experienced in the grace, mercy and love filled community of believers. Like the Tabernacle that went with the Hebrews as they wandered in their wilderness exodus, so too is our community supposed to be. A wandering beacon of hope amidst the dark wilderness proclaiming the acts of God who called them out of the darkness.

Let’s move from a discussion of the Temple and focus on those who work and served within its walls. For the ancient Jews, the priests were the mediators between the people and God. It was the priests who underwent extreme cleansing rituals and preparation to serve in the Temple and perform the duties necessary for religious practice for the ancient Jews. It was the cleansed, purified and spiritually un-blemished priest who stood for the people before God, in the Holy of Holies, and performed the necessary rituals. It was only the priest, properly cleansed and prepared, who could move through all the areas, barriers and boundaries of the Temple to offer prayers and sacrifices for the people. The priest, and the Levites who served with them, were the people’s leaders and guides in their spiritual journeys. Directing them in worship and helping them understand the requirements of God so that all who came into the Temple could participate in the community, forgiveness and restoration that was offered there.

The Christian community is now invited to participate in this priestly duty. Following in the example of Christ, our great High Priest, who through his life, death, resurrection and ascension has paved the way for believers to be forgiven, washed and cleansed in order that all might take part in the calling to be a holy and royal priesthood. In this we become mediators between God and all people. Our actions should help direct people towards God and remind them how their lives fit into the great story of God. Our actions should remind others of the mercy, grace and forgiveness offered, and guide them ever closer in a relationship with God ultimately towards his “marvelous light.” One of the ways that this is accomplished is through the “spiritual sacrifices” mentioned here in chapter 2 of 1 Peter. The ancient priests would offer physical sacrifices dependant on the situation. Now, because Christ has gone ahead as the ultimate sacrifice and, as the author of Hebrews points out, offers a continual sacrifice before God and the true altar, physical sacrifices are unnecessary. Spiritual sacrifices however, are the means in which we continue to serve others and work out our relationships with God. Through prayers, offerings, service and even participating in baptism and the Eucharist, we offer spiritual sacrifices in response to what we have been blessed with. Our spiritual sacrifices are not requirements for holiness and cleanliness to serve, but a response towards the immense blessings that have already been lavished on us.

Through all this we are all formed into the holy and royal priesthood who serves as the rebuilt spiritual Temple of God. Or, as other translations would say, we are invited to become a Kingdom of Priests. This kingdom, and its victory is revealed to us in the book of Revelation Chapter 14 with the vision of a victorious lamb on Mt. Zion (the location of the Temple and Jerusalem) with his victorious cohort of 144,000. They, having been redeemed from the world, or the “darkness”, sing songs before the throne having been cleansed by the Lamb and follow him wherever he goes.

So then, inspired by the words of St. Ignatius from his Epistle to the Ephesians, “May you be God-bearers, spirit-bearers, temple-bearers of holiness, may you always be ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people who proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”