OUR PRESENCE IN THE WORLD
Seeing you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that you love one another with a pure heart fervently: Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you...But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. [1 Peter 1:22 - 2:10]
What is the nature of our task as Christians in a world of poverty and injustice? There is no better phrase that catches the whole of that task as the expression ‘royal priesthood’ which occurs in the present passage. But both words need interpretation.
The expression itself comes from the Old Testament. In Exodus 19:1 and 6, the Lord says to the people of Israel through Moses: ‘If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own special people among all the 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 echoed in 1 Peter 2:5 and 2:9.
The whole epistle of Peter is thought to have been based on a sermon preached on the occasion of the baptism of new converts during the feast of Easter. One can imagine the newly baptized men and women, clad in white robes, assembled probably in one of the Catacombs of Rome before sunrise on Easter Sunday. The apostle stands before them explaining to them the meaning of their baptism, and giving the Christians their commission for life in the world. It parallels the Lord Yahweh giving his commission to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai.
As in the Sinai covenant, in the Christian covenant of baptism also the first element is the call to holiness (1 Peter 1:14 ff). What does it mean to be holy? We are often inclined to disregard the call to holiness altogether, or see it only in negative and pietistic terms.
Hope, Faith and Love are the positive aspects of holiness. The Epistle begins with an affirmation of hope (1 Peter 1:3 ff). Hope is not wishful thinking; a living hope, in the Bible, is the point of orientation of our whole life. It is the looking forward to the coming of Christ and His kingdom. In Verse 1:13 the Apostle exhorts his hearers to set their hopes fully on the grace that is coming at the open manifestation of Christ. Our hope as Christians is centered on the risen Christ, present in the world in a hidden way, to be clearly and openly present in the world at ‘the last day’.
In Verse 1:7, the Apostle speaks about the need for the genuineness of their faith to be tested by various trials and by suffering. Faith is that quality of strength, reliability, non-changeability and freedom from anxiety that comes to us when we are firmly established in the love and grace of God. We can become fully conscious of this faith only when things begin to turn against us and our usual strength and support is gone. In trials and troubles, in the face of opposition and persecution, the early disciples learned that the power of God supporting them in a hidden and interior way could up hold them against the strongest waves of opposition. The martyr demonstrated the strength of this inner faith by his fearlessness before the oppressive might of the powers of this earth. In India today we need this quality of inner strength which is not afraid of opposition and is full of hope in the face of obstacles, a faith which trusts, and relies upon the power of God to sustain us in trouble and tribulation.
In Verse 1:22, the Apostle exhorts the newly-baptized to be with sincere, earnest, deep and brotherly love. By subjecting themselves to baptismal teaching and by becoming part of a community of love and hope, they have begun to be purified. That purity and holiness has to be continually developed, through sincere and self-sacrificing love towards others. Love in the New Testament is neither a feeling nor just liking others. It is the quality of mutual self-surrender and active concern for the welfare of others.
Three positive elements of holiness are:
The negative aspect of holiness consists in ‘not being squeezed into the mould of blind passion’ -- not being led by one’s instinctive desires and lusts [Verse 1:14]. It is not simply that these passions are sinful. They are actually misleading and deceptive. They promise you gratification, as the serpent promised Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the end, however, they deceive. They give you the, moment’s pleasure, but not lasting satisfaction. The best of contemporary literature in the West is today devoted to the theme of the deceptiveness of physical passions. Many intelligent men and women in all parts of the world have revolted against the puritanical, restrictive ethics of previous centuries and sought to assert their freedom by taking a positive attitude towards sensuality. For many it was a liberating experience in the beginning. But later one finds it is as enslaving as the puritanical ethics against which one revolted.
The weakness of the puritanical ethics lies in its basically negative framework. It seems to keep on saying: Don’t do this and don’t do that and you will be holy. But this is basically contrary to the Bible. The New Testament encourages eating and drinking but every negative injunction is followed by a positive demand for utilizing our creative energies in the service of others. True holiness is achieved by the combination of hope, faith and love expressed in worship and daily life. Give your strength and time to prayer and worship and the loving service of your fellowmen, and the passions will gradually be conquered.
Our ability to become a ‘kingdom of priests’ or a ‘royal priesthood’ is conditioned by this call to positive holiness. But what does ‘royal priesthood mean?
In the Book of Exodus, it clearly means that the nation of Israel is to serve as a priestly nation on behalf of the other nations of the earth. In other words, Israel, without any special merit on her part, is called to a special degree of intimacy with God. But it was not for her own sake but rather for the sake of the nations. ‘All the earth is mine’ [Exodus19:5]). They are to stand before God as a priest for the other nations. This is also the calling of Christians, of the Church.
We are a people gathered from all the nations of the earth, not because of any special merit in us, but by His gracious calling, to a life of close intimacy with God. That is what distinguishes us from those who are not Christians. Not that we are saved and they are doomed. Rather, we have been given the privilege of knowing Christ and through Him of living in great, close intimacy with God. But this is a great responsibility as well. We cannot take this call lightly and expect that we will be automatically holy. First we must keep in mind the two poles of our calling, namely, that it is out of His free grace that God has called us, and therefore that the call does not make us any better than others. There is no room for feeling superior to others. Second, our calling is always to an existence on behalf of others, Christians and others. This is what priesthood means. A priest is always one who lives to intercede for others and not for himself. And all of us have been by baptism incorporated into the one eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ who ever lives to make intercession for the whole world. Our priesthood is a part of this ministry of universal intercession.
But holiness is always a call. It demands a responsive action. 1 Peter 1:16 says: ‘Be holy, for I am holy’. It is a demand and a gift. The demand is to grow up by the spiritual milk of the word. [Verse 2:2], to put away all bitterness, resentment, malice and hatred [Verse 2:1], to love one another earnestly [Verse 1:22], and to come to Christ and to be built up by His Holy Spirit to become an abode of the Spirit and a holy priesthood [Verse 2:4,5] offering up our own lives along with that of Christ on behalf of all men [Verse 2:5], and to announce by word and deed the marvelous grace of God that has called us out of the deceptive pleasures of this life, into the joyous light of expectant faithful, loving service and worship [Verse 2:9].
The priesthood of the Church belongs to every member of it. It is a participation in Christ’s priesthood. We have ‘such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens (Hebrew.7:26), who ‘has entered .... into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf’ (Hebrew.9:24), who ‘holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever’ (Hebrew.3:14).
This is not usually taught in youth movement circles, but this belongs to the heart of our mission in the world. Failure in holiness and in the priestly ministry of sustained intercession for the world lies at the base of our contemporary failure in mission. Our ministry demands the holiness of hope, faith, and love, and the continuing life of disciplined prayer if it is to share in Christ’s ministry.
But what exactly does the word ‘royal’ mean in the expression ‘royal priesthood’? In the Old Testament it clearly meant ‘a priestly kingdom’, on behalf of other kingdoms. But in the Book of Revelation, the concept takes on a new meaning. Revelation 1: 6 has at least two versions in the Greek. One version says, ‘(Christ has) made us (Christians) a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.’ Another version says, ‘(Christ has) made us (Christians) kings and priests for His God and Father.’ In Revelation 5:10, the meaning becomes clear. The four living beings of the vision of St. John fall before the Lamb, and they sing a new song: "Worthy art thou to take scroll and to open its seals: For thou were slain and by thy blood ransomed for God from every tribe and tongue, and people and nation and made them into a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth.’
The kingship or lordship, as we call it, belongs to Christ the God-man. But it is given to us as well. And it is this kingship which God has given to mankind that forms the second aspect of the mystery of the royal priesthood. We basically misunderstand the lordship of Christ only as lordship or kingship over us and over the creation. That is true, but not the whole truth. Christ shares his kingship with other men. We share not only in his priesthood, but also in his kingship. We are also ‘royal’ because we belong to the household of the great king.
But we misunderstand the kingship of Christ as well as our own participation in it, if we take our image of a king from the arbitrary rulers of history -- Ashoka or Akbar, Alexander or Augustus. The dialogue between Pilate and Jesus is very instructive here. Pilate asks Jesus: ‘Are you the king of Jews?’ (St. John. 18:33). Jesus replies with a question: ‘Are you asking for yourself, or did others say it to you?’ Pilate says something irrelevant in reply, and Christ continues, ‘My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of the worldly kind, then my servants would have fought, so that I would not have been handed over to the Jews. But my kingship does not belong to the same class as the kingship of this world’ (Verse 18:36).
The inscription ‘Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews’ does not appear on a throne but on the top of a cross. The Old Testament made a basic distinction between a king and a shepherd. Israel had no king but God, but they wanted one because everybody else had one. Read the amusing story in I Samuel 8:4 ff on how they finally got a king, Saul, head and shoulders above the ordinary people (I Samuel. 9:2). But when Saul became an oppressor, God chose a shepherd boy, David, to be king; The Messiah was expected to be a shepherd-king. It is in this light that we have to understand Christ’s description of himself as ‘the good Shepherd’. The passage in St. John 10: 1-18 describes the qualities of the good shepherd, of the real messianic King. Some of these qualities are to be specially noted, as the exercise of our sharing in Christ’s kingship.
Qualities of Good Shepherd are:
Aim and Responsibilities:
The royal priesthood thus consists of two elements:
The royal priesthood, which corresponds to the kingly and priestly ministries of Christ, is the aspect of the kingdom given especially to Christians. How in practice do we express this ministry as young people? The whole New Testament speaks in answer to this question. Let us in this last study recapitulate some of the elements that we have already encountered in the passages so far studied, and in related ones.
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LIGHT OF LIFE
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