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Rainbow Divider

GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE, Part 1

by Phil Enlow

Rainbow Divider

The promises made to Abraham are at the heart of the different points of view concerning God’s chosen people. To whom do they apply? How and when were they to be fulfilled?

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4
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God’s chosen people. For many people in churches today those words produce a virtually automatic response: “The Jews” or “Israel.” End of story. Tune in to religious broadcasts and you will often hear speaker after speaker trumpet their message about God’s plans for Israel, His chosen people. But is that the end of the story? Is it that simple?

There are, of course, many opinions on this subject. Each theological tradition has its own understanding and these are often in stark contrast with each other. You possibly have your own particular ideas and I have mine. To the extent that our ideas are the product of our own reasoning or of tradition they probably are not worth much!

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to see what the writers of scripture, particularly the New Testament, have to say on the subject? After all, they were uniquely inspired in what they wrote. I certainly can’t claim that. Can you?

And it seems obvious that the greatest light, the greatest revelation of God’s purposes and plans are in the New Testament. For example in Eph. 3:4-5, Paul refers to “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” Many other scriptures convey the same thought. For example: Matt. 13:16-17, Romans 16:25-26, 2 Timothy 1:8-10, Titus 1:1-3, Heb. 11:39-40, 1 Peter 1:10-12.

God’s Purpose

One thing that I believe would help in understanding this subject — and indeed every other Bible subject! — is a look at “the big picture,” God’s purpose in everything. Why did He create us in the first place? What is He after? Where are we headed? What end does He have in mind? Is He just “making everything up as He goes along” or has He planned ahead? Can anyone prevent His plan from being carried out?

We know that Paul was given great revelation into these matters and thus has many things to say about them. One scripture that bears on God’s purpose is in 2 Timothy 1:9-10 where Paul speaks of God, “who has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Here we see God’s purpose and grace as the foundation for everything. Before there was anything, before creation itself, God had a fixed purpose in mind, something He was absolutely committed to accomplishing. His purpose was not a mere “wish” or something that He hoped would happen if everything worked out just right. It was a fixed aim with a definite end in mind. And, because of Who He is, that purpose was as good as fulfilled the moment it was conceived and settled upon. Who can say to Him, “No, you can’t do that”? He is sovereign. As Nebuchadnezzar came to learn, “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” Dan. 4:35.

In Rom. 4:17 Paul refers to Him as “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” How can He do that? Because He alone has the power to fulfill any purpose He conceives. And this God does not change His mind regarding His purpose. James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Romans 11:29 tells us that “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”

God’s purpose was established before the beginning of time; it cannot be challenged; and it will not be altered until it is completely fulfilled. The other piece of the foundation is “grace.” I have heard many definitions of grace but one I find meaningful is “God at work on behalf of the undeserving.” Grace is much more than an “attitude” God has towards us. It means that He is “at work” to bring about His purpose in us.

ALL of the resources needed to accomplish that purpose come from God; NONE from us. In saving us, God does not rely upon anything we possess as a result of being born into Adam’s family. He seeks us; no one seeks Him. He works with the heart, bringing about true repentance from sin. He calls sinners through the gospel, which is the good news of what He has done on our behalf. Even the faith to be saved comes from Him! Ephesians 2:8-9. Those who are saved become “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Eph. 2:10.

Salvation is not based upon our need or God’s pity, and certainly not upon our works or any merit in us. From beginning to end it is God’s work, based upon His purpose alone. Salvation is not something that begins in our lifetime as we experience God’s dealings. It is something that began in eternity. The “appearing of our Savior” and all that He accomplished at the cross and the proclamation of the gospel only revealed God’s purpose. So certain is that purpose that Paul says, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.”

The call of the gospel is a call to a plan that is eternal and unchangeable. It is a call to something God wanted even before men fell into sin and that will still be the focus of His heart in the eternal future, long after sin has been eradicated from His universe.

A favorite verse of believers is Rom. 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” There is that word “purpose” again. God’s work in us is designed to fulfill His purpose for us. The following verses give us a glimpse of that purpose. Rom. 8:29-30 says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

It is apparent that God’s purpose in calling men is to have a family, a family composed of those who have been changed and made like his Son. Sadly, our purpose all too often is much more earthly and involves our very self-centered desires for comfort and “happiness” here. How much better it is, how much less frustration we experience, when we grow up in Christ and more readily desire and cooperate with His purpose rather than our own.

And what a wonderful reminder we have of God’s sovereignty in verse 30! In every aspect of salvation we see God as the “doer.” He sets out to do something and He does it; it is as simple as that! And another wonderful thing to note is the past tense of each thing He does. You and I are not yet glorified in our experience, yet Paul says that those he predestined, called, and justified, he also glorified! We may not have experienced that yet but in God’s mind and plan it was done a long time ago! That takes all of the “maybe” and “hope so” out of it. Whatever God purposes He does and no one can stop Him. No one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:39.

In The Beginning

In the beginning we see God creating the heavens and the earth and pronouncing everything “very good.” Gen. 1:31. It was a world of great beauty, without decay, suffering, or death. But His final creation reveals a glimpse of His purpose: man. Adam was first created and then Eve. He was given dominion over the rest of creation.

Adam and Eve were different from all others in that they were created “in the image of God.” Gen. 1:27. This set them apart from the animals. It meant they shared certain characteristics with God in such areas as intelligence, emotion and will. It meant that they could have a real personal relationship — a fellowship — with their Creator. God did not come down to walk and talk with rabbits and horses, but He did with Adam and Eve.

God is everywhere revealed in the scriptures as perfectly pure and holy, utterly separate from sin and darkness in any form. 1 John 1:5, Isaiah 6:3, 59:2. That He could freely fellowship with Adam and Eve is a testament to their freedom from any taint of sin or evil. There was no barrier separating men from God. God’s purpose to have a family was set in motion and the fellowship He sought with man revealed the intent of His heart.

But sin entered and that amazing fellowship was broken. Adam and Eve were quickly banished from the garden so they could not partake of the tree of life and live forever. God’s mercy is revealed even in that. All that has followed reveals just how amazing God is. His greatness would surely have been seen had the human family simply filled the earth in unbroken fellowship with Him. But for God to endure the horrors of sin and rebellion against Himself and yet remain true to His original intention in spite of the great sacrifice that became necessary reveals the magnitude of his glory and grace.

The glory of God seen in the heavens is great, but His glory seen in the cross is infinitely greater. At the cross Christ did for us what we could never do for ourselves: put away the sin that separated us from God. And through his resurrection we are at last able to partake of the tree of life. This work is not something we must somehow do; it is something God has through Christ already done for us. It is a finished work, finished from the foundation of the world, just as finished as the present creation was on day seven when God rested. As He rested then, so He rests today with respect to the new creation and all who share in it. Hebrews 4:3-4. Through the gospel He calls His own to share in that rest.

The Future of God’s Family

In Hebrews 2:5-13 the writer shows where God’s purpose is headed and how. He speaks of a “world to come” in which everything is once again to be put under the feet of man. At present we do not see this but we see Jesus and what he has accomplished. Verses10-11 say, “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.”

Once again we see “family.” Paul refers to this in Ephesians 3:15 as God’s “whole family in heaven and on earth.” God is seeking a family with whom to share his love forever. Jesus is the firstborn son and through him all others become sons of God and joint heirs with him of this new creation. He is our Elder Brother and we will be like him when God is through. 1 John 3:2. As Rom. 8:17 says, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Fast-forward to the end and find these wonderful words in Revelation 21:3-4, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’” At this point sin has been done away with, a great family will have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and made ready to live in a new creation, and God’s eternal purpose will have been accomplished. From that point on, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:7, “in the coming ages” he will “show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

The wonderful scene of Revelation 21 follows the judgment scene of chapter 20. There we see men divided into two kinds, righteous and wicked, God’s people and those who are not. Only two destinies exist: the new creation or fire. However uncertain and unclear things may appear today on that day everything will be absolutely clear—and final.

But how does that come about? Why do some inherit a new creation while others are cast into the fire? Someone will immediately say, “The righteous hear the gospel, repent and believe and so are saved.” Of course, that is true but is that truly the ultimate cause?

God Chooses

To listen to some teachers and preachers you would almost think that God is a beggar. He has this great plan that He tries to persuade men to “accept.” They almost make it sound as though His plan will fail without our cooperation, that its success depends upon us!

We are considering the subject, “God’s Chosen People.” The key word in that title is “chosen.” The reason God’s people are present in Revelation 21 is simply that they have been chosen. And it is not ultimately because they have chosen but because God has. As Jesus said to his disciples in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you....” Remember, it is “God’s Chosen People.”

Theologians have been debating this issue for centuries—God’s part and man’s part in salvation—and I don’t propose to settle the debate here. However, whatever factors may be involved, one thing is clear: God’s people are His people because He chooses them.

And that choice is not made after He sees how they live and whether they are worthy or not. Paul makes this clear in Rom. 9:10-13 where he reminds us that “...Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad — in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls — she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”

That doesn’t seem fair or right to a man who wants to earn his way into God’s favor through his own righteousness but it is the truth nonetheless. As Paul says in verse 20, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” In verses 22-23, he continues, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory...?”

It is doubtful that the debate about the details of all this will be settled this side of eternity but it is abundantly clear that God chooses those that are His—in advance. How much in advance? Listen to Paul’s words in Eph. 1:3-6, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

When did He choose? Before the creation of the world, back when His eternal purpose was conceived and set into motion! He knew us; He provided for us; and He will finish what He has started. Phil. 1:6.

This adoption as sons is not what we think of as adoption today. It rather has to do with the public recognition of a full-grown son, invested with all of the rights and privileges of sonship. Paul identifies this as occurring at the time our bodies are redeemed. Romans 8:23. That is the climax of God’s work when His sons will be presented as finished products, ready to inherit the new creation. Romans 8:19.

Listen to Paul’s words in 2 Thess. 2:13-14, “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Many other scriptures use words like “chosen,” and “elect” of God’s people. Just a few examples: 1 Peter 1:2, 2:9, James 1:18, 2:5, 2 Timothy 2:10, Romans 8:30, 11:5-6, Matthew 24:22, 24, 31, 1 Thess. 1:4, John 15:19. To us the kingdom of God is a “work in progress”; to God it is a finished product, planned and made sure before the beginning of the world. Everyone who is chosen enters that kingdom not by merit, but by mercy.

God’s Glory

Most of what we have noted to this point concerning God’s purpose has to do with us, with His great plans for us and the result. But leaving it at that would be to leave out the most important thing: God’s glory. Everywhere in the scriptures we see God’s glory as central to everything He does. To the carnal mind that sounds egotistical but the reality is that He—and He alone—is glorious.

All so-called glory that is not His is nothing but empty pretense. Rom. 1:21-23 describes man’s fall into spiritual darkness: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Everything is backwards and upside-down when God’s glory is not at the center of things.

Glory is a little hard to define although we surely will know it when we see it! But “glory” reminds us of words like “great,” “wonderful,” “awesome,” “brilliant,” “amazing,” “worthy of praise,” and “worthy of worship.” Every time we see in the scriptures someone have an encounter with God in which His glory is in some measure revealed we can gain a sense of what “glory” means. Human beings who encounter God’s glory are overwhelmed by it and keenly aware of what they are by contrast. See Isaiah 6:1-5, Job 42:5-6, Revelation 1:12-18 for examples. To say the least, we all fall short of the glory of God. Rom. 3:23.

In Paul’s great exultation about God’s purpose and blessings in Ephesians 1:3-14 we see such phrases as these: “to the praise of his glorious grace” (verse 6), “for the praise of his glory” (verse 12), and “to the praise of his glory” (verse 14). That is the end result of all He does: His glory. I am very sure that we will be amazed at the wonders of the new creation but what will captivate and amaze us most will be His glory. Free from sin we will never tire of praising and worshipping Him and giving Him the praise His glory deserves.

For man to glory in anything or anyone else is utter foolishness. Consider the moon. Imagine it getting proud one day and saying, “Look at my glory! I give to earth light in the darkness. From the dawn of time men have admired me and been inspired to poetry and romance by my beauty. Men spent vast sums of money to travel through space that they might walk upon me. They note my fullness on their calendars. Am I not wonderful?”

That would be foolish, wouldn’t it! In fact, the moon has no glory of its own. It simply reflects the light of the sun. And when the earth gets in the way as it does during an eclipse the moon’s light is blotted out, not to mention the new moon when the light shines away from earth.

So it is with man and, indeed, with all of creation. Whatever glory there may be is nothing but the reflection of Him Who alone is truly glorious. There is a glory in the heavens yet, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Psalm 19:1. Great glory lies in the future for God’s chosen people but it will always be a reflected glory as we are brought into proper relationship with the Glorious One. He is the source of all that is good and right and beautiful. We were created and meant to live for His glory. In that end alone does our existence have meaning.

And so with hearts darkened by sin, mankind as a whole rebelled against their Creator. Cut off from God, His glory, and all true meaning and purpose, they fell under the power of that darkness, and wickedness reigned.

A few men sought God but their numbers dwindled until finally only Noah was left. After the judgment of the great flood there was a new beginning but things started downhill again. Before long God confused their languages in order to thwart the efforts of men who sought to unite in their rebellion at the tower of Babel. Thus were they scattered to all parts of the world.

Abraham

Then God took a major step in the fulfillment of His purpose: He called Abram, a man known later as Abraham. Abram had a knowledge of God, no doubt passed down from Noah’s day, but basically he lived in a heathen society that was given to idolatry. Joshua 24:2. He was called to leave his native land and his father’s house and go to a land that would be shown to him. Abram’s faith in the God Who spoke to him was demonstrated in simple obedience. Imagine leaving the only home you have known, leaving family and friends behind, without even knowing your destination, and all because an unseen God has spoken to you. That’s what Abram did.

In time he arrived, guided by that unseen God, in the land Canaan. He lived out his days as a stranger in a land not his own, living in tents, having no permanent dwelling, all because of faith. Why? God was at work and Abram was an important instrument in His eternal purpose.

Many wonderful promises were given by God to Abraham beginning with the promises given at the time of his call and recorded in Genesis 12:2-3, “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.”

In Genesis 18 we find a very significant statement by the Lord that reveals His sovereign hand in all that unfolded in Abraham’s life. Sodom and Gomorrah were about to be judged for their great wickedness and the Lord and two angels—who appeared as men—visited Abraham and Sarah. As they left Abraham walked along with them for a short distance. In verses 17-19 we read, “Then the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’”

I am aware that the King James Version says, “I know him,” but virtually every modern translation renders “I know” as “I have chosen.” That is the sense of the Hebrew. God did not merely possess information about Abraham; He chose him. Notice the cause and effect chain. At the end of the chain we see that which was promised to Abraham fulfilled or brought about. What caused that to happen? The Lord caused it. “The Lord will bring about....” That was an effect of something else: Abraham’s children and his household after him keeping the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. This quality in Abraham’s children was an effect whose cause was Abraham directing his children to that end. Well, why did Abraham so direct his children? Because the Lord had chosen him. The Lord Himself was the ultimate cause of every following effect. This is the reason His purpose is sure! And so we see that God’s chosen people began with God’s chosen person.

Promises to Abraham

The promises made to Abraham are at the heart of the different points of view concerning God’s chosen people. To whom do they apply? How and when were they to be fulfilled? Let’s begin by summarizing the promises, noting that they fall into several categories.

Some of the promises we might call “personal.” Among these are: “I will bless you,” (Gen. 12:2); “I will make your name great,” (12:2); “you will be a blessing,” (12:2); “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse,” (12:3); and “you will be the father of many nations” (17:4).

Another personal promise was given at a time when Abraham didn’t even have a single heir, let alone a descent of many nations: “a son coming from your own body will be your heir” (15:4). We know that the birth of Isaac was a miracle because Sarah, his wife, was naturally beyond the age of childbearing. Paul makes note of this fact in writing about Israel. See Romans 9:6-9 for an example.

Another category of promises is given to us in Gen. 12:3—”All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” See also 18:18 and 22:18. There is wide agreement that these promises look forward to Christ and the outreach of the gospel. For example, in Gal. 3:8 we read, “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’” See also Acts 3:25.

Most of the disagreement among Bible teachers revolves around what we might call the “national” promises. Clearly the nation of Israel sprang from Abraham and those who teach that the Jews are God’s chosen people base their teaching on these promises.

One aspect of the national promises was simply that Abraham’s descendants would be very numerous, beyond counting. The Lord illustrated this promise through nature. In Gen. 22:17 He said, “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” See also 13:16, 15:5, and 17:2.

Surely no one could count Abraham’s physical descendants, even those coming through Isaac alone. However, it is worth pointing out Paul’s words in Gal. 3:29 where he said, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” God reckons true believers in Christ as descendants of Abraham. That truly makes his family a large one—and uncountable!

Another aspect of the “national” promises was, of course, that God would make Abraham into a great nation. Gen. 12:2. In 18:18 the Lord calls it a “great and powerful nation.” Related to this is the prophecy that Abraham’s descendants would suffer a time of slavery but would “come out with great possessions.” 15:14.

Perhaps the most controversial area of “national” promises concerns the land of Canaan, the land where Abraham lived as a stranger, a land occupied and ruled by heathen nations. The Lord introduced this promise in Gen. 12:7 with these simple words, “To your offspring I will give this land.” See 22:17 as well. The dimensions of their inheritance were defined in 15:18—”To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.” He then lists the heathen nations who at that time occupied this territory.

These promises were clearly fulfilled as the Israelites conquered Canaan following their deliverance from Egypt. During Solomon’s reign Israel ruled over all of the territory described in Gen. 22:17. No question here. Promises made; promises fulfilled. But then we come to the “forever” passages. What about those?

In Gen. 13:14-17 we read, “The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.’”

In 17:4-8, God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Immediately after saying this the Lord continued by establishing circumcision as a sign of this covenant. It is worth noting that this sign was not confined to Abraham’s physical descendants but applied to “every male among you who is eight days old,” including “those who are not your offspring.” Verse 12. In verses 13 and 14 we read, “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

God thus established a principle that cannot be overlooked: wonderful as the covenant was, it was not without condition. If the benefits of the covenant were to be enjoyed there was a necessary part to be played by those to whom it was given. It was not that the promises were withdrawn; rather it had to do with whether someone was in a position to be blessed. In other words, there might be a true physical descendant of Abraham who, because he was not circumcised, was not reckoned among the covenant people. Abraham’s descendants were not to be reckoned by physical descent alone. This is very important to note.

How these promises are understood makes a great difference in how we understand the entire message of God’s word. On the face of it, God’s relationship with the physical descendents of Abraham is eternal as is their claim to the land of Canaan. One of the obvious implications of this issue is the claim of the modern nation of Israel to Palestine. There is a long list of other issues affected by one’s understanding of these promises and their intent. So the question is, how should we understand them? Where do the Jews of today fit into the picture? To be continued.

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