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People of God - Lesson 2

A Study by Robert F. Turner

God’s Chosen, The Israelites

It would seem that free will and “no respect of persons with God” are contradicted by the heading of this lesson. But there is no denying that the Scriptures clearly speak of certain descendants of Abraham as “people of God.” We read, “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God: the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). These people were a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), “chosen” by God.

Such statements are repeated so often in the Scriptures it seems redundant to offer further proofs here. However, we should note that the fundamental idea of the Hebrew kadesh (Greek hagios —“holy”) is “separation,” with no moral or ethical connotation. These people were physically “set apart” by Divine fiat; but moral “holiness” (as the term later came to be used) was a different matter, not related to ancestry, as we shall see. For now, however, we must give careful attention to how the Israelites came to occupy such a favored physical position, and why such a choosing was made. We cannot properly appraise later connotations for “people of God” without this historic background.

Historical Background

Abraham, a man of faith (Hebrews 11:8-10), was not a Jew. The Genesis record tells us the “land of his nativity” was Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 11:26-28), and he was classified with the “uncircumcision” (Gentiles) for a time (Romans 4:10-12). But God made a promise to Abraham, which was later repeated to his descendants, saying, “I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1,2). Note, I will “make you” (KJV says “make of thee”). Abraham was the “breed stock” (excuse the Texas expression) out of whom God built a special race and nation of people. He was separated from his own country (v.1); he and all males of his household were given the special covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:1-14); and his previously barren wife, Sarah, bore him a son (“of promise”) when he was “one hundred years old” (Genesis 21:1-7). Later, that son, Isaac, took a wife from among his father’s people (Genesis 24); and Jacob, the “chosen” son of Isaac, took a wife from his mother’s people (Genesis 28:1-4). Both men were warned to take no wives of the Canaanites, nor of other nations where they dwelt, a warning extended throughout the generations yet to come. Clearly, this was a breeding process — the “building” of a race of people, who were to serve God’s purposes in a special way.

Jacob had twelve sons, and their families were the foundation of the twelve tribes of Israel, a name given Jacob when he wrestled with an angel (Genesis 32:24-28). Joseph, a son of Jacob, was sold by his envious brothers and taken into Egypt where he eventually became a prominent civil official (Genesis 41:37-43). The other sons and their families came to Egypt to buy grain, were persuaded to remain there, and, following Joseph’s death and a change of government, were made slaves of the Egyptians (Genesis 42; Exodus 1). Multiple generations of hardship welded them together as a people — becoming the “Israelites” Moses led through the wilderness to the promised land.

The Abrahamic Promise

God promised them certain lands (Genesis 15:18-21), but careful Bible study refutes any future land claims of present day premillennialists as well as those of the Anglo-Israel movement. Joshua, the military leader who led them into the land, said “So the Lord gave to Israel all the land of which he had sworn to give their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it . . . Not a word failed of any good thing which the Lord had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass” (Joshua 21:43-45). And this same Joshua said more. “[When you transgress the covenant of Jehovah your God] . . . you [will] perish from this good land which the Lord your God has given you” (Joshua 23:11-16). The prophets of Israel documented her transgressions, and recognized the penalty. “Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity . . . Unless the Lord of hosts had left to us a very small remnant, we should have become like Sodom, we would have been made like Gomorrah” (i.e., utterly destroyed, Isaiah 1:4-9). Through Jeremiah, God told the elders of the priests, “Because they have forsaken me . . . I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem . . . ” God told him to break an earthen bottle in their presence and say, “Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot be made whole again . . . ” (Jeremiah 19:1-11).

This is not “anti-Semitic” as some charge. It is a recognition of events pictured by Jewish prophets; and more important, an acknowledgment that the building of this “people” and the giving of special blessings were not without purpose and conditions. Even their being “chosen” was conditional (Exodus 19:5,6). God is not now, nor has He ever been a respecter of persons (Deuteronomy 10:17; Acts 10:34). His desires and ultimate goals for all His creatures have never changed. We must see the original choosing of Israel in the light of God’s eternal purpose for mankind — the incarnation and sacrifice of His Son, so that “all nations” may be blessed. What Israel may or may not accomplish today has the same relation to God’s purposes as that of any other nation.

Look again at the original promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2,3. “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” A repetition of the promise in Genesis 22:18 reads, “in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” We are not left to guess the meaning. Paul writes, “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). Paul’s grammatical emphasis makes it clear that the blessings for “all nations” did not depend upon Israel as a nation, nor upon Jews as a people, but upon one of Abraham’s descendants, Jesus Christ.

Physical Israel, Spiritual Israel

Furthermore, the “blessings” for all nations in Christ are spiritual. The Messianic prophecies of Isaiah so testified (Isaiah 4:2-4; 10:20-23; etc.), and promised these blessings for Gentiles as well as Jews (Isaiah 49:5,6). Peter spoke of “the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ To you first, God, having raised up his Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:25,26). In proclaiming Christ as the “sure mercies of David,” Paul said, “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 13:34-38). The physical aspects of God’s promise to Abraham were but a means to the far more important and eternal end of salvation from sins for all mankind. “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).

My first three years of schooling were in a log cabin (indubitably qualifying me as presidential material). At the close of a week the teacher, Miss Lulu, often gave her students a treat. One child would be chosen, given a basket of apples and the great honor of passing out the blessings. For a time the chosen child seemed to have all the apples, but in the end he got only one apple, and the basket was returned to the teacher. He had been chosen, not as a favorite forever, but as the vehicle for bearing blessings to all the students. Try this as an illustration for God’s “choosing” of Israel.

God’s scheme of redemption for mankind necessitated the incarnation of deity. There were highly developed races and cultures on earth at the time of Abraham, but God chose to develop His own people, a special race through whom His Son would put on flesh. To this end, He selected Abraham and his descendants to be the people through whom Christ would come (Hebrews 2:1-16). He also used them as a demonstration of His dealing with mankind, and through them He unveiled Himself. It is understandable, from a human viewpoint, that they made more of this than was promised or intended, and that it would be difficult for them to accept what seemed a lesser role when Christianity was offered for “all nations.” It is less understandable how today’s Bible readers, with the full account before them, can maintain the same materialistic and racial outlook of the early Jews.

The apostle Paul recognized certain advantages of the Jews: “Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1,2). But such advantages increased rather than lessened moral obligations (Romans 3:21-25). Despite God’s love for and assistance to these special people, He sought among them, as among all people, something more than physical or ceremonial characteristics. The externals were never enough. Paul wrote, “He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter . . . “ (Romans 2:29, see also Deuteronomy 10:16). As our study proceeds we shall see that it was necessary for God to search for a spiritual “people” even among the Jews.

The only true “people of God” in a moral sense — now or ever, Old Testament or New, regardless of race or dispensation — have always been those who freely gave themselves in wholehearted submission to the will of God. No blood line or church roster can ever take the place of this characteristic.

Study Questions

1. What were the two parts of the Abrahamic promise?

2. Why were his descendants forbidden to marry one of another tribe?

3. Why were his descendants called “holy” and “people of God”?

4. Did his descendants receive the land they were promised?

5. What was the condition demanded in order that they keep the land?

6. What was meant by “in your seed” all nations will be blessed?

7. What was the nature of the above “blessing”?

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