From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference
This post’s topic, God’s people, definitely belongs in any discussion of major turning points in the history of God’s work in the world, so I cannot leave it out. On the other hand, there is no way to do it justice in the time and space available. Its story ranges over thousands of years and across the entire globe, and it touches moreover on several serious social controversies. I am not going to pass it by, but as I enter into it, I make no pretense of being comprehensive. I will instead take just a very brief look at a few aspects of general interest over the course of three posts.
Years ago I studied world missions with Dr. Ralph Winter, an intensely brilliant missions pioneer, whom I include on the list of the most important Christians in the Twentieth Century whom you’ve probably never heard of. He was a biblical scholar, as befitting a missions leader, but he had an unusual take on the Bible. He said, “The Bible begins in Genesis 12. The first 11 chapters are introduction.”
He didn’t mean the first chapters were not inspired or trustworthy. What he meant was that they were setting the stage for what becomes the Bible’s theme from Genesis 12 to the end: God blesses, redeems, and calls a people back to himself in love, and he calls that people to bless others and to call them back to himself in love.
You don’t have to agree with Dr. Winter on the Bible’s beginning with an eleven-chapter introduction; he spoke it tongue-in-cheek anyway. There is an undeniable dramatic shift in the narrative, however, when we get to Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Here it is: the calling, the blessing, the earliest sign of the “people of God;” and the earliest statement of the purpose: that all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Abram, later named Abraham, founded the Hebrew nation, out of which came the lineage of Judah and David, and “in the fullness of time,” Jesus Christ, the center of our redemption, whose ministry on earth set the stage for new directions for the people of God: no longer nationally defined, we are now a global community of faith.
The question is, why did God pick out one nation? Was he playing favorites? Didn’t they prove they didn’t deserve to be his people, anyway?
The need for our redemption—our restoration to full fellowship with God—arose out of events much earlier than Genesis 12. The world already had already experienced two judgements from God by then. The second one, at Babel, led to the founding of the nations (Genesis 11:1-9; see also Genesis 10).
There’s something very instructive there (and for this I still must credit Dr. Winter). At Babel, men learned how great they could be (and could not be) when united in godlessness. They were building a tower “with its top in the heavens.” Now this is in one sense laughable. Our modern skyscrapers are surely many times taller than theirs (probably a a ziggurat). I’ve been to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago (I think it has a new name now) and the Empire State Building in New York. It’s a long way down to the ground from either one of them, but it also still feels like it’s a long way up to the sky. They could no more build a tower to the sky than I could jump over it if they did.
What most commentators think they were doing was building a huge monument to their godless pride in themselves. “Look what we can do! We’re practically gods ourselves!” In the process they were shutting themselves out of the blessing of the true God.
The first step toward God for most of us is giving up being our own god. Being a god is not an easy thing to be persuaded out of. It is even harder when your entire culture is building a monument to its own godhood. Sometimes the best thing God can do for us is to break our pride, so that we can open ourselves up again to his reality.
That’s what he did in Babel. He scattered them by confusing their languages. And immediately (as far as the text indicates) he chose a humbled man to create a nation as a beachhead for blessing the nations once again. He didn’t blanket the world with ten thousand missile-fired messages, “Return to God!” He initiated a relationship of blessing. Abraham responded with obedience and faith.
This is God’s way: relationship, blessing, obedience, faith—and the nations are blessed. Only it didn’t go that smoothly, did it? Oh, where do I begin? Abraham’s faith faltered more than once. His own son repeated one of his worst mistakes (pretending his wife was his sister). A generation later, eleven brothers set out to kill the twelfth but changed their mind and sold him into slavery instead.
Abraham’s descendants all ended in slavery in Egypt, until God led them out under Moses, a frightened, moody, inconsistent leader. Having seen God defeat the mighty united power of Egypt, the nation nevertheless refused to believe God could overcome the divided tribes of Canaan.
Finally they entered the land of their destination and promise, fighting their way in, and yet one man’s sin caused them to lose their second battle. They recovered, they settled the land, and yet repeatedly they turned away from the God who delivered them and worship wooden idols.
The story goes on. God judged them for idolatry by exiling them to Babylon. They came back 70 years later, cured of that disease (the exile worked!) but growing in pride and insularity.
It is a harrowing tale of persistent disbelief and error. Let me not just pick on the Hebrews, too: for if I were to extend the story a couple thousand years, I would have similarly disturbing things to say about the church of Jesus Christ as God’s people.
And where in all of this do we find the promised blessing of the nations?
Buried in all of this history of the people of God—of which I have delivered a very negative and one-sided version—there is an answer. We’ll begin to take a look at it tomorrow.