Building Blocks

Chris Hutchison on December 3, 2023
Building Blocks
December 3, 2023

Building Blocks

Passage: 1 Peter 2:4-8
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I was recently listening to a speaker who opened his message by asking us which event from the Bible we’d like to go back and be a part of if we could. He listed a few options, but instantly I knew my answer. If I had a time machine, I’d go back to that moment on the Road to Emmaus recorded in Luke 24. I want to hear Jesus open the Bible, beginning with Moses and the Prophets, and explain to those two disciples all the things in the Scripture concerning himself (Luke 24:27)

And then I’d want to hang around a little bit longer for that moment when Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples and said many of the same things, and “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). I want to see the look in Peter’s and John’s and Matthew’s faces when they finally get it. When it all comes together and they look at Jesus and they finally know who He is, they finally know what their Bible is about, they finally know what their whole national history has been about, what their lives are about, what the history of the world is about—that all reality is centred on this formerly-dead man standing before them.

But if I had to narrow it down, I’d pick Emmaus. I want to hear Jesus preach the whole Bible and explain how He’s at the centre of it all. And for years this actually drove me nuts. Why isn’t that sermon written down? Of anything for Luke to include in his book, why didn’t he interview these two disciples and write down what they remembered? Why didn’t he leave some kind of record of how to understand the Bible with Jesus at the centre?

And then one day I realized that this had happened. Luke and the apostles had kept a record of how to understand the Bible with Jesus at the centre. It’s called the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament. Here, in these pages, Jesus’ apostles do for us what Jesus did for them on the Road to Emmaus and in that room in Jerusalem.

Back in 1 Peter 1:10-12, Peter told us that the Hebrew prophets were prophesying about Jesus and the grace we’ve experienced in the gospel. And we said then that Peter was going to show us how to read the prophets as pointing to Jesus. He’s done that already, showing us how the prophecy of Isaiah 40 is about the gospel of Jesus, and how Psalm 34 anticipates our enjoyment of Jesus and His salvation.

Today, we get at least three more cases where Peter mines the depths of Isaiah and the Psalms to help his readers understand their relationship with the Lord, with each other, and with the world around them. We can’t miss how, yet again, this is all connected to what’s come before. Today’s passage is going to give us compelling reasons to love one another, and to keep on tasting that the Lord is good, and to keep on persevering in the midst of a hostile culture.

But the place we’re going to start is actually in the second half of this passage—with these three three Old Testament quotations—and then move back to the beginning to see how this all connects together.

Isaiah 28:16

So let’s start with Isaiah 28:16, which Peter quotes in verse 6. Turn there if you have your Bible.

Isaiah 28 is a passage about judgement against the leaders of Jerusalem. Feeling the threat of the king of Assyria, instead of repenting of their sins and turning back to the Lord, Jerusalem’s leaders chose to turn and make an alliance with Egypt. And verse 15 says, with perhaps a note of sarcasm, that they’ve actually made an alliance with the grave. They’ve taken shelter in lies and falsehood. This is not going to work out well for them. They’re going go “fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken” as verse 13 says. Verse 18 says that their covenant with Egypt isn’t going to save them, and that “when the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be beaten down by it.”

But against this backdrop comes a note of hope in verse 16: “therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: “Whoever believes will not be in haste”’” (Isaiah 28:16).

In other words, these leaders of Jerusalem are on the way out. By trusting in men instead of God, they are going to be judged and removed. But that doesn’t mean the end of God’s work. He’s going to begin a new construction project. A cornerstone is the first block you’d lay to start a new building, and every other brick in that building would be squared off of it. So God is saying to these corrupt leaders that they’re on their way out and he’s starting new construction in the city.

But this is not an ordinary human structure. Verse 17: “And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line.” This does not sound like a physical building but a whole new reality in which righteousness and justice will be the standard. And it will all be built on the cornerstone, described in verse 16 as a “tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation.”

Connected to that foundation is the truth that “whoever believes will not be in haste.” In other words, those who trust God won’t be scurrying off to Egypt to find human salvation. This cornerstone represents the truth that God saves all those who believe on Him alone.

It’s interesting that the people who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek later on translated “not be in haste” as “not be put to shame,” which is reflected in Peter’s quotation. Evidently they saw a connection between running off to Egypt for salvation and being put to shame. Perhaps the idea is that it was a shameful thing to go beg for rescue from Egypt, especially when your God was standing right there, ready to save.

And so Isaiah 28 promises to replace the faithless dealings of Jerusalem with a new construction project based on faith in the Lord. And it might not be surprising that, in the centuries after this was written, some Jewish people came to understood this “cornerstone” not just as a reference to an idea, but to a specific person—the Messiah. This person would set the standard for truth and righteousness as God’s people were rebuilt upon Him.

Psalm 118:22

There’s a second passage in Peter’s mind, and that’s Psalm 118:22, which he quotes in verse 7. You might remember that the Psalms are divided up into five books. Psalm 118 comes in the fifth and final book of the Psalms, which looks beyond the exile to the day when God was going to restore and redeem his people.

Psalm 118 also closes a section of Psalms, from 113-118, that were used as a part of the passover liturgy. These were the hymns sung by God’s people as they remembered their first deliverance from Egypt, even as they longed for another deliverance from powers like Persia and Greece and eventually Rome.

Like Isaiah 28, this Psalm has to do with the threat of enemy nations attacking the people of God, perhaps especially the king in Jerusalem. Verse 5 talks about “distress.” Verse 10 says that “all the nations surrounded me.” Verse 13: “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling.” But unlike the corrupt leaders in Isaiah’s day, the singer of Psalm 118 isn’t running off to Egypt. He’s trusting in God to save him. Look at verses 6-9: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The Lord is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”

And the rest of the Psalm celebrates the way God did answer them and save him. And responding to this rescue, the singer of the Psalm, who again is likely the king, invites the people of God to join in and worship. Verse 15: “Glad songs of salvation are in the tents of the righteous.” In verse 19 we read, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” We picture him leading a procession up to the temple to praise God for rescuing his people. The praise continues in verse 21: “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.”

And then in verse 22 we read the most interesting sentence: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

At first this might sound like it’s coming out of the blue, but it’s not. This is a word picture, drawing on the common construction practices of the way. Buildings were made from rocks, cut out in a quarry, and as the builders would cut out stones, they’d pick one to be the cornerstone that everything else would be built on.

And this verse pictures “the builders”—the powerful rulers of the world—seeing a particular stone and passing over it as if it was worthless. Maybe that stone is the people of Israel. Maybe it’s the king himself, and he’s describing his experience of suffering we’ve just heard about. But God has taken that stone, rejected by the builders, and has made it the cornerstone for His project of salvation.

This verse, which has the ring of a proverb, captures the dramatic reversal of redemption. This is how God works: He takes what’s weak and rejected and foolish in the eyes of the world and builds salvation on it. There’s a lot more we could say, that’s a brief overview of Psalm 118:22.

Isaiah 8:14

The final Scripture Peter points to, in verse 8, comes from Isaiah chapter 8. We preached through this passage a couple of summers ago, so perhaps a refresher is in order. Isaiah writes during a time when the kingdom of Judah was under threat from the kingdoms of Syria and Israel. And through Isaiah, the Lord calls them to not fear man but to trust Him for salvation. Sound familiar?

And in verse 12 of chapter 8, God speaks to Isaiah and tells him, “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honour as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” In other words, don’t fear those other nations—fear God.

Verse 14 begins by saying, “And he will become a sanctuary.” In other words, if you trust in God instead of running to other nations, He’s going to be a safe place for you.

But that’s not where verse 14 ends. It keeps going: “and a stone of offence and a rock of rumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”

Did you catch that? God is either going to be a rock of refuge that keeps you safe, or a stone that trips you up so that you fall and are broken.

The idea here is that God is unavoidable. The people in Jerusalem, who want to ignore God and shop around for different saviours, aren’t going to get their way. They can’t avoid God. They can’t get around Him. They will either trust in Him and be sheltered, or trip over Him and be smashed. God will either be their rescuer or their wrecker. Their saviour or their stumble-er.

They will either believe in Him and find His mercy, or reject Him and find His judgement.

2. The Living Cornerstone (v. 4)

So these are the three Old Testament passages in the background, and Peter understands them to all be fulfilled in Christ. They all point to Jesus. Verse 4 refers to Jesus as the “living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.”

In that one sentence he combines both Psalm 118 and Isaiah 28 to show that Jesus is this cornerstone spoken of by both of these prophets. Like Isaiah foresaw, God is rebuilding his people upon the cornerstone of Jesus.

This is not the first time Peter has made this point. In Acts 4, when Peter was on trial for preaching the gospel, he said to the rulers in Jerusalem, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12).

Just a few weeks earlier many of these same leaders had heard Jesus himself say these words: “Have you never read in the Scriptures:  ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Matthew 21:42–44, c.f. Mark 12:10-41, Luke 20:17-18).

Don’t miss how Jesus connected Psalm 118 with Isaiah 8, just like Peter. And also don’t miss that the “stone” in Isaiah 8 is talking about God—Yahweh. And Jesus subtly, and Peter not-so-subtly, applies that language to Jesus. Jesus is not merely a human Messiah. He’s the son of God.

And the upshot is what we should not be surprised that the Messiah was rejected and crucified like a piece of trash by the powerful rulers of Rome and Jerusalem. We should not be surprised when His followers are treated the same. This has always been the plan. The cornerstone was always going to be rejected by the world’s rulers.

But what matters is God’s perspective. This rejected stone is chosen and precious in the sight of God, and upon Him God is rebuilding a people who will outlast all human empires.

And so those who trust in him for salvation will not, in the end, be put to shame, as verse 6 says. They might look foolish in the here and now, they might be cancelled by their cultures, but in the last day that shame will turn to honour, as verse 7 says.

Meanwhile, those who reject this cornerstone will find themselves on the outside of God’s plan. No matter how high and powerful they might look today, in unbelief and disobedience they will stumble over Jesus to their own destruction. Verse 8 tells us that they were destined for this, which is a powerful reminder of God’s absolute sovereignty over all things, including salvation.

So those are some of the big ideas we see when we follow along with Peter as he puts these three Old Testament passages together and shows us how they are all fulfilled in Christ.

3. The Living Building
(v. 5)

But those are not the only big ideas. If we go back to verse 4, we’ll see how Peter applies this truth about Jesus the cornerstone to the realm of our relationships we have with each other. And we’re going to get at the truth in verses 4 & 5 by asking a series of questions. The first question is:

What gets put on the cornerstone?

Here’s what I mean by this: When you see a physical stone laid in a new construction side in ancient Jerusalem, you knew that more stones were going to be added to the sides and top. But if this cornerstone Isaiah and the Psalms spoke about is a person—Jesus—then what gets put on the cornerstone? If this new work of God begins not with a physical object but with a person, then what else is going to be built on this cornerstone?

And the answer is, more people. “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 1:4-5). If Jesus is the living cornerstone, that makes us living stones, and that means this new work of God is not bound to one place like a physical building. This new work of God, foreseen by the prophets, is a living structure made of people who are bound together by faith in the Cornerstone.

What kind of building are we becoming?

Second question: what kind of building are we becoming? Just think about that for a bit. When you think of the word “house” in connection with Jerusalem, what might come to mind? Where were the worshippers in Psalm 118? What might all of this point to?

The answer almost certainly points to a temple. Many times in the Old and New Testaments, the temple is called a “house.” And the context of this passage, with its talk of priests and sacrifices, strongly points in this direction.

We know this is true from other places in Scripture, such as 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirt dwells in you?” Or Ephesians 2:20-21, which is on the front of your bulletin, which says that we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”

This all connects to a theme in Jesus’ own teaching in which he presented himself as the new temple, the new dwelling place for God. “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:19–21).

Jesus is the new meeting place between God and man, the new way that God walks among us. And Peter and Paul take this idea a step further, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to say that if Jesus is the cornerstone, and we’re built on Him, then together we are the new temple. God’s people, not a building, is where He dwells by His Spirit. We’re a spiritual house. God dwells among us, not a place.

Many modern Christians miss this point and still associate Old Testament passages about the temple with our church buildings. This comes out a lot in songs which ask God to fill up “this place” like he did the temple. But this misses the point that we live in a whole new era. The temple was just a shadow, and it was destroyed, and we live in the reality to which that shadow pointed—God dwelling among His people, through Christ, by His Spirit.

What goes on in that building?

Now, for our next question, we want to ask what goes on in this new temple. And the answer is the same kinds of things that happened in the old temple. But in a completely new way. Look at how verse 5 continues: we are “being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Not only are we the temple, we’re the priests within the temple. In the Old Covenant, only a small number of the people could be priests, and even for those it was very rare to actually go inside the temple itself.

But here we read that all of God’s people are devoted to Him as priests. All of God’s people have a direct relationship with God through Christ. The priesthood isn’t a separate class. Together God’s people are being built up to be a holy priesthood.

It’s important to note the word “priesthood,” which is used by most of the English translations, and which correctly reflects the corporate aspect of the original language. The idea is not so much that you as an individual are a priest, but rather that you have become a part of the priesthood. So yes, that means you’re a priest, but it also means that you weren’t designed to be a lone-ranger priest off by yourself in isolation from everybody else. If you are in Christ, you’ve been made a part of a priesthood. You were designed to serve as a priest in conjunction with others.

Verse 5 goes on to tell us is that, as priests, we offer spiritual sacrifices. Paul uses similar language in Romans 12 when he talks about offering our bodies as living sacrifices. Psalm 51:17 says that the “sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” So there’s this very old idea that our very hearts, our very selves, are the sacrifice we bring to God. And that fits really well with the context of 1 Peter, where he’s been talking about offering our whole lives to God in holiness (1 Peter 1:15).

And so, just based on the direction Peter has pointed us, we’re on the right track to say that the sacrifice we offer to God is everything we do through Christ, the sum total of our whole life offered to God through the Spirit. And the beautiful truth is that the sacrifice of lives is acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Peter knows that His readers aren’t perfectly holy, perfectly loving, perfectly devoted to God. Otherwise he wouldn’t have needed to tell us to be holy! But Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for us makes our imperfect obedience, our imperfect holiness, our imperfect devotion, acceptable to God.

Just like the blood of the bull made the priests purified to serve in the tabernacle, so Christ, in His death and resurrection and ongoing ministry, makes our offering of our life acceptable to God.

How does construction happen?

The fourth and final question we want to ask about this new temple is—how does construction happen? We know that God is doing it: we are “being built up.” We are the temple and the priesthood, but God is the builder. He’s doing this work of bringing His people together into a structure indwelt by His Spirit.

But Peter tells us how this happens. And to see that answer we go all the way back to the beginning of verse 4. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.”

This building project happens as we come to Him—the “Lord” of verse 3, which is to say, Christ. Coming to Jesus, we are being built up.

Which means that coming to Jesus really matters. If we don’t come to Him, we don’t get built up. Which means, we need to know what it means to come to Him. What is Peter talking about?

And at this point it’s probably easy for us to run this phrase through our Evangelical filters and think about “coming to Jesus” in terms of “getting saved.” Coming to Jesus for the first time.

But that’s not what Peter has been talking about. Peter has been talking about us who have been saved by Jesus preparing our minds for action, being sober-minded, setting our hope fully on the grace of His return, not being conformed to our former way of life, being holy in all of our conduct, conducting ourselves with fear, loving one another earnestly, putting away the love-killing sins we heard about last week, longing for spiritual nourishment like babies.

And so when he writes, “coming to Jesus, you are being built up,” it’s very unlikely he’s suddenly switched gears and is talking about when we were first converted to Christ. It’s far more likely that “coming to him” is a part of our Christian experience.

And in fact that’s how this word “come to him” is used throughout the rest of the Bible. In the Greek Old Testament, this word is often used to speak of “drawing near” to God. It’s what the people did when they drew near to hear God speak (Leviticus 9:5, Deuteronomy 4:11, 5:27), or what the priests did in the sanctuary when they came near to offer sacrifices.

This same word, translated as “draw near,” is used several times in Hebrews. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).

So “drawing near” or “coming to Him” isn’t something we did once. It’s something we do, as a regular and ongoing part of our Christian life. It’s our great privilege to be able to draw near to God through Christ. Hebrews 7:25 says that Jesus “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

In the context of 1 Peter 2, we can also see a connection between “drawing near” and “longing for the pure spiritual milk.” Peter wrote before formula and bottles, and if a baby was hungry for milk, they needed to get it from a person. So we, having already tasted that the Lord is good, need to “draw near” to Him to receive the spiritual nourishment we need.

Now it would be easy at this point to boil down “drawing near” or “coming” to the Lord to just one simple activity. Like, we draw near by praying, or by worshipping on Sunday morning. And those may be all legitimate ways that we come to the Lord, that we draw near to Him. This is why I love our prayer services, because it’s such a beautiful way of drawing near to the Lord together.

But just looking at the full breadth of Scripture, and Peter’s context, we can’t boil this down to one or two simple activities. This is talking about your born again soul drawing near to its saviour through the Spirit. This is about you fellowshipping with God, turning your heart towards Him, seeking His face in an ongoing personal relationship.

Which again, will express itself in many different activities and spiritual disciplines. But coming to Jesus, drawing near to Him, is the unseen movement of your soul towards God underneath each of those activities.

And it is as we come to Him for nourishment, for fellowship, for relationship, for forgiveness, for holiness, for help, for strength, for love, that we find ourselves being built up, together, into this spiritual house, to be a priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices.

4. Application

And that’s where we want to end our time here together today. If we’re built up as we come to Him, then let us come to Him.

Let’s know that we’re coming to a cornerstone that was rejected by the world and will continue to be rejected by so many people today. Coming to Jesus, let’s give up on any attempt to try and make Jesus seem cool or acceptable to the power-holders in our culture. Let’s embrace the shame of being built on this cornerstone. Because in God’s eyes He is chosen and precious and we know that, in the last day, our shame will turn to honour.

As we come to Him, let’s know that we’re in this together. You are not a solitary  block but a part of God’s building project. God has designed us for substantial relationship with each other. As close of a relationship as bricks in a wall. Do you know that? Does that reflect in the way you approach your church and your other relationships with God’s people? Do you know that you’re not a lone brick, a rolling stone, but an integral part of a structure? See, going back to the last couple of weeks, this is why we must love each other. We’re in this together, like bricks in a wall.

As we come to Him, let’s remember that this spiritual building is still very much under construction. We don’t see it the way it will be. But we are growing up into salvation, we are being built together, as we come to Him. So come to him.

Perhaps for some of you this does mean coming for the first time. You need to repent and believe in Jesus for the first time.

For many of us this means coming to Jesus again, and again, and again. It means considering what are the things in our life that keep us from coming to Him. It means making fellowship with God a supreme priority in our life, at all times, in all ways.

Come to him.

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