Peter: First-Century Revolutionary

Are we willing today to be a revolutionary as Peter was? Are we willing to give church members responsibility commensurate with their calling and enable them to become all that God plans for them to be?

Kim Johnson is pastor of the Portland, Maine, Seventh-day Adventist church.

If you had to select the ten most revolutionary texts in the Bible, which ones would you choose?

One that must have been near the top of the list for the early Christian church is 1 Peter 2:9: "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light."

I doubt that many Seventh-day Adventists today would think of Peter's verse as particularly revolutionary, at least not as revolutionary as he intended it to be. And therein lies one of the saddest stories of modem-day Adventism. Peter risked getting himself killed for referring to the recipients of his letter as "a royal priesthood," but his words are hardly a matter of life and death today.

To put Peter's revolution into perspective we need to go back into Biblical times for some background regarding Jewish priests. Before the nation of Israel was formed, the head of each home was considered the family priest. But after God brought Israel out of Egypt and established the Israelites as His own nation, the tribe of Levi, in particular the descendants of Aaron, took over all the functions of the priesthood. By the time of Christ probably some 18,000 priests lived in and around Palestine, about three percent of the population (see Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969], pp. 205, 206). That was far too many for all of them to officiate at the Temple in Jerusalem at one time, so they took turns. They were divided into twenty-four groups, or courses, with each group serving at the Temple two weeks out of the year.

Jewish society placed priests in a class all by themselves. They were separate and distinct, held in high esteem by the rest of Judaism, and looked upon as special. We can hardly imagine today the great spiritual gulf that the average Israelite saw existing between himself and the priests, who were given absolute control over every facet of religious life. The priest was the mediator between the sinful, common man and a holy God. The priest was the only man who could come near to God in the Temple. (There was even a special court for the priests, which no one else could enter.) He was the only one thought to be wise and spiritual enough to explain the Scriptures. He was the only one who fully understood the intricate Temple ritual of offerings and sacrifices, cleanliness and uncleanliness. The priest even wore a special uniform, the linen ephod, to distinguish him from the common people.

The priests (assisted by the rest of the Levites) did everything that was in any way connected with the church, or Temple. The common Israelite was thought to be too sinful and ignorant to help, even if the Levitical code had permitted it. One partial list of priestly responsibilities at the Temple has been preserved. It reads: " 'Samuel was set over the bakery. . . . Ben Maqlit was over the salt. . . . Ben Pelak was over the wood store.'" " 'Petahiah was over the bird offerings. . . . Ben Ahijah was the Temple physician. . . . Nehemiah was over the water. . . . The (priestly) house of Abtinas . . . was over the manufacture of incense. . . . Eleazar was superintendent of curtains."'—Ibid. pp. 167, 168; 170-172. The priests were also the treasurers, judges, teachers, counselors, et cetera.

In fact, the priests were so eager to make sure that the common Israelite didn't interfere or try to perform some religious function that some of the Levites were designated as Temple police to keep the ordinary Israelites outside the priestly court. Jewish writings tell us that if one of these guards was caught sleeping on duty, the penalty (loosely translated) was being beaten with a stick, or he might even have his clothes set on fire (ibid., pp. 209, 211). The only religious functions the common people were expected to perform were: (1) to be present at major religious gatherings and (2) to bring the correct offerings.

But if the priest was miles above the average Israelite, he was light years above the Gentiles. For a priest, even to touch a Gentile made him unclean.

The story is told in Jewish writings of a certain high priest who was supposed to officiate on the Day of Atonement and who was, as usual, being especially careful for seven days prior to the great event to avoid becoming ritually unclean. This, the Day of Atonement, was the high point of his year and the high point of the nation's religious year as well. Under special guard, he was meticulous in his preparation and watchfulness. But just twelve hours before the big day he had to be disqualified because on an evening walk he accidentally stepped on some Gentile spit (ibid., p. 153).

As far as the priests were concerned, Gentiles were crude, spiritual fools, almost animals, far more sinful than the worst Israelite, and good for nothing but fuel for the fires of hell.

It is against all of this background that the apostle Peter dares to write the words of 1 Peter 2:9. After having followed Christ for three years, Peter finds a revolutionary idea intruding into his thoughts. But he was raised a Jew during very conservative times; he tries to put this new concept out of his mind. It's absurd! But the conclusion is inescapable. Finally he musters enough courage to believe this "heresy," and actually alters his attitudes and activities dramatically. (Such changes did not come without great inner struggle and occasional relapses, however, as we see at Antioch when Peter betrayed his new vision and incurred the thunderous wrath of Paul.) Later, toward the end of his life, Peter has the audacity and strength of conviction even to put his radical thoughts in writing.

Peter's first letter was written to be circulated among Jewish converts, to be sure, but its primary target audience was Christian Gentiles. Gentiles! And as his stylus moves across the parchment, Peter overthrows fourteen hundred years of Jewish tradition, fourteen hundred years of priestly exclusiveness, fourteen hundred years of sacred teaching. In a few strokes of the pen, he completely over turns the Jewish system, points a finger at his stunned Gentile readers, and calls them priests. "You are now a chosen generation; you are now a royal priest hood." Amazing! Any Gentile who has accepted Christ is now totally equal to the greatest priest of Israel in religious status and access to God.

Imagine the implications of Peter's revolutionary idea. Two men are walking toward each other on a very narrow street in downtown Jerusalem. One was raised at the feet of the great Jewish teacher Gamaliel; the other has barely learned to read. One has his shoulders back, head erect, and the measured step of a very methodical life. The other saunters easily with a slight skip in his step. One looks well-to-do; the other looks like a hand-me-down exhibit. One is astute, refined, and cultured; the other is the opposite of all of that and more. One is a distinguished priest in Israel; the other a simple, smelly, Gentile Christian farmer or fisherman or laborer from Peter's congregation.

They near each other. The priest recoils in disgust and rails upon the Gentile sinner for intruding his defiling presence upon him. "You fool!" he hisses. But the ragged Gentile grabs the priest's delicate hand in his rough one, clasps him in a spontaneous bear hug, and bellows joyously in one sanctimonious ear, "We're both, priests now. I'm clean. I'm one of you!"

Peter's concept was nothing short of a revolution! "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). And for advocating these and similar ideas he would soon be nailed to a tree.

But the sad thing is that, as far as many Seventh-day Adventists are concerned today, Peter died for nothing. Over the past eighty years, the Adventist church has refused to follow Peter's leading and has allowed to develop within its ranks the same kind of gap between the priests, or pastors, and the common believer, that Peter died to overcome.

Over the years, the pastor has become the center and focal point of religious life in the local Adventist church. Many of our people still hang on to what has been called the holy man syndrome, in which they look to us as having superior holiness, spirituality, and wisdom. A rather elderly church member approached me one Sabbath after the worship hour and exclaimed, "Pastor, a dear friend is very ill. I've asked several members to pray for her, but I'm so glad I caught you. I want you to pray for her, because I know your prayers really work." Somehow she thought I had an inside connection.

The pastor in the Adventist church has become the primary shepherd, soul winner, fund raiser, organizer, administrator, and errand boy. We have created within our church a distinct class of church members, called pastors, who are seen as different from the rest. And in doing this we have thrown New Testament teaching to the wind and adopted much of the Old Testament priestly system lock, stock, and barrel. We pastors haven't always helped the situation. One small example: Why do we refer to ourselves as "workers" and our get-togethers as "workers' meetings," as if we are the only ones working for God?

Peter is trying to remind us in 1983 that there are no more common church members. Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to the priesthood. Every Christian is a full participant in all the privileges and responsibilities of a priest. The privileges include coming into the very presence of God, sensing His special calling, and participating in the most challenging and fulfilling purpose for living possible—being partners with God. The responsibilities involve all the various demands and necessities of church life.

Dr. John Bright, an Old Testament scholar, once made a statement I'll never forget. The question was asked, "What is the purpose of the seminary?" His reply was, "The primary purpose of the semi nary is to unfit men for the ministry as commonly conceived by the church members." The Biblical concept of the role of the pastor and that of the rest of the church members is so different from what most people believe that in many churches if the pastor tried to follow Scripture fully, the people would again start getting out the nails.

And I have to ask myself, as a pastor, if I am willing for my reputation, my power, my independence, and impatience to be crucified so that the revolution can go on. Am I willing to give church members responsibility commensurate with their calling and "hang in there" with them in spite of failures to enable them to become all that God wants them to be? Am I willing to invest myself in them as Christ invested Himself in the disciples and as others have invested themselves in me, that they may indeed become priests of God?

In the last part of his revolutionary statement Peter says to his readers that God "hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light," the light of their high calling (1 Peter 2:9). And what an amazing opportunity pas tors have to share in God's work by leading their members into a proper understanding of their priestly roles.

It was my first day back in the office after a week-long absence to attend out-of-town meetings. The phone rang, and a lady on the other end berated me severely for not coming to visit during her recent stay in the local hospital. I had just that morning learned the details of her situation from another parishioner, and I decided to go on the offensive. "Sister ————," I replied calmly, "I understand that you were visited by no fewer than ten ministers."

"Oh, I'm very sure you are mistaken," she retorted.

I pressed the point, "You would probably call them ordinary church members, but let me assure you that they are all ministers as much as I am."

"Out of darkness into . . . marvellous light." The apostle Peter's appeal to our members, because of their calling, is to come out of the darkness of humdrum living, the darkness of a spiritual inferiority complex. As pastors, we need to urge our people to come and understand their Biblical role, put on their priestly robes, and allow themselves to have confidence in God's choice of them as ministers. Two years ago our church added a new heading to our weekly bulletin, hoping that the message, repeated often enough in a variety of ways, would get through. It reads, "Ministers: each person; Pastor: Kim Johnson."

I love to have the opportunity periodically of informing people of some new status they have received. As a member of the personnel committee at a certain institution, I was able to tell applicants, "You got the job; you are our new ————." Recently I officiated at a wedding and had the privilege of announcing, "You are now husband and wife." (There have also been awkward moments, such as the time I was so eager to inform my parents of their new grandparent status that I dialed the wrong number from the delivery room at 4:00 A.M.! "A nine-pound what?" was the incredulous response!) But without doubt the greatest joy of all is telling a new Christian, "You are a priest!"

By God's grace I want to stand before my congregation every Sabbath and address them with deep satisfaction and expectancy as "My fellow ministers."

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Kim Johnson is pastor of the Portland, Maine, Seventh-day Adventist church.

February 1983

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