What does it mean to be a Christian? In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter reminds his readers that they belong to a community – a community that he describes in four ways. They are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] a people for his own possession’. Each of these descriptions says something different about God’s people, but each of them also stresses that a Christian is someone who lives in a community. This is a powerful reminder to us because we live in a society that stresses individuality.
A second answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Christian?’, is that they belong to a community who are the fulfilment of what the Israelites were a picture or a sample. The four features that Peter mentions initially described the nation of Israel after it was rescued by God from its bondage in Egypt.
The first feature that Peter highlights is that his readers are a chosen race. There are many races in the world, but which one of them has been especially blessed by God? In Old Testament days, the race of Israel was the chosen race. Things changed in the New Testament and the chosen race is now the church of Jesus Christ. All the members of this chosen race were once members of other races, and were so by birth. Membership of the new race depends on the choice of God. He has chosen them to live together and he is in the process of completing the members of his race so that he can bestow upon them the place in which they will dwell – the new heavens and new earth.
Second, they are a royal priesthood. It goes without saying that we are not to read this reference through modern ideas and practices connected to priests. Instead we are to look back to what happened in Israel. The function of priests was to participate in worship and there was a general sense in which all Israelites functioned as priests whenever they worshipped God. In particular, the tribe of Levi was given the important role of priesthood and wherever they went their purpose in life was to teach about God in such a way that others would worship him. Obviously they would have connected his worship to the sacrificial system of the temple and would have explained the need of sacrifices in approaching God. In addition to teaching others, the priests also led the praise of the people. It is not difficult to see how this terminology applies to believers today. Their role is to instruct others about God in such a way that they too will worship him.
Further, Christians are described as a royal priesthood. They are royal because they are united to the King, to Jesus who is their Elder Brother, the Heir of all things with whom they are joint-heirs. Because believers are royal priests, it means that they function with power given to them by their King. Their calling is to function as the praise leaders of the world, evangelising the nations so that others will come and join the priestly choir that celebrates the works of God.
Third, believers are ‘a holy nation’. If chosen generation speaks of privilege and royal priesthood speaks of praise, holy nation speaks of purity. Israel was separated from the other nations of the world and this separation was not merely a division, it was also a distinction. We can imagine how one group can be separated from others and yet remain the same as they had been. All that would mark them was that they were divided. God’s intentions for Israel were far higher than that – he wanted them to be distinctive, living together in a manner that revealed a higher level of lifestyle. It is easy for us to describe the level of difference between the wealthy lifestyle of a person in the affluent West and the poor lifestyle of a person in a deprived part of the world. We can easily describe the difference because it is obvious. The lifestyle of the Christian community should be so far above the best that the rest can offer that it will be easily observed.
A nation has government, laws, benefits and defences upon which all its activities are based. The rulers govern according to regulations designed to make life for their subjects fulfilling, enjoyable and secure. Those who belong to the nation experience its resources when they live according to its rules. In a far higher sense, this is also the case in the church. Holiness is heart obedience to the laws of Christ. When they are obeyed, the lifestyle of his nation is seen to be above all other possible ways of life. The nation that belongs to Jesus is scattered throughout the countries of the world, but they are still one nation obeying his requirements. When that happens, others see a society that is superior and blessed.
The fourth feature that marks believers is that they belong to God, they are his special treasure. There is a sense in which God values every person that he has created because each has been made in his image. Nevertheless he does not give to each person special expressions of his love. But he does provide such benefits to those he regards as his in a special manner – for example, he forgives them when they do wrong and he restores them when they confess their faults to him. He is determined to do them good.