Resident Aliens and Priests (1 Peter 1:1-2:12)
In the opening line of his letter, Peter addresses his readers as “exiles…who have been chosen” (1 Peter 1:1), a phrase which foreshadows Peter’s entire message. This phrase has two parts: “exiles” and “chosen.”
If you are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, you are an exile because at present the world around you is not under Christ’s rule. You are living under foreign rule. While you await Christ’s return, your true citizenship in his kingdom is “kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). Like exiles in any country, you do not necessarily enjoy the favor of the rulers of the land where you live. Christ came to this land himself, but was “rejected by mortals” (1 Peter 2:4); all citizens of his kingdom should expect the same treatment. Nonetheless, God has called us to stay here, to reside in this alien land while conducting the work of Christ (1 Peter 1:15-17).
Although couched in a political metaphor, Peter’s discussion rings with workplace terminology: “deeds” (1 Peter 1:17), “silver or gold” (1 Peter 1:18), “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7), “purified” (1 Peter 1:22), “built into a…house” (1 Peter 2:5). Peter’s workplace terms remind us that we live in a world of work, and we have to find a way of following Christ in the midst of the working world around us.
Having described what it means to be “exiles,” Peter takes up the other term from 1 Peter 1:1 — “chosen.” If you’re a Christian, you have been chosen by God. For what purpose? To be one of God’s priests in the foreign country you inhabit. “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” (1 Peter 2:5). The title of priest is repeated in 1 Peter 2:9 (“royal priesthood”).
Priests in Ancient Israel Offer Sacrifices and Blessings for Israel
Before continuing, we must understand what it meant to be a priest in ancient Israel. Priests performed two chief functions: offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem and pronouncing the priestly blessing. In order to perform their duty of offering sacrifices, priests had to be able to enter the inner portions of the Temple and — once a year, in the case of the high priest — to stand in the Holy of Holies before the divine presence. In order to say the priestly blessing, priests had to speak for God himself. Both of these duties required priests to enter God’s presence. This in turn required exceptional purity or holiness, since God’s presence cannot abide anything impure or polluted. Yet priests served part-time according to a rotation system (Luke 1:8) and had ordinary jobs as their chief means of livelihood. They could not sequester themselves from daily life, but had to maintain purity despite the dirt and corruption of the world. (Click here for more on priests in ancient Israel in Numbers and Work.)
Christians as Priests Offer Self-sacrifice and Blessings for Others in Need
Don Flow, CEO Of Flow Automotive, On Priesthood At Work
A priest bears the burdens of people by absorbing those burdens and bringing them before God and bringing God’s blessing to the people. Paul made it clear that to fulfill the law of Christ meant to bear each other’s burdens. Both John and Peter call us a “Kingdom of Priests.” As Christian leaders, we must lean into the burdens of the people in our organizations. This means that we must genuinely know the people with whom we work. For Christian leaders, who a person is and what they do are fully integrated. People cannot be reduced to instruments of production.
Christian leadership requires that prayer be fully integrated into the life of work. The whole world groans with the burden of the fall and it is our calling to participate in the healing of this world. In prayer, we can lift the burdens of others before God and we can bring God’s refreshing touch to the world. I believe we are called to pray for the people with whom we interact every day, for His in-breaking into our day, that our organization would be a blessing, that it would do good, that it would be a positive force for shalom, and for God’s blessing, which is the source of all abundance in this world. Prayer is central to the calling of leadership.
Talk given at Seattle Pacific University, October 2008
So for Peter to call Christians “a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5) and “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) does not mean that all Christians should think of themselves as professional pastors. It does not mean that becoming an evangelist or missionary is the highest way of fulfilling God’s call to be chosen people. It means that Christians are to live lives of exceptional purity in the midst of whatever our livelihoods are. Only so can we offer sacrifices to God and blessings from God on behalf of the people around us. Peter states this directly: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Peter 2:11-12). (Notice the concern to glorify God’s presence “when he comes to judge.”)
Of course, Christians do not perform the same sacrifice as Jewish priests. We do not slaughter animals. Instead, we perform the kind of sacrifice our Lord did: self-sacrifice for the benefit of others in need. “To this you have been called,” Peter says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). This is not to be taken over-literally as death on a cross, but is to be understood as “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Peter 2:5) — meaning acts performed at the expense of self for the benefit of others in need (1 Peter 4:10). Our workplaces offer daily opportunities for self-sacrifices — small or large.
This brief survey of 1 Peter 1:3-2:10 fills out the picture Peter paints when he calls his readers “exiles…who have been chosen.” The term “exiles” means that we live out this vocation as resident aliens in a land that is yet to be our home — a place that is characterized by systemic injustice and corruption. The term “chosen” affirms that followers of Jesus — a “royal priesthood” — have the priest’s vocation to be a blessing to the world, especially through self-sacrifice.