In a Nutshell…
Today, we are reviewing the Old Testament motif of the covenant people. Specifically, in the Old Testament we can really see that God’s purpose is creating a people, creating a nation. In truth, we actually see this in the New Testament, also. However, I feel like we’ve been conditioned or trained to read the New Testament individually – as if everything pertains to “me,” instead of pertaining to “us.” I think the us aspect of the gospel tends to be easier to see as we read the Old Testament.
We’ve talked about this quite a lot so we don’t need to go into it in detail. But a big part of the reason we tend to read the bible, and understand the gospel, in individual terms is that we live in a highly individualistic culture. Western modern/postmodernism tends to emphasize the individual as the most basic unit of identity. We tend to think that the beginning and end of everything is the individual – specifically, me.
Renee Descartes was a 17th century philosopher who had a significant impact on the Age of Enlightenment. Descartes is the philosopher responsible for the famous saying, “I think, therefore, I am.” The phrase came about because Descartes was trying to identify the foundation of knowledge – how could we know anything to be true or real? This led Descartes to a process which has been called “Hyperbolic Doubt” – that is, simply doubting everything. Where Descartes stopped, however, was the realization that, though he could doubt everything, he could not doubt that he was actually doubting – or rather, that he was actually thinking. Therefore, though Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt led him to believe that nothing could be proven, it was at least true that he himself was thinking that.
Now the reason we took this little detour is because with Descartes, we see the beginnings of a movement highlighted in the Enlightenment (out of which comes modernism and then postmodernism) where the individual, the self, is the basic unit of reality. And this represents a significant shift from cultures in which the family or the village or the people was the basic unit.
Now we could talk about many other reasons or influences that have led to the fracturing of community, but at the very least, I think it’s important to realize these cultural influences. Because Christianity, at least the western, and particularly evangelical, expressions of it have also, in my opinion, tended to be highly individualized.
We could go on about that, but what we find in the Old Testament, one of those passages that we really focussed on, was God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12, which says:
12 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,Genesis 12:1-3
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Here, God announces his intention to make from Abram, a great nation. The call to Abram is not an individual call – that is to say, it’s not a call that has only to do with Abram alone. Rather, it is a call to Abram that marks a beginning. And it’s a beginning that continues through Abram to encompass Isaac, and through Isaac to encompass Jacob, and through Jacob to the twelve tribes. This call was renewed (or remembered) through Moses who led the people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the promised land. And we cannot understand the story of Moses without understanding all who came before him. And we cannot understand the story of Abraham without understanding all that God would do through him.
The New Testament writers understood this, I think. They understood that God’s purpose wasn’t saving disparate individuals, but to create a people. In 1 Peter, we read:
2:4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.1 Peter 2:4-9
I think we’ve made the point before, but all of the you’s in this passage are plural you’s. It’s something that’s lost in the English because we don’t distinguish between the singular you and the plural you. But the understanding of the New Testament writers is that God is concerned about the people, not just individuals (as individuals).
Now that’s not to say that God is not interested in you or me as individuals. It’s not as if God doesn’t recognize each of our unique characteristics, our unique strengths and weaknesses. But God is calling us, and God is drawing us into, and God is saving us to be, a part of a people – His special possession, the nation of God.
Again, this is review, and we’ve talked about this quite a lot so we won’t go on any longer here. At this point, we want to consider the second part of our title, A Peculiar People. We are called to be a people, but we are also called to be peculiar. Or in words that we might be more comfortable with, we are called to be a people who are set apart.
Over the course of our O.T. survey, we’ve looked at this notion in a couple of different ways. The first has largely to do with holiness. In Leviticus chapter 20, we read:
22 “‘Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. 23 You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. 24 But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.Leviticus 20:22-24
Now we tend to understand holiness as being particularly good – that is, not doing anything wrong. Holiness, according to this understanding, is avoiding sin. And I don’t want to dissuade you completely from this idea. Sin is absolutely the problem. Sin, by its very nature, is what keeps us from being in the presence of God. Our sinfulness is absolutely what keeps us from experiencing the fullness of God.
But we also know that, though we are forgiven for our sins through the blood of Jesus Christ, on this side of eternity, we will continue to be plagued with the problem of, and the consequences of our sin.
But in this, and passages like this, holiness is intimately connected with the idea of being God’s particular possession. Holiness is understood as being set apart. Or, to put it in terms a little inelegant, it seems to mean, “don’t be like those people.”
But I believe, and I think the O.T. and the N.T. bear me out, that what’s going on is not, “be holy so you can be part of God’s people,” bur rather, “be holy because you are God’s people.”
Now I want to be clear here, because we are not saying, “don’t be like those people because everything they do is bad or wrong.” This is not an excuse to vilify everyone and every group that is not Christian. And it’s also not an excuse to withdraw from society, as if we could withdraw to some sort of “pure Christianity,” that isn’t influenced by the world around us.
Rather, what we have seen is that living as God’s people is not about qualification but about proclamation. In a world that does not recognize, or even realize, the one God, Yahweh; in a world that follows whatever trend or custom that seems fashionable; in a world that seems to think that the self, indeed myself, is the highest authority, live in such a way that proclaims the truth.
Because this is what the world has forgotten. This is what the world needs to know. Because it is only through God, through the blood of Christ, that the problem of sin is overcome. It is only through Jesus Christ that we might have life. So by living in Christ, we proclaim the life of Christ.
So What Now…?
So what does this mean for us today? I think it means a couple of things. When we think about the passage from Leviticus, we remember that these laws are being given to a people who have just been delivered from slavery in Egypt. Up until now, they have been slaves. They have had no rights, had no property, they had no citizenship because they were not a people. Now, they find themselves suddenly facing a new reality.
In 1 Peter, Peter is writing to a people who are facing constant persecution for their beliefs. These are people who have come to know Jesus Christ as Messiah and, as such, are leaving behind their identity as Romans (for example – not all of them would have been Roman citizens), and being persecuted because they are not doing the things that people typically do; they are not living the way everyone thinks they should live. And all this because they proclaim a different God.
Thus, Israel (both old and new) are called to remember who they are. They are called to know that their identity is found not in their geographical location, their cultural situation, or their political position but in the reality of God’s calling. They are reminded that they are born of grace – not because they are more numerous or more powerful than any other peoples, but purely because God has called and they have responded.
Secondly, they are called to remember how they are. They are not like the other peoples who serve other gods, who follow hollow philosophies, or seek after other measures of success. They are called to live a new life which is, in fact, the only life. To throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
And third, though this may not be obvious (but it should be), this only happens together. There’s something about the kingdom of God that can only be proclaimed by community. There’s something about God’s intention for creation, and thus His intention for redemption, that can only be demonstrated by the body. There’s something about the triune nature of God that can only be understood by people living and loving together.
Not that we get it right. Not that we ever do it particularly well. Yet remarkably, God uses imperfect people to announce His purpose for this world.
So what does this mean for us? It means that we get to be in on it. It means that by doing and being church – and by actually doing and being church, not the things we so often confuse with church – we get a glimpse of the glory that is promised to us. And it means that by doing and being church, we have the opportunity to be witnesses for Christ. Because we are a people, and we are a peculiar people. We are the people of God.