Throughout the entire story of redemptive history, the children of Abraham were, are, and always shall be the only and singular chosen people of God.
The Bible starts with a rapid succession of events spanning from creation to sometime after the flood. While in the first two chapters everything is good and very good, from chapters 3 to 11 the main event seems to be the extent of sin’s corruption. During this time God did not so much work through a people but through families—the family of Adam, the family of Noah, and the family of Terah in particular. In fact, as the story of the flood shows us, there was not much else to work with as the whole world stood corrupt.
But then in Genesis 12 the redemption theme that carries us through most of the rest of Scripture comes to the forefront. Again, it begins with a family but it does not end with a family. It begins with Abraham and Sarah but it ends with a nation. God made three promises to Abraham, promises that would be echoed once again to Isaac and Jacob: I will give you a land, I will make you a nation, and I will bless you so you might be a blessing to the world.
We seem to see this come to pass in the birth of Abraham’s 12 great-grandsons from whom came the twelve tribes of Israel. Over and over in the Old Testament Israel is known as the people of God. They are God’s chosen ones to receive the covenants and the promises. They seem to be the people meant to possess the land.
However, what we discover is there is a people within this nation—a true people of God. National identity, as seen through the circumcision of the flesh, may have been important in one sense; but what really mattered was the circumcision of the heart. Did they believe God by faith?
Paul highlights this in Romans 9—that not all who descended from Israel belong to Israel, the children of Abraham are not offspring of flesh but offspring of promise.
Indeed the promises to Abraham were unconditional, but Israel’s reception of the promises as a nation were entirely conditional—they must keep the law to be God’s people and dwell in the land (Exodus 19:1-6, 34:10-16, and Deuteronomy 29-30). This is why when they continued to walk in sin and refused to obey the voice of God they were stripped from the land and taken into exile and a generation of the “people of God” suddenly became “Not My People” (Hosea 1:8), though a remnant of the faithful did remain.
Yet while the nation as a whole could not keep the covenant and commands of God as given through Moses, God still promised a restoration of the people and the promises to Abraham. But it was not restoration through the law and the covenant with Moses, rather it came through an entirely New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Like the covenant with Abraham, this is an unconditional covenant—God does not say, “I will do this if you do that.” Rather he simply spells it out: I will put my law within them, I will be their God, they shall be my people, they shall all know the Lord, and I will forgive them and remember their sin no more.
It is here that we come to the great revelation of God’s plan—the mystery hidden in the days of old. This New Covenant is the means to the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. Those promises were never actually to a nation but to a single offspring—a single seed of Abraham who creates the true nation. This offspring, of course, being Jesus (Galatians 3:1-19).
It is to Jesus that the land truly belongs, but not just a parceled tract in the Middle East, rather the whole world (Psalm 2, Romans 4:13, Revelation 19-22). It is to Jesus the people truly belongs, a people of his own possession who are the chosen race and royal priesthood the nation of Israel failed to be (see: Titus 2:11-14, 1 Peter 2:4-10 compared to Exodus 19). And it is to Jesus that the blessing truly belongs, and by salvation in him all the earth is blessed. After all, the New Covenant comes through the blood of Jesus as he is its mediator (Luke 22:20, Hebrews 8-9).
But Jesus does not hold the promises to himself—he shares them with his people. Those who belong to Jesus in faith are made sons of Abraham and heirs of the promises (Galatians 3:14, 25-4:7, Romans 8:12-17). Therefore if we are in Christ, to us also belong the land, the nation, and the blessing.
God’s working of his covenants and promises in the Old Testament and in the New Testament went to an assembly of people (remember here that “church” or ekklesia literally means assembly). In the Old it was in part to a nation, yes, but in greater part to the true people within the nation. In the New instead of a physical nation it is a spiritual one we call “church.” The church is not like physical Israel because it is not a singular nation of people form a common genetic linage. It is of every tribe, tongue, and peoples. It is also not like the nation of Israel because it is not a mix of believers and non-believers. But the church is also the continuation of the faithful people within national Israel.
Indeed, Paul argues in Romans 9-11, Israel remains the people of God, and it is the Israel of promise—a great assembly that includes blood Jews and those Gentiles who become a part of Israel by being grafted in where the unfaithful Israelites were removed. Therefore the church is not a parenthetical gentile organization (sorry dispensationalists!) but it is a people who are spiritually Israel because they belong to Jesus—the true seed of Abraham.
God has brought Jew and Gentile together into this “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) by tearing down the dividing wall in the flesh and making them one flock with one shepherd (John 10, Galatians 3:28, and Ephesians 2:11-22).
Though currently the church is primarily composed of people of Gentile descent, in the future when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, God will return his Gospel to a people of Jewish descent (Romans 11:25-32) but it will be through the continued ministry of the New Covenant church to which faithful Jews naturally belong (Romans 11:17-24).
And then the end will come and Jesus will return to gather all his people to himself (Matthew 24).
In summary: the Bible paints the picture of the unity and continuity of the true people of God. In the Old Testament it was a people within a physical nation; and in the New Testament it is a plethora of peoples who comprise a spiritual nation. Though the expression of the two differ, the heritage and spiritual connection remain the same—they are all children of Abraham through Jesus.
Now why does this matter? A couple of reasons:
First, ecclesiology. One thing not mentioned above are the signs of covenant from the Old and New Testament. Circumcision given in Genesis 17 is well enough known, but as Moses mentions several times in Deuteronomy the circumcision of the heart matters more. This is alluded to in Jeremiah and Ezekiel with God putting his law and Spirit within his people and giving them a new heart. In the New Testament under the New Covenant, circumcision still matters. But according to Paul in Colossians it is Jesus’ not ours. His perfect obedience to the law and the tenants of the covenant is given to us. We are circumcised with the removal of our old self and the putting on of our new self—Christ. We identify ourselves with Christ through baptism (Romans 6).
In the Old Testament the circumcision of the flesh was a mark for the nation. This combined with the circumcision of the heart marked the true people of God within the nation. In the New Testament the church is the circumcised nation comprised of the true people of God already identified with Christ. Thus we do not baptize infants (sorry covenant theologians!) or any known non-believers. We baptize only those who belong to the covenant through Christ. The church is not a mix of believers and non-believers like the former nation. Instead it is only believers who “know the Lord.”
Second, eschatology. This relationship obviously does not lead to a pre-tribulation view of the “rapture”. Rather it takes note of the reality that the New Testament over and over emphasizes the unity of the people of God and Jesus only comes for his unified people once. In Matthew 24:15-31 this is after the abomination of desolation is on the scene, after the “great tribulation,” and with a loud trumpet call and his angels. Some claim this is speaking only to the Jews as God’s “elect” and has nothing to do with the age of the church. Yet in 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 Paul promises a church composed largely of Gentiles that Jesus will gather them at the trumpet call. And in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, again to a church, that Jesus will gather his people at the sound of a trumpet and the voice of an angel. And in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Paul comforts that same church by telling them they have not missed the return of Jesus because first the man of lawlessness (the abomination) must be revealed and go to work.
Jesus doesn’t come for part of his people and then return later for another part, but he gathers us all at once in the same event after the abomination of desolation brings a great tribulation upon us. Therefore instead of preparing our people for escape, we should be preparing them for understanding suffering and how to suffer well—which suffering and opposition is a theme for the Christian life in almost every New Testament book.