God said to Israel, “I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Leviticus 26:12 NASU). The middle two phrases present an expression of the covenant relationship between the Lord and His people. In an earlier blog we covered the first major concept (“I will . . . be your God”) and discovered whom we should serve. Now we turn to the second major concept (“you shall be My people”) and how we should live for Him.
Jesus taught His disciples, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). He uses “Father” because He wants His followers to live in the realization that they possess a special relationship to God. As believers, we are God’s children. Children reflect the characteristics of their parents. If our heavenly Father is holy, we must be holy. If He forgives, we must forgive. If He loves, then we must love. His people reflect His communicable attributes.
Exodus 3:7 provides the earliest reference to a people belonging to God,
The LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings.” (emphasis added)
At that time Israel lived in suffering as slaves under oppressive Egyptian masters. Two comforting truths arise from this text: (1) God remains fully aware of what His people suffer—He knows the circumstances in which they live; and, (2) God answers His people’s prayers. No tear that any of His people sheds goes unnoticed (Psalm 56:8). God sees and understands the pain, the sorrow, the loneliness that causes each tear to fall. Others might not see the pain or the tears, but God does. He knows and cares for His people.
God gave to Ezekiel one of the most amazing revelations recorded in the Old Testament. In 36:22–23 the Lord announces that He will vindicate His holiness among His people Israel so that all nations will know who He is. He will do so as one who is in their midst: “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight.” The Lord then proceeds to explain what His deeds will accomplish:
- He will choose His people,
- He will change His people on the inside,
- He will charge His people to obey His Word, and
- He will channel His people into lives of service for Him.
Let’s look at each of these aspects of the Lord’s work for His people.
God Chooses His People (Ezekiel 36:24).
God says, “I will take you from the nations.” Israel did not choose God. Many generations of disobedience had brought Israel into captivity in Babylon. Now, because they have repented (see Leviticus 26:40–45 and Daniel 9:1–19) God is about to deliver them from captivity. They did not reform themselves and there is nothing in them that causes God to choose them. Just as at the first,
The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of peoples, but because the LORD loved you . . . (Deuteronomy 7:7–8)
Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people. (Deuteronomy 9:6)
Indeed, God needs to change His chosen people because we are unlovable and stubborn sinners.
God Changes His People (Ezekiel 36:25–26).
The righteousness of fallen sinners will not suffice—they need God’s righteousness. As Paul wrote to Titus six centuries later, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Ezekiel’s description is amazingly consistent with the apostle’s declaration. According to the prophet, the Lord cleanses Israel from their idolatry and gives them a new heart and a new spirit. Before we go further, let’s remind ourselves that idolatry refers to anything that usurps the sole place of God in our lives. That could be replacement gods made of wood, stone, silver, or gold. Or, those gods could be houses, cars, boats, jewelry, sports, politics, fame, power, or wealth—anything that takes the place of the true God in our lives. Therefore, we can be just as guilty of idolatry as Israel.
As human beings, we are always looking on the outside, the externals, but God looks upon the heart (see 1 Samuel 16:7). So, God changes the heart, the inner person, in order that an individual might properly love Him and live for Him. No one can change himself this way—only God can do so. Before anyone can live for God and obey His Word, he or she must be totally changed—a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17).
God Charges His People (Ezekiel 36:27).
In the individual’s regeneration, the Spirit of God joins Himself to that person so that He might enable them to live in obedience to the Lord’s statutes and ordinances. God chooses and changes His people to live for Him. Therefore, Israel, as God’s people, has a charge to keep. The Christian, not just the believing Israelite, has also been chosen, changed, and charged—to obey God’s Word: “for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk [= live] in them” (Ephesians 2:10). God’s people in all ages were chosen by Him, have been saved by faith in the same gospel and thereby changed, cleansed, and given the duty and privilege to serve Him by obeying His Word.
God Channels His People (Ezekiel 36:28).
Lastly, God does not choose, change, and charge His people without purposefully placing them exactly where He wants them to live for Him. For Israel, that meant living in the land that God had promised to Abraham. They must glorify God in the sight of all the pagan nations surrounding them. It is at this point that the Lord reminds them of their relationship to Him: “so you will be My people, and I will be your God.” God sovereignly channels His people into the service He desires of them—just as He sovereignly chose them, changed them, and charged them.
The New Testament contains a significant summary from the apostle Paul’s pen in Titus 2:11–14. Those verses reveal a strikingly similar series of truths identifying “a people” for God. The apostle Peter agrees and quotes directly from the Old Testament to point to the similarities between the people of God in Israel and the people of God in the Church (1 Peter 2:1–12). Peter’s words are even more striking since they come after he has called believers to live holy lives “like the Holy One who called you” (1:15–16). Christians are as much the people of God as Israel. (I must leave to another blog the reasons for speaking of “similarity” rather than “identity” between the two peoples.)
Even at the end of time, as all of God’s people from all eras enter the heavenly Jerusalem as one people, a voice from God’s throne declares,
“Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.” (Revelation 21:3, emphasis mine)
In light of these things, how dare we not live for our God as His people “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation . . . holding fast the word of life” (Philippians 2:15–16)?