This short excerpt is from Peter’s letter to the dispersed Messianic Communities in Pontus, Galatia, Cappodocia, Asia and Bithynia. The letter was written very early between 60 and 65 AD, that is only 30 years after Jesus died, and it was accepted as being written by Peter by the earliest church fathers. This section consists of 3 themes -
a) Newborn babies
b) Stones and
c) The Royal Priesthood
That’s a lot of ground covered in 9 verses of a short letter! Peter the Fisherman becomes a literary authority as he uses these three disparate motifs and expertly weaves them together to make a beautiful picture of what it means to live the life of a follower of Jesus.
In verse 2 he commands his readers to be “Like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk,” New born babies long for milk! The Greek verb translated as “long for” is very strong, it conveys a compulsion or an obsession, in this case to find milk. Any mother who has had a baby will recognise that compelling desire; as will sleeping fathers! The need is undeniable. The baby will bawl the house down in its desire to find milk. They instinctively know that milk is the thing that makes them grow big and strong and for a baby there is no substitute for pure mothers milk; not even cows milk will do! Peter says be like them in your desire for the benefits of spiritual milk.
Peter then tells them that He, Jesus the living stone is the one they have come to in order to find that milk; and by implication the one that we have to come to too!
They are, and we are living stones, that are being built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.
It all sounds very spiritual and positive, but how can we understand what Peter is trying to convey? What is his message here that encouraged his first audience to be better followers of Jesus, and how does it apply to us today?
The keys are the two verses from Isaiah the prophet.
Both quotes are very familiar - “ See, I lay a stone in Zion…..” and “The stone the builders rejected…..”
We’ve already seen that Peter’s first readers of this letter were Jewish believers in Jesus. They would be familiar with the quotes, boys began to learn the bible by heart from the age of 5 years and they knew how to make connections between similar passages.
So what did they make of Peter’s quotes? Let us look at the context of the two quotes and see what Peter was talking about.
The first is from Isaiah 28 and is a prophecy regarding Ephraim. Ephraim was one of the tribes of the Northern Confederacy that separated from Judah when the Assyrians attacked on 725 BC. In the Bible Ephraim is sometimes used as a description of the Jewish people in rebellion. If we read verses 1 - 10 of chapter 28 - we see a people in rebellion led by “drunken” leaders whose judgement is stumbling. Verse 10 says the teachers teach “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line” (v 10), which seems to be good and positive, but the Hebrew is sav lasav, sav lasav, kav lakhav, kav lakhav. This is a classic play on words, although the image of learning “line upon line” seems a scholarly device it actually reads as a series of meaningless words and syllables. Isaiah is saying that the leaders are teaching the people rubbish!
V 9 is the source of Peter’s baby and milk picture. Here the people have just been taken off the breast and weaned, and they are not yet mature. So Peters injunction is for his readers to seek pure milk in order to encourage maturing, rather than accepting wrong teaching (gibberish) when they are just weaned like their forbears! At this point Isaiah introduces the key verse “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone….” A builder’s reputation rested on him choosing the right stone to anchor the corner of his structure. A builder who doesn’t use the right stone to make a correct corner will be shamed, as will the person who puts their trust in his building. Here the the stone is laid by God himself and so it must be a perfect fit! According to Isaiah this stone will bring justice and righteousness to those who believe in him, and if we continue and read verses 13 and 14 we see God is offering life through this stone to the scoffers, to those who have made a covenant with death as opposed to life.
Peter suggests that it will not be the people of Israel, who were a people of God but persisted in rebellion and fell away, but those who were not a people of God who will recognise and follow the stone. But Peter is also reaching out to his own people still in rebellion, with historic examples of God’s mercy to even the most rebellious, alongside suggesting that those who have been outside the covenant can now come in too.
The second quote is from Isaiah 8:14 and references rebellious Israel being judged by God through the attack of the Assyrians. This time the rock is not a well laid cornerstone but a stone that causes people to stumble. Verse 17 is the key here. “I will wait for the Lord who is hiding his face from the House of Jacob. I will trust him!” He caused me to stumble but I will trust in him!
This change in emphasis in the metaphor of the stone is consistent with scripture where there is a progressive revelation of the identity of the stone and its relevance to us. In Genesis 49 we see God himself described as the Stone of Israel, in Exodus 17 he appears as the stone that provides living water in the desert, in Psalm 40 as the rock upon whom we are set, in Psalm 118 we see a Messianic prophecy which takes in the description of the rejected stone from Isaiah, and in Luke 18 we see Jesus as the rock of stumbling. The picture is further extended when we think of the writer of the Letter - Peter the “little stone” who was chosen by Jesus to be the leader of his disciples and the first preacher of the gospel Acts 2; and who in verse 5 of his letter refers to the followers of Jesus as "living stones” who now form the basis of a living Temple, built on God’s own firm foundation.
Peter takes these themes and says that those who were once outside the covenant relationship with God, whether the House of Israel in rebellion or gentiles who had never had the Law explained, can come into that relationship by recognising Him as the source of life and the cornerstone, becoming living stones themselves, drinking the pure milk of the Word and attending to matters of justice and righteousness. Thus we take up the responsibility of being a Royal Priesthood who will offer up a proper sacrifice of praise in the midst of the living temple to which rebellious men and women will be drawn.
Paul Hames, April 2020