Friday, December 21, 2012

The ‘people of God’: Old Testament expectations

In considering the question, “what is the church?” I noted that we have to go back a ways and ask “what was the church?

That is, we have to ask, and understand, what was the church in the New Testament? What was the Old Testament expectation?

In understanding what “the church” is Edmund Clowney in his work “The Church”, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1995), relates that there is no question it has reference to “the people of God”. He notes, “the Bible does not deliver shipments of doctrine on cargo containers. Rather, the new grows out of the old, as the flower opens from the bud”. And in understanding the entire process of this unfolding, you have to go back to the beginning.

[The story of what God is doing in the world] does not begin at Bethlehem’s manger: it begins in the Garden of Eden, when God promises that the son of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. It continues in God’s promise to Abraham, made with an oath, ‘because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised’ (Hebrews 6:17). The story of the church begins with Israel, the Old Testament people of God (Clowney, pgs 27–28).

Clowney goes on to relate that, according to the Bible, “the church is the people of God, the assembly and body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”.

Yes, man fell in the garden, and God promised to redeem him. But, the question is, “redeem him to what?” From what had he fallen?

What did it mean to God’s actually assembled people throughout history?

What is God trying to do in the world? Understanding God’s purpose in creation is a means of understanding what “the church” is today: what it means to be “God’s people”.

G.K. Beale, in his A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic ©2011) notes:

We can speak of Gen 1:28 as the first “Great Commission,” which was repeatedly applied to humanity. The commission was to bless the earth, and part of the essence of this blessing was God’s salvific presence. Before the fall, Adam and Eve were to produce progeny who would fill the earth with God’s glory being reflected from each of them in the image of God. After the fall, a remnant, created by God in his restored image, was to go out and spread God’s glorious presence among the rest of darkened humanity. This witness was to continue until the entire world would be filled with divine glory. Thus, Israel’s witness was reflective of its role as corporate Adam, which highlights the notion of missions in the OT.

According to Beale, this was the ongoing theme of the Old Testament.

Without exception, the reapplications of the Adamic commission are stated positively in terms of what Noah, the patriarchs, Israel, and the eschatological Israel or its king should do or were promised to do. Always the expectation is that of actual conquering of the land, increasing and multiplying population, and filling the promised land and the earth with people who will reflect God’s glory.

Never is there a hint that this commission is to be carried out by what we might call a negative act—that is, by death. Of course, Isaiah 53, Daniel 9, and Zechariah 12 (and a handful of typological Davidic texts such as Psalm 22) prophesy the messiah’s death as crucial to achieving Israel’s restoration, but these texts are the minority, and they are never directly associated with the repetitions of the Adamic commission. Therefore, the Adamic expectations and promises of obedience for Israel’s partriarchs, the nation, and its king are always stated in positive terms of what they were to do or were promised to do (Beale, 58).

Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection were for the accomplishment of a purpose, that was to be fulfilled in the creation and ongoing mission of the people of God.

Beale outlines this story line as it appears in the Old Testament:

I am not positing a center or single topic as the key to OT theology but rather a storyline around which the major thematic strands of the OT narratives and writings revolve. Although story as a hermeneutical approach to biblical literature has become popular in recent biblical scholarship and accordingly has even been applied to the doing of whole biblical theologies, the older Dutch Reformed scholars sometimes employed the notion of tracing the “redemptive-historical story” of “creation-fall-restoration.” It is also significant to recall that all the ancient creeds and confessions had a basic skeletal plotline of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. The threefold pattern of “sin-exile-restoration” of Israel has been proposed recently as the framework of a biblical theology, as has a six-act structure of the Bible as a drama with kingdom as the overarching motif:

1. Kingdom establishment
2. Rebellion
3. The king chooses Israel
—interlude: the kingdom story awaits ending during the intertestamental period—
4. Coming of the king
5. Mission of the king’s message
6. Return of the king
As is evident from the preceding, both the threefold and the sixfold pattern are included here but compose only some of the elements of a larger overall cyclic pattern of sacred history.

In the light of the above, my formulation of the storyline of the OT is as follows:

The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory.

Rather than referring to this as the “center” of the OT, I prefer to see it as the primary strand of the biblical storyline thread, composed of other minor strands that are held together by the primary one.

The kingdom of the new creation and its missional expansion likely form the major stepping-stone for the accomplishment of divine glory. Accordingly, in the classic fourfold division of the scriptural story as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, the last two elements are better revised as redemption through new creation and consummation of that new creation. Thus, the story of the Bible in this formulation begins with creation and ends with the restoration of creation (61–62).

Next time, Lord willing, I’ll follow some of these threads through the Old Testament, and begin to tie them into expectations that Israel [the “people of God”] and the disciples carried with them in the New Testament.


  1. More than merely a broad reference to the "people of God," "the church" refers to the "people of God" in a very narrow sense, that is, in a very specific time, in a very specific covenantal arrangement with God, to be precise, the people of God as called out of this world and placed in Christ under the arrangement of a new and better covenant.

  2. John,
    I have been thinking about this post and here’s what I want to add to it.
    First I would respond to these words from Clowney pages 27-28: [The story of what God is doing in the world] does not begin at Bethlehem’s manger: it begins in the Garden of Eden, when God promises that the son of the woman will crush the head of the serpent.

    For me the story of the Bible has to go back farther than that if you want to locate the Church from the Garden of Eden. As we all know Genesis 1:1-2 reads in the ESV this way: Gen 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
    Gen 1:2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

    All my Biblical quotations are from the ESV.

    The story line has to begin somewhere else in my view that where Clowney says She begins.

    Here’s why.

    The Apostle Paul wrote this about that “somewhere else”: Eph 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
    Eph 1:4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love
    Eph 1:5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
    Eph 1:6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

    Peter wrote this about that “somewhere else” too: 2Pe 1:10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.
    2Pe 1:11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


  3. Later on in chapter 3 of Ephesians we read this about the “CHURCH” in question in this post: Eph 3:6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
    Eph 3:7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power.
    Eph 3:8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
    Eph 3:9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things,
    Eph 3:10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
    Eph 3:11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord,
    Eph 3:12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.

    The God we serve and “know” (the gift of Eternal Life is knowing the only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He sent) knew about this “CHURCH” and wrote about Her being in existence before the foundation of the world. God has an eternal purpose for Her in this world. In fact we know Jesus Himself spoke of His/Her mission as being understood before the foundation of the world as we learn from John, here: Joh 17:5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

    Later on in that same chapter we read this about the relationship Jesus had with Our Heavenly Father, this same Heavenly Father who “chose” us before the foundation of the world and He also wants to have with Her, this “CHURCH” in question, here: Joh 17:24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.


  4. So, for me, finding the right place is most important in this discussion about “when” and “where” the Church began and came into existence.
    When did the Church come into existence? According to Scripture She was known before the foundation of the world. I propose to say it is then that God gave us to Christ so that Christ’s prayer for us/Her can be fulfilled.
    Where did the Church come into existence? In the heart of God before the creation of the present heavens and earth God made Her and from the very beginning of humanity the seeds of Her existence were planted!
    I can tell you when and where I came into this knowledge about this foreknowledge of the Church.
    I suppose others as well can do the same. Sometimes a testimony can be very edifying especially when it is absent self glorification?

    Some believe they never had a salvation experience; only that because from their infancy after being baptized God through the word and sacrament of their infant baptism they too were “conjoined” to Christ. I heard this sort of testimony before myself with my own ears from a Pastor who came to my Church fellowship.

    Whether or not there is much to it, that sort of testimony, I am sure we both have the same mind on this that no one who dies in their sins comes into the Eternal Kingdom?
    You must be born again.

    The children of this “CHURCH” must be born again not by the will of man but by the Will of God.
    Joh 1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
    Joh 1:10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
    Joh 1:11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
    Joh 1:12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,
    Joh 1:13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
    Joh 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

    Well, there. I don’t know if any of the preceding resonates with you or anyone else?
    It is just that for Christ to accomplish these two things it seems to me we must start this adventure before the Garden story as Clowney starts it and see the fulfillment of them, these two things:
    Heb 2:14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
    Heb 2:15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

    1Jn 3:8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
    1Jn 3:9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.
    1Jn 3:10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

    1. Hi Michael, I agree with you that the church existed in the decree of God, elect "before the foundation of the world" (see also Rev 13 and 17). I wouldn't contest that at all.

      I don't rely too heavily on Clowney, although I think he is getting at the same thing that Beale is saying, and that is to say not only that "the people of God existed" in the decree of God, but also, what we know from Scripture that this people must have looked like, how they got that way, what they were tasked to do. Clowney, of course, starts with the promise of God in Gen 3:15, and Beale starts prior to the fall. What I haven't related is Beale's extensive analysis of what Adam had been called to do in the Garden.

      Hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas, my friend.