‘What do you do for a living?’ As a pastor and former Bible college lecturer, it’s a question that I somewhat dread. Not because I’m ashamed of what I do, but more because of the most common responses: usually awkward silence followed by a quick change in conversation topic, or ‘You mean, like, a priest?’
When people ask if I’m a priest, I want to reply, ‘Well, sort of, but probably not in the way you think.’
When people ask if I’m a priest, I want to reply, ‘Well, sort of, but probably not in the way you think.’ And that might lead to a conversation about what I do, or what I believe, and various questions about Christian morality or ethics. But what isn’t often discussed—and perhaps it should be—is who I am; or perhaps better stated, who I belong to. Or better again, who we as Christians belong to. And I bring up that idea of who I am, or who we are—and who we belong to—because that is, in large part, what 1 Peter 1:13–2:12 is about. It’s about what it means to be ‘a people belonging to God’ (2:10).
Priestly Ambassadors (1 Pet 2:9–10)
Taking 1 Peter 2:9–10 as a starting point, Peter describes the Anatolian believers in terms of their status (chosen family); function (a royal priesthood); character (holy nation). Peter summarises their position as God’s special or treasured possession, who are to declare the praises of God who has called them out of darkness into his marvellous light. In short, through God’s mercy, they were the eschatological people of God, called to declare his saving works. In many respects this is precisely Israel’s calling according to the Exodus narrative:
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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. (Exodus 19:4–6)
Israel were God’s chosen people, set apart to be his holy, priestly nation. They no longer belonged to Pharaoh, but to Yahweh who had saved them. They had been called out of the darkness of slavery in Egypt to live in God’s light and declare his salvific acts.
So, what in practice did it mean to be a kingdom of priests? What exactly did God have in mind when he summoned the Israelites? There is a ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ aspect to it.
Vertically, at the most fundamental level, it meant that Aaron and his fellow priests represented Yahweh to Israel, and Israel to Yahweh. Israel’s relationship with Yahweh was dependent upon the priesthood who were set apart (made holy) and given privileged access to Yahweh for the purpose of interceding between the Lord and his people.
Horizontally, as the priests represented Yahweh to the Israelites, so also the Israelites were to represent Yahweh to the nations, and the nations before Yahweh. It was Israel’s priestly presence and function that would make possible a relationship between Yahweh and the nations. Now, this priestly function had been prefigured before this. We see signs of it in …
- The language of Adam cultivating the garden (Gen 2:15) is language mirrored in that of the priests working the tabernacle/temple. (e.g., Num 3:7–8; 8:25–26; Ezek 44:14)
- Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen 18)
- Joseph representing Yahweh to Pharaoh by interpreting his dreams—and ultimately saving the nation and his family. (Gen 39ff)
- Moses bringing God’s revelation to a later Pharaoh and representing the Lord to him. (Ex 7:1)
All of these are priestly functions. Even in exile the people of God were summoned to priestly service in Babylon (Jer 29:4–7). They were to cry out to the Lord on behalf of the city to see it thrive and prosper.
When the nations looked at Israel—even in exile—they were meant to see what life was like under the benevolent rule of Yahweh and gain a glimpse of his good and holy character. They were meant to learn of the One True God, who:
- delights in rescuing people from oppression;
- delights in righteousness and justice.;
- is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love;
- brings down the proud and lifts up the humble;
- longs to bring blessing and shalom to the nations.
And when Peter draws on verses from Exodus so clearly, it seems to me that he has this mission in mind. As those called out of darkness into God’s light, this young church in ancient Turkey has been called upon to be a royal priesthood. They have been made into a people that represent Yahweh—as revealed in Jesus Christ—to their families, their neighbours, their friends, their co-workers, and their associates. Both corporately (as a church) and individually, they are meant to be people who provide a glimpse of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Their lives are to shine forth with grace and truth—not to mention, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23).
Being a priest is a lot like being an ambassador and part of an embassy.
In other words, one might say that being a priest and a member of a priesthood is a lot like being an ambassador and part of an embassy. The role and function of an embassy and their ambassadors is to represent its nation on foreign soil. Ambassadors of the embassy respect the laws of the host nation and seek to build workable relationships within them, but their ultimate loyalty is to their homeland.
Christians are God’s priesthood, his ambassadors for Jesus, and members of his kingdom. Their mission and purpose is to represent Jesus and his kingdom among the communities in which God has placed them. So, when someone encounters a Christian believer or enters a church, the ideal is that they taste of the goodness of Jesus and his kingdom. That’s the end game.
Why Holiness Matters (1 Pet 1:14–16)
Now, in order for the church to be effective in this priestly / ambassadorial calling, holiness matters. A story here might help explain why.
In August, 1985, KGB member Colonel Vitaly Yurchenko walked into the US Embassy in Rome saying he was quitting the Soviets and wanted to live free of the communist regime in the USA. He was flown to the USA, where he was interrogated to make sure his defection was legitimate. He divulged Soviet secrets, some of which the US government already knew, others which they did not. For all intents and purposes, he looked like a convert to the American Anti-Communist cause. Asked why he defected, he described a way of life that left him dead on the inside:
- Communism was not all it was cracked up to be;
- The KGB were corrupt;
- More personally, he’d fallen out of love with his wife;
- He was raising a troubled teenager;
- His mother had died of cancer.
By walking into that embassy he was setting himself apart from his former masters (the KGB) and devoting himself to the US authorities and the democratic way of life. A life of freedom beckoned. And then—about 3 months later—he defected back to the Soviets. Why, we don’t know. Perhaps he feared the Soviet backlash; perhaps he longed for family again; perhaps he feared the repercussions concerning his family because of his initial defection.
Yurchenko’s story was the opposite of what holy means, specifically in the sense of his divided loyalties. He tried to claim one way of life while his heart, apparently, wanted something else. He was like the double-minded and unstable man described in James 1:6-8.
A second angle here might also be helpful: if you’ve ever visited a nation like India or Cambodia, one of the things you often see in people’s houses and businesses are shrines to various Buddhist/Hindu deities (idols). It was the same, at the time of 1 Peter’s writing— if you became a Christian in that context, people would start asking questions about where your shrines had gone. You would have to explain your changed allegiance. By joining the church, you had walked into an embassy that represented God’s kingdom and set yourself apart for Jesus, and from the emperor or local deities.
But unlike Yurchenko, Christians, past and present, must remain among the people from whom they have defected. We become ambassadors and priests, representing the kingdom of God among our people. And that’s what holiness means. It’s that notion of being set apart for a singular purpose. Look at 1 Peter 1:14–16:
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
De-Storied, but Re-Storied in Christ
In a world that had a pantheon of gods, Jesus demands total and exclusive allegiance, and complete devotion to his purposes. These early believers in ancient Turkey had been called out from one way of life to another. They would have lost friends, family, work colleagues, and other associates by converting to the Christian faith. They would have been written out of their family histories. They would have been disowned, dishonoured and de-storied, so to speak. But Peter seeks to re-story these people. He presents Jesus as the cornerstone who honours those who come to him in faith. He shows them how the story and history of Israel is now their story. They too share in the history of God’s people through faith in Christ. The OT is a record of their family history!
As Christian believers, when we embrace our identity as priestly ambassadors, we become foreigners and exiles in the world. As the world rejects us, we follow Jesus, the Living Stone, who was chosen and precious to God yet rejected by the world.
This is the life of one called of God to be a priestly ambassador and resident-alien in this world. It means we will look a little different—perhaps even a little weird. And that’s okay. That’s what it means to be holy.
A more in-depth version of this article can be found here.