Who are God's special people?
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
I've been reading the New Testament book of Hebrews lately for a study with friends and also the New Testament letters from Peter and I find myself thinking on this topic throughout.
Through a big picture view of the Bible, it is clear that God has had the same goal from the very beginning...to make a special people and dwell with them. He formed all of us in His likeness (Gen 1:27) and placed the first people (Adam and Eve) in the garden of Eden (Gen 2:8-9) with Him (Gen 3:8)! They had access to the tree of life and the life-giver! They (and all people) were clearly made to be his special people! But things soon changed and God's people are defined differently throughout the scriptures. To help understand God's vision for His people, I'm going to break it into phases.
Phase 1: The Garden
This was a beautiful phase that God made and perhaps intended to be permanent, though it was unfortunately a short phase.
Then Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation and sinned. As a result, they (and since we are subject to the consequences of their sins, we) lost access to the garden and the tree of life which sustained them (Gen 3).
Even though Adam and Eve were removed from the garden and all seemed lost, God had a plan to restore us back to that right relationship as His special people again...In fact, God's plan to redeem his special people was established before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). He alludes to His plan when He pronounces the curse on the serpent in Gen 3:15:
"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”
Now I know that when we read that it doesn't sound like a clear plan, but we don't know the mind of God. He is so much bigger than we can even conceptualize. From the moment people ruined their status/title/place, God set the plan in motion to fix it and we see evidence of that in messianic prophecies like these. The seed of the woman refers to someone in the lineage of Eve that will come...which is referring to Jesus, the Messiah (Gal 4:4) and the other seed is Satan. The bruising of the heel and crushing of the head is explaining that although Satan will bruise Jesus' heel (Jesus's death on the cross), Jesus will crush his head (conquer death - and thus Satan - through the resurrection Heb 2:14 and Rom 16:20).
Now if that didn't just jump out at you, as it didn't for me when I first studied, be encouraged that God is telling a complete story through the Bible (often referred to as a "meta-narrative") and the scriptures actually call this "a mystery" that was revealed later, after Jesus's death and ascension. God provided prophecies or clues to this mystery during the time between Adam and Eve and sending Jesus (essentially all of the Old Testament). These prophecies also provided proof that Jesus was God's son since Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies about the Messiah. The New Testament helps us connect those dots, often citing specific prophecies to show that they were fulfilled. Colossians 1:26-27 says:
"That is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."
The mystery being revealed is that Christ came for all people and that included the Gentiles! Even the apostle Peter hadn't connected all the dots himself, but God spoke to him in a dream to show him that Gentiles were also part of the promise (Acts 10). It takes time and study to appreciate these meta-narratives but it can be accomplished by those who dig into God's Word. In fact, that's what God's Word is there for: to prove God and his son, Jesus, and tell us what has been done to allow us to be with God again (Jesus's death and resurrection) and how we can become his people once again (the calling to respond to the gospel).
Phase 2: After the Fall until Abraham
The average agreed upon span of time between the Fall and Abraham is about 2000 years! Did God still have a special people during that time? Before we dive into the scripture, would you consider Noah special? I certainly would! How did God define His people during this time period? Gen 6:9 says God called Noah righteous. Hebrews 11 lists Abel, Enoch, Noah and several others from this time period as faithful and Heb 11:1-2 states: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval." These men during this time period are called out as having gained approval. Enoch was taken to be with God because he pleased God. So it's clear that God had certain special people before Abraham.
Abraham signaled another change in the phases, as God made a covenant with him (Gen 12 and reaffirmed in Gen 17). Within that covenant (Gen 12:1-3), we see another clue of who God's special people are at the end of verse 3, where it says: "And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." Again, the prophecy may not jump right out at you. Some translations use the phrase "and from your seed", so once again we are talking about someone that will come in the lineage of Abraham to bless all the families of the earth...not just Abraham's descendants. Is it starting to become clear? During this time, God identifies Abraham's descendants (specifically through the line of Isaac and his son Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel) as special.
"For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth." Deuteronomy 7:6
The Israelites (Jacob's descendants) were a holy people chosen by God. When people think of God's special people, they often think of the Israelites (also called Jews or Hebrews). And rightly so, since there are several references to them in the Bible - a simple Google search lists 22 verses where God identifies Israel as God's chosen people. God has clearly established that they are special, but they were not the end goal.
Phases 3&4: Abraham to Moses and Moses to Christ
I'm going to confuse you a little bit here and discuss Phases 3 & 4, so that you don't think I forgot about them! Phase 3 is from Abraham up to Moses (about 500 years) and is something of a transitionary time as the Israelites become a great nation. Phase 4 begins with Moses at Mt. Sinai and continues until Jesus came (about 1500 years) . The Old Law (also called the Mosaic Law or the Old Covenant) was established with Moses at Mount Sinai. God established yet another covenant with Israel through the Mosaic Law. But these are the same people - the Israelites! So phases 2 through 4 involve the same family of people. For those looking to dig deeper, this covenant is filled with more clues to the mystery (the scripture refers to them as types and shadows) in the law, the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices and many others, all pointing to the new covenant that Jesus would establish (Hebrews - all of it!).
When we think of the Old Testament, sometimes we only think of the Law of Moses, but take a moment to note that God identified special people and called them faithful/righteous for 2500 years before Mt. Sinai.
Phase 5: The Church!
In God's perfect timing, when the promised seed of Abraham - Jesus - came, we entered a the 5th phase, but it could be argued that it is the promised, final earthly phase. Hebrews is an incredibly helpful book to understand this transition from the old covenant (established with Moses) to the new covenant (established with Jesus). Jesus sealed the new covenant and with it came a new law (Heb 10:16, prophecied in Jeremiah 31:31), a new, direct relationship with God (Heb 10:19-20) and, you guessed it, a new people. Rom 9:25 cites Hosea 2:23, which says "And I will say to those who were not My people, 'You are My people!' "
In this phase, Peter describes those who have chosen to become Christians saying
"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." 1 Peter 2:9-10
These people, Christians - formerly Jew or Gentile but now united in Christ as a new people, were blessed with the mystery revealed (Col 1:26-27 and others), a people with direct access to God through Jesus, our high priest (Heb 10:19). With direct access to God, we as Christians, find ourselves restored to the same standing that we lost in the Garden in Phase 1. God calls it a better covenant (Heb 7:22) than the old ones given to Moses and Abraham because it's an opportunity for all people to be cleansed of their sins and reconciled to God, though not all people will choose it.
Israel was always intended to mean all of God's people in this way:
"They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises.Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.
Well then, has God failed to fulfill his promise to Israel? No, for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children. For the Scriptures say, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted,” though Abraham had other children, too.This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. " Romans 9:4-8
And before we get discouraged about those who don't choose to accept it, we see God's love again echoed in his explanation of his longsuffering, so that all may come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9).
The apostle Paul compares the difference between Israel as God's special people and being a Christian in Philippians:
" Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead." Philippians 3:2-11
Do you see how beautifully full circle we have come? If we get lost in the phases, it's easy to lose track of who God's special people are, but if we see God's overarching purpose, then we understand how Christians were always the fulfillment of God's desire for a special people after the Fall. The Israelites were special in another way, in that they were entrusted with the words of God (Rom 3:2), were the lineage of God's son, and were part of the execution of his ultimate plan for salvation. That is pretty special, but it pales in comparison to being called God's special people through His Son. It's a covenant sealed by God...a mystery revealed over thousands of years...established from the beginning to make us His special people once again. From Adam, the son of God, to Jesus, the begotten Son of God so that we may become the children of God forever!
Editing notes: It is always my goal to accurately cite and explain God's Word, but I'm not surprised if errors found their way in...please send me a note if you feel that I have misrepresented the Bible in any way or have a correction!