The most well-known sentence of Peter’s first letter to the dispersed, exiled Christians sojourning throughout the Roman empire is also the high point of the letter’s second chapter. 1 Peter 2:9 reads, “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.”
Luther reflects this verse in his Small Catechism. His reflection illuminates our understanding both of 1 Peter 2 and of the Christian life to which Peter speaks in chapters two and three.
Peter lays necessary groundwork leading up to this memorable verse. The disciple reminds the dispersed that, despite being scattered, Christ is building them up to be a dwelling place for himself and that he is the living, chosen, and precious cornerstone that is their foundation. Others reject the cornerstone on which God builds. Peter quotes Psalm 118:22 as Jesus did before him (see Matt. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19). “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (1 Peter 2:7).
This isn’t the first time Peter cites the quoted words of his friend and teacher. He and John cited them to the religious leaders. “This Jesus,” that is the one who was crucified and risen from the dead, “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).
Jesus is the cornerstone of salvation to those who believe and “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” to those who do not believe (1 Peter 2:8).
In his famous, climactic sentence, Peter offers words of great consolation to hearts and minds worried and wondering if they too rejected the “chosen and precious” cornerstone. We are not those who rejected the cornerstone. Yet Peter’s language does not say we are those who accepted Jesus, the cornerstone. Our true comfort and consolation come from the fact that we are the passive recipients of God’s gifts freely given to us in Christ. He chose us, gave us a priestly crown, sanctified us, and set us apart. We are “a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).
Luther reflects the words of 1 Peter 2:9 and 1 Peter 1:18-19 and ties them together in his explanation of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus Christ “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own” (emphasis added). The holy, precious blood of the chosen and precious cornerstone was shed for us that we may be his own, a people for his own possession.
He calls us to suffer as Christ suffered. That is, we are to suffer in service to our neighbor even if they caused the injustice.
As Peter will get to in chapter three, God freely delivers his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation to us in the waters of baptism. In these waters, he takes hold of us and claims us for his own from sin, death, and the devil.
If we are freed and delivered into the possession of Jesus Christ, our Lord, now what? We, as Luther wrote, “live under him in His kingdom and serve him.” Peter exhorts us to do nothing less. “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16).
We serve him by proclaiming “the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness and into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We proclaim his excellencies, that is the Gospel of Jesus for us, to our neighbors. This includes those with whom we live and interact in what Luther referred to as the “three hierarchies,” sometimes termed the three orders or estates: the church, the state or government, and the home/economy.
We find these estates reflected in the aspects of the Christian life to which Peter writes. We heard Peter speak in verses four and five to God building up His “spiritual house,” the church, among the scattered believers. In verses 13-17, he speaks to living as God’s people for his own possession in relation to government. In verses 18-21 and 3:1-7, Peter speaks to living in the home/economy, as he writes to domestic slaves, servants, wives, and husbands.
But Peter knows that within these stations of life, the suffering of injustice abounds. He calls us to suffer as Christ suffered. That is, we are to suffer in service to our neighbor even if they caused the injustice. “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21).
Following Christ as our example is not a matter of self-powered perfection in the Christian life. It ultimately takes shape in forgiving those who don’t deserve to be forgiven. But doing so is more than coming to terms with those who sin against us. We prefer to put limits and restrictions on who we forgive and why we forgive them in order to justify our desire not to forgive those who sin against us.
We can only forgive those who sin against us at all because our lives and service are founded on Jesus.
But to forgive as we have been forgiven is to do so without seeking permission and without requiring the repentance from the offender. Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins comes first. Then, that gracious kindness calls us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
We can only forgive those who sin against us at all because our lives and service are founded on Jesus. Peter proclaims that Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Again, Luther’s explanation reflects Peter’s words. He writes that we live under Christ in his kingdom and serve him in “righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” On account of Christ’s death for us, we now live in his righteousness, which he freely gives to us in the waters of baptism. We are now declared innocent and blessed.
We are free to lavishly spend that righteousness by forgiving our neighbor’s sins because, as Luther declares, the righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, which is ours in Christ Jesus is everlasting.
In chapter one, Peter wrote that we “have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). In chapter two, he reiterates the everlasting nature of the foundation of our imputed righteousness. “And whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. So the honor is for you who believe.” (1 Peter 2:6-7a).
Because our faith, forgiveness, and righteousness are founded on the rejected cornerstone that is Christ and his death, we will never be put to shame before the Father, “just as [Jesus] is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.”