So many would claim this title for themselves today – Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, those holding to Reformed Theology or Charismatic Experience [witness the current sad Strange Fire debate in the USA], ‘Back to Israel’ Christians, etc. Let’s complicate the issue even more: who exactly constitute ‘the Israel of God’ or his covenant-people?
Let’s have a look at the apostle Paul’s words on this issue. I am referring to his Letter to the Galatian ecclesiae of ancient Asia Minor, more specifically to Gal. 6:16 (NLT), ‘They are the new people of God.’ Or the NIV rendering, ‘The Israel of God.’ Some contextualisation will help:
- These young believers in the Roman province of Galatia, through Paul’s teaching about Jesus, had come into a new and liberating relationship with God based on grace and experienced through faith. They were ecstatic about their new-found freedom in Christ. After Paul had moved on, he received the disturbing news that the Jewish religious leaders of the old school were questioning his credentials and attempting to herd these freedom-loving Christians back into the ‘corral’ of religious rules and regulations. He now writes to the Galatians to remind them of the Gospel of grace which had bought their freedom from law-keeping, and with great seriousness exhorts them never to forsake the simple message they had first received.
- Taking the pen from his amanuensis, Paul scribbles a personal and final warning to the Galatian churches in 6:11ff, and then in words of benediction refers to them as the new people of God’ or ‘the Israel of God’ : v.16 (NLT), ‘May God’s mercy and peace be upon all those who live by this principle. They are the new people of God.’
Ah, but what is the principle ‘God’s people’ live by? Paul explains in 6:14-15 (NLT), ‘As for me (in contrast to the Judaisers), God forbid that I should boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross (or lit. ‘because of him’), my interest in this world died long ago, and the world’s interest in me is also long since dead. It doesn’t make any difference now whether we be circumcised or not. What counts is whether we really have been changed into new and different people.’ Some explanation is necessary (Dr. R.A. Cole, among others, is particularly helpful here):
- The Judaisers were after ‘statistics’ to prove their claim to be the true ‘people of God’ – how many circumcisions had they registered in the past year for their Jerusalem report? Sound familiar? How misled are those who notch up so many ‘first time decisions’ for Jesus or so many ‘baptised’ to bolster their particular denomination’s or organisation’s evangelistic report for the year.
- Paul on the other hand recognised that to accept circumcision (or any other ‘plus’ to Jesus) as a gateway to God’s covenant people, implied that the whole ‘sting’ or ‘offence’ of the cross was gone. Our present peace-keeping churches need to re-visit Paul’s explosive theology of the cross for a change.
- Paul doesn’t boast in Gentile un-circumcision but in the cross, which makes all human and outward distinctions meaningless. Later he would put it like this to the Corinthian ecclesiae: 2 Cor. 5:16-17, ‘So we have stopped evaluating others by what the world thinks about them. Once I mistakenly thought of Christ that way, as though he were merely a human being. How differently I think about him now! What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons [the Greek kaine ktisis i.e. ‘new creation/creature’ is a favourite thought of Paul’s, probably reflecting back to Gen. 1-2 and Is. 65:17 and possibly anticipating Rev. 21:1]. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!’ The Judaisers were still looking at things ‘from a human point of view,’ they had not been inwardly re-created by God, they were not yet ‘in Christ’ by faith alone.
- The ‘principle of life’ God’s people live according to is that of living from the cross, Christ’s person and perfect sacrifice for sins. It is that spiritual experience and resultant attitude of being re-created inwardly through faith in Christ plus nothing. They have been ‘circumcised’ in their hearts by the Spirit, not by a written code (Rom. 3:28-29). They belong to the ‘third race’ of men, neither Jew nor Gentile but ‘Christian.’ They constitute ‘the new people (Israel) of God!’ Such people have ‘written off’ the ‘world’ viz. that system of selfishness and materialism and pride opposed to God, and that very same worldly system has ‘written them off.’ I can imagine some right now laughing off Paul’s definition of ‘the people of God,’ thinking what ‘arrogance,’ ‘obscurantism,’ ‘narrow-mindedness,’ ‘exclusivism,’ ‘how irrational,’ what ‘simplistic non-sense,’ etc. So be it – for God’s people it’s part of the package, it comes with the territory.
- The critical question is: do you, does your ‘church’ or denomination or group boast only in Christ and the grace of his cross? Have you and your faith community experienced that inward total transformation that only Christ and his Spirit can bring? Does your/their lifestyle bear out Christ’s indwelling and his supernatural love, kindness and gentleness? (Gal. 5:22ff). Only such can boast that, by grace alone, they form part of the true ‘people of God,’ the true ‘Israel of God.’
Recently I discovered a verse from Isaac Watts’ famous hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ I had not come across before:
His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er his body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.’
Why don’t we quietly pray these words right now, and may God’s mercy and peace be upon us all. Amen.