Like Living Stones Back to all sermons

Date: January 18, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: ECC's Purpose Statement

Scripture: 1 Peter 2:4–2:10

Tags: ECC Purpose Statement

Synopsis: What is the purpose of ECC? In this first of two messages on the ECC Purpose Statement (entitled Like Living Stones), we turn to 1 Peter 2:4-10. Peter uses three powerful images to portray God’s view of the church, giving us a comprehensive, 3-dimensional picture of what God intends the church to be and do. Only when we understand God’s “big picture” of the church are we able to understand its vital place in God’s plan and our role in it.

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Several of you asked me last week what I was planning for our next sermon series. I responded by saying, “That’s a really good question. I will let you know when I have an answer.”

Well, I don’t yet have a complete long-term answer, although I do have some ideas. However, I do have a plan that will take us through the middle of February.

For the next two weeks, I want to focus on the Church of Jesus Christ and its place in God’s plan. How does God view the church? What is its place in his eternal plan? And what is our place or role in the church? In one way, this is good timing as we prepare for our Annual Congregational Meeting at the end of this month. In another sense, this is also a continuation of and supplement to our series in the Book of Romans.

In the last message from Romans last week, my sermon title was, “The Lone Ranger Is a Myth.” I emphasized that God never intended the Christian life to be a solitary experience, lived out in isolation as individuals. When we are saved, when w are justified, we are adopted into the family of God. We become part of the Redeemed Community. And sanctification takes place most effectively as we live out our Christian faith in vital and intentional relationships with other believers.

Last week’s message was a good and a necessary message. Many of you commented on being blessed and encouraged by the message. There was an extra buzz of spiritual energy after the service, as more people than usual stayed around to engage in the community life of the church. That is good. But I want to start today by saying that last week’s message, in and of itself, was an incomplete and inadequate message. The focus of last week’s message was on us as believers: why we need the church, what the church can and will do for us. Last week’s message, in isolation, could reduce the church to a kind of spiritual 12-Step, Alcoholics Anonymous group of recovering sinners, relying on one another for mutual support.

In one sense, that is not a bad model. The church is that. But it is also more. It is much, much more. Listen carefully to what I am about to say. The church does not exist primarily to meet human needs. The primary purpose of the church is to glorify God. If we ever forget that, we will soon go far, far astray in our understanding and approach to the church and its place in God’s plan.

In that magnificent Scripture passage we read a little while ago (1 Peter 2:4-10), Peter uses three powerful images to communicate how God views the church.

1. The church is God’s temple.

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.

I love that image. Not far above the mission station where I grew up in Kenya, there was a rock quarry. Many of the buildings on the mission station had been built out of rocks cut from that quarry. This was not a mechanized operation. Men with hammers and chisels were cutting and shaping the rock from the quarry face into brick or block sized stones. These were then placed on an old flat-bed trailer and pulled by a tractor to the site of the latest building project.

We are stones, cut by the grace of God out of the rock cliff of sinful humanity. That is what the Book of Romans has been about. We’ve not only been cut out of that rock cliff, but we are being chiseled, shaped and smoothed by the Spirit of God. But the ultimate purpose is not that we should be a good looking brick, lying alone in the grass, or put on display in some museum. The purpose is to be included in something; a great building project. In our case, we are living stones, being built into what Peter calls “a spiritual house”, a temple for God to live in.

Ephesians 2:19-22 expands on this same imagery:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

It is almost impossible to approach the city of Abu Dhabi without driving past the Sh. Zayed Mosque. It is an incredible edifice that dominates the entrance to the city. If you have visited it, you know that its grand scale and magnificent exterior are matched by the intricately beautiful finishing touches inside.

Now let me ask you a question. Where does God live? If we wanted to find the true and living God in the city of Abu Dhabi, where will we find him? Where does God live? Now be careful how you answer. Don’t simply swap one edifice for another with a different sign over the door. Listen carefully: God does not live in these four walls either. This is not the temple of God. God does not live in this building. We do not come to this temple to worship. We are the temple! We are each living stones in the dwelling place of God. Can there be a higher privilege? Can there be a higher calling? Can there be a greater responsibility? We are God’s temple. We are God’s dwelling place. God’s Spirit lives in us – not just individually, but corporately. The together, community life of the church is where God lives.

Isn’t that incredible? We are being built together into a holy temple, a dwelling place for God. Does that give you goose bumps? And it isn’t you in isolation and me in isolation. It is you and me together, as living stones, built into this magnificent spiritual edifice that God is building for his glory.

There is an old story of two men who were working together on a massive building project. The site was messy, with building material strewn about, and chaos everywhere. The work was hard, and often thankless, as sweat dripped from their bodies. A passer-by stopped to engage them in conversation.

“What are you doing?” he asked the first man.

The man paused, looked down at his hands and scowled. “What does it look like I am doing?” he growled. “I am carrying bricks.”

The visitor then addressed the second man as he passed. “What are you doing?” he asked him.

This man stopped. He looked up into the air above the construction site, and smiled. “I am building a great cathedral for the glory of God,” he replied.
I like that story. Many of the tasks in the church and the necessary roles of ministry are difficult, messy and often thankless and unsung. And sometimes we forget what we are doing and why we’re doing it. We end up just carrying bricks, and forget that we are building a temple for the living God.

But there is more food for thought here. You see, if we understand these verses in 1 Peter 2, we are not only carrying bricks. We are the bricks. While we work to build the temple, we are the temple that God is building.

And here is one more thought. God isn’t waiting until the temple building project is complete before he moves in. He lives in the church now, in the midst of all the chaos and messiness of her construction. The living God dwells among us now.

When I say that, I think back to our time in Alaska. Alaskans are great “do-it-yourselfers” and many of our friends were building their own homes. In Alaska, the summer construction season is short. On top of that, many of them were trying to do it without going into debt. In order to do that, they would live in their new home while they were building it. The first summer, they might live at the site in a camper or even a tent, and work very hard to get at least part of the house closed in and insulated. Usually it was the basement. Then they’d move in. There, with raw plywood, unpainted gypsum board, sheets of insulation, with a wood burning stove. They’d keep working on the interior of the home, saving money and waiting for spring so they could go outside and add the next floor of the house.

We visited in many such unfinished homes. One of the things I remember was how proud these people were of their homes. They always wanted to take us on a tour. But when they did, it wasn’t the present house they showed us. They didn’t say, “Look at this rough piece of plywood. My son got a splinter from this 2 by 4.”

No, they would describe something only they could see. “This is where the living room will be. There will be a large picture window here with a view of the mountains. This will be the master bedroom.” And their eyes would glow with enthusiasm and pride. They saw their home, not as it was, but as it would be. And they loved it.

I think God views the church that way. He loves the church unconditionally now, just as she is. And he also loves the church for what she is becoming. But let me come back to my point. He isn’t waiting until the project is complete to move in. He lives in the church now. He lives in us now, in the midst of all the unfinished pieces of plywood and the awkward 2 by 4’s that give us splinters. He is not blind to our flaws and our peculiarities and our inadequacies, but he loves the church now. He lives among us now. He is building his church and he is living in his church as he builds it. We are the temple of God; his dwelling place on earth now!

That is why a man-centered, human-needs-based view of the church will always be inadequate and incomplete. The church isn’t about you and me. The church isn’t for you and me. The church is you and me being built together for the glory of God.

The truth of what God is doing in his church and how he views the church is so magnificent that it cannot be contained in one image or word picture.

2. The church is a royal priesthood.

In the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, God very specifically designated one particular tribe to serve him in the temple. That was the tribe of Levi: the Levites. From that tribe, God chose one particular family, the descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron to be his priests. They were the only ones qualified to enter the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the temple to present the sacrifices to God on behalf of the people.

There are several dramatic stories in the Old Testament of kings who took upon themselves the prerogative of offering sacrifices to God. The consequences were tragic. Only the designated priests were permitted to come into God’s presence in this way.

So the priests filled an important role under the Old Covenant. But then we come into the New Testament and the teachings of the New Covenant. At first glimpse, it seems that the role of priests has disappeared. Who are the priests in this new temple of God?

In 1 Peter 2:5 we read: you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Who are the priests in this new temple? We are! You and I, as followers of Jesus Christ, are not only God’s temple. We are called and appointed as his priests. There is no longer a specially designated, elite category of Christians whom we call priests. We are all priests of the living God. We have the privilege of access to the very presence of God, and we are called upon to offer spiritual sacrifices to God. We will look at what those sacrifices are in just moment. But for now, let’s just contemplate this incredible reality. You are a priest. I am a priest. Priests don’t go to church to see what they can get. Priests don’t go to church to see if they like the music. Priests don’t go to church to be spectators. Priests go to the temple to serve and to worship and to offer sacrifices up for the glory of God.

The church does not exist for the glory of the priests or to meet their needs. The purpose of the church and the priesthood comprised of every believer is to glorify God. For priests, worship is not a spectator sport. It is their very reason for existence.

As God’s priests, what are the sacrifices we are called to offer up in worship?

In verse 5, Peter refers to them as spiritual sacrifices. This immediately gives us the clue that he is not referring to literal animal sacrifices like those that were offered on the Old Testament temple. But what are they? A quick survey of the New Testament revealed at least 6 sacrifices we are called to offer.

We are called to offer our bodies as living sacrifices in Romans 12:1. We’ve spent a lot of time on this as we worked our way through Romans, so I only mention it once again. As Romans 12:1 says, I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

We are called to offer up our praises as a sacrifice in Hebrews 13:15: Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. I love that image of praise as a sacrifice. It gives an entirely new dimension to singing together in the church. And it isn’t limited to music or singing. Every time we open our lips to speak the name of Jesus and say some word of faith and praise to him, we are offering a sacrifice.

he prayers of God’s people are referred to as an act of sacrifice and worship. In Revelation 5:9, we read about golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Good deeds and acts of charity are called a sacrifice in Hebrews 13:16: Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

The work of evangelism and the souls we win by our efforts are called a priestly service and a sacrifice. Just a couple weeks ago, in one of the last messages from Romans, Paul used that imagery in Romans 15:15: to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

What other sacrifices can we offer? Some in the church of Jesus Christ have been asked to make the ultimate sacrifice; the sacrifice of their very lives for the cause of Christ. This is also described as a spiritual sacrifice in the service of God. Paul uses this image in Philippians 2:17: Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.

Paul was on trial for his life. The picture is that of a priest who was pouring out wine as a drink offering on the altar. Paul states that he could die happily in the service of Christ and the Gospel, offering his life as the final and ultimate sacrifice to God. This has been the sacrifice offered by the martyrs of the Christian faith down through the history of the church. And their sacrifice is not in vain.

All of these are described in Scripture as sacrifices offered up in the worship of God and for his glory. In short, all of our thoughts, words and deeds whereby we fulfill the will of God in our lives can be pictured as acts of worship and sacrifice, being offered up to God for his praise and glory.
There is yet one more image or description of the church in this paragraph.

3. The church is the people of God.

Let’s pick up the text again in verses 9-10:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

This reality is actually expressed in several different ways in synonymous phrases. The first is “a chosen race.” The King James Version translates this “a chosen generation.” This particular word, in this case, refers not to those born during the same period of time, but to those born to a common ancestor or ancestry; hence the ESV translation “a chosen race”.

The second description is “a holy nation.” Here Peter uses the word “ethnos” from which we get our English words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.”

Finally he describes the church as “a people for his own possession.” The KJV here has a colorful expression. It says we are a “peculiar people.” Now I suppose there are many who might consider Christians to be peculiar people. But the original Greek word is a compound word: “around” plus “to make.” As one commentator explains this term, it means “to make something and then to surround it with a circle, thus indicating ownership.” This expression has taken on new meaning to me since coming to the Middle East. In Middle East traditional culture, you indicate ownership by putting a wall around something. That is why you can be driving out in the middle of nowhere and you’ll find a wall or fence surrounding a piece of land. There might be nothing whatsoever on the land. There is nothing there to protect. But the wall indicates ownership. God has marked out the church as his own possession, his special people.

It is important to realize that all of these phrases were used in the Old Testament to describe Israel as God’s special people. In Exodus 19, God describes the events of the Exodus in this way:

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples. (Exodus 19:4-5)

He goes on to describe them there also as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

But we know the sad history of Israel as a nation. They turned away from God and his covenant. Today God is calling out a new Israel, a new nation, a new people to bear his name and to be his treasured possession. This new nation, this new people is based not on a shared physical birth to a common human parentage, but a shared spiritual birth into the family of God by faith. Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God because we have received the mercy of God.

As God’s people, what is our responsibility?

Let’s look at verse 9 again: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

We are God’s holy nation, his very own people and as such we have a sacred calling. That is to proclaim his excellencies. His excellencies are his virtues, his moral goodness, his wonderful attributes. This is the ultimate calling and purpose of the church and those of us who belong to the church; to announce, tell out and make known the moral excellencies and character of our God.

We do that in two ways. We do it with our lips, by speaking about our great God. And we do it with our actions as we model those same virtues and moral qualities in our lives. This is the application Peter makes in the following two verses in 1 Peter 2:11-12:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Do you see what he is saying? As we model the character of God by our honorable conduct, even those who want to speak evil of us will be unable to do so. And the end result is that they will give God the glory for what they have seen in our lives. We declare the excellencies of our God by modeling them in our lives. And he is glorified.

You may not have realized it, but my message this morning is the first of two messages on the purpose statement of our church here at ECC. The first half of our purpose statement reads like this:

The purpose of the Evangelical Community Church of Abu Dhabi is to glorify God in word and deed and to serve him in the power of the Holy Spirit…

Remember where we began this message? Remember I told you to listen carefully: The church does not exist primarily to meet human needs. The primary purpose of the church is to glorify God.

Church. What comes into your mind when you hear that word? A building on a corner? A sleepy hour and a half on Sunday (or in our case on Friday) morning? Squabbles and endless church politics?

But what is the church, really? We are the church. Every living stone of us who has come by faith into right relationship with Jesus as the Cornerstone. We are the church.

How does God view the church? He says to us, “You are my temple. I live in you. You are my priests. Offer up the holy sacrifices of true worship. You are my people. I have fixed my name on you. I am staking my reputation in the world on you. Go and declare my excellencies among the nations.”

Here at ECC, we are a church at one of the crossroads of the world. As a congregation, we are comprised of people from over 60 nations. We are located in a country that includes residents from over 190 nations. Can you think of a better place to be a temple of the true and living God? Can you think of a better opportunity to proclaim the excellencies of the God who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light?

Here at ECC we are not just looking for attenders. We are not looking for mere spectators. We want people who are interested in being radical together with us and to join our mission to be the church for the glory of God. We are looking for living stones who are willing to be built together with us into a glorious temple in which the Spirit of God dwells.

QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

  1. What are the three images (word pictures) of the church presented in this Scripture text (and in Pastor Cam’s sermon)?
  2. Which one is your favorite and why?
  3. Discuss each image in turn. What are the implications of each in the life of ECC?
  4. How do these images contrast with the average person’s view of the church?
  5. Reflect on the large mosque at the entrance to Abu Dhabi, and then consider Pastor Cam’s question: Where does God live? What are the thoughts, emotions and applications that this brings to your mind.
  6. Spend some time in prayer as a group, reflecting what you’ve discussed in both praise and petition.