Why was it necessary for God to choose Israel? Why did he need a special covenant people? For anyone who has ever wondered, I attempt to answer some of these questions and more in this short essay. I hope that you find it points you to Christ.
How It Was Supposed to Be
If the entire scriptural narrative is meant to convey the whole counsel of God and display his divine attributes from cover to cover, I find it extremely important to start from the beginning. In the Garden, there was no chosen people group. There was simply Adam and Eve, perfect image-bearers of God’s beauty and holiness. Nothing suggests that Adam and Eve experienced strife, confusion, miscommunication, or disagreement, or that they were different in any way when it comes to relation with the Creator. This means that all levels of separation between men in relation to God are a result of the fall.
After the fall, God viewed different people in different ways: he accepted Abel’s sacrifice but rejected Cain’s, he chose Noah when all else was subject to destruction, and he called out Abraham to begin the line of the Patriarchs, God’s chosen men to be the fathers of God’s chosen people. The tower of Babel, essentially the introduction of ethnicity and diversity, separated men in ways that were never the intention of the Garden of Eden. In short, the community and equality found in the Garden is not found in the natural state of sin post fall of man. The point of the Gospel is to repair what is broken: to create once again a new and better Eden. The good news of the Gospel is death through Adam, life through Christ (Romans 5).
Abraham, Father of The Chosen
The nation of God finds its roots in the Abrahamic covenant. God calls Abraham (Abram at this point) to step out in faith and God will bless him and all the nations of the earth through him. God decides that he will show his divine favoritism to a special group of people, an ethnic family that descends from one common ancestor. He continues this covenant of blessing by choosing Isaac and not Ishmael, Jacob and not Esau, and eventually singling out King David and head and Judah as the tribe that which salvation comes and all nations of the world are blessed. Keep in mind the failures of all God’s choices in some way: the impatience of Abraham, the stubbornness of Jacob, the timidity of Moses, the deep selfish sins of David, and the rebellion of Judah. Yet in all of this, God is faithful and shows that he is a God who keeps His promises – he will bless his chosen people, and it is obvious it is not based on their righteousness but on God who is merciful.
Separate, But Equal in Iniquity
Once again, we must not forget all men are equal in terms of inheriting the sin of Adam. Just because God viewed some men differently or called out certain men to bring about his purposes does not mean that these men were morally superior or more eternally righteousness than the rest of mankind. This is very important. As we will see later, God does choose, but his sovereign choice is never based on human merit, otherwise salvation loses it’s meaning and favor with God simply becomes a moral survival of the fittest, an arms race to make up for the sin of Adam.
While this background is important, it does not answer the question of why, or more importantly, the question of what. What is the purpose of choosing Israel and what does God’s choice show about his character?
The short answer: It points to Jesus and it shows God’s plan of salvation all throughout the ages, a plan to eradicate sin, glorify one unified bride, and magnify his free grace through broken people.
One People, One Savior
The promise to Abraham points to what Christ would do – through him all nations would be saved. By choosing Israel to show favor on, God painted a picture of how all would be saved through one savior – Jesus. He showed the entire world the very method that he would use to bring salvation, one nation (Israel) and one savior (Christ). However, Jesus is not separate from the promise of Israel, but a fulfillment. In this way his death is not just a metaphor but a foreshadow. Jesus is the messiah, the long awaited savior, but he is also the true king of Israel, from the line of David. He is the representative head of Israel, so that when God choses Israel he is paving the way for Jesus, creating a people to display his mercy upon, a nation to foreshadow Jesus, and a lineage from which to bring about his end-all be-all purpose of ‘blessing all nations”. Moreover, God establishes the principle of “I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you.” The cross is the ultimate example of this promise – sin, death, and Satan (those who curse the children of God) are all cursed at Calvary; likewise at Golgotha all who call upon the name of the Lord (bless his name) are blessed and saved from their sin. God chose Israel to foreshadow his mighty plan and so that he could bring forth from Israel a mighty savior-king.
Brought Near by the Blood of Christ
God’s whole character is on display in his work throughout time. Since he is a creator, he creates, since he is an artist, he paints, since he is a lover, he loves, and since he is a reconciler, he reconciles. The inclusiveness of Israel seems hopeless to those outside of the promise, but since God is a reconciler, he makes it a point to reconcile. Take a gander at Ephesians 2.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into la holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
What is Paul saying? Gentiles are welcomed in to the promises of God given to Israel from the beginning of time. In the blood of Christ, there flows a superior bloodline than the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All who are in Christ are united, regardless of race, ethnic background, or previous promise. In fact, this staggering truth completely destroys racism or ethnocentrism, sins that were (and still are) mighty stumbling blocks to Israel. Let’s turn to Romans 15:8.
For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
Here is a true and clear answer to why God set apart an old covenant people: so that Gentiles could be grafted in to the great promise of salvation and blessing and “might glorify God for his mercy”. Make no mistake, it was Adam’s sin that brought about diversity, but it is God’s mercy that brings all nations back to unity in Christ. God uses one people group to bless all people groups, and to make a mockery of the lie of ethnic privilege. All nations are welcome at the cross, and this glorifies God. God’s plan is and has always been to glorify and delight in a diverse bride. God chose Israel so that in Christ he could chose people all over the world: in the end the sin at Babel will be overturned into cries of praise from every tongue, tribe, and language.
These answers show a clearer picture of what God accomplishes in his selection of Israel, but still do not fully answer the question at it’s fundamental root: why does God choose?
Mercy, the Great Goal of Sovereign Choice
There are many ways to address the reasoning behind God’s sovereign choice of Israel and of his church, the elect. I am no expert at exposing the why behind’s God’s actions, and I do not think any rational man who has stared into the great majesty of God can make the claim that he knows fully why God acts how he does. At the same time, God is gracious to reveal to us his character. He may very well could have saved the world through no particular people group, or brought about messiah by means of ethnic ambiguity. But he didn’t do it that way, and we must trust that his way is the best way, and rejoice in the joy of his way through how we see it fulfilled, namely at the cross and by the grafting in of all peoples. Trust me when I say there is no end to the joy to be found in trusting God’s way as the best way: dive deep into the Gospel and you will find it has no end or beginning in time, only a center which is the sovereign Christ.
Yet Paul says in Ephesians 3 that the great mystery of Christ is “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” If this is the great mystery of Christ hidden throughout the ages, then God’s choice of those who will partake in this promise is vitally important.
I want to point to one encouraging reason we see in God making a choice: because it amplifies his mercy. His mercy is lavished not on children of flesh (i.e. ethnic Israel) but on children of promise (the church), and the way he chooses his children of promise is vitally important. I will let Paul explain in Romans 9.
For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
This passage lays the foundation for God’s mercy: his choice. He does not choose in the same way we choose, by weighing our options and picking the most worthy choice. God, seeing that both choices were unworthy, chose one anyway. Jacob and Esau were twins, in the same womb, and God choose Isaac before anything good or bad was done. This magnifies the mercy of God, because as Paul says, we can clearly see that salvation is not based on human will or exertion. From the beginning of time, God has chosen unworthy people, in order that his mercy might be magnified in all the earth. If we truly want to live a life that glorifies God, this has to be a rock that we stand on. The reality of Romans 9 is what makes the quotable joys of Romans 8 reliable.
If salvation were based on our effort, we could never believe or trust that “we are more than conquerors.” This truth should drive us to prayer, to labor for the lost, and into anguish for those who do not Christ, because no one is beyond God’s reach! God chose Israel and chooses the church so that we can be absolutely certain he will never fail and his mercy is never ending, ever present, and all encompassing.
Broken Vessels, Beautiful Purpose
I want to end with one last great purpose of God in choosing a people for his glory: so that he can work through them and in them to accomplish his purposes. For some reason, God in his kindness uses wicked people to bring about his plan on the earth. We created this great dilemma, and yet God is gracious enough to work in us, to sanctify us and to make us more like Christ. We are his primary vessels in displaying himself. He does the real work of redeeming us to be able to glorify him, but we preach, we serve, we love, and we point to Christ. God is active in broken vessels, in jars of clay, once again “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” His purpose is his glory, but by including us in that purpose, we find insurmountable joy. To be used by God for his purposes is the greatest pleasure attainable, and it is one he offers us continually.
This is a hard question to answer. Yet, as Christians, we should love to ask the big questions – the what and the why of the Gospel. When we ask these questions it shows that we are thirsty for the living water. My hope is that when we ask these questions we can drink a little from this overflowing well, and that by doing so we can live. I have not come across any Gospel truth that has not caused me to rejoice, and I know that there is still so much more to rejoice in. Sometimes truth is difficult, sometimes painful, and sometimes hard to shallow. But it always brings joy. This is why we can echo the psalmist and sing with all that is within:
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.