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People of God - Lesson 3

A Study by Robert F. Turner

God Seeks a People in Israel

When God called Abraham and began building a race through whom Christ would come, He greatly blessed those people. Israel was “chosen,” and would play an important role in God’s scheme of redemption. However, the choosing was not motivated by merit or worldly greatness, “but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers . . . “ The statement continues: “God . . . keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments . . . and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them” (Deuteronomy 7:6-11). Chapters 7 and 8 are filled with warnings, should they turn from God. Clearly, God sought a special kind of people, even among the nation that was “chosen” to clothe His Son in flesh. Their blood relationship with Abraham was never enough. God sought a people who would love Him from the heart. He wanted them to be His people in a special way, a “kingdom of priests” submitting to Him and serving Him (Exodus 19:5,6).

What God Was Looking for in Israel

Moses taught the people, “What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12). God’s search for a truly dedicated people is further emphasized (Deuteronomy 10:16,17) when He calls upon the people to figuratively circumcise the heart (meaning genuine dedication). Anticipating the people’s desire for a king, Moses was directed to write God’s rules for a king, that he might serve Jehovah, and “that his heart be not lifted up” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). Saul was rejected as king because he failed to put God first, for “the Lord sought for Himself a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:13,14). At David’s anointing, God told Samuel He “does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God had not attained His real goal when He built the Jewish nation, or established the Jewish system of religion. These were but means to the greater end of preparing the way for Christ and a people of all nations who would freely serve Him.

The moral responsibility of each individual was not satisfied by one’s place in the physical lineage of Christ. To Jews He said, “I have set before you today life and good, death and evil . . . “ ”But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear . . . you shall surely perish.” “Therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants shall live” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). Individual responsibility is also stressed. “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son . . . “ (Ezekiel 18:20). Isaiah told the descendants of Abraham, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God” (Isaiah 59:2), and promised mercy only to those who forsook their wicked ways. In restoration prophecy it was this penitent “remnant” that would be spared (Isaiah 1:4-9; 10:20-23). Although a literal “remnant” was necessary to fulfill prophecies concerning Jesus’ ancestry, yet God was seeking a “people” on a different and much more demanding basis than that (Isaiah 49:5,6).

Even the God-ordained ceremonies and sacrifices of Judaism were not an end in themselves. Isaiah condemned mere formalism, saying, “‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?’ says the Lord.” He called them “futile sacrifices” or “vain oblations,” (Isaiah 1:10-20 KJV). God spoke through Hosea, “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6); and through Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). It seems the Jews came to think their lineage and perfunctory keeping of ordinances would satisfy God, but such was never the case. Notice then that God sought a people, among Israel and under Judaism, who would be His in a much more genuine and personal way.

The Coming of Christ

John the Baptist, preparing the way for Christ, gave a summary of the kind of people the Lord sought among the Jews. He told them to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance, and chided them for placing their trust in lineage: “. . . for I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:8,9). Jesus began His personal ministry by calling upon His Jewish brethren to repent (Matthew 4:17). The exposure of hypocrisy and traditions was typical of the Lord’s work (Matthew 15:3-9), and often included parables that warned the kingdom would be taken from the religious elite and given to those who brought forth fruit unto God (Matthew 21:33-46). As stated earlier, the first and great commandment was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:35-40).

Jesus worked with and kept the principles of the religious system under which He was born. He told His disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.” But He added, “Do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not” (Matthew 23:1-3). Jesus knew that the institution and the system were but means to a greater end. As Jesus prepared the way for that “greater end” (a true “people of God”), He stressed the deeper meaning in laws given the Jews. God did not need a card-bearing society. He wanted a special people who partook of His nature: humble, meek, merciful, pure in heart (Matthew 5:3-12). The gift on God’s altar was unacceptable if it came from unclean hands (Matthew 5:23,24). A prayer prayed to be heard of men was not heard in heaven (Matthew 6:5,6). They could not expect forgiveness from God if they did not forgive others (Matthew 6:15). Crying “Lord, Lord,” was not enough. They must do the will of the heavenly Father (Matthew 7:21). Judaism was indeed “established” by God, but one cannot honestly look at the teachings of Jesus and conclude that “membership” in the Jewish system satisfied God’s search for a true “people of God.” And the apostle Paul wrote, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28,29).

The Error of “Institutional” Religion

The Jews had an “institutional” concept of God-service. They seemed to think since God established Judaism, they satisfied God’s desire if they functioned within and were accepted by the establishment. But establishing Judaism — even setting up the Levitical priesthood — did not mean God had abdicated His throne. The conduct and proclamations of the priests themselves were acceptable only when they conformed to the instructions from God. Malachi puts it this way: “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you. If you will not hear, and if you will not take it to heart . . . then I will curse your blessings . . . “ (Malachi 2:1,2). God had appointed the priests to “keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth,” that is, as God spoke. “‘But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:7,8).

God used men to set forth His laws, but these men were not the source of those laws (this will be discussed later). They were subject to God’s Word, even as others (cf. 2 Peter 1:15,16). While God was slowly revealing Himself in types and shadows (Hebrews 9), preparing for the coming of Christ, the Jewish priests were selected to stand between the people and God, and emphasize His sacredness. But they were never excused from personal obligations. God selected from among the priests those who “feared Jehovah and thought upon His name” to be “mine own possession” (Malachi 3:16-18 ASV). The “institution,” and what some may call their “clergy” status, were never enough.

We have shown that Israel, the race, was merely developed as the physical ancestry of Christ. When these people were being welded into a nation they were given laws and regulations that could, if followed, draw them closer to God and prepare them to receive the Christ. The first tabernacle was “symbolic for the present time” or “a figure for the time then present,” (Hebrews 9:9 KJV), and the ”first testament” instituted Judaism; but underlying both tabernacle (later, temple) and Judaism was the Word of God with its application to individuals. Certainly such institutions promoted an important external recognition of God, but approval by those in the institution is one step (and often a very large step) removed from God-approval. It is very possible that today’s “Christians” have accepted an institutional concept of Christianity, and have lost sight of the qualifications set forth in God’s Word for being the true “people of God.”

Study Questions

1. Did kinship with Abraham satisfy God’s desire for the Israelites?

2. What is meant by “circumcise the heart”?

3. Why were commanded sacrifices called “futile sacrifices” or “vain oblations”?

4. What did John the Baptist say about “stones” and Abraham’s children?

5. Explain Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount treatment of the various Ten Commandments.

6. Why did John and Jesus call upon Israel to “repent”?

7. What did Paul mean by “a Jew inwardly” (Romans 2:29)?

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