God is Calling for himself a People
However, because of the alienation and isolation brought about by our natural tendency to walk in the opposite direction as God, the need for a specific spiritual community of interdependent relationship with God and others becomes even greater. Very early in the scriptural stories we find God calling groups of people to respond to his initiative and become “the people of God.” The clearest early record we have of a definite communal call is that of Abraham. To be sure, God is blessing the individual Abraham, but a look at what God says shows that he has in mind to create his own community, ultimately one that will impact the whole world:
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
As time goes on, Abraham’s great-grandchildren form the twelve tribes of the Israelite people, who become an ethnic underclass forced to live in slavery to what was then the world power of Egypt. In the dramatic event that forges the new nation’s formal identity, God miraculously frees the Israelites (so named because God had changed Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning “God has prevailed”) and in the process institutes a covenant of loyalty with them, saying “I will take you as my people and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). Throughout the history of Israel, this covenant language of “my people” and “your God” is reiterated by the prophets (cf. Ezekiel 36:28; Jeremiah 7:23) and there is also a hint that “my people” is intended to expand beyond ethnic Israel (for example Zechariah 2:11, compare with “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” in the Abraham verses above). Interestingly, when there were problems with the community’s relationship with God, scripture sums it up by saying “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” which highlights the danger of individualism and correspondingly the importance of community in mediating right-relationship with God.
In the New Testament, the apostles pick up the same theme of “God’s People” (1 Peter 2:9-10; Hebrews 4:9) with reference to the Church. A lot of water has passed under the bridge debating the similarities and differences between the Old Testament Israel and the Church of the New Testament, such debate is outside the scope of this study. It is important to recognize, however, that there is a very strong continuity between the stories of the God-followers in the two testaments. Hebrews 11 makes it clear that a faith-full response to God (that is, a positive life-orientation toward God) is what sets God’s people apart throughout history. Paul affirms this common thread when he quotes the Old Testament with reference to “God’s people” becoming a term inclusive of non-Jewish God-followers.
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and,
“It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them,
‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9:25-26)
For our purposes “the people of God” is a concept that continues throughout both testaments of scripture right into the present day. It is important to realize that “the people of God” is the primary target of God’s intention to save humanity. Individuals are significant, but only as members of this whole, that is, individual Christian significance is derivative of incorporation into the Christian community–God’s people–who are the cloud of witnesses, both past and present, cheering us on as we live out our God-pointed lives (Hebrews 12:1).
Having seen the centrality of the “people of God” to God’s plan for humanity, it is important to explore what this looks like in more specific terms. One of the most compelling images in scripture for the church is the “body of Christ,” and this makes a good launch point for a more practical look at God’s intention for “the people of God” in the next lesson.