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God intends to have many peoples, i.e., many nations which are devoted to His worship and who are known by His name. The church is like these in that it is a people of God. It is unlike them, however, in its constitution as a people.
Biblically, a people or nation finds its identity in its solidarity with a common ancestor. Peoples are ethnic units in a very biological sense. Assyrians come from Asshur. Moabites come from Moab. Ammonites come from Benammi. And, of course, Israelites come from Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. While outsiders can be incorporated into the nation, the nation itself remains a fundamentally ethnic unit, an extended family.
The church, however, has its identity in its unique solidarity with Christ. Only church saints enjoy the status of being “in Christ” in the sense that they are baptized into His body in or by the Spirit. He is their head and they are His members. The church’s solidarity as a people is not ancestral, but spiritual. Rather than being genealogically connected with a progenitor, the church is spiritually united to Christ. This relationship to Christ means that the church is not only distinct from all other peoples, but even a people of a different kind.
How, then, does the church function with respect to other peoples? Particularly, how does it function with respect to the distinction between Israel and the other nations (i.e., between Jew and Gentile)? After all, the church comprises individuals who have come out of both Israel and the Gentile nations. How does the Bible view their present status in relationship to their human national identities?
This question is answered in at least two passages of Scripture. First, Jesus Himself hints at the answer in the parable of the flock and the fold (John 10). Paul gives the answer in more theological terms as part of his discussion in Ephesians 2. Both of these passages make essentially the same point with respect to the church. Of the two, Paul’s explanation is more straightforward.
In Ephesians 2:11, Paul makes it clear that he is addressing Gentile believers, and that he is going to discuss their condition prior to their salvation. He reminds them that they were derisively called akrobustia (literally, “foreskin,” a coarse insult) by unsaved Jews (the self-identified “Circumcision,” whose only circumcision, however, was “in the flesh, made by hands”). This derogatory attitude reflected the contempt in which Jews held the Gentile world.
At that time, concedes Paul, Gentiles were indeed in a sad situation. They were without Christ, aliens from the citizenship of Israel, foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope, and without God in the world (Eph 2:12). In other words, they were in a position of distance from God and from His blessings.
During the Old Testament era, God viewed humanity under the rubric of two ethnicities. On the one hand were Jews, who had many advantages. They were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 2:4). To them belonged a national adoption, the glory, and the covenants. To them was given the law, the temple cultus, and the promises. They were descended from the patriarchs and from them would come (humanly speaking) the Messiah (Rom. 9:4-5). These were significant privileges that gave Israel a position that was near to God.
On the other hand were the Gentile nations, which enjoyed none of these privileges. God had not spoken to them. He had given them no adoption, no covenants, no promises, no law. Lacking these and other advantages, the Gentiles could only be spoken of as “far off.”
Through His mediatorial work, however, Christ Jesus brought believing Gentiles into a position of nearness rather than distance (Eph. 2:13). Furthermore, He made peace where once existed only enmity. Christ broke down the barrier between Jew and Gentile and somehow made both into one (Eph. 2:14).
How did this occur? Not by turning Jews into Gentiles, surely, nor by turning Gentiles into Jews. Israel still exists as Israel, and the Gentile nations still exist as Gentile nations. In the Old Testament, God reckoned upon Jewish humanity and Gentile humanity—or, to put it in other words, a Jewish race and a Gentile race (with all Gentile nations being viewed essentially as a bloc in distinction to Israel). In general, this distinction has not been obliterated. For example, Paul’s argument in Romans 11 turns on a continuing difference between Israel and the Gentiles.
Yet somehow both have been made into one. How? Paul’s answer is that God has created out of Jewish humanity and Gentile humanity a new humanity (Eph. 2:15). In other words, God has taken some who were Jewish and He has taken some who were Gentile, and out of these He has created a third category—so to speak, a third race. In this third race (this one new humanity) those who were once Jews and those who were once Gentiles are united under a new identity and given a new solidarity. God has reconciled them in one body (Eph. 2:17).
That body is, of course, the body of Christ, which Paul has already identified in Ephesians 1:22-23. It is the very same body that is constituted when believers are united to Christ by the baptizing work of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). Within this body, Christ is head and each believer becomes a member.
The implications are profound. Individuals who enter the church (the body of Christ) by being united to Him gain a new ethnicity. It is an ethnicity that is defined by their union with Christ. Given this new ethnicity, within the church their old ethnic identifications simply drop away. In Christ a Jew is no longer reckoned as Jewish. A Gentile is no longer reckoned as Greek or Barbarian or Scythian (Col. 3:11). When they believe on Christ, both Jews and Gentiles lose their old ethnicities and become part of a third race. They are simply Christians.
In the Old Testament, God reckoned upon two categories: Jew and Gentile. Since the day of Pentecost, God reckons upon three categories: Jews, Gentiles, and church. The church is a people. It is a race or a nation in the biblical sense. All of its members are subsumed under the new identity in Christ. Consequently, the church now stands (and will forever stand) as a distinct people of God beside Israel. It will someday stand as a distinct people of God beside Egypt, Assyria, and other Gentile nations that will seek the Lord and will be called by His name. The church will, however, be different in nature from all other peoples, for only the church is constituted by union with Christ.
Day of Judgment! Day of Wonders!
John Newton (1725–1807)
Day of judgment! Day of wonders!
Hark! the trumpet’s awful sound,
Louder than a thousand thunders,
Shakes the vast creation round!
How the summons wilt the sinner’s heart confound!
See the Judge, our nature wearing,
Clothed in majesty divine!
You who long for His appearing
Then shall say, “This God is mine!”
Gracious Savior, own me in that day for Thine!
At His call the dead awaken,
Rise to life from earth and sea;
All the powers of nature shaken
By His look, prepares to flee.
Careless sinner, what will then become of thee?
Horrors, past imagination,
Will surprise your trembling heart,
When you hear your condemnation,
“Hence, accursed wretch, depart!
Thou, with Satan and his angels, have thy part!”
Satan, who now tries to please you,
Lest you timely warning take,
When that word is past, will seize you,
Plunge you in the burning lake:
Think, poor sinner, thy eternal all’s at stake.
But to those who have confessèd,
Loved and served the Lord below,
He will say, “Come near, ye blessèd,
See the kingdom I bestow;
You forever shall My love and glory know.”
Under sorrows and reproaches,
May this thought your courage raise!
Swiftly God’s great day approaches,
Sighs shall then be changed to praise.
We shall triumph when the world is in a blaze.