MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people… 1 Peter 2:9.
Who of us – in our more honest moments – doesn’t wish to be a better person? Who of us doesn’t want to know what we could be if only we lived up to the highest calling of which we were capable? The word the Bible uses for these sorts of aspirations is ‘holiness’. God’s people in the Old Testament – Israel – was to be ‘a holy people’. So is the church – you and I – today.
Let’s imagine a little group of Christians – nobodies really – living in a small town in Asia Minor. Some ran small businesses, some worked for the government, many were slaves. A group has just been baptised – and each of these new converts knew what that could mean: persecution, perhaps ostracism from their families, even death for ‘the Name’.
And the preacher at their first communion service reminds them who they are, and what sort of people they are meant to become.
‘You belong to the great God who made everything, and who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Israel of old was very special to God. They were a chosen race, an elect nation, the King’s priests. So are you – even more so! You are sons and daughters of the most high God. So with these incredible privileges what sort of people should you be in this pagan world?’
A good question, Lord. Remind me of who I am ‘in Christ’. Amen.
NOW YOU ARE GOD’S PEOPLE
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; 1 Peter 2:10.
No wonder sophisticated pagans were astonished at the claims the early Christians made about themselves. One of these ‘pagans’ – Celsus – said ‘You Christians are like frogs croaking round a pond saying ‘We are God’s people, God has revealed everything to us’. Silly, arrogant nobodies!’
In our century Lenin and Marx said similar things. ‘When the Socialist paradise comes, all this Christian nonsense will just wither away!’
And so it has been through the centuries. Those early Christians, in Glover’s famous phrase, ‘out-lived, out-died, and out-thought’ the pagans.
What was the secret of their spiritual power. There are some clues in this prayer from the Mozarabic Psalter:
Lead us into holiness, O God, by making our minds one with you in peace. You have made us body and soul, each fitted to its task. Let not our bodily desires war against our souls. Deliver us from unhealthy excitements that we may come to freedom and peace of mind; that we may not be overcome, fill us with your own strength. Amen.
YOU HAVE RECEIVED MERCY
Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:10.
These are certainly elitist phrases Peter uses. He obviously wanted these oppressed and ostracized people to realise their uniqueness. His key word to describe these ‘saints’? They are, and they are meant to be, holy.
What did he mean? Peter doesn’t define the word, but in our texts he describes the sort of people holy Christians are. He associates ‘holiness’ with purity, priesthood, and proclamation. In the next few days we will look at each of these.
But here’s a thought to ponder: Apart from the habit of Sunday church-going, what features distinguish Christians from other people in our culture?
Lord, I choose to be holy. Now teach me what that means. Amen.
HOLINESS HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH PURITY
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles… who have been chosen and destined by God our Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood. 1 Peter 1:1,2.
At the beginning of his letter Peter says we – the Christian church – ‘were made a holy people by (God’s) Spirit, to… be purified by his blood’.
Holiness is associated in Peter’s words with a couple of things, one of which is purity. Purity simply means being ‘uncontaminated’ in a polluted world, an impure environment. This is the real meaning of holiness, too. It means to be ‘separate’, to have a special purpose (and therefore be ‘special people’), in contrast to the surrounding spiritual environment.
This idea of ‘separateness’ is implied even in non-Christian uses of the word ‘holy’. At the shrine of remembrance in Melbourne, Australia, there are engraved in stone these words: ‘Let all men know that this is holy ground. This shrine established in the hearts of men as on the solid earth it commemorates a people’s fortitude and sacrifice. Ye therefore that come after, give remembrance.’
So help me, Lord, to be separate, holy. For your glory. Amen.
BECOMING WHAT WE ARE
Peter… to [those] who have been sanctified. 1 Peter 1:1,2.
Holiness is primarily a gift of God. We were – initially ‘sanctified, made holy by God’s Spirit’. It’s not something we’ve done for ourselves, in the first instance. Indeed, if we read Peter correctly, the over-all impression we get is that we become practically holy because we were first ‘made holy’. We become what we are.
In his classic book on spirituality – The Pure in Heart Sangster says: ‘It is a religious rather than an ethical order. The New Testament does not call people ‘holy’ because they are righteous but because they are becoming righteous by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwells them, in order to make them holy. And that is the way of it. A Holy Spirit’s energies. The utterly impossible in righteousness is made gloriously possible by the life of God in the soul of a human person’ (pp. 32-3).
And so just as those Old Testament priests – and even their pots and pans – had ‘holiness unto the Lord’ written on them, so do we, the church of Jesus Christ. This is the calling, the vocation, of the whole church. No one is exempt. We are all holy. To put it in very simple terms: God sent his son, Jesus, to us, to create a new people – new men, new women, new young people and children – who are to be so different from others, that they could be called ‘holy’, ‘pure’.
So help me become what I am, Lord, sanctified, holy. For your glory. Amen.
YOU SHALL BE HOLY
As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ 1 Peter 1:15,16.
Well, what does ‘holiness’ mean in essence, and in practical terms? Peter answers both these questions. In essence, to be holy is to be like God. Only God is holy, Buechner says somewhere, ‘just as only people are human. God’s holiness is his Godness. To speak of anything else as holy is to say that it has something of God’s mark upon it. Times, places, things, and people can all be holy, and when they are, they are usually not hard to recognise’.
Jesus said ‘Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect’.
But how do we know what God is like? To that question the New Testament gives a straightforward answer: God was in Christ! So to be like God is to imitate Jesus Christ. ‘The Christian faith is not rightly understood unless as a summons to the imitation of Christ’ (Emil Brunner).
Michelangelo gazing at a block of marble said: ‘There’s an angel in that block and I am going to liberate him’. You and I are ‘called to be saints’ so that we can be ‘like Jesus’ being and doing in our world what he was and did in his.
‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’. Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me. Amen.
HOLINESS HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH PRIESTHOOD
Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood. 1 Peter 2:5.
We are not merely to be ‘holy people’ but ‘holy priests’. We move in this expression from what we are to what we do. (Priests aren’t intended to be merely decorative – they have a special function!).
First, note that this idea of a ‘royal priesthood’ (2:9) is not addressed to the leaders of the congregations, but to the congregations themselves. Christian priesthood is a function of the community as a whole. Nowhere in the New Testament is an individual Christian described as a ‘priest’, and nowhere is the term ‘priesthood’ applied to a special group or class within the church. The whole community of faith is the ‘priest’ – this idea is basic to the New Testament understanding of the church.
Unfortunately, the church has developed this idea through the centuries, calling this doctrine ‘the priesthood of all believers’, and in the process we’ve lost the original meaning. People who are ‘congregational’ in church government – like Baptists – associate this idea with their right to vote at church business meetings. In other denominations, the idea was lost altogether in the development of a special professional group in the church who were called ‘priests’.
Thank you, Lord of the Church, that I am part of a royal, holy priesthood. Help me to understand what all this means. Amen.
PRIESTS SERVING OUR GOD
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God. Revelation 5:10.
The New Testament understanding of the idea of ‘priesthood’ is not that every person is their own priest; nor that each Christian must be a priest to his or her fellow Christian (although that may be a minor part of the doctrine). No, the New Testament teaching is not that each believer is a priest, but that each believer shares in the priesthood which inheres in the church as a whole.
‘You are… a royal priesthood’ you collectively, you in community, you in congregation.
It’s not so much the priesthood of each believer as the priesthood of all believers…
Now why that theoretical discussion? Simply to point out that our individualistic kind of Protestantism is foreign to the spirit of the Bible. Certainly, we do not need a human priest to be intermediary between us and Christ for our salvation and continuing growth in the Christian faith and life. But although we come to Christ as individuals, we are incorporated into his body – not as isolated units, but as ‘living stones’. We must stress interdependence, not independence.
Lord, I have a high calling, to belong to a community of priests, serving
one another and serving you. Amen.
HOLINESS HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH PROCLAMATION
…Proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 1 Peter 2:9.
God’s people have been chosen, says Peter, to proclaim the wonderful acts of God, who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.
If purity is the personal and moral dimension, priesthood the ecclesiastical and sacrificial dimension, proclamation is the evangelistic and prophetic dimension of holiness.
The Bible knows nothing of ‘holiness in a cloister’. Back in the history of Israel, God chose the patriarchs to constitute a great nation through whom all other nations would be blessed. The promise to Abraham was a ‘universal covenant’. ‘You shall be a people for my possession among all people’ says the exodus God to Israel. The emphasis here should be on the word ‘among’. God was not unconcerned with the other nations. Israel was supposed to be a missionary nation to the known world – a ‘light to the nations’. They were redeemed from Egypt for a purpose.
We, too, have been redeemed for a similar purpose.
So may my life, by word and deed, tell of your wonderful acts, Lord God. Amen.
HOLINESS IS COSTLY!
They have conquered… for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Revelation 12:11.
One important word about holiness: it is costly!
Baron von Welz was a rich and titled German nobleman, who went as a missionary to what was then called Dutch Guiana, where he eventually filled a lonely grave.
As he gave up his title, he said, ‘What to me is the title ‘well born’ when I am born again in Christ? What to me is the title ‘lord’ when I desire to be a servant of Christ? What is it to me to be called ‘Your Grace’ when I have need of God’s grace and help? All these vanities I will away with, and all else I will lay at the feet of Jesus, my dearest Lord, that I may have no hindrance in serving him aright’.
Lord, take my life, my all: I offer myself to you as a living sacrifice. Amen.
A PRAYER OF ST. PATRICK.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31.
As we conclude this little ‘journey into holiness’, let us pray, in the words of St. Patrick:
I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me …
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise.
Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength the invocation of the Trinity.