Peculiar People

Many young Christians will often hear their elders advise them to stay away from the "influences of the world" on the basis of this rationale: we are supposed to be a "peculiar people." This idea comes from the Bible - and most Christians are thinking of 1 Peter 2:9 when they mention this line - but the practical application of this principle can be a difficult thing, especially when it comes to understanding what it actually means to be a "peculiar people."

Specifically, does being “peculiar” mean we have to be strange or out of touch with society? Well, not quite. This is a common misconception that comes from a phrase in the King James Version of the Bible whose English meaning has been lost to us. In the King James Version, 1 Peter 2:9 reads like this:

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;” 1 Peter 2:9 KJV

Ok, so we have the phrase “Peculiar People” right there. But what does it mean? The word peculiar has two possible English meanings: most commonly, we use it to mean “weird” or “strange”, as in, “That guy Bob, who always wears clown outfits, he’s very peculiar.” But it can also mean “uniquely belonging to something or someone,” as in, “After a rain the earth has a peculiar smell” meaning that there’s a unique smell that arises when the rain covers the earth, and not in any other situation.

In fact, that usage is the more basic meaning of the word. In 1611, the King James translation was an accurate English translation, since people would have understood peculiar to mean unique, not weird. Today, we need new wordings to clearly communicate the meaning, since English has changed.

Make no mistake: when someone reads 1 Peter 2:9 today in the King James and interprets peculiar as meaning "bizarre," "incomprehensible," or "socially inappropriate," they are fundamentally misunderstanding both the English of the King James and the meaning of the biblical text iself.

The Greek phrase in the Bible (λαος εις περιποιησιν - laos eis peripoiesin) literally means “a people for possession” - meaning that God’s people are meant to belong to him uniquely. This is why most modern translations say something like, “You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.” (NLT) Interestingly, Peter in this passage is actually paraphrasing Exodus 18:4-6 - where God says that Israel is his unique treasured possession.

4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.
5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.” Exodus 18:4-6 KJV

The idea is very clear - the people of God are unique because of their covenant relationship with God. That specific connection makes them unlike people who are not part of that covenant.

Being a unique people who are called to be Holy, to serve God and bring others to know God may in fact sometimes make Christians seem a little strange. Christians will often make counter-cultural choices, uphold specific ethics, or take risks when others might be cautious or afraid. But being God’s people does not mean going out of our way to be weird, or out of touch with the norms and expectations of society on purpose. Some Christians will take a radical stance that makes them stand out from society, while others - whose faith is equally genuine - may happen to be perceived as “cool.” Both types of people are accepted by Jesus. Following Jesus is what matters, not what people think of you, one way or another.

The Apostle Paul made it clear that the weirdest thing about Christians is the fact that we believe Jesus saved the world by loving his enemies and allowing them to murder him. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). To some, a crucified Messiah is foolishness, to others it is a stumbling block. But this strange and sometimes ghastly teaching is the truth that ultimately sets Christians apart. Believing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and following him with our whole heart is what makes us who we are: a peculiar people.

Questions

  • Read Exodus 18:4-6 (below) and note the things that God says that make Israel unique among nations. How many characteristics can you see?
    • 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” Exodus 18:4-6 ESV
  • Read 1 Peter 2:9 and compare it to Exodus 18:4-6. How many similarities are there between these passages? How much did Peter quote from Exodus?
  • Expand the context of 1 Peter 2:9 and read from verse 1-12. What does this immediate context add to your understanding of verse 9? What are some new and interesting things you observe in the text?
    • What does it mean for believers to be a "spiritual house," or "living stones?"
    • Who is the "cornerstone" described in verses 4-8?
    • Peter gives ethical instructions in verses 1-2 and 11-12. How are those ethical instructions connected to the middle of this section, where he talks about being a priesthood, a nation, and a temple/house?
  • Let's see where Peter's agument is going: read the rest of the chapter, 1 Peter 2:13-25.
    • Given what Peter said in verse 12 and in the rest of this passage, is he concerned about how the outside world perceives the church?
    • Does Peter want the world to think of the church as strange, unapproachable, untrustworthy, and foreign, or as trustworthy, morally upstanding neighbors who contribute to and participate in society?
    • At the time this letter was written, the mediterranean world was ruled by the violent, pagan Roman Empire. How does Peter advise the church to behave in the midst of an obviously corrupt society? How does Peter advise the church to behave in the face of an often corrupt Emperor?
    • What are some actions that Peter describes in this section that may be peculiar or unique - things that non-Christians might not have a reason to do? Note especially verses 18-23.
  • What does it mean to immitate Christ, based on this passage?
  • Is living morally while submitting to corrupt authorities an implicit endorsement of their authority, or an implicit condemnation of their corruption?
  • Is it part of Christian responsibility to appear respectable in the eyes of society? If not, why not? If so, to what extent? Read Romans 13 if you need clarification.
  • Listen to the song "Peculiar People" by the band MuteMath, or just read through the lyrics. How does this particular song frame peculiarity?

We can fly with the wings of eagles, oh, oh , oh
We are peculiar people this I know

With a word we can drown a mountain, oh, oh, oh
Into the seas surrounding, don't you know?

We are peculiar people, we are peculiar people
We must set our hope and future to the sky
We are peculiar people, we are peculiar people
We will shed our human skin and learn to fly

We are peculiar people, we are peculiar people
There is more to who we are than meets the eyes
We are peculiar people, we are peculiar people
No one will convince me otherwise

We were born to fly
You and I, we’re summoned to the sky

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