Being the People of God; People of God in the Bible; The People of God for today
Being the People of God
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2008 by Mark D. Roberts
Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Being the People of God: An Introduction
Part 1 of series: Being the People of God
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Today I'm beginning a new blog series called Being the People of God. I expect that this will be one of those on-again, off-again series, in which I put up some ideas for a few days, then focus elsewhere, only to return to the series later on.
Why am I doing this particular series at this time? I have two major reasons, one a matter of conviction and the other a matter of autobiography. I'll start with the conviction.
Simply stated, I believe that it is absolutely crucial for Christians to know who we are as the people of God. This knowledge gives us much that we need for fruitful living, including: a sense of personal identity, a sense of purpose, a context for relationship, and an abiding hope for the future. In fact, I believe little is more important for Christians today than to know who we are as the people of God and to live out that identity in the world.
Unfortunately, many of us, perhaps even the vast majority of Christians, do not know who we are as the people of God. If you were to take a survey of Christians next Sunday after church and ask: "Who are the people of God?" I expect that many would answer "The Jews." Now that particular answer is partly right, and crucially right, I might add. But it is inadequate, at least from a Christian point of view.
Others might answer the question "Who are the people of God?" by saying something like "the church" or "all Christians." This answer gets more of the truth. So far, so good. But if you were to add a follow-up question, "What difference does it make that we are the people of God?" I fear you wouldn't get much of an answer. You might hear something about heaven, or worship, or mission. All of these matter, but don't begin to plumb the depths of meaning in the affirmation: "We are the people of God. "
So I believe that it is absolutely crucial for Christians to know who we are as the people of God. And I also believe that most Christians do not have this knowledge, or if they have it, they don't realize its radical and powerful implications. Put these two beliefs together and you have the beginning of a compelling rationale for a blog series.
But, of course, there are many, many valuable topics upon which someone like me could blog. So why am I picking this particular topic and this particular time? This brings me to the matter of autobiography.
If you've been reading my blog for a while you can probably guess where I'm going. In October of 2007 I became the Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a multifaceted ministry in the Hill Country of Texas. At the center of Laity Lodge is a retreat center called Laity Lodge (obviously enough). But the Laity Lodge "brand" also includes youth camps, family camps, publications, and web-based ministries, especially The High Calling of Our Daily Work.org. (Strictly speaking, both Laity Lodge and The High Calling.org are siblings in the ministry of the H. E. Butt Foundation.) All of the ministries associated with Laity Lodge are devoted to helping the laity encounter God so as to become agents of renewal in the world. (Photo: The entrance to Laity Lodge.)
The word laity is used in English to denote non-clergy. In the church, the laity include everybody except the pastors or priests. Outside of the church, laity can mean non-specialist, though usually the adjective lay is used rather than the noun laity, as in: "The physics professor was able to explain quark theory for a lay audience." The word laity comes to us by way of the French, and derives ultimately from the Greek word laikos which means "of the people." People, in ancient Greek, is laos (pronounced today as LAY-oss with two syllables, not like the modern country Laos.)
Laity Lodge and its constellation of ministries is dedicated to the equipping, empowering, renewing, and sending of the laity, the people of God. I should hasten to add the Laity Lodge is not non-clerical or even anti-clerical. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, for goodness sakes, a member of the clergy even though I'm not currently serving as a parish pastor. Many ordained ministers come to Laity Lodge each year. And one retreat is intended primarily for clergy. In truth, Laity Lodge seeks to touch the whole people of God, clergy and non-clergy, all of whom belong to the laos theou, the people of God (in Greek).
Since the notion of the people of God is so central to my new ministry, it seems only right that I should do an in-depth study on this theme. For me, of course, this means study based on Scripture. I plan to ask such questions as: What does the Bible teach about the people of God? Who are the people of God? What is their identity? What is their purpose? Their calling? How does being a part of the people of God impact individual Christians?
From a rhetorical point of view, I will be writing this series a Christian for Christians. I will talk about who we are as the people of God. If you are not a Christian, you are more than welcome to read and interact with what I'm saying here. If you're seriously considering Christianity for yourself, it will help you greatly to understand what it might mean for you to become a member of God's people. I recognize that Jews and Muslims might take umbrage at my claim that Christians are God's people. I respect the fact that they would see things differently, and I hope they would respect my orientation as a Christian.
I also realize that some people, even Christians, might object to the implication that if Christians are the people of God then non-Christians are not. It's common to hear the phrase "all God's people" used in reference to all human beings. I don't believe this notion of the people of God is to be found in Scripture, however. But now I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's Start at the Beginning
Part 2 of series: Being the People of God
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Fräulein Maria got it right in The Sound of Music: "Let's start at the very beginning; a very good place to start." This bit of wisdom works, not only for learning how to sing, but also for discovering what it means to be the people of God.
As you might have guessed, the beginning about which I speak is The Beginning, you know, of the "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" variety. If we look closely at the God's creation, especially his creation of human beings, then we'll head off in the right direction for our search for being the people of God.
In Genesis 1 God creates the heavens and the earth, the waters and the sky, the land and the plants, the birds and the fish, and finally the animals. But then, at the center of his masterpiece, God creates human beings. Here's how the passage reads in the NRSV:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:26-31)
The word translated here as humankind is adam in Hebrew, which means "a human being" or "all humanity taken together." In more traditional English adam is rendered man or mankind. We know that the text is speaking of human beings as a group, rather than one particular person, because of the plural "let them have dominion" (v. 26) or "in the image of God he created them" (v. 27).
So what do we learn in this passage that is relevant to our quest for the meaning of the people of God? Well, first of all we learn that there is a curiously close relationship between human beings and our Creator, since we were created in God's image. Without going into detail about what this might mean, suffice to say that we are like God in a unique way in all of creation.
Second, we learn that God made people for a purpose: "to have dominion" over the creation (v. 26; vv 27-30). Verse 28 adds that human beings are to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." So God made people to take care of the earth and its creatures and to make more people so that we might fill the earth. I expect we get a mixed grade in the first subject, caring for the earth and its creatures, but a higher grade in the second, filling the earth with people. According to the latest count, there are now 6,647,172,983 people on earth (most of whom are sitting in traffic somewhere right now, I fear.)
Third, Genesis 1 shows us that human beings find their completeness, not as isolated individuals, but rather in community with others. God did not create a single individual in his image. Rather, humankind reflects the image of God as male and female. It takes two to tango when it comes to God's image. Christian theologians have seen a precursor to a Trinitarian understand of God in the story of Genesis. And, though this surely goes beyond the original sense of the narrative, it's a valid theological reflection. God, who exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, is reflected in humankind as male and female, as a community, if you will.
To put it differently, the first creation story in Genesis shows that we are not just individuals who happen to get together with other individuals out of convenience. Rather, our very created nature involves being with others. We are created as a people, and in relationship to our being people together we find our individual identities.
Of course more could be said about Genesis 1 and the people of God. I expect there have been whole dissertations written on this subject. But, for now, we get some direction in our search for the significance of the people of God.
In my next post I'll examine the second creation account in Genesis 2.
Creation, Take Two
Part 3 of series: Being the People of God
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Genesis 1 begins with an account of creation, one that begins to define what it means to be the people of God (see Wednesday's post). Then, as if Genesis 1 weren't there, Genesis 2 includes another story of creation. This second account looks at things from a different perspective, focusing on the experience of the first individual man (adam in Hebrew, from which we get the name Adam).
In Genesis 1 the creation of human beings emphasizes their innate community. Man "as male and female" reflect the image of God. Genesis 2 doesn't use this "image of God" language, but focuses instead on the prior creation of the man. In light of this man-first-solo creation account, one might be tempted to reject what I said in reference to Genesis 1 about the essentially communal nature of humanity. After all, in Genesis 2 the man is created first, all by himself. But them we come upon on of the more surprising verses in Genesis, not to mention the whole Bible. In Genesis 2:18 God says, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner [or "helper fit for him" - ESV]." Whereas in Genesis 1 God consistently sees that his creation is good, indeed, "very good" (1:31), in Genesis 2 God recognizes the "not-goodness" of the man's solitude. Humankind will only be what God intends it to be when people live in community with other people.
I'm not suggesting, by the way, that intentional solitude is always wrong. Jesus himself got away from the crowd to pray. If it was good enough for our Lord, it's should be good enough for us. But, by God's essential design, we are meant to share life with others. We are to be members of a people, not isolated individuals who come together only when we have to for reasons of necessity or convenience. "Peopleness" is inherent to our created nature.
In many cultures one almost wouldn't have to say this. Throughout the world today, billions of human beings understand that they are members of a people. They are a part of something much bigger than themselves, something that gives them identity, meaning, and purpose. But Americans tend to be more individualistic. In fact, "individualism" is near the essence of America as a democratic nation, according Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic study of American culture, Democracy in America. Americans tend to see themselves less as part of a people and more as disconnected individuals. According to de Tocqueville:
Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. (Democracy in America, Volume 2, Section 2, Chapter 2).
We Americans prize the "rugged individualism" of our cultural heroes like Teddy Roosevelt, Superman, and the Lone Ranger (who, curiously enough, was not really alone, but paired with Tonto).
American Christians naturally read Christian faith through the lens of individualism. As a result, we emphasize personal salvation, personal spirituality, and personal devotion. We can even disparage church involvement as unnecessary because what really matters is that we each have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Don't get me wrong! I believe that having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is absolutely essential and absolutely wonderful. Moreover, I am concerned that many churchgoing people might be missing out on this core relationship. But if we read the Bible carefully, we'll see that a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ is personal and corporate. When we become a child of God through faith, we are adopted into a family with lots of sisters and brothers. We become, not just a person of God, but part of God's people.
What a difference it would make if individual Christians and churches really believed this! We wouldn't stop emphasizing one's personal relationship with Christ. And we wouldn't downplay the importance of personal discipleship. And we wouldn't minimize one's personal ministry in the world. But we'd see how personal relationship, personal discipleship, and personal ministry are essentially connected to corporate relationship, corporate discipleship, and corporate ministry. We'd understand that we're to live out our faith Christ, not "alone," but in fellowship with others. Even as it wasn't good for the man to be alone in the garden, so it is for us.
Part 4 of series: Being the People of God
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In recent posts I've been reflecting on the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, looking for insights into what it means for us to be the people of God. We've seen that God created humankind in community as male and female, and gave them the twin tasks of making more people and taking care of his creation. Though looking at creation from different perspectives, both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 emphasize the essentially corporate dimensions of human existence. God did not create simply one person to enjoy perfect fellowship with God. Rather, God created two people, whom God intended to share in the work of managing the world, filling it with more people, and enjoying perfect intimacy with each other in the process. In Paradise they knew what it was to be God's people together.
But because they chose to disobey God, Paradise was lost. Genesis 3 tells the sad story of human rebellion against God, of human desire to be like God in sovereignty and knowledge rather than living as his servants and stewards. After being tempted by the serpent, first the woman, and then the man along with her, ate of the forbidden fruit. In the next moments, God's plans for his people unraveled, at least in the short run. From that moment onward, being God's people became much more complicated and elusive.
If you were to ask the average Christian, "What's the first result of human sin?", chances are that person would say something like, "Separation from God. Eternal separation from God. Death." Theologically speaking, this is surely the right answer (see, for example, Romans 6:23). But in the narrative of Genesis 3, the first result of human sin is a breakdown in the relationship between the man and woman. Whereas in Genesis 2 the man and woman were naked and unashamed (2:25), in Genesis 3, sin leads to shame, and the first couple try to hide their now shameful nakedness from each other by using fig leaves. (Painting: "Adam and Eve" by Albrecht Dürer, 1507; fig leaves and all)
So, though it would be theologically correct to say that the first result of sin is brokenness in our relationship with God, Genesis emphasizes the implications of this brokenness for human relationships. The people whom God had created in his image to share intimacy together and to share in caring for the world together would be torn asunder by the results of their sin. To put it bluntly, sin makes it difficult, one might even say, impossible, for us to be the people of God.
If you've ever tried to be an active member of a Christian community, you've no doubt experienced the corruptive influence of sin. It's not uncommon these days for Christian people to set out to form "perfect" Christian communities. They're going to do church in a new way. They begin with lofty ideals, ideals that often flow from the spring of Scripture. Yet, without fail, these efforts to be the people of God soon confront relational challenges that threaten their success, if not their existence. Often those who began with such enthusiastic idealism end with embittered cynicism.
Every now and then, however, churches that were founded with enthusiastic hopes do not let the reality of sin destroy them. Several years ago I watched as a new church in my area exploded on the scene with dramatic and impressive growth, mostly among people in their 20s and 30s. But within the first years of its existence, its pastor committed adultery. I wondered if his sin would destroy the church he had worked so hard to plant. In fact, however, those leaders he had raised up to serve alongside him exercised unusual wisdom. They did not minimize the sin of their (former) pastor, but received his resignation and helped him to rebuild his life. They led the church through a relational minefield. The result, by God's grace, was a stronger church.
By telling this story, I'm getting way ahead of myself. The main point I'm making here is that sin makes it extremely difficult to be the people of God. Indeed, it would be impossible apart from God's grace. When we take the reality of sin seriously, then we won't be surprised when it threatens to quash our efforts to be the people of God.
Sin impacts, not only our relationships with each other as God's people, but also our efforts to act as God's people in the world. More about this next time. . . .
Pangs, Pain, Thorns, and Thistles
Part 5 of series: Being the People of God
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In my last post in this series, I began to explore the impact of sin on human relationships. Genesis 3 reveals that sin corrupts human community, thus complicating our efforts to be the people of God together.
This chapter also shows that our efforts to do the work of the people of God will also be complicated and frustrated. Remember that God had given the first people the assignment to "be fruitful and multiply" and to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1). The man, with the woman as his partner, was to be the gardener in God's Paradise (Genesis 2). But then the first humans disobeyed God, and Paradise was lost (Genesis 3).
In Genesis 3, God reveals to the woman and the man the sorry results of their sin:
16 To the woman he said,
"I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
17 And to the man he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return."
Notice that the man and the woman will still do as commanded by being fruitful and filling the earth. Yet now the woman will experience pangs and pain in childbearing. God's people will do as they were told, but with difficulty and suffering. Similarly, the man will continue to be God's gardener. But because of sin, he will now have to do battle with thorns and thistles. He will work the ground as commanded, but now with difficult and suffering.
I expect you don't need to be convinced about the fact that work is hard, no matter what your work might be. If you manage people, you struggle each day with relational challenges. If you are a parent of teenagers, you know how much wisdom you lack and how much resistance you receive. If you are a literal gardener, then you confront literal weeds and pests. And if you've ever given birth to children, you know quite a bit about the pangs and pains. (Photo: Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden, in Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings.)
Of course there are times when work feels wonderful and when success comes as if by magic. I'm now in my fifth month of my new position at Laity Lodge, and there are times when I think I died and went to "work heaven." As much as I enjoy these times and thank God for them, I'm fully aware that there will be other times, times when I'll be exhausted or frustrated or discouraged, times when my best efforts fail, times when I wonder if I can keep on going. I will face my thorns and thistles down the road a piece. Knowing that these are inevitable helps me not to be shocked when they come. It prepares me to lean upon God's grace for the strength to carry on.
Although we don't share in all of the details of Genesis 3 (eating forbidden fruit, covering ourselves with fig leaves, etc.), we do experience the brokenness that comes as a result of sin. Our relationships are tainted with conflict and shame. Our work happens with plenty of sweat and frustration. In the end, we know from experience that we no longer live in Paradise, where being the people of God happens with relational wholeness and rewarding fruitfulness.
Yet God did not give up on humanity. Nor did God abandon his plan to create a people for love and work. Rather, his plan began to show its unexpected complexity. More next time . . . .