Theological College and the New People of God by George Athas

The new academic year is upon us. In my brief visit to GWC for the annual language Summer School, I’ve seen new students arrive, as well as old students and faculty return. One of the joys in this is seeing the diversity of people coming to the college. I’m reminded that when the gospel is preached, the Spirit draws people from all nations into Christ’s church to the glory of God the Father.

Yet there was a time when the people of God was largely limited to just one ethnic group: Israel. The Old Testament tells the story of how God gradually reveals himself to this one people, Israel. He brings them out of slavery in Egypt, enters into an ongoing covenant with them as their head of state, and then installs them in a particular land where they can live and worship together as a unified society: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.

When we think about it, this was a very restricted arrangement. We might even want to call it elitist. Being part of the people of God meant being a citizen of the Israelite nation and living within the land God gave this nation. This arrangement, though, was not born out a sense of Israel’s superiority over other peoples. Deuteronomy, in fact, makes the point that Israel was indeed not superior to any other nation (Deut 9.4–6). It was purely God’s grace to them that brought them into this arrangement (Deut 7.7–8). However, the notion of a particular people worshipping a particular deity in a particular land was quite widespread throughout the ancient Near East for quite a long time. Many other nations worshipped their own national deity on their own patch of land. The Moabites, for example, worshipped Chemosh in Moabite territory, and the Ammonites worshipped Molech. So Israel was not unique in this pattern. What made Israel different, however, was their God: Yahweh, the holy and righteous deity (Deut 4.5–8).

Nevertheless, the relationship between Yahweh and Israel was exclusive. Yahweh did not have covenants with other nations—only with Israel. He was their God and they were his people.

It’s no wonder, then, that when the nature of the people of God changed radically in the New Testament era, it took a while for the Church to catch up to it. From the New Testament onwards, the people of God was no longer restricted to Israel, but now incorporated people of every nation. Jew and Gentile could stand together as one new people united by the Spirit.

But how did this change occur?

It came by salvation in the midst of catastrophe.

One of the great tragedies of the Old Testament is the failure of Israel to live up to its covenant obligations. Its history is riddled with failure and sin, leading to catastrophic destruction of its temple and exile from the land in which they were to worship. Yet, time and time again God’s grace and persistent love ensured the nation was not snuffed out, but survived. God rescued them from exile and enabled them to rebuild.

You would think that as God continued to reveal more of his gracious self to Israel through their covenant relationship that Israel would respond with repentance, love, and loyalty. But when his ultimate revelation came in Christ, Israel did anything but respond rightly. Instead, they conspired against their own God and had him crucified.

This did not, however, take God by surprise. He could see that Israel’s rejection of him would bring catastrophic destruction, just as it had centuries before through the Assyrians and Babylonians. But the beauty of God’s plan was that in the midst of catastrophe, he was enacting salvation.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus gathered around himself the beginning of a new people of God. Just as old covenant Israel had begun with twelve tribes, so Jesus formed the new people of God with twelve apostles. These apostles would be the pillars that would hold up a new edifice—one that would survive the catastrophe to come. And all who put their faith in Jesus and the testimony of his apostles would become part of the new people of God.

After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus sent his Spirit upon his followers, uniting them together as a new people. And the Spirit was not constrained to a temple, or a particular location within the land. Under the old covenant, the people of God was restricted to the community of Israel within the land. But under the new covenant, the Spirit crossed ethnic, social, national, and imperial boundaries to reconcile people of every nation to God.

Old covenant Israel came to an end with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in ad 70. History had repeated itself! But the community of Christians—the Church—consisting of Jews and Gentiles, survived and thrived. Today, the Church continues to grow all over the world. And while it faces many challenges, the gates of hell have not prevailed against it.

The work of spreading the news of salvation is not complete, though. As such, the task of equipping men and women from every nation to know God, love God, and proclaim him to all people continues. Hence, the joy of seeing men and women from all parts of the world devoting themselves to theological study. Africa needs the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that men, women, and children may be reconciled to God and to each other. There is much work to be done.

May God prosper the work of GWC, and all theological colleges striving to make Christ known.