National Identity

If you are a Christian you are a part of a people, a race, a nation, and this is more central to who you are than any other identity.

BigC on December 10, 2023
National Identity
December 10, 2023

National Identity

Passage: 1 Peter 2:9-10
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Imagine it’s Christmas Day. Since that’s only two weeks away, that shouldn’t be that hard. Imagine you’re a child, and your dad has been away on a long trip. You’ve been waiting for him for weeks, and you know that when he comes home he’s going to have presents for you and your brother and sister.

You wake up early, full of excitement, and you hear his voice in the living room. You run down the hall and see that the living room is full. Your brother and sister are there, but so are about 20 or 30 kids from the orphanage down the street. And they’re all gathered around your dad, and he’s passing out gifts to them, as well. In fact, they’re all wearing matching pyjamas that he gave them, just like you and your brother and sister.

And he sees you and welcomes you and invites you to sit on his knee, but your heart has to wrestle with the new reality that your family just got a whole lot larger. You are sharing your dad with a bunch of people who feel like strangers. How’s that going to go for you?

This experience is perhaps not unlike what Jewish believers in Jesus, like Peter, had to deal with when God started to include the Gentiles in the church. Jesus was the Jewish messiah. The Holy Spirit was the gift promised by the Jewish prophets. And all of a sudden God was giving this gift, and welcoming into his family, all kinds of strangers.

Peter himself was at ground zero for this. You can read about it in Acts 10 and 11. Do you think that would have been a lot for him to process?

Probably. But the proof that he did process it is here, in our passage today, where Peter says some incredible truths to his readers, which were probably mainly Gentiles, about their inclusion into the people of God.

1. Our Identity (v. 9a)

Let’s remember that this comes in a bigger section about our identity. We heard last week about the way that God is building His people on the cornerstone of Jesus to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood. Yes, there were many who refused to believe in Jesus, and tripped over him just like the prophets foretold.

“But you” says Peter in verse 9. But you who believe, but you who obey His word—here is who you are.

Once again, Peter draws deeply from the Old Testament to help his readers understand their identity. Once again we want to go back to consider those passages in their original setting before we see what Peter does with them.

The Background of Exodus 19 & Isaiah 43

So let’s start by turning to Exodus 19. Verse 1 tells us most of what we need to know about what’s going on in terms of context: “On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.” Roughly three months after leaving Egypt, the people of Israel come to the mountain of God.

And for us to really understand what’s going on inside this passage, we need to remember that when Israel first went down to Egypt, they were only about 70 persons. Just a family group. They are now in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps up to two million people.

But they’ve grown to that number while living in slavery inside of another country. They’ve never been together, as a nation, outside of Egypt before. It’s a serious question whether they even thought of themselves as a nation. And if they did, who were they? They had only ever known slavery. Who were they going to be now that they were free?

God tells them, beginning in verse 4 of chapter 19. In these verses He gives them their national charter. This is like their Declaration of Independence, or perhaps, because we’re in Canada, this is their confederation documents. This is God giving them, for the first time, their national identity.

Let’s pick up in verse 4: “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel’” (Exodus 19:4–6).

Who created the nation of Israel? God did. They did not win their independence from Egypt. God carried them out and brought them to Himself to be His.

And now, if they will obey His voice and keep his covenant, what will they be? Will they be something more than a bunch of former slaves? Will they actually be a real nation?

Yes, and far more than just a real nation. “You shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Not just any nation but God’s special people among all the nations on earth. His personal treasure. A kingdom of priests, representing Him to the other nations. A people devoted to Him. That’s what He brought them out of Egypt for.

These are profound words, and by them God not only speaks the nation of Israel into existence but gives the nation it’s identity and mission and purpose

Let’s turn over now to Isaiah 43. These words came centuries after Exodus 19, when Israel was once again far away from her homeland, longing for a second exodus, this time from Babylon. And through Isaiah God promised Israel that He was going to come and bring them home to Himself.

And in this chapter, God speaks similar words to the ones He used in Exodus 19, reminding His people that, above all, they are His. Isaiah 43:1: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

They are still His personal treasure, and He’s going to rescue them. Verse 4: “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’” (Isaiah 43:4–7).

Just like with Egypt, He’s going to bring His people out of this nation to Himself. And jut like with the first exodus, the goal is that they would be in relationship with God. Look down at verse 10:

“‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me’” (Isaiah 43:10).

And just like in the first exodus, in this second great exodus, He’s going to bring His people safely through the wilderness. Look at verse 20-21: “The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isaiah 43:20–21).

Now we know that, partially, this return from exile happened when the people came back under Cyrus and built the second temple. But there’s a sense in which the people never really did come back from exile. Foreign powers continued to rule over them. God’s glory never filled that second temple, leaving open the question of whether He was really with them or not. For centuries they waited for these words from Isaiah to be fulfilled.

And then came Jesus. Peter told us, at the end of chapter 1 of this letter, that the good news of salvation foretold by Isaiah was fulfilled in Jesus in His life and death and resurrection and ongoing ministry. The good news Isaiah foretold was being announced as the followers of Jesus preached the gospel to the world.

And all of this came with a big surprise that the Jewish people weren’t expecting: this long-awaited salvation wasn’t just being preached to them. Gentiles were hearing about it, and believing it, and receiving the promised Spirit for themselves, too.

1. A Chosen Race

And so it is that here in 1 Peter 2:9, writing to a group which probably included mostly, if not all, Gentiles, what does Peter say to them?

“But you are a chosen race.” Lots of his Jewish brethren stumbled over the stumbling block called Jesus. But you who believe in Jesus and are being built on the cornerstone— Jew or Gentile—you’re the chosen race.

This language of “chosen race” is coming right from Isaiah 43:10, and the words of comfort God spoke to Israel in Babylon. Peter applies it to his readers—to us—and says that this is our identity. We’ve been grafted in to the people of God, and this is our story now. This is our identity now.

Major sections of the New Testament wrestle with this development, and you can turn to Romans 9 or Matthew 3 or Galatians 3 to see more of the theological foundations for this.

But Peter doesn’t seem to be wrestling with it. He just says to his readers, which included a whole lot of Gentiles, “That chosen race Isaiah prophesied about? That includes you. This is who you are, even if you find yourselves as strangers in a strange land, just like Isaiah’s first readers.

Because you’ve been born again by the living and abiding word of God, you are a part of a people, bound together by something way more real than human genetics. You were chosen by God and you are a part of His chosen people.”

2. A Royal Priesthood

Now “chosen race” is just the first of four titles Peter uses for us. The second is “a royal priesthood.” This language comes from Exodus 19, and God’s promise to make His people His representatives on earth. We heard something similar last week.

Just like the priests were set apart to serve God, and their whole lives were used to represent God on this earth, so we have been included in God’s plan for His people to be a kingdom of priests.

Once again, this is not so much about you individually being a priest. This is about us, together, being a kingdom of priests who, collectively, together, are devoted to serving God and who serve as His representatives on this earth. We’re the ones who, together, carry His presence and the blessings of the gospel into the world with us wherever we go.

This is an amazing calling and it’s not one we could have chosen for ourselves. Priests never volunteered themselves. God chose them. In our case, Jesus was slain, and by His blood He ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and He has made us a kingdom and priests to our God (Revelation 5:9-10).

This was one of the accomplishments of Christ’s death on the cross: buying us to make us priests whose whole lives would serve Him and His purposes.

3. A Holy Nation

Peter’s third title for us is “holy nation.” This title comes right out of Exodus 19:6 and, in many ways, is a different way of saying “kingdom of priests.” We are a nation which, as a whole, has been devoted to God to serve Him. Yes, we’ve been made holy in status by the death of Jesus, but the focus in Peter is the way in which we’re called to live holy lives before Him as His obedient children.

Every nation on earth is known for something. On the international stage, Canada might be known as a nice nation or a polite nation or a welcoming nation. As God’s people, we are to be a holy nation.

4. A People for his Own Possession

The fourth and final title is that we’re “a people for his own possession.” This language again comes from Exodus 19:5: “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples.” This language recalls of a king who, from all the wealth of his nation, had a special reserve of precious jewels that belonged to him alone.

And God says that this is who his people are. The whole world belongs to Him, but His people are his treasured possession, showing His glory as we belong to Him in a special way.

Isaiah 43:21 speaks of “the people whom I formed for myself.” We were made and called by God for Himself. We belong to Him.

Paul points to this idea in Titus 2:14, which says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

What a great reminder, once again, that when we become followers of Jesus, we’re not making Him a part of our lives, a part of our story. We are becoming a part of His story. God made us for himself.

And there’s a ton of comfort and blessing in this phrase. God’s people belong to Him. And He takes good care of what belongs to him! We could think for a while on just how safe we are in His hands.

(v. 9b)

But in the next phrase Peter follows the cues of Isaiah 43 in telling us what God’s explicit purpose in all of this has been. Why, mainly, did God make us for Himself? Peter’s answer is that we are “a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

This is Peter’s way of describing Isaiah 43:21: “the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”

If God has saved you, if He has called you out of darkness and into his light—his wonderful, amazing, miraculous, marvellous light—then He’s done that for a reason: that you might declare His praise. That you might proclaim His excellencies.

The word “proclaim” here is has to do with announcing, sending out a message or a report. This is telling us that God made us a people for His own possession so that we would proclaim, announce, His excellencies—His goodness, His perfections. That we would say to the world, like the herald in Isaiah 40, “Behold your God!” and tell them what He’s like.

This is what God has made us His own for.

Don’t miss all the statements here about God’s initiative. He chose us, He made us a people to belong to Him, He’s the one who called us out of darkness. This was not our idea and this was not our initiative. God did this, and God gets to decide what we do now.

And what we do now is proclaim. That’s our purpose. That’s what we’re His for.

(v. 10)

And this purpose should not feel like a heavy burden to us, a job description we have to do. We should not feel used by this. Because we’ve been called out of darkness into His marvellous light! We’ve been made His! We belong to this God!

And in verse 10 Peter returns to the theme of identity to help us soak in, just a little bit deeper, how profoundly wonderful it is to be the Lord’s people.

The Background of Hosea 1 & 2

Let’s briefly touch on the background of verse 10, which comes from the prophet Hosea. After centuries of disobeying Him and breaking His covenant, God was promising to judge His people.

The prophet Hosea had two children, and God told him to call his first daughter Lo-Ruhamah, which means “no mercy,” because, as God said to Hosea in 1:6: “I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all.”

Hosea’s next child was named Lo-Ammi, which means “not my people.” One of the great promises of the Old Covenant was that Israel would be God’s people, and He would be their God, but God told Hosea in verse 9, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.”

In other words, Israel was going to revert to being just like any other Gentile nation. No special relationship with God anymore.

But it wasn’t going to stay there. Already in chapter 1, and then into chapter 2, God promised that undeserved mercy was coming. 1:10: “And in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” And then 2:23: “and I will sow her for myself in the land. And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God’” (Hosea 2:23).

Forgiveness and grace would welcome those who were not God’s people to become again a part of His people. Those who had been cut off from mercy would once again receive God’s mercy. And both Peter in our passage, and Paul in Romans 9, see in this promise a reference to Gentiles like you and me being welcomed into the people of God.

We can think of it this way: when God said “no mercy, you’re not my people,” he was saying Israel had become just like any other Gentile nation. So then when he turned and said “mercy, you are my people,” it was as if he was welcoming a Gentile nation to receive mercy and be a part of His people. He was throwing the doors open so that anybody from any nation could receive mercy and be His.

1. Formerly: Not a people, without mercy

And that’s what Peter sees in verse 10. “Once you were not a people… once you had not received mercy.” This is who we were. Not a people at all, let alone God’s people, and not having received God’s mercy. We were on the outside, without God and without hope in the world, in the words of Ephesians 2:2.

2. Now: A people who’ve received mercy

But now we are God’s people, having received His mercy. The king has invited us to sit at his table. God has shown incredible kindness to us. We’ve been made a part of His people. We are the ones who have been given mercy. This is who we are.

What Now?

So what are we supposed to do with this? As we stare at these almost overwhelming descriptions of our identity and purpose as the people of God, how are we supposed to respond to this? I have two suggestions.

Embracing Our Identity

The first is that we embrace our identity. Hopefully this isn’t a brand-new idea to us by now. So much of 1 Peter has been about our identity. Right out of the gate, Peter referred to us as “elect exiles.” Chosen foreigners. This is who we are. And we’ve heard to much about who we are along the way. Last week we heard that we’re living stones being built up as the new temple.

But today’s passage contains some of the strongest and most striking statements on identity in the whole book of 1 Peter. Perhaps, more than any other passage in this book, these words help us understand what it looks like for us to embrace our identity as elect exiles and chosen strangers as Peter tells us that we are a chosen race, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people for His own possession.

Peter is giving us our national identity. He’s telling us that our identity as God’s chosen people is stronger and more real than any other earthly identity we might have.

This connects so strongly with the idea of being born again as God’s children, as well as the truth from chapter 1:18 that Christ’s blood has ransomed us from the futile ways inherited from our forefathers.

Just like God pulled Israel out of Egypt and made them a nation, so God has pulled us out of sin and darkness and made us a people. And the are not just poetic word-pictures or metaphors. It’s not like, “this is true in some unreal abstract theological sense that never actually makes a difference in your life.”

No, according to Peter, this is who we are.

If you are a Christian you are a part of a people, a race, a nation, and that is more central to who you are than any other identity. More than your ethnic heritage, more than the fact that you live in Canada or Saskatchewan or Nipawin, more than being a member of your extended or immediate family, you are—first and foremost—a part of this chosen race and holy nation.

The early Christians got this. They had to get this. The persecution they faced from Jews and Gentiles convinced them that they’d never be at home in this world. Their shared identity as God’s people was all they had. The early Christians referred to themselves as “the Christian race.” Some writers even talked about a “third race” of people—Jews, Gentiles, and Christians.

And that might not be the most helpful or accurate way of putting things, but it shows you just how seriously they took this. They embraced their identity, living like immigrants and foreigners because they knew they belonged to another people, the people of God.

And they stuck out. They didn’t fit in to Roman society. They didn’t even try. They were accused of neglecting their duties to their cities and states and they were resented by their neighbours and families for forsaking their ancestral ways, but that didn’t phase them. Sticking out was a feature, not a bug. They were a different people, chosen foreigners, part of a whole other nation that belonged to God, and they embraced this.

And meanwhile, so many Christians here in the west, especially over the last few decades, seem to be on a mission to try and fit in with our culture as much as they can. The thought of looking strange or out-of-place is a horror to us. And we so easily justify all kinds of sinful decisions because we don’t want to look strange. We want the world to think we’re acceptable or cool. We want a “seat at the table.”

And I hope today’s passage encourages you, by taking the pressure off to fit in. Feel the freedom of not needing to worry about what the world thinks of you. Feel the freedom of just accepting the truth that, as we follow Jesus and square our lives to His, we’re going to stick out as much as if you landed here from another country. We are, like Damian will preach on next week, sojourners and exiles. Strangers and foreigners.

Now, like we’re going to hear next week, we want to stick out for the right reasons. We can to act in an honourable way and be known for good deeds. But like we’ll hear in a few more weeks, when we refuse to join in the world’s sin, they will think we’re strange. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

And an upshot of this is that as we experience more and more alienation from the world, as we fit in less and less with those around us, our relationships with one another in the body of Christ will grow to be more and more precious to us. And that’s where it’s helpful to remember the context of 1 Peter and the discussion on love that we’ve just had. We must love one another earnestly from a pure heart because we’ve been born again together. These are our people. This is our family. These are the people among whom we are home. This is our national identity.

Fulfilling Our Purpose

Finally, today’s passage is a call to fulfill our purpose. We’ve been made a people for what reason, according to Peter? “That you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

Just think of this: whenever you get something for yourself, it’s for a purpose. You buy a car to drive it. You get a hammer to pound nails. You get a water bottle to drink water. You get a jacket to keep you warm when it’s cold.

And God has made us, and made us His own, so that we’d announce how amazing He is. Have you ever asked what God’s will for your life is? Here it is.

Young people, which includes everybody in this room who thinks that I’m old, have you ever wondered about your future, and what path you’ll take in life? Here is is: you’ve been made a part of God’s people in order to proclaim His excellencies. That’s God’s plan for your life.

What job you chose, what school you go to, whether you get married or not, those are all just details. The mission itself is right here.

People in this room who are around my age, this is still God’s plan for you. We’re at that stage in life where we’re roughly half-way through, and this season comes a lot of questions about what I’ve done with the decades we’ve already lived, and what we’re going to do with the decades yet ahead of us. Well, here it is. God’s plan for your life is that you proclaim his excellencies.

Now to the people in this room who are older, which is everyone who thinks that I’m young, you may be feeling the growing weakness in your body and the heaviness in your heart for your children and grandchildren and church, and wonder what God has for you in this stage of your life, and the answer is the same: proclaim the goodness of the Lord. “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Psalm 78:4).

That’s our national calling. And yes, it will look different for each one of us. And yes, it will involve our lives. But yes, it will involve our words.

The question is not what should we do. The question is how? How can I best use my life, in the way God put me together, to play my part in proclaiming His excellencies?

Now people are often quick to say that Christians need to proclaim the gospel with our lives. And I think I know what they mean. Peter has a lot to say about living in a way that backs up the gospel, which we’ll get into next week.

But for every Christian who talks too much about Jesus without backing it up with their life, how many of us live pretty ok lives and never say anything at all about the Lord who saved us?

I was talking to a friend this week who suggested that perhaps one of the reasons we struggle with proclaiming the glories of God to our co-workers and neighbours is that we do it so seldom with each other. Should it not be normal for us, when we gather as God’s people, to open our mouths and tell of the goodness of the Lord?

That’s why there’s a new question in the study guides this week, for all of you who are in a small group, that encourages you to share how you’ve seen God’s glories in the previous week—how He’s answered prayer, how He’s showed up, how you’ve seen His glory in His word or His world.

We’re going to keep that in there every week going forward. The idea here is to get us deliberately encouraging one another by speaking out the excellencies of God to one another. And you don’t have to be in a small group to do that. We can and should do that every time we connect with each other as God’s people.

So here’s an assignment this week. As you go through this week, keep your eyes open to God’s glory. And next week, when someone asks you “how was your week,” share it with them. “God answered this prayer this week. I read this in God’s word. The gospel encouraged me in this way.”

And as we practice this with each other, we’ll grow in our ability to speak God’s glory to those who don’t know him.

Which we need to do. Because using our mouths to tell of God’s glory is not some fringe thing that a few Christians do once in a while. This is our national purpose. May God help us fulfill it.

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