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 patriarchs, 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.

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