Building, Belonging and Believing

1 Peter 2:4-10

26 August 2007

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service


Every year that goes by I find that I love the church more and more. Yes, even you guys, but especially God's worldwide church prospering and persecuted in different ways. So, in choosing a passage to preach on this evening I thought I'd choose something about the church. Now, this is not a difficult task in the New Testament, you understand! Eventually I settled on this passage in 1 Peter in the grounds that it was a nice simple picture and would make a straight-forward little sermon.

How wrong I was! Never mind the fact that Peter makes five direct quotations from the Old Testament in verses 4-10, any of which could detain us for a whole sermon. I've felt that I've barely begun to plumb the depths of the theology Peter is discussing.

Nonetheless I've stuck with it. There is infinitely more to say about the church than what I'll say tonight, and plenty more that could be said about this passage. But I'll try to summarise Peter's key thoughts here under three of the words he uses beginning with "B": Building, Believing and Belonging.

Building (v4-6)

It's a commonplace to say that church is not a building, isn't it? We believe that don't we? Well, Peter says we're wrong! He says the church is a building, but the fabric of the building is made up people, and the foundation of the building is Jesus.

At the time Peter is writing the magnificent temple in Jerusalem was still standing. This monumental building altogether took 84 years to build. The blocks of stone making up its foundation were 5 metres long by a metre high. The whole structure was simply vast: just the door was 9 metres wide by 18 metres high. It was a magnificent house for a magnificent God to dwell in.

But the Christians Peter was writing to had no access to this temple: they were being harshly persecuted and driven away from Jerusalem. Wouldn't their worship be second rate if they couldn't visit the presence of God? How could they truly worship God without the constant activity of the priests?

In response to this, Peter tells them something extraordinary. You are the temple, he says. You are like living stones from which it is built. You are the priests who worship within it.

The scattered Christians are not to hanker after the temple in Jerusalem. They are not to build replica temples wherever they are. Rather, they are to be a temple themselves: the place where God lives, and the place where he is worshipped.

As you come to him, the living Stone — rejected by men 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.ref

The church is a living building, made up of living stones, built on a living Foundation Stone. God has already laid the foundation stone of this temple, verse 6,

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.ref

This is a quote from Isaiah: God is now doing what he promised hundreds of years earlier. He has laid the cornerstone for this living temple.

The importance of the cornerstone was that it was the place from which the whole building took its measurements. If the cornerstone was wrong, then the whole building would be wrong. It's like when you are tiling: the first tile is the most important; if the first tile is not perfectly positioned, the whole thing will be wonky. Except this is not a wall of tiles, this is a mammoth building.

Who is this cornerstone on which everything else depends? Well, he is the same as in verse 4, the living Stone — rejected by men, but chosen by God and precious to him.ref He is Jesus, the rejected one. In fact, Jesus had described himself as the stone the builders rejected, picking up a prophecy from Psalm 118.

Jesus is the perfectly laid foundation on which the church is built. Jesus is the one from whom we take all our measurements. Jesus is the one who supports the whole structure. And, if we are Christians, we are like him. We are living stones, built on him as our foundation, and being built on as a support for others.

Peter changes his metaphor a little when he goes on to say that not only are we as the church the living building in which God dwells, we are also the priests who present him with spiritual sacrifices. We are the place of worship, and we perform the worship: we do not need anyone else to come to God for us. Every Christian has access to him; every Christian is a priest.

I love this image of the church! There is so much to meditate on here.

I love the solidity of the foundations. The physical temple, massive as it was, was destroyed in AD70, just six years after being completed. But God's spiritual temple, the church, will never be destroyed, because it is built on the firmest foundation. The wise man builds his house upon the rock.

I love the interdependence of the living stones. We are built together into a structure: we are supported by some, and we support others. We find our place and purpose as part of the structure. Every stone matters and every stone relates to the other stones. Take away one stone and the whole structure is weakened.

Before I became a Christian I was very much a loner; not really interested in other people at all; basically a sociopath. As far as I was concerned, other people were a nuisance: people were pests. To my distress I still find that attitude sometimes in the unregenerate parts of my heart. But through the church God is teaching me how to love and be loved; to serve and be served; to support and be supported: to live as a living stone. After 21 years I still feel like a beginner, but I can't tell you how much richer my life is now. I love the church!

I love the fact that church is not so much something we do but something we are. God doesn't dismantle his living temple when we walk out of this room tonight. We are not a temporary structure here, put up for a few minutes, packed away for a week and reassembled the next. We are not a tent to be packed away, but a temple built of stones!

That means that when we leave here we continue to be church. We continue to be living stones supported, supporting and interlocked. So often we think of church as something we do, somewhere we go to. But Peter teaches us that if we are at home we are still church; if we are at the office we are still church; if we are out shopping we are still church; if we are on holiday we are still church. We are church 24 by 7 because we are living stones 24 by 7.

I think the challenge of this image is to act like it, to be better at being what we are. How can we be better living stones, supported and supporting 24 x 7? How can we express our interdependence as a church not only when we are here, but when we are at home, in the office, or at the shops?

The best way to do this, in my view, is to share our lives more. To see each other more outside these walls; to pray for each other more during the week; to share meals together; to send each other encouraging emails; to phone one-another up; to carry one anothers' burdens more and more; to laugh together more and to cry together more. Above all, to share Jesus with one another more. Although I think this church is great, I'm convinced that we can do a great deal more when it comes to being church on other days of the week apart from Sunday.

Believing (v6-8)

So, after describing the church as God's building made up of living stones and holy priests built on the cornerstone, Peter then addresses the question of who can become part of that community. And in verses 6-8 he tells us.

Those who believe value the cornerstone and build on it. Those who do not believe have rejected it.

The NIV is unhelpful here by translating the same Greek word in two different ways. In verse 6 the word translated "trusts" is exactly the same word in verse 7 translated "believe". So we see the connection between verses 6 and 7: the first half of verse 7 is simply repeating the thought expressed in verse 6: the one who believes in him will never be put to shameref. Those built on the cornerstone are those who believe in the cornerstone.

For those who do not believe, Peter uses two more OT images about the stone to show us their position. First he quotes Psalm 118 The stone the builders rejected has become the capstoneref. Again, I think the NIV doesn't help us here: the translation should be "cornerstone" as before. The original literally says "head of the corner": this is the same cornerstone, foundation stone, he talks about in verse 6. Some people believe and for them the cornerstone is precious, but some do not believe and have rejected it.

For those who have rejected it, Peter's quotation from Isaiah chapter 8 in the next verse has bad news. It is A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.ref

Those who do not believe are not part of the temple Peter has just described. They are wandering around outside, tripping and stumbling over its foundations.

These people have none of the benefits of being built into the church, and in particular they have no access to God. We shall see in a moment that God's building is full of light. But these people are in darkness. They are outside the light of God's glory, groping around in the darkness, and forever tripping over the cornerstone, which is of course a picture of God's judgement.

This is a desperately sad image, but it is the reality of a lost world.

Church divides humanity in two: there are ins and outs; there are those built into the temple and those excluded from it. What divides those in the church from the rest of the world is not whether they attend services or not. It is not whether they take communion or not. It is not whether they give to the collection or not. It is not even whether they have been baptised or not.

What divides the church from the world is simply belief in Jesus: whether you trust him and obey him or not.

The true church then, is not quite the same as the church we see. In any given church service, there will be people who are part of God's temple and people who aren't: it all depends on whether you believe in Jesus, or whether you have rejected him. There is no grey area. This is not an encouragement to us to go around singling people out and declaring you're in, you're in, you're out, but we do have a responsibility to make sure people understand the basis on which they belong to the church: only belief in Jesus.

Belonging (v9-10)

So, Peter teaches us that the church is a community built on Jesus, and the church is a community of believers in Jesus.

But, you might ask, why does he put such a strong emphasis on belief? Surely the church is at its best when it is at its most inclusive. We are seeking to reach unbelievers, aren't we: why put the barrier of belief in Jesus before people who seek to belong to the church?

And I agree! The church is at its best when it is at its most inclusive. But we need to be very careful about what it means to "belong".

Peter's next point in verses 9 and 10 is about belonging to God, and to understand its force we need to go right back to the beginning.

When God's creation turned bad, what was his plan for rescuing it? As usual the answer is Jesus, of course, and we can understand the Old Testament of the Bible as setting out the problem, and the New Testament as setting out God's solution.

But if you read the sweep of the Bible from start to finish, you will find another dimension to the plan. In this dimension, God's plan to rescue his creation revolves around building a people.

In this dimension the first eleven chapters of the Bible set out the problem, — 8 pages in my copy — and the remaining 1,238 pages to the end of the book of Revelation set out the solution.

So in Genesis chapter 12 God starts with one man and his wife, Abram and Sarai. And he says to Abram,

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

This is the start of God's rescue plan: he is building himself a people.

So the story of God's people continues. Into Egypt with Joseph and his family, some seventy people in all. Out of Egypt with Moses 430 years later, 600,000 men plus women and children as well.

At mount Sinai God re-iterates his promise, Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.ref

So the people of God enter the promised land, and we read their story through the Old Testament: the story of God's people over hundreds of years. But what we find again and again, and more and more is that these people are not obedient to God. They are faithless and idolatrous and disobedient. God has chosen them, but they refuse to choose God.

So, by the time of the prophet Hosea in the 8th century BC we find God apparently giving up on his people. I haven't got time to go into Hosea's shocking story, but for now we should note that God told him to name his second child "Lo-Ruhamah", meaning "not loved" for I will no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive themref, and his third child was called "Lo-Ammi", meaning "not my people" for you are not my people, and I am not your Godref.

For the Israelites this pronouncement was devastating. God will no longer love or have mercy on them. They are no longer his people. As far as Israel is concerned God's rescue plan is over.

Now fast-forward about 750 years. We find that one of God's few remaining people starts a preaching ministry. He begins to gather a people of his own. At first 12 men, one of who betrays him. After three years he dies with a following of 120. When this little band is filled with the Holy Spirit their number grows rapidly: 3000 more on the first day, another couple of thousand in the next few days, and so on.

And it is to these people that Peter is writing. They are the church.

How is this all relevant to our text this evening? Because, if you look at 1 Peter 2, verses 9 and 10 we can see that Peter is picking up on the Old Testament texts I read to declare that the New Testament church is the people of God.

Verse 9 says, you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to Godref. This mirrors exactly God's promise to Israel at Sinai, and applies it to the New Testament church. He tells the church that You have inherited God's promise. You are the people belonging to God.

Just in case we didn't get it, he does it again in verse 10, picking up on the reading from Hosea. Hosea's children were called "not loved" and "not my people", but Peter says to the church 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 [or love]ref. The curse of God has been reversed. Once again God is building a people.

Peter's original readers would have been astonished by this. How can a bunch of non-Jews, gentile dogs like ourselves be the people of God? But that is what Peter tells them.

The whole point of all this is that we must understand that the church is far more than a kind of Jesus fan-club. It seems to me that that is what some these days would like to reduce church to. But, the church is in Peter's words a people belonging to Godref. The church is God's plan in action for rescuing his world. That's what we are part of this evening. A plan that started three and a half thousand years ago with God's promise to Abram. Staggering, isn't it! Look around. Aren't you simply astonished that God has chosen us to be part of his rescue plan for creation?

We become part of the church only by believing in Jesus, because only when Jesus has changed our hearts are we able to live as the people of God. This was the Old Testament people's problem: they simply could not live as the people of God.

Belief in Jesus is not an arbitrary entrance criterion like getting 3 A*s at A-level. Belief in Jesus is necessary because it is the only thing that makes us fit to be God's people. If Jesus has not changed our hearts we are still in that situation: we are "Lo-Ruhamah", not loved, and "Lo-Ammi", not my people. Only once we have believed in Jesus do we, and can we, belong to the people of God.


So, there is a far-too-brief survey of Peter's thought in this little passage: The church is a living building built on Jesus, a community of believers in Jesus, and a people belonging to God. Building, believing, belonging.

[Note: On the day I did not actually use the conclusion that follows. Instead it seemed more appropriate at the time to make a more direct appeal for faith in Christ.]

Some of you may be aware that the latest buzz-phrase doing the rounds of the churches is "belonging before believing". Some of you may also be aware of the explosive reaction use of this phrase produces in me. I hope you can now see why.

I know that the intent behind the phrase is a good one: it expresses a good desire to draw people into community within the church so that they can see the truth of the gospel in relationship with us. This is a great improvement on seeing people as pew-fodder at evangelistic crusades, or crowds to be yelled at through a megaphone.

I heard recently of a chap whose church doesn't have any windows in the walls: only skylights in the roof. It was built by the Exclusive Brethren who wanted nothing to do with the outside world, and they expressed this in the architecture. Unsurprisingly, the Exclusive Brethren have all but died out these days.

God forbid that we should ever be like that! We need open doors; open walls. We need to be out there meeting people where they are and loving them where they are.

But, I hope I've convinced you that to call this "belonging before believing" is simply backward.

We must never lose sight of the fact that it is only those who believe in Jesus who belong to God and are being built into a living temple for his praise and glory.