The People of God in God’s Perfect Plan
Today, as in the history of the ages, many claim to be numbered among the people of God. When the Lord Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah, He informed the nation Israel that many who thought themselves to be the “people of God” were mistaken:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:17-23).
Many professing “Christians” today mistakenly believe they are a part of God’s people. Like their Jewish counterparts of years gone by, they believe they have done many good deeds in the name of God. The concept of the “people of God” is not well understood by those who believe themselves to be numbered among God’s people.
The study of the “people of God” is important for several reasons. First, it is important because God’s Word makes a point of the fact that God has chosen a people for His own possession and purposes. In the Old Testament, the “people of God” are those who are associated with God’s purposes and promises related to Israel, and especially to the God of Israel. In the New Testament, the “people of God” are those who have come to faith in Israel’s promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, and who are thus members of the body of Christ, the church. The Bible uses the same Old Testament terminology in referring to the Israelites as the “people of God” as it does for New Testament saints (compare Exodus 19:5-6 with 1 Peter 2:5, 9).
Second, we live in a very individualistic age. The focus of our society is inward, not outward. We urge people to act for their own benefit, and we suspect something is psychologically wrong when someone is concerned about the impact of their actions on others. The Bible’s emphasis on a “people of God” necessitates that we think and act collectively about our faith and duty and not just individually.
Third, some Christians emphasize the differences between Israel and the church so much that the similarities between these two groups are overlooked. While there are differences between Israel and the church, both groups play a similar role as the “people of God.” Studying the “people of God” highlights the way in which the church currently carries on many of the functions of the nation Israel.
Fourth, there is a great need for God’s people to be reminded anew of the basis for the creation and preservation of the “people of God” and of the responsibilities which accompany this great privilege.
Finally, the creation, preservation, and perfection of the “people of God” is one of the primary elements in God’s eternal plan for creation. From the beginning of time until now, God has been calling out a people for Himself. If we are to understand the plans and purposes of God, we must surely understand His purpose to create a “people of God” for His own possession.
In this lesson, we shall consider the “people of God” in the Old Testament and in the New. We will see that there has always been a “people of God.” We shall also see that the basis for being included among God’s people has always been the same and that the responsibilities are very similar. The dangers and temptations which threaten to keep God’s people from many of His blessings are also similar. Those who are God’s people are so because of His grace and not because of man’s good works. Let us heed well the Word of God as it speaks to us on the subject of the “people of God.”
The People of God
in the Old Testament
God’s perfect plan for creation included a nation which He chose to set apart as His “people.” This chosen “people” was the nation Israel:
“Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7).
“I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Leviticus 26:12).
God took pity on the Israelites, delivering them from slavery in Egypt and bringing them into the promised land of Canaan:
And the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings . . . . Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:7, 10).
The nation Israel became the people of God. They were a people with a very special calling. They were to be a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests.” God therefore made a covenant with them and gave them His law as a standard of His holiness to which they were to conform:
And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel’” (Exodus 19:3-6).
God set apart a special place for His people--Jerusalem--the place where God’s name might dwell and from which His chosen ruler David, and his offspring, might reign:
“Since the day that I brought My people from the land of Egypt, I did not choose a city out of all the tribes of Israel in which to build a house that My name might be there, nor did I choose any man for a leader over My people Israel; but I have chosen Jerusalem that My name might be there, and I have chosen David to be over My people Israel” (2 Chronicles 6:5-6).
Those who wished to become a part of God’s people did so by faith, as they identified themselves with God and His people:
But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).
People like Ruth the Moabitess and Rahab of Jericho (Joshua 2 and 6) not only become part of the people of God, they actually became a part of the promised line of Messiah (Matthew 1:5).
We should hardly be surprised that such people were included among the people of God. After all, the Israelites had nothing to boast about concerning their ancestry. They had no reason to feel superior to their Canaanite neighbors. Indeed, the Israelites were of similar stock and no less heathen in their religious practices. God wanted them to remember from where they had come, and that their blessings were entirely a matter of grace, not merit:
Then it shall be, when you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and live in it, that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground which you shall bring in from your land that the Lord your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “I declare this day to the Lord my God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.” Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. And you shall answer and say before the Lord your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold, I have brought the first of the produce of the ground which Thou, O Lord hast given me. And you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God; and you and the Levite and the alien who is among you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and your household (Deuteronomy 26:1-11).
And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:2, 14-15).
“Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem, “Your origin and your birth are from the land of the Canaanite, your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite”’“ (Ezekiel 16:2-3).
“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves” (Amos 5:25-26).
Before, during, and after the exodus of God’s people from Egypt, they practiced idolatry like the heathen around them. God wanted His people to know that their selection was by divine election, apart from any merit on their part:
“For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face. Therefore, you shall keep the commandment and the statutes and the judgments which I am commanding you today, to do them” (Deuteronomy 7:6-11).
Not all Israelites were included among the people of God. While some Gentiles were included among God’s people, some Israelites were excluded, because they did not trust in God and keep His commandments. Some transgressions resulted in being “cut off” from the people of God:
“‘Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel’” (Exodus 12:15).
“‘But the person who eats the flesh of the sacrifice of peace offerings which belong to the Lord, in his uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from his people. And when anyone touches anything unclean, whether human uncleanness, or an unclean animal, or any unclean detestable thing, and eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace offerings which belong to the Lord, that person shall be cut off from his people’” (Leviticus 7:20-21).105
The New Testament clearly indicates that simply being one of the patriarch’s physical offspring does not automatically make a person one of the people of God:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God (Romans 2:28-29).
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU”) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist (Romans 4:13-17).
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants (Romans 9:6-8).
The setting apart of a “people of God” was for a purpose. They were to be God’s own possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation:
“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel” (Exodus 19:5-6).
God’s people were to act as God’s servant through whom He would display His glory:
And He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, in Whom I will show My glory” (Isaiah 49:3).
God servant Israel was also called to be a “light to the Gentiles,” showing them the truth so they too could enter into God’s blessings:
He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).106
Israel’s privileged position brought with it awesome responsibilities. God’s people must be a holy people, because their God is holy:
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).107
The Law set the standard of holiness which God’s people were to uphold. They were to diligently keep the covenant God had made with His people and to carefully observe His laws:
“You should diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6;17).
“You shall therefore love the Lord your God, and always keep His charge, His statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:1).
The Mosaic covenant established the guidelines for God’s dealings with His people on the basis of their obedience to His Law. When Israel, as a nation, obeyed God’s Law, God would bless them. When His people forsook His Law, cursings awaited them:
And it shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. And He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. Beware, lest your hearts be deceived and you turn away and serve other gods and worship them. Or the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you (Deuteronomy 11:13-17).
Because of their sin, Israel did not live up to the standard which God established for them. Moses warned the Israelites concerning the temptations which lay ahead of them, especially when they entered into the promised land of Canaan. These are among those things about which Israel was warned:
(1) Idolatry (see Deuteronomy 4:9-19; 5:8-10; 6:13-15; 11:16; 12:30).
(2) Fear of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 1:28; 3:22).
(3) Intermarriage and alliances with the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:2-5).
(4) Grumbling and putting God to the test (Deuteronomy 1:27; 6:16).
(5) Adding to or taking from the Law (Deuteronomy 4:1-2; 12:32).
(6) Forgetting their covenant with God and forsaking His Law (Deuteronomy 4:23; 8:11).
(7) Taking credit for God’s gracious blessings and becoming self-righteous and self-sufficient (Deuteronomy 8:11-20).
(8) Neglecting the poor and the needy (Deuteronomy 15:9).
Moses summed up the warnings in these words:
“Beware lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And it shall come about if you ever forget the Lord your God, and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:11-20).
Old Testament prophecies warned that Israel would indeed forget these warnings and forsake the God who had chosen them. Moses reminded the Israelites of the events which brought them to the border of the promised land. Consistently, the Israelites had rebelled against God, yet God had remained faithful to fulfill His promise to the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 1-3). He told the Israelites their future would be like in the past. They would be unfaithful to their covenant, but God would be faithful for the sake of the fathers. Although they would break the Mosaic covenant, God would not break His covenant with Abraham and their forefathers:
And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you shall be left few in number among the nations, where the Lord shall drive you. And there you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice. For the Lord your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them (Deuteronomy 4:27-31).108
Even at such a happy occasion as the dedication of the temple, Solomon anticipated Israel’s unbelief and disobedience and the need for her repentance and restoration:
When they sin against Thee (for there is no man who does not sin) and Thou art angry with them and dost deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; if they take thought in the land where they have been taken captive, and repent and make supplication to Thee in the land of those who have taken them captive, saying, “We have sinned and have committed iniquity, we have acted wickedly”; if they return to Thee with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who have taken them captive, and pray to Thee toward their land which Thou hast given to their fathers, the city which Thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for Thy name; then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven Thy dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive Thy people who have sinned against Thee and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against Thee, and make them objects of compassion before those who have taken them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are Thy people and Thine inheritance which Thou hast brought forth from Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace), that Thine eyes may be open to the supplication of Thy servant and to the supplication of Thy people Israel, to listen to them whenever they call to Thee. For Thou hast separated them from all the peoples of the earth as Thine inheritance, as Thou didst speak through Moses Thy servant, when Thou didst bring our fathers forth from Egypt, O Lord God (1 Kings 8:46-53).
Israel’s history precisely followed the prophecies which outlined Israel’s relationship with God. The first chapter of the Book of Judges records Israel’s failure to expel the Canaanites from the land. In chapter 2, the cycle of blessing and cursing, of bondage and deliverance described typifies Israel’s relationship with God during the days of the judges:
Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the Lord to anger. So they forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtaroth. And the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and He gave them into the hands of plunderers who plundered them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies around them, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. Wherever they went, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil, as the Lord had spoken and as the Lord had sworn to them, so that they were severely distressed. Then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. And yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do as their fathers. And when the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them. But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways (Judges 2:11-19).
When the people of Israel demanded a king like all the other nations (1 Samuel 8), God gave them Saul as a king. Due to Saul’s sin, he was set aside (1 Samuel 15), and David and his descendants were designated as God’s choice for a king (1 Samuel 16). David’s son, Solomon, started out as a very wise and godly king, but he failed to heed the warnings God had given in His Law concerning foreign wives. God rebuked him and told of a coming division in the kingdom (1 Kings 11:1-13). Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, foolishly rejected the advice of his senior counselors and the petition of the people. He was thus left with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to follow him (1 Kings 12). The wicked Jeroboam became king of the other northern tribes and quickly led Israel109 astray.
Prophets such as Elijah and Elisha admonished Israel’s for her persistent sin, but to no avail. After much warning, God sent them into captivity by means of the cruel hand of the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:7-23). The southern kingdom of Judah should have heeded the example of her sister’s judgment, but she did not and so was taken captive by the Babylonians (2 Kings 24 and 25).
Ezekiel 16 vividly describes Judah’s sin in symbolic terms. Ezekiel likens Judah to her “sisters” Samaria (Israel) and Sodom. Her judgment, due to her sin, was designed to bring her to repentance and restoration. The promise of judgment was given to encourage God’s people and remind them that God’s blessings ultimately rest on His grace and not on man’s goodness:
“Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I have forgiven you for all that you have done,” the Lord God declares (Ezekiel 16:60-63).110
The godly Israelite considered Israel’s history from the divine point of view. They understood the nation’s fate in the light of Israel’s sin and God’s faithfulness. Psalms 78 and 106 share this perspective. Nehemiah’s prayer, recorded in the ninth chapter of Nehemiah, acknowledges Israel’s sin and God’s grace in allowing His people to return to the promised land. Daniel’s prayer does likewise:
In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of Median descent, who was made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans--in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. And I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly, and rebelled, even turning aside from Thy commandments and ordinances. Moreover, we have not listened to Thy servants the prophets, who spoke in Thy name to our kings, our princes, our fathers, and all the people of the land. Righteousness belongs to Thee, O Lord, but to us open shame, as it is this day--to the men of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are nearby and those who are far away in all the countries to which Thou hast driven them, because of their unfaithful deeds which they have committed against Thee. Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against Thee. To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him; nor have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets. Indeed all Israel has transgressed Thy law and turned aside, not obeying Thy voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against Him. Thus He has confirmed His words which He had spoken against us and against our rulers who ruled us, to bring on us great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem. As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come on us; yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our iniquity and giving attention to Thy truth. Therefore, the Lord has kept the calamity in store and brought it on us; for the Lord our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice. And now, O Lord our God, who hast brought Thy people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and hast made a name for Thyself, as it is this day--we have sinned, we have been wicked. O Lord, in accordance with all Thy righteous acts, let now Thine anger and Thy wrath turn away from Thy city Jerusalem, Thy holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Thy people have become a reproach to all those around us. So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplications, and for Thy sake, O Lord, let Thy face shine on Thy desolate sanctuary. O my God, incline Thine ear and hear! Open Thine eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Thy name; for we are not presenting our supplications before Thee on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Thy great compassion. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Thine own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name” (Daniel 9:1-19).
Israel’s history bears witness to man’s sinfulness and God’s faithfulness. In the Old Testament, the “people of God” were those Israelites and people from other nations who joined with them in worshipping and serving the One true God, the God of Israel. The people of God were not nearly as numerous as it might seem, for many who were physical Israelites were not God’s people. God’s faithfulness preserved this people until the time of Messiah’s coming.
The People of God
in the New Testament
Simply because of their physical ancestry, a number of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day had come to think of themselves as automatically numbered among the people of God. John the Baptist, followed by the Lord Jesus, challenged this mistaken idea:
Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12).
“I know that you are Abraham’s offspring; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God” (John 8:37-47).
These Jews assumed they were numbered among the people of God. Both John and Jesus assured them they were not. Even when men professed to be His people and practiced deeds which appeared to be God’s work, many of those were not His people. The people of God were not the many, but the few, who chose the narrow way:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Those who would be numbered among God’s people must receive the Lord Jesus as God’s Messiah. Jesus was the “narrow gate,” through which men would enter into God’s kingdom:
Jesus therefore said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture . . . . I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:7-9, 14-16).
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
Jesus indicated in John 10 that those included in the “flock” (the people of God) were more than just Jews. He had “other sheep not of this fold” (verse 16).
Whether Jew or Gentile, those who would enter into the kingdom and become a member of the “fold” (the “people of God”) must enter by faith in Jesus Christ. Because of the perversion of Judaism by the Jews, men had to renounce their identification with the Judaism of that day and publicly identify themselves with Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. This they did through baptism. Baptism symbolized a breaking away from faith in Judaism, as a system of works and blessings based solely on one’s physical forefathers. Baptism also symbolized an identification with Jesus as Messiah and the only way into the family of God.
The faith in Messiah which gained one entrance into the “people of God” was also the kind of faith which produced obedience. Thus, just as the Old Testament “people of God” were set apart by their obedience to God’s Law, so those who trusted in Jesus were to be known by their obedience:
And a multitude was sitting around Him, and they said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are outside looking for You.” And answering them, He said, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” And looking about on those who were sitting around Him, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers!” For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35).
The ones who become a part of the “people of God” are those who have trusted in Jesus as the Messiah, but they are also those who have been chosen by God:
“No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).
“You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you” (John 15:16).
The “people of God” are eternally secure because the One who has chosen them is faithful to keep them:
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30).
In the Old Testament, the “people of God” were the true “sons of Abraham,” those who by faith trusted in God’s promise of a “seed” who would save His people from their sins and therefore bless them. The “people of God” were never synonymous with the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. In the New Testament, the “people of God” are those who have put their faith in Jesus as the promised “seed of Abraham” through whom salvation and blessings flow to men. The “people of God” are those who are in Christ, by faith.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).
And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).111
Men did not become the “people of God” by means of the old Mosaic covenant. Rather, the “new covenant,” of which the prophet Jeremiah spoke in the Old Testament, was the basis for becoming one of the “people of God:”
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
The “new covenant” was based upon the sacrificial death of Jesus, the promised Messiah:
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:19-20).112
Thus, the rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (communion) are the initial (baptism) and the continual (communion) symbols which depict the entrance of one into God’s kingdom and into the “people of God.”
Those who are “in Christ” by faith are, as a result, the “sons of God” (John 1:12; see Romans 8:12-25). In Christ, we are God’s servants. We are also the “light of the world” (John 1:4; 8:12; Matthew 5:14). In Christ, the great High Priest, we become a “kingdom of priests,” a “holy nation,” and a “people for God’s own possession,” called “to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us from darkness to light” (1 Peter 2:4-10). And so it is that the terms (“son,” “servant,” “priest”) which were used of Israel are used of the Lord Jesus and of those who are in Him by faith.
The New Testament Gospels reveal that both the religious leaders and most of the nation Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah. As the days of His public ministry drew to a close, Jesus told a parable which greatly upset the religious leaders of the nation Israel. Jesus summarized Israel’s history as a nation and informed this wayward nation that God was going to replace Israel as the “people of God” with another “people:”
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey. And when the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. And the vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance.’ And they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers, who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER STONE; THIS CAME ABOUT FROM THE LORD, AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. And when they sought to seize Him, they feared the multitudes, because they held Him to be a prophet (Matthew 21:31-46).113
Judaism strongly resisted including the Gentiles entering into the blessings of Abraham because they considered them unworthy. This is evident in the reaction of the Jews in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) and in the on-going opposition of the Jews to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, as recorded in the Book of Acts. They understood that the preaching of the gospel broke down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles and made possible one people, made righteous by their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ:
Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands--remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Israel was unfaithful to her calling as a nation, as God’s people. What Israel could not and did not do, God did, in Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. Israel, God’s son, failed in her mission, and so God sent the Lord Jesus, His Son, to accomplish Israel’s task. The Lord Jesus was faithful to His calling. He came as a “light to the Gentiles.” And through His sacrificial death, He became the source of blessing for all who would believe in Him. What Israel failed to do as God’s servant, Jesus accomplished as the Servant of the Lord.
Israel’s Future Hope
Is there no longer any hope for the nation Israel to receive God’s blessing as a nation? Has Israel been absorbed into the church and lost all identity? Some believe this to be so. Paul’s teaching indicates otherwise:
“I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘LORD, THEY HAVE KILLED THY PROPHETS, THEY HAVE TORN DOWN THINE ALTARS, AND I ALONE AM LEFT, AND THEY ARE SEEKING MY LIFE.’ But what is the divine response to him? ‘I HAVE KEPT FOR MYSELF SEVEN THOUSAND MEN WHO HAVE NOT BOWED THE KNEE TO BAAL.’ In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.”
“. . . I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too.”
“. . . For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB. AND THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.’ From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:1-5, 11-16, 25-32).
God made specific promises to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While Israel has been unfaithful in fulfilling their obligations to the Mosaic covenant, God remained faithful to His promises. Paul words in Romans inform us that God has not given up on Israel. For a time, the nation Israel has been set aside as the “people of God.” As God warned through the prophet Hosea, they are “not His people” (see Hosea 1:9). Israel’s hope lies in the faithfulness of God, and in His promise to preserve a remnant, through whom His promises will later be fulfilled (Isaiah 1:9; 10:20-23). As the prophets promised, Israel will be restored:
Yet the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered; and it will come about that, in the place where it is said to them, “You are not My people,” It will be said to them, “You are the sons of the living God” (Hosea 1:10).
“And I will sow her for Myself in the land. I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion, and I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they will say, ‘Thou art my God!’” (Hosea 2:23).
“Also, O Judah, there is a harvest appointed for you, when I restore the fortunes of My people” (Hosea 6:11).
God has preserved Israel’s hope by preserving a remnant on whom His promised blessings can be poured out as He promised. Israel’s hardening, due to her sin, especially the rejection of Messiah, is only partial and temporary. Israel’s disobedience has been the occasion for God’s blessings to be poured out on the Gentiles. Her obedience will mean only greater blessings for the Gentiles. When God’s purposes for the Gentiles have been fulfilled, He will turn to the nation Israel, bring them to repentance, and then pour out on this people His promised blessings. Israel indeed has hope--not in her own merit--but in God’s faithfulness to His covenant made with the patriarchs.
At present, the church, the body of those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, is the “people of God.” Any Israelite or Gentile can become a part of this people by faith in Christ. But understand this clearly: those who reject Christ are not a part of the privileged “people of God.”
With the privilege of being the “people of God” come the same dangers and the same responsibilities which were true of the “people of God” in the Old Testament. Because God remains true to His Word, both in blessing and in judgment, we find the New Testament writers turning to the pages of the Old Testament to encourage, instruct, and admonish New Testament saints.
Consider two texts from the pen of the apostle Paul which speak to present day Christians about the lessons we should learn from the “people of God” in the Old Testament:
“But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB. AND THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.’ From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:13-32).
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, ‘THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.’ Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:1-12).
Several important truths emerge from these texts which are supported by other Scriptures. Ponder these truths as we conclude our study.
(1) It is a great privilege to be one of the “people of God.” Those of us who have become the “people of God,” by faith, should be humbled by the knowledge of our own sinfulness and of God’s infinite grace. We are in no way better than others for having been chosen as God’s people. Just as Israel’s roots were not a basis for boasting, neither are ours:
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
(2) Being one of the “people of God” is a stewardship which brings great responsibility. God’s blessings were never poured out on men only to be indulged in for selfish purposes. God blesses men in order that they might become a source of blessing to others. Israel, like Satan (Isaiah 14; Ezekiel 28), began to think of their privileges as something they owned, rather than as a stewardship. Like Rehoboam of old, they ceased to think in terms of serving men, but more in terms of being served (see 1 Kings 12:1-15).
The same was true for the Israelites of Jesus’ day, especially the religious leaders (see Matthew 23). They used their power to “steal widows’ houses” rather than protect the widows and the orphans. They, like Jonah before them, sought to hoard God’s blessings and to keep them from the “heathen.” No wonder so many of our Lord’s parables concerned stewardship. No wonder Jesus had so much to say to His disciples about the difference between spiritual and secular leadership (see Matthew 16:21-27; Mark 10:35-45). To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).
(3) The “people of God” face the same dangers and temptations in every age, which should cause us to have no confidence in ourselves but to trust only in God.
(4) God’s purposes and His program do not rest upon the faithfulness of men but upon His faithfulness, power, and grace.
(5) Many may profess or appear to be a part of the “people of God,” but there are far fewer than it may seem. Jesus spoke of the “broad” gate leading to destruction and the “narrow” gate leading to salvation (Matthew 7:13-14). Paul reminds us that while many experienced God’s grace and blessings as they came out of Egypt, few of them were pleasing to God (1 Corinthians 10:1ff.). There are many who think they are a part of the “people of God.” Many are those who are self-deceived. One enters into the privileges of the “sons of God,” not on the basis of ancestry nor on the basis of one’s deeds, but only on the basis of the provision of God in Jesus Christ. Are you one of those who wrongly thinks of himself as one of God’s people? Are you one of those privileged few who have entered by the “narrow gate”?
There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death (Proverbs 16:25). Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the hearts (Proverbs 21:2).
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me (John 14:6).
And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
(6) Worship plays a critical role in the lives of the “people of God,” for good or evil. Chapters 10 through 14 of 1 Corinthians have a great deal to do with the Christian’s worship. The Lord’s Supper (chapters 10 and 11) commemorates the basis of our salvation. False worship corrupts the basis of our salvation. When we fail to worship God as we must, we have begun to fall and to fail. No wonder the first commandment is that we love God alone and that we have no other “god” before Him.114
(7) We are no different than, and certainly no better than, the people of Israel. When all is said and done, I believe it will be evident that the “people of God” in this age will have done no better than the “people of God” in days gone by. The same besetting sins which plagued the “people of God” in the Old Testament continue to plague the “people of God” in the New. For this reason, Paul can use the failures of Israel to instruct and admonish New Testament saints in 1 Corinthians 10 and elsewhere. Paul states that “there is no temptation but such as is common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Just as man has not changed, neither has God, who still faithfully will provide a way of escape.
(8) Our task today is fundamentally the same as that given to the “people of God” in the Old Testament. The “people of God” were to be a “light to the nations.” Often, they did not go out from the nation but those who wished to know and to serve God came to Israel to embrace God, along with His people. In particular, people were to come to Jerusalem to seek God and to worship Him. In this age, the “people of God” have been called to go “outside the camp” as the Lord Jesus did (Hebrews 13:11-13). The church was not commanded to go to Jerusalem, but from Jerusalem, with the gospel. In so doing, God promised to be present with His people (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).
Let us be humbled by our calling as the “people of God.” And let us be faithful stewards to His calling. Let us learn from the failures of those who have gone before us. Most of all, let us look to Him who is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).
But you are a CHOSEN RACE, A ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR GOD’S OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; . . . (1 Peter 2:9-10a).
For Further Study and Meditation
(1) Why did God set apart a chosen people?
God set apart the nation of Israel as the object of His blessings, and as the instrument through which these blessings would be poured out on other nations (see Genesis 12:1-3). It is this people who are to demonstrate God’s character to others. They are to be holy, as He is holy, and gracious as He is gracious. They are to care for the widows, orphans and strangers, as a manifestation of His care for the defenseless. God’s power is demonstrated through His care and protection of His people.
(2) On what basis does God choose this people?
The “people of God” are not chosen on the basis of their merit or worthiness for this position of privilege. The “people of God” have, as a group, not been those whom natural men would have chosen for their calling. Israel was, in its origins, exceptionally small and idolatrous. The church has no more to boast in than Israel, other than in God and His grace (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). The basis for God’s choice of those whom He will bless is always His sovereign grace and not man’s merits.
(3) On what basis are men included among God’s people?
Men are included or excluded from the “people of God” on the basis of their response to God, especially His promised Messiah. All of the “people of God” are those who trust in God’s provision for salvation--Messiah. All of those who are excluded from the “people of God” are those who reject the promised Messiah. The “people of God” in the Old Testament trusted God on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant and conducted themselves on the basis of the Mosaic covenant. The “people of God” in the New Testament trust in God on the basis of the New covenant (predicted by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Jesus Christ). They also conduct themselves according to the standards of God’s holiness as revealed in the Word (which includes the Law).
(4) How are the “people of God” in the New Testament similar to and different from the “people of God” in the Old Testament?
The “people of God,” in the Old Testament or the New are those who have trusted in God’s provision for salvation. The Old Testament “people of God” trusted in the coming Savior. New Testament “people of God” trust in the Savior who has come. Both are a chosen people, a people for God’s own possession, a people who are a priestly nation, and through whom the holiness and power of God are demonstrated. The Old Testament “people of God” went to Jerusalem to worship and serve God. The New Testament “people of God” have gone out from Jerusalem to worship and serve Him, as a light to the nations. The “people of God” throughout history have been fallible sinners, whose blessings were based only on God’s grace and faithfulness.
(5) What are the responsibilities of the “people of God”?
First and foremost, God’s people are to trust in God and to obey His commandments. They are not to worship or serve any other gods. They are to be a holy people and to serve God as a priestly nation. They are not the owners of God’s blessings, but stewards of them. They are to trust in God for His blessings, and to be the instrument of God in sharing these blessings with others.
(6) What dangers face the “people of God”?
The dangers which face God’s people are numerous, including idolatry, the fear of men rather than God, sinful alliances and associations with those who are heathen and godless, grumbling against God and putting Him to the test, changing God’s Laws, forsaking their covenant with God, turning grace into an occasion for sin, or taking credit for God’s grace toward them, and neglecting the needy. Many of these dangers listed in the Old Testament Scriptures are summed up in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.
(7) What can we learn from the “people of God” of the past?
We can learn that God’s calling and blessings are a privilege, based upon His grace, and not a result of man’s merits or works. We can learn that man is fallible, but that God is always faithful to His covenant with men. We can learn the sins and failures of men in the past what dangers to watch out for in our own lives.
The “people of God”:
- Old Testament: Exodus 3:7, 10; 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Ruth 1:16; 2 Chronicles 6:5-6; Jeremiah 31:31-33
- New Testament: Luke 22:19-20; see Hebrews 7:22; 8:6-13; 9:15-22; 10:10-31; 11:25; 12:24; 13:20-21; John 1:12-13; 10:7-9, 14-16; Acts 10-11, 15; Romans 9-11; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:4-10; 1 John 5:11-13
God’s selection of His people is not based upon their worthiness, but on God’s sovereign grace:
- Israel: Deuteronomy 7:6-11; 26:1-11; Joshua 24:2, 14-15; Ezekiel 16:2-3; Amos 5:25-26
- The Church: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
There are those who think they are God’s people who are not:
- Those “cut off from Israel:” (Exodus 12:15; Leviticus 7:20-21; 17:8-10; 18:29; 20:3,5,6,17,18; 22:3,24; 23:29; 26:30.)
- Those who assumed physical descent from the patriarchs was the basis for being one of God’s people: (Matthew 3:7-12; 7:17-23; John 8:37-47; Romans 2:28-29; 4:13-17; 9:6-8)
God’s purposes for setting apart a “people of God”
- Exodus 19:3-6; Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; 20:7; Deuteronomy 7:6; 1 Peter 1:14-16; Isaiah 49:3,6; 1 Peter 2:9-10
The obligations of God’s people:
- Deuteronomy 6:17; 11:1, 13-17
The warnings given to God’s people:
- Idolatry: Deuteronomy 4:9-19; 5:8-10; 6:13-15; 11:16; 12:30)
- Fearing the Canaanites: Deuteronomy 1:28; 3:22
- Intermarriage and alliances with the Canaanites: Deuteronomy 7:2-5
- Grumbling and putting God to the test: Deuteronomy 6:16
- Adding to or taking away from the Law: Deuteronomy 4:1-2; 12:32
- Forgetting their covenant with God and forsaking His Law: Deuteronomy 4:23; 8:11
- Taking credit for God’s grace; becoming self-sufficient and self-righteous: Deuteronomy 8:11-20
- Neglecting the poor and needy: Deuteronomy 15:9
Prophecies of Israel’s future:
- Deuteronomy 4:27-31; Deuteronomy 28-32 ; 1 Kings 8:46-53
An overview of the history of the Old Testament “people of God”
- During the period of the judges: Judges 1 and 2
- From Jacob to David: Psalm 78
- From Egypt to captivity: Psalm 106
- From creation to the end of Judah’s captivity: Nehemiah 9:5-38
- A summary of Israel’s sin and God’s grace: Daniel 9:1-14
- Symbolic histories: Isaiah 5; Ezekiel 16, 23
- Jesus’ survey of Israel’s history: Matthew 21:1-46
- Stephen’s summary of Israel’s history: Acts 7
The basis for Israel’s future hope:
- Deuteronomy 4:27-31; 30:1-10; Jeremiah 31:31-40; Ezekiel 16:60-63; 37; Daniel 9:24-27; 12:1-13; Hosea 1:10; 2:23; 6:11; Romans 9-11
Lessons we can learn from the “people of God” in the past:
- 1 Corinthians 10:1-12; Romans 11:11-32; Hebrews 11:25
Remember me, O LORD, in Thy favor toward Thy people; Visit me with Thy salvation, That I may see the prosperity of Thy chosen ones, That I may rejoice in the gladness of Thy nation, That I may glory with Thine inheritance. Save us, O LORD our God, And gather us from among the nations, To give thanks to Thy holy name, And glory in Thy praise. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, From everlasting even to everlasting. And let all the people say, “Amen.” Praise the LORD!
106 Here, as well as in Isaiah 42:6, the “Servant of the Lord” is the Messiah. He is the One who will fulfill Israel’s mission, which His people failed to accomplish. Israel did understand that they were to be a light to the nations, however, as Paul states in Romans 2:19-20.