The Church as the People of God

From the early pages of the Old Testament, we find God in the process of creating a people for His divine purposes. It was Israel that was to be the people of God (Exodus 19:4-6; Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2), and in the New Testament, the focus is on the Kingdom of God, especially expressed through the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 2:5, 9, 10; Titus 2:14). When God called Israel to be His people, He instructed them to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2), and it is interesting and significant that the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 19 to 27, reflects the unique, or holy, rules for proper civic and social relationships, worship practices, proper boundaries, treatment of foreigners, and sound economic practices. All of these were expressions of how God directed His people to be distinct (holy) from their surrounding pagan neighbors and a model for them of holy character and conduct. Israel was to become a mutually supportive and cooperative community of godly character, a valid contrast to the surrounding nations and peoples, as well as a model for those other nations. As Isaiah said it much later in Israel’s history, God’s intention was for Israel to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). It should be questioned how well that happened in that nation’s history.

In the New Testament, God’s development of a holy, Christ-like people is tied to the direct involvement of Christ in the formation of His followers, who in due time formed “colonies” of the Kingdom-called churches. Much of the New Testament was written to give instruction for building the spiritual and moral lives of those disciples who made up and directed those godly units that Peter says are part of a “chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), a special “people of God” (2:10). What a lofty set of titles!

The qualities of those leaders and followers are to be marked by their functions as priests and preachers, or proclaimers of “the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9, 10). As interesting as it is to focus on those functions, the larger context of 1 Peter 1 and 2 helps us better understand how that kind of folk could be used of God because of being a “holy” people.

They were distinguished as having their faith tried by severe challenges, proving them genuine believers (1 Peter 1:7). They had put their mind to the task, seriously considering their responsibilities in the leadership roles they played (1:14). They had shown that they were not being conformed to the world with its lusts, but were conducting themselves in every way as a “holy” or distinct people (1:15). They were conscious of God’s supervision in their lives and work (His judgment—1:17). Christ is preeminent in their thinking, planning, and acting (1:18-21). They demonstrated a sincere love of fellow believers (1:22). They were morally sound and sane (2:1). And they were morally circumspect in civic and social life (2:11, 12). All of these very fine qualities describe these spiritual leaders and their influence in their churches and in their own communities. Then Peter adds that they are to be conscious of being “foreigners,” or sojourners, and “pilgrims,” or strangers, in this world (2:11, NKJV, NASV), meaning that their sphere of influence was limited in time and circumstances; thus they were to make every effort count for impacting favorably their Gentile, unbelieving context.

The churches that carry out the role of being the people of God well are those who recognize and live by their pilgrim, faith-led identity as those strange folk (somewhat foreigners on the earth) who are led by God, who is an even stranger “holy” God, who insists that His people serve all humankind, reaching them with His transforming love, even if they are mistreated, maligned, and misunderstood. The people of God are the faithful servants of God.