By Dr. Scott Atteberry
As featured in mission:world Magazine
Looking back, I have felt sorry for the trouble we caused James Holliman. He was our Junior Boys Sunday School teacher. My friends and I were typical rowdy kids who couldn’t sit still. We were loud, obnoxious, disobedient, and disruptive every Sunday.
Yet, Mr. Holliman never lost his cool with us. He would calmly stop in the middle of the lesson and remind us to sit and listen. Then, he would continue teaching the Bible to us.
Although he probably thought we weren’t listening, it is funny how many times I recall things today that he taught us thirty years ago. In fact, many times, the seeds of Scripture he planted in my young mind now bear fruit when I’m preparing a sermon or writing Bible Study material. I’m so thankful for Mr. Holliman’s influence on my life.
A part of my life and ministry at DiscipleGuide now rests on the ministry of Mr. Holliman and others like him. I’m sure you have several “Mr. Hollimans” in your life who have supported, encouraged, taught, and influenced you in Christ. We all need each other. That’s why the local church is so important.
Within a congregation, God provides mutual disciple makers who build into one another’s lives. We all have needs and we all have things to offer. And, for the believer, there is no other entity that has been ordained with the same value, role, and necessity than the local church. Only of the church did Jesus say, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Of course, Jesus said those words to Peter, whose name interestingly means “rock.” Over the centuries there has been great confusion upon what Jesus meant with that statement. Was Christ saying that the church was built upon the rock of Peter? While a lesson in the original languages would be one way to clear up this matter, an easier approach would be to ask Peter what he understood Jesus to mean.
Fortunately, Peter takes up the theme in one of his letters to a young church saying, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4–5).
Peter starts off speaking of Christ as “a living stone.” We know he is talking about Christ because he goes on to explain that this “living stone” was “rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.” Later, in verses 6–7, Peter refers to Jesus as the “chief cornerstone,” which is a reference to an Old Testament messianic prophesy of Christ in Isaiah 28:16.
Peter was not confused as to whom the church was built upon. Like a house’s foundation, everything rests upon Christ Jesus. He is the standard bearer of the church. He sets the agenda as the Chief Cornerstone because He purchased the church with His blood. Further, He loves and rules the church with mercy and grace.
But Peter doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell his readers that “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.” Did you catch that? First, Peter says Jesus is the living stone, then, he says that believers are like living stones. Perhaps Peter is using the same wordplay that Christ used with him in Matthew 16:18 when He said, “you are Peter (rock), and on this rock (Jesus) I will build my church.”
The point is that a relationship with Christ always conforms us to His image. We become more like Him. In this way, members of a local church are representing the work of Christ to each other and the world. And, as his spiritual body, the church embodies His ministry on earth during his bodily absence.
This is why active participation in a local church is vital. Peter says that all of us as living stones are being “built up as a spiritual house.” According to this word picture, we all have a place where our lives are built into one another—like stones in a rock wall. Just as your life rests on the ministry of others before you, you have an opportunity to touch the lives of those around you. But what does that look like in the life of church members? If your experience is anything like mine, you know exactly to what Peter is referring.
After my group of rowdy friends and I promoted out of Mr. Holliman’s Sunday School class, we all found ourselves gathered on Wednesday nights in Galileans. Our leader was Richard Matthews. Brother Matthews realized early on that our group wasn’t interested in passing the steps of the Galilean program. Instead of giving up on us, however, he changed approaches. I remember the Wednesday he sat down with our group, set his Galilean manual aside, and said, “If you guys will bring your hardest Bible questions to me on Wednesday nights, I’ll help you find the answers.” Needless to say, our group of curious boys was hooked.
I remember sitting in study hall on Wednesday afternoons with my best friend scouring our Bibles for difficult questions. Week after week, as we launched our questions toward Brother Matthews, he would open his Bible and say, “Boys, turn with me to….” He never would give us the answers, but always led us to find them for ourselves. I didn’t realize it then, but Richard Matthews was teaching us to study Scripture for ourselves—a skill that I still use to this day. I’m so thankful that God placed Richard Matthews, like a living stone, in my life for that season. Brother Matthews passed away last year from cancer. I am certain he is receiving great rewards for a job well done on earth.
Peter explains that we are being built together in order to be a “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Here we find another example of where the Bible refers to believers with the same terminology as it uses to refer to Christ. Hebrews refers to Jesus as the “great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14-16). Similarly, Peter refers to believers as a “holy priesthood.”
The idea behind a priest is to be an intermediary between two parties. In the Old Testament, priests are introduced as God’s chosen ministers to go between God and man. Among many of their duties, the priests would make regular sacrifices on behalf of the people.
The Hebrew writer explains that as the “great high priest,” Jesus made the perfect sacrifice (of His life) once and for all, and declared, “It is finished.”
That means that the priesthood we are given as believers does not make atonement for sin in the way that Christ’s perfect sacrifice did. Rather, our priesthood is a responsibility to go between God and man with the message of the gospel. In the same way that the Old Testament priests foreshadowed the coming sacrifice of Christ, we now look back and proclaim His sacrifice to the world.
As a seventh grader, my student minister, Rob Hager, demonstrated this priesthood every week. He would pick up my friend Brandon and I on the way to meet families with teenagers who had visited our church the week before. As we would visit in various homes around town, I observed Brother Rob sharing the gospel over and over—many times asking Brandon and I to join in the discussion. I didn’t realize it then, but Rob was teaching us how to share our faith! I’m so thankful God placed Rob Hager, now a Baptist Missionary Association of America (BMA) pastor in Illinois, in my life as a living stone for that moment in time.
Built on the foundation of Christ, every member of a local church has a place in the spiritual house building. I’m sure you can recall those in your life who have influenced you as living stones, placed next to your life within your local church. Those are the people, like James Holliman, Richard Matthews, and Rob Hager, who make a difference in our lives.
Are you doing the same for others?
Stone by stone, our lives are placed together for mutual edification, discipleship, and evangelism. We all have something to offer. And, like any structure built with stone, if you remove one or two stones, the structure is weakened. Are you actively investing in your church? Have you found your unique place to exercise your gifts and serve alongside other living stones?