Series - People of God

People of God: Heart Circumcision and Gentiles

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God commanded that Israelite males should be circumcised as a mark of their inclusion in the covenant that was made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This command was never rescinded. As a characteristic of Jewish people, it has been perpetuated to the present day.

In the Torah, however, Moses clearly implied that external circumcision was not a sufficient condition for enjoying the covenant blessings. Early in Deuteronomy he addressed the stubbornness of the Israelites by instructing them to circumcise their hearts (Deut. 10:16). Later in the book he spoke of a time when the nation of Israel would fall under the judgment of God, be driven into exile, and then be regathered into the land. At that time, he said, God would circumcise the heart of the entire nation to love the Lord God (Deut. 30:6). The circumcised heart of Deuteronomy appears to correspond to Ezekiel’s “new heart” or “heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26) as well as the law written on the heart (Jer. 31:33).

All of these passages are focusing upon an inward change or transformation that accompanies repentance and results in devotion and obedience to God. This inward change is something that God Himself will work. According to the prophetic passages, God will someday accomplish this inward change within the entire nation of Israel. What would eventually be done for the nation, however, could be worked in the individual heart at any period of salvation history. This change is almost certainly the same thing that Jesus calls being “born from above” (John 3:3), and that Paul refers to as the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).

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People of God: Circumcision Outer and Inner

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God first commanded circumcision of Abraham in Genesis 17. The rite was to be a token of the covenant that God had made with Abraham (17:11). It was to be applied not only to Abraham and his descendants, but also to servants who were born in his house and slaves he had purchased from foreigners (17:12-13). Any males who were not circumcised were to be cut off from the people as covenant breakers.

Circumcision modified the body as a physical evidence that God had chosen Abraham and his offspring. It was a mark or token of inclusion in the promised nation. In principle, to be circumcised was to claim a share in the promise and to wear the badge of participation as an heir. But paradoxically, the introduction of circumcision also implied that not everyone who received the sign would actually receive the promise. Why? Because at the very time that Abraham was commanded to institute circumcision, he was clearly told that Ishmael would not receive the promise (17:18-21). Nevertheless, Ishmael received circumcision (17:26).

From the very beginning it should have been clear that circumcision was neither an efficacious means to gaining nor an infallible sign of possessing the promise. All those who were heirs of the promise were obligated to receive circumcision, but not all those who received circumcision became heirs of the promise. Though circumcision was a sign or token of inclusion, it was not an infallible sign. Something more was always required.

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People of God: Circumcision and the Church

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In the latter half of Romans 2, the apostle Paul discussed the nature of true Jewishness. He stated that people were not to be reckoned as Jews on the basis of outward conditions such as circumcision. Instead, Paul spoke of a circumcision of the heart that made them Jews inwardly. He actually went further and stated that an uncircumcised person who fulfilled the righteousness of the law could be reckoned as circumcised.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul also wrote along these lines. Chapter 3 is devoted to a warning against false teachers that Paul labeled as dogs, evil workers, and the “mutilation” (3:2). The last term is a pun: mutilation (katatomē) plays on the word circumcision (peritomē). It is an insulting way of referring to teachers who tried to persuade Christian Gentiles that circumcision was essential to their Christian lives. In order to bring out the force of this pun, the New American Standard Bible translates katatomē as false circumcision. But Paul went even further: with ironic flair, he referred to these Judaistic teachers as dogs, a term that was typically applied to Gentiles by Jews. Clearly, Paul did not think much of these teachers or their Judaizing teachings.

Paul insisted that if anyone could have confidence in the flesh, he could. He even recounted his qualifications: he, too, was circumcised, an Israelite, a Benjamite, a Hebrew, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church, and a blameless man as far as the law was concerned (3:3-6). These external qualifications, however, were exactly what Paul had to abandon for the sake of Christ.

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People of God: Israel and Israel and the Church

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When discussing the relationship between Israel and the church, the word continuity can be pretty slippery. In some discussions, to assert that one sees continuity between the church and Israel is virtually to assert that they are one and the same body. Nevertheless, the term does not have to be employed in this extreme sense. If someone suggests continuity between a Chevy Silverado and a Dodge Ram, the language means that they belong to the same class and are the same kind of thing (in this case, a pickup truck), not that they are numerically identical.

What I have argued is that the continuity between Israel and the church is a continuity that comes from analogy. They belong to the same class of things: peoples of God. Because they are both peoples of God, they exhibit marked similarities. Because they are not one and the same people, however, they also exhibit differences. Israel remains Israel, and the church remains the church.

Of course, the Scriptures can be read in ways that contradict my understanding. After all, there would be no debate among Bible believers if the entire Bible spoke with equal clarity on one side of the question. To this point, I have focused primarily upon Scriptures that appear to distinguish peoples of God. It is worth spending some time on Scriptures that appear to identify Israel and the church, or even to make the church into a new Israel.

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People of God: Church and Israel

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Addressing church saints, the apostle Peter wrote, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for possession, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into His remarkable light; who once were not a people, but now are a people of God, the ones who had not been shown mercy, but now have been shown mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Peter is here paraphrasing multiple Old Testament passages, two of which are especially significant. The first is Exodus 19:5-6, where God is speaking to Israel at Sinai. This passage records the very episode in which Israel became a people of God. The second is Hosea 2:23, in which God is promising the restoration of His blessing to Israel after the nation has been judged.

In both of these instances, Peter is clearly citing passages that were directly addressed to national Israel. Rather than applying them to Israel, however, he applies them to the church. Furthermore, he makes this application in a pretty straightforward way, not inserting any explanations or qualifications. We can only conclude that what God said to Israel in the passages from Exodus and Hosea, He now says to the church through Peter.

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People of God: Flock and Fold

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At the Exodus, Jehovah made Israel a nation, i.e., a self-aware social unit, bound by a common language and culture, sharing descent from a common ancestor. More than that, Jehovah made Israel a people of God. He made them a nation devoted to the worship of the one, true, and living God, called by His name and ruled by His precepts.

Even in the Old Testament, God disclosed that His plan included many peoples. Eventually both Egypt and Assyria would become peoples of God (Isa. 19:19-25). Indeed, the poets and prophets regularly called upon all the peoples of the earth to acknowledge Jehovah as the true and living God and to worship Him (Ps. 67; Ps. 148:11). In eternity future, God will be served by many peoples (Rev. 21:3, 24, 26; 22:2).

In the meanwhile, God has created the church and called it to be His people. In 1 Peter 2:9-10, some of the same language is applied to the church that was applied to Israel. For this language to work, the church must somehow be very like Israel. Nevertheless, the church is not only distinct from Israel, it is actually a different kind of people, constituted by the Holy Spirit who, in a unique sense, places saints in Christ by uniting them to His body.

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People of God: A New Humanity

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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.

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People of God: The Church

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Biblically, a people of God is first of all a people. A people is a nation. A people or nation is (among other things) an ethnic unit, bound together by its solidarity with a common ancestor. These considerations seem beyond serious question.

They also present a problem. In the New Testament, the church is denominated as a people of God. Indeed, the church is often illustrated by referencing Old Testament descriptors that apply to Israel as a people of God (Rom. 9:22-26; Ti. 2:14; 1 Pet.2:9; cf. Ex. 19:5-6; Hos. 2:23). This phenomenon raises two questions. First, how can the church be defined as a people if a people is fundamentally an ethnic unit? Second, how does the church as a people of God stand in relationship to Israel as a people of God, such that descriptions of the one can seemingly be applied directly to the other?

The answer to the first question lies in the church’s unique relationship to Christ. Romans 12:5 declares that church saints are one body “in Christ.” Paul spoke of Andronicus and Junias being “in Christ” before him (Rom. 16:7). He further stated that the Corinthian church was sanctified “in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2). Believers who are not yet spiritual are considered to be “infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). Church saints are new creations “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). Whether Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, male, or female, all church saints are one “in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). They have now received every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). They are accepted “in the beloved one,” in whom they have redemption, namely the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14). Positionally, they are now seated in the heavenlies “in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).

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