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Fall 2004    Vol. 33 No. 2    pp. 185–193 

God’s Spiritual House: A Study of 1 Peter 2:4-5

Jerry Truex

1 Peter was written to encourage people who were emotionally drained and disorientated by traumatic historical and social events. They were reeling from the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the dwelling place of God, and they were experiencing alienation and suffering as outsiders of the social and political system. Peter invited his readers to keep coming to Jesus and to allow themselves to be built up into a spiritual temple or household of God, good news for people experiencing homelessness and wondering where God was in all of this.

1 Peter empowers its readers to choose. They do not need to search for home or God’s presence; they can choose to be the place of God’s presence as well as home and family for the homeless.

WITHOUT A TEMPLE

In the latter part of the first century, the letter of 1 Peter addressed Jewish and Gentile Christians living in a shattered world held together by the Pax Romana, the peace of Roman military might. The Romans ruled through coercion and power, intimidating client kings and crushing insurgent opposition. When the client state of Judah thought they could throw off the Roman yoke, the Romans squashed the resistance and destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. Without a temple, Jews and Christians were thrown into a state of crisis and disorientation that is almost impossible to overstate. The loss of the temple was a 9/11 {186} event, but on a much more devastating scale.

The temple had been the center of Jewish life. It was the place of God’s presence among his covenant people and, through daily sacrifices, the temple was the place where all Jews everywhere, both in Palestine and the Diaspora, had access to God. With the destruction of the temple, major changes occurred: the Sanhedrin was suspended, sacrifices were terminated, temple-feasts ended, and land was confiscated. In the aftermath of these tremendous losses, under the leadership of early Jewish rabbis, the center of Jewish identity and practice shifted in three ways: 1

  • Atonement for Sin: Without a place of animal sacrifice, the rabbis taught that acts of compassion had atoning significance. 2
  • Identity: The rabbis emphasized obedience to God’s commandments and statutes (e.g., circumcision and dietary laws) as symbols of Jewish identity.
  • God’s Presence: The rabbis argued that God dwelled with those who intensively studied the Torah. 3

Christians, both Jew and Gentile, faced the same crisis and disorientation as the Jewish rabbis. 4 Indeed, the end of the world seemed near. 5 It is no surprise, then, that we find the author of 1 Peter addressing questions of atonement, 6 identity and obedience, 7 and the presence of God. 8 In regard to the latter issue, 1 Peter 2:4-5 offers a stunning response.

WITHOUT A HOME

Living in the five provinces of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey (1 Pet. 1:1), the recipients of 1 Peter lived on the margins of society outside of legal and political power, suffering humiliation and verbal abuse. This is supported by two pieces of evidence.

First, the recipients were “transient strangers” (parepidēmoi) and “resident aliens” (paroikoi). 9 By referring to them as “transient strangers” (parepidēmoi), the author uses a term that identifies them as foreigners temporarily dislocated from their homeland; perhaps some of them were traveling merchants, missionaries, or refugees. By referring to them as “resident aliens” (paroikoi), the author uses a term for landless people from abroad who had recently taken up residence. They were below citizens, but above slaves and newly arrived foreigners. 10

The terms “transient strangers” and “resident aliens” indicate actual social conditions and should not be taken as theological metaphors, at {187} least not primarily. 11 They were noncitizens, excluded from voting, landholding, and civic offices. They were restricted from intermarriage, could be pressed into military service, and were susceptible to forms of civil and criminal punishment. 12 They were day laborers without hope of permanent and respectable work. 13 As foreigners from abroad, their languages, clothing, and customs exposed them to resentment, slander, and suspicion by the native population.

Second, the recipients were a suffering community. Suffering is mentioned or alluded to at least twenty-two times in 1 Peter. 14 Yet it is unlikely that their suffering was the result of persecution from an official anti-Christian policy by the Romans. 15 Within 1 Peter, there are no references to Roman hostility, trials, or executions, nor are there any anti-Roman comments. In fact, 1 Peter advises readers to respect authority and honor the emperor (2:13-17), advice hardly conceivable if Christians were being persecuted by Rome. 16

How, then, can we account for their suffering? It is likely that the recipients suffered the ordinary disdain of foreigners in an ancient xenophobic world. 17 But there is more. They were being verbally attacked and humiliated. They were “blasphemed” (4:4), “insulted” (2:23; 3:9), “slandered” (2:12; 3:16), “disparaged” (3:16), and “reproached” (4:14). 18 The letter itself offers one clear explanation. They were verbally abused “because of [the] name of Christ” (4:14) 19 and they were labeled Christianoi or “Christians” (4:16). It is likely that the label Christianoi originated in Latin-speaking circles. 20 From a Latin or Roman perspective, Christ had been viewed as a criminal, shamefully crucified years earlier, and anyone who continued to follow him was considered superstitious and foolish. 21 Thus, Christianoi was not originally a self-designation, but came from others (Acts 11:26) and was used in a mocking way (Acts 26:28). This fact explains why the term is absent in most of the New Testament. The bottom line is that the recipients suffered from the disadvantages that foreigners ordinarily face, and they suffered verbal abuse and ridicule as followers of a “failed” Jewish messiah.

GOD’S TEMPLE AND HOUSEHOLD

Upon reading 1 Peter 2:4-5, the original readers would have heard something very comforting, if not unexpected and startlingly new.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy {188} priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 2:4-5 NRSV)

The text begins with an imperative: “Come to him!” or “Keep coming to Jesus!” 22 As I will argue, it is an invitation to be God’s household for those without a home, and it is an invitation to be God’s temple for those without a temple.

First, Christ is referred to as “a living stone” (lithon zōnta). The word for “stone” (lithos) refers to a stone that has been quarried, hewn, and readied for construction. 23 In context, it conjures the image of a large stone used in the construction of a building. Whether the precise imagery is a cornerstone where the building was aligned (2:6), or a capstone above the rest (2:7), or a stumbling stone on the ground (2:8) is less important than hearing the author’s emphasis on Christ as the most important, but overlooked, building block of the emerging spiritual house (2:5) predicted by scripture (2:6-8).

Second, the recipients are encouraged to think of themselves as “living stones” (lithoi zōntes) aligned with the “living stone” (lithon zōnta), and they are to allow themselves to be built into “a spiritual house” (2:5).

On the one hand, the term “spiritual house” (oikos pneumatikos) may have evoked thoughts about a household or family. The term “house” (oikos) was used metaphorically for a family (cf. Heb. 3:6) or for descendants of a common ancestor (Matt. 10:6). When Paul wrote, “I did baptize also the oikon of Stephanas” (1 Cor. 1:16), he baptized a household, not a literal house. In this reading, coming to Jesus means becoming part of God’s family, a spiritual community, linked to an ancient ancestry. 24 This was good news for the recipients of the letter—”transient strangers” (parepidēmoi) and “resident aliens” (paroikoi)—who were without a permanent home. In this way, 1 Peter declares that the Christianoi themselves constitute a home for the homeless.

On the other hand, the term “spiritual house” certainly would have also called forth images of the Jerusalem temple, which was referred to as the “house of God” (e.g., 1 Chron. 28:10-13 and 2 Chron. 7:5 LXX). For certain Jews and Jewish-Christian groups, the significance and symbolism of the temple, even after its destruction, continued to legitimate authority, provide hope, and consolidate identity. It is as if the temple lived on in memoriam. Consider the following:

  1. Rabbinic literature, such as the Mishnah, preserves some of the most important memories of the temple because the rabbis believed {189} that the temple continued to define Jewish life and thought. 25
  2. The Second Jewish Revolt (132-35 C.E.) began with the minting of a Jewish coin with an image of the temple. 26 Thus, more than sixty years after its destruction, the temple not only loomed large in Jewish memory, it also became a rallying point for Jewish nationalism.
  3. Jewish apocalyptic writings also attest to the enduring significance and memory of the temple. Second Baruch presents the idea that the earthly temple has a heavenly counterpart that cannot be harmed by earthly destructions, 27 and Fourth Ezra presents a series of visions, one of which includes a revelation of the future restored Jerusalem. 28
  4. Like other Jewish groups in a post-70 C.E. environment, the temple apparently had great significance for the author and readers of 1 Peter. However, in contrast to other Jewish groups, 1 Peter presents the unique claim that the Christianoi themselves constitute a spiritual temple, the place of divine presence.

Whereas the rabbis believed that the divine presence resided in the study of the Torah, particularly the oral Torah repeated in the Mishnah, messianic Jews and Gentiles believed the divine presence dwelled among those gathered in the Name. We can see the stark contrast when we compare the Mishnah with Matthew:

But if two sit together and the words of the Torah [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them (m. Aboth 3:2, Danby).

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matt. 18:20 NRSV).

A NEW PEOPLE OF GOD

In continuity with Matthew, and in stunning contrast to rabbinic Judaism, 1 Peter 2:4-5 assumes that God in Christ dwells among those who carry the name Christianoi. In this way, the community of 1 Peter can be understood as replacing the Jerusalem temple, since there can only be “one temple for one God.” 29 So, contrary to other contemporary Jewish beliefs, the Christianoi have no need to rebuild another earthly temple, preserve its practices, or remember its precise dimensions.

Thus, there seems to be an obvious replacement motif in 1 Peter. The recipients were primarily Gentiles who had received instruction in Judaism, perhaps at a local synagogue, but then converted to {190} Christianity. 30 They had some knowledge of Jewish traditions, 31 but the internal evidence suggests they were mainly persons of non-Jewish origin. 32 What is striking is that the author addresses the recipients with terms ordinarily used to define the people of the house of Israel: 33

The elect (1:1) A royal priesthood (2:9)
The dispersed ones (Diaspora Jews) (1:1) A holy nation (2:9)
A holy priesthood (2:5) A people belonging to God (2:9)
A chosen people (2:9) God’s people (2:10)

The readers of 1 Peter, then, have in some sense replaced the house of Israel as God’s new people. 34 They are, in Paul’s words, the “true Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

CONCLUSION

Both then and now, the use of the metaphor “spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5) is not limited to a single meaning or set of mental images. Thus we are not forced to choose either family or temple as its meaning. Both sets of images were within the cultural and linguistic grasp of the first readers, and both sets of images disclosed new realities for understanding the traumatic historical and social crises they faced.

1 Peter encourages its recipients not to be passive observers of traumatic events or powerless victims of other people’s opinions. Rather, it empowers the readers to choose. They do not need to search for home; they can choose to be home and family for the homeless. They do not need to wonder where God is in all of this; they can choose to be the place of God’s presence in the world here and now. In this way, they are the people of God.

NOTES

  1. With the fall of Jerusalem, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (70-85 C.E.), Rabban Gamaliel (85-115 C.E.), and other Jewish rabbis gathered in the town of Yavneh (Jamnia) and instituted dramatic changes to Judaism, spawning what is now called rabbinic Judaism.
  2. Rabban Yohanan is noted for quoting Hos. 6:6, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
  3. M. Aboth 3:2-6.
  4. Any thought about the temple being destroyed was very disturbing to both Jews and Christians (Mark 13:1-8; 14:57; John 2:19-22; {191} 11:48; Acts 6:13). It is conceivable that Christians, especially Jewish Christians, participated in temple activities until the temple was destroyed. For example, Paul was a follower of the Way (Acts 24:14), yet he participated in temple rituals (e.g., Acts 24:18) and brought Gentile Christians to the temple (Acts 21:28).
  5. 1 Pet. 2:20; 4:7.
  6. 1 Pet. 1:2b, 18-19.
  7. 1 Pet. 1:22; 2:9-10.
  8. 1 Pet. 1:23-25; 2:4-10.
  9. 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11 (cf. 1:17). Unless noted otherwise, the translations are those of the author.
  10. Scott McKnight, 1 Peter, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 25.
  11. Based on popular Greco-Roman usage and the Septuagint. See John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 94-97, 312-13, 457-62, esp. 313, and idem, A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1981), esp. 21-100.
  12. Elliott, 1 Peter, 94.
  13. Suggested by McKnight, 25.
  14. See 1 Pet. 1:6-7; 2:12, 15, 18-20; 3:9, 14, 16-17; 4:1, 4, 12-14, 16, 19; 5:1, 8-10.
  15. The only evidence that might suggest Roman persecution of Christians (but ultimately fails) comes from a letter written to Emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia-Pontus (ca. 112 C.E.). In the letter, Pliny asks Trajan’s advice about what to do with Christians, who were denounced by local residents for worshipping Christ, shameful acts, and refusing to practice emperor worship. The fact that persecution was not happening officially is confirmed by Trajan’s reply that Christians should not be hunted down and not punished for unproved charges. See Elliott, 1 Peter, 792-94.
  16. Ibid., 100, 793.
  17. So Elliott, ibid., 94-103.
  18. The terms are overlapping synonyms. See “Blasphemō and Its Semantic Relations,” chapter 4 in Jerry Truex, The Problem of Blasphemy: Early Jewish Understandings and the Fourth Gospel (Ph.D. diss., Durham University, England, 2002).
  19. Author’s translation. The phrase en onomati Christou can be understood as causal, following J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and Jude (New York: Harper and Row, 1969); Erland Waltner and {192} J. Daryl Charles, 1-2 Peter, Jude, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1999); Elliott, and other recent commentators.
  20. Elliott (1 Peter, 789) states that Christianos uses “a borrowed Latin ending (-ianos [Gk.] from -ianus [Lat.]) or an underlying Latin formation in its entirety.” When the suffix -ianus is attached to a proper name (e.g., Christ), it indicates an associate or partisan of the one named.
  21. This is supported by the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15.44.3), who wrote: “Christus, from whom the name [Christiani] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and hateful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”
  22. “Coming” (proserchomenoi) is a present participle with imperatival force, “keeping coming.”
  23. Lithos is often used for large, prepared stones for building (Matt. 24:2), sealing graves (Matt. 27:60), millstones (Rev. 18:21), and inscriptions (2 Cor. 3:7).
  24. This position is argued by Elliot (1 Peter, 414-18); see also Waltner and Charles, 75.
  25. Glancing at a few of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah confirms this: Sheqalim deals with temple tax, Yoma with regulations regarding the Day of Atonement and the preparation by the high priest, Hagigah with the three festivals of pilgrimage to the temple, Zebahim with the preparation of sacrifices, Tamid with laws concerning the daily prayers and burnt offering in the temple, and Middot with the measurement of the temple and its furnishings. It is as if the temple continued to exist in the rabbinic literature itself, preserving information necessary for rebuilding the temple and for restarting temple worship when the time came.
  26. A nice photo may be found in Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ (orig. 1874; Bucks, England: Candle, 1997), 111. For a description of the coin, see John W. Betlyon, “Coinage,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1088.
  27. 2 Bar. 4:2-6.
  28. 4 Ezra 7:26; 10:25-27, 50-54.
  29. Quoting Josephus, Ag. Ap. 2:193. {193}
  30. McKnight, 23; also see Scott McKnight, A Light Among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991).
  31. The readers are familiar with Jewish concepts like election (1:1; 2:4-10), purity (1:2, 14-16, 33; 2:5, 9; 3:5), redemption (1:18-19), and Zion (2:6); with Jewish scripture, such as Exod. 19:5-6 (1 Pet. 2:4-9) and Hos. 1:9; 2:23 (1 Pet. 2:10); and with Jewish traditions about Abraham and Sarah (3:6), Noah (3:19-21), and Passover (lamb, 1:19).
  32. In ways not descriptive of Jews, the recipients are characterized as formerly ignorant of God (1:14), having immoral behavior and associations with Gentiles (4:2-4), having “futile ways inherited from your ancestors” (1:18), and having come “from darkness to light” (2:9).
  33. McKnight, 1 Peter, 24.
  34. Ibid.; cf. 109-10.
Jerry Truex received his Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of Durham, England. He previously taught at Tabor College, Hillsboro and Wichita, Kansas, and now teaches at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary—Great Plains, North Newton, Kansas. He also pastors the Church of the Servant (Mennonite Church USA) in Wichita.

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