God Calls His People to Be Holy

God Calls His People to Be Holy

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One of the questions people often ask is, why did God choose the Jewish people? There are thousands of people groups in the world, so why did God choose the Jews? Perhaps you remember William Ewer’s famous quip: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” He could have chosen the Egyptians or the Hittites or the Incas. The Scriptures say that God did not choose Israel because they were more numerous or more powerful than any other nation, but simply because He wanted to show them His love (Deut. 7:7–8). Sometimes people mistakenly think that by choosing Israel, God was excluding other nations and showing them some kind of favoritism compared to other peoples. However, from the beginning, when God first called Abraham and made a covenant with Israel, He made it clear that He was blessing the descendants of Abraham (Israel) so that they might be a blessing to every nation on earth. Genesis 12 records the covenant God made with Abraham. He said, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (vv. 2–3, emphasis added).

God chose Israel as the instrument through which He would restore His image to humanity and bring blessing to the whole world. When God later repeated the covenant to Abraham, He said that it was through his seed that all nations would be blessed (Gen. 22:18). That seed was an early hint that God would send to earth His only Son, Jesus, who was the seed, or offspring, of the Jewish nation. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul made this clear when he said, “Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).

From the outset God had a plan to send His Son into the world to reestablish His presence in the world. Sin is, at its root, the absence of God. Holiness, at its root, is the presence of God. There would be no greater invasion of God’s holiness in the world than that of sending His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. He would, therefore, establish a single people, Israel, and call them to holiness in order to demonstrate before the world what it meant to be a people brought back into relationship with Him. This was to prepare the world for the coming of Christ. Israel was also to prepare the world for the day when we would be called to “disciple the nations” and thereby reestablish God’s holiness in every nation of the world. But the first step in this grand drama would be to start with one nation and reveal God’s holiness to them.

God’s Covenant with Abraham

God’s covenant with Abraham, found in Genesis (12:1–3; 17:5–6; 18:18–19; 22:17–18), contains three distinct parts. First, God would bless Abraham numerically by giving him many descendants.  Second,  He  would  give  the  Israelites a land (this is why it is called the ‘promised land’). Third, He would use them to bless all nations on earth. The word nations here does not mean political countries as we know them today, but each and every ethnic group in the world, which number in the thousands.

The descendants of Abraham did multiply and eventually relocated to Egypt, where they were enslaved for four hundred years by Egyptian pharaohs. At the right time, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told him that he was on holy ground. The presence of God was holy, and Moses was being called to lead the Israelites into a new level of their relationship with God. They were led out of Egypt and were given the Law.

The Law of God

The Law was nothing more than a covenant between God and the Israelites that would establish them as a holy people. They were given 613 distinctive laws that would set them apart from the nations. Some of the commands make perfect sense to us, such as “Do not deceive your neighbor” or “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” or “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” Other commands seem very strange to us, such as “Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed” (Lev. 19:19) or “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together” (Deut. 22:11). Before we dismiss these strange commands out of hand, as sometimes happens today, we should remember several important things.

The Purpose of the Law

First, the purpose of the Law was to create and form a people who were distinctive and separate (holy) from the surrounding nations. It was common among the Canaanites (a neighboring nation) to practice what was known as “sympathetic magic.” This is the idea of, in the case of seed, “marrying” two kinds of seed in order to produce “offspring.” It was a cultic idea that, at its core, denied that God is the source of all life and fruitfulness. Therefore, commands that may seem strange to us were actually deeply contextual commands that were specific to Israel in order to establish them as holy.

Their Covenant Is Not Our Covenant

Second, as Christians we must remember that we are under a different covenant than the Jews were under. All of the Bible is God’s Word for us, but it is not all God’s word to us. The old covenant, or Old Testament, was their covenant; it is not our covenant. All of Scripture is fully inspired and wholly profitable for teaching us about God, but not all of it is God’s direct command to we who are now under a different covenant.

Let me use an analogy to help us understand the relationship between the two  covenants.  If  someone  works for General Motors, he or she  is  under  a  contract  that lays out the stipulations of employment, the obligations of the employer, and the privileges and responsibilities of the employed, as long as that person works for General Motors. However, when a new contract is offered, the old contract is null and void, and the workers are put under the new contract. We all understand this. If you compare the two contracts, there will, of course, be many things that are true of both contracts. There are certain obligations that are carried forward into the new contract, but they are only binding on an employee if the new stipulations are explicitly brought forward into the new contract. This is an imprecise analogy, but I hope it will help you understand the main point. This is why the writer of Hebrews said, “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). In some cases, there are Old Testament laws that are not carried over (like planting your field with two kinds of seed). In other cases, there are commands that are brought directly over, such as the command to not steal (compare Exodus 20:15 with Mark 10:19, Romans 2:21, and Ephesians 4:28). The point is that there are many commands in the Old Testament that we are also called to obey because they are found in our covenant as well. It is common today to hear people undercut the commands of Scripture in the New Testament by citing commands that are no longer binding on us today from the Old Testament. This demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the two covenants.

Is the Old Testament Way “Hard” and the New Testament Way “Easy”?

It is sometimes falsely believed that the Old Testament is filled with harsh commands and that things are much easier under the New Testament, or new covenant. However, some of the older commands are actually deepened from outward acts to the inward intentions of the heart. For example, the Old Testament called the people of God to love their neighbors. Jesus calls us to also love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). The Old Testament forbade God’s people from  commit- ting adultery (Ex. 20:14). That command is carried over to Luke 18:20, but we are told, in addition, that it is sinful to even look at a woman with lust in our hearts (Matt. 5:28). The reason Jesus says that his “yoke is easy and [his] burden is light” (Matt. 11:30) is not because the demands of the New Testament are less than those in the Old. Rather, it is because under the new covenant we now live out the even deeper moral demands of God in the presence of the risen Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is a line from a poem by John Bunyan that beautifully captures this:

To run and to walk the Law demands,
But gives us neither feet nor hands;
Better news the gospel brings,
It bids us fly and gives us wings!

The Law as a Tutor to Lead Us to Christ

The main point here is to see that even though we are not under the authority of the old covenant, all 613 commands were specific to forming Israel as a separate, holy nation. To say that God could never have given these commands, either because we do not understand the commands or because they are not renewed in our covenant, is to pit the God of the Old Testament against the God of the New Testament. This is an old heresy that was most notably taught by an early Christian known as Marcion, who lived in the second century. He taught that the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, wrathful God who was a separate and lower being from the God of the New Testament, who is all-forgiving and full of grace. The church rightly rejected this view as heresy.

Interestingly, it was declared a heresy because the view failed to see the mercy and grace of God in the Old Testament, and because Marcion ignored major passages in the New Testament that reveal the wrath and judgment of God. It is important to see that the whole Bible reveals to us the full nature of God. It is wrong to pit one verse against another. Instead, we should see it as a multifaceted diamond with many dimensions, and only by seeing all of it together is the full beauty and glory revealed.

The Law may seem harsh to us at times, but God knew it was the necessary tutor to teach us what we needed to know about His opposition to sin, and the necessary measures that were required to forge a people separated unto Himself in holiness. Our tendency to misunderstand many things in the Old Testament is because, as noted in the first chapter, we tend to pluck out certain attributes of God in isolation from others and use them in unwarranted ways, rather than to hold them all together so we might get a full picture of who God is. Even though we are no longer under the Law, Paul says that the Law is good and holy (Rom. 7:12). It was not sufficient to save us, but it was crucial for pointing us to the pathway of holiness that would lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24–25).

InvitationEnjoy this entry? This is part of Timothy Tennent’s book, The Call to Holiness: Pursuing the Heart of God for the Love of the World.

Get The Call to Holiness from our store here.

View all of Timothy Tennent’s resources and books here.


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