Imagine, for a moment, that you had been involved in the building of one of the great architectural monuments of the United States—the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, or, perhaps, the Hoover Dam.
You would know that you had been part of something so historic, something that was a permanent piece of the landscape, something so monumental. Imagine the pride that would well up as you walk or drive past one of these wonders, telling your grandchildren, I built that. It’s almost as if you had become part of the building yourself because the building has certainly become a part of you—your work and your legacy.
Peter is envisioning a far grander reality in his first epistle when he exhorts his audience to become ‘living stones’:
Come to Him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it says in scripture:
“Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion,
a cornerstone, chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:4-6).
We know immediately just from the bolded phrase above—‘living stones’—that Peter has a new kind of reality in mind—a supernatural reality. In the first place, a stone that is ‘alive’ is itself quite a wonder. It implies on some level a transformation of what we would normally take for granted in the natural world. But Peter is saying something much more than just that these stones are ‘alive’—as amazing a thing as that would be.
The ancient Greeks had two main words for life. One was zoe (pronounced: dzo-ay’). It’s where we get our word zoology today. The other was bios, the source of our word biology. Bios meant life in the simplest sense of the word: turtles are alive in this sense, rocks—at least under normal circumstances—are not.
But zoe means something much more. It denotes a certain quality or kind of life, often in abundance and, in the context of Scripture, life that is divine. It’s the word that Jesus uses in John 10:10 when He says that He came in order that we might have ‘life’ and ‘have it in abundance.’ One Bible dictionary puts it this way: “the Greek word refers to the uncreated, eternal life of God, the divine life uniquely possessed by God.”
So now we are faced with the question of how being a ‘stone’—seemingly the very opposite of a living thing—enables us to receive and participate in the divine life. The context cited above makes this readily apparent. Christ Himself is called a ‘living stone.’ He is the ‘cornerstone’ of which Isaiah prophesied, whom Peter cites above. Famously, Christ is also described as the ‘stone that the builders rejected’ in Psalm 118:22, which Peter also quotes later in Chapter 2.
The point here is that it is by association with Christ, the cornerstone, or the foundation stone, if you will, that we become a ‘living stone’—partakers in the divine life.
With Christ as our foundation, we are being built up into something. But what?
Peter answers: ‘a spiritual house.’
Now this may sound anti-climactic, but once again there is much more going on here beneath the surface of the text. In the Jewish culture of the time, ‘house’ in contexts like this often meant the temple. This is easiest to see in reading the Psalms, where the petitioner often expresses a longing to be in the ‘house of the Lord.’ For example, in Psalm 26:8, the psalmist declares: “Lord, I love the refuge of your house, the site of the dwelling-place of your glory.” Likewise, Psalm 66:13, “I will bring burnt offerings to your house; to you I will fulfill my vows.”
At that time, Peter’s audience would have been familiar with the physical temple, which was still standing. It’s worth noting that, much like our soaring skyscrapers or sweeping suspension bridges, the temple, which was the second one built, was an ancient architectural marvel. As British classical historian A.H.M. Jones describes it,
The whole structure was a fantastic tour de force and must have presented a most startling appearance, more like a modern skyscraper than any known building of antiquity.
No expense was spared in the materials of the structure or in its decoration. It was built after the manner of many Syrian temples—Baalbek is a striking example which still survives—of huge blocks of stone; Josephus gives as typical dimensions of a single block 45 by 6 by 5 cubits. The stone employed was a brilliant white marble; Josephus compares the general aspects of the building seen at a distance to a mountain covered with snow. The east front of the Holy Place was plated with gold which reflected the rays of the rising sun with dazzling splendor. The great folding doors of the Holy Place were likewise plated with gold, and across them was drawn a magnificent embroidered veil whose four colours typified the four elements. Over the doorway hung a giant golden vine—replacing that which Aristobulus had given to Pompey—whose clusters were as large as a man
(Jones, The Herods of Judaea, 106 to 107, as cited in Warren Carroll, The Founding of Christendom, 282).
We can assume that Peter’s Christian audience would have had some familiarity with the Old Testament accounts of the first temple of Solomon and the original second temple. But they also would have had, at least in theory, access to this real-life illustration. However, here’s where things get interesting in terms of the historical timeline. 1 Peter is traditionally dated in the early 60s, with a last possible date of 67 or 68, based on the traditional belief that Peter became a martyr under Nero (according to this site).
Something about those years should stand out to us: in 70 AD the Romans destroyed the temple.
So, as Peter’s epistle made the rounds of the early churches, his exhortation would have gained added force. The sense that the physical temple was finally gone—as prophesied by Jesus—and was to be replaced by a spiritual temple of Christians, the Church, founded on Christ would have been a particularly compelling message.
The message should be no less gripping on our moral and spiritual imaginations today. It certainly has not lost its relevance. Much could be said about what this means for us and our ‘life’ of faith in Christ. Here, three points are of overriding importance:
Partakers of the divine life: First, the image of a spiritual temple reminds us that through Christ we are called to be partakers of the divine life—“the uncreated, eternal life of God” as the dictionary cited above puts it.
Sharers in and of the divine presence: Second, in the world of ancient Israel, the temple was a place of God’s presence. As Psalm 26:8, cited above, puts it, the temple was “the site of the dwelling-place of your glory.” This verse reflects a giant truth of theology that can only be stated here: that in the Old Testament, ‘glory’ indicated the presence of God. This association is made clear here by the phrase ‘dwelling place’ (I have previously explained this here.)
Thus, not only do we become sharers in the divine life by experiencing the presence of God, but, as a sort of mystical temple, we are called to bring the presence of God to others. Certainly this is what it means to be a ‘living stone.’
Lives of beauty: Third, our lives of faith in Christ must be things of beauty. It is easy to allegorize—to abstract lessons for the moral and spiritual life—from the appearance of the ancient temple. The white marble seems to suggest purity. The golden doors signify the divine life. But above all we seem safe in concluding at least this much: our lives must be works of beauty—like precious stones—reflecting the divine glory that glows from within.