If we want to understand our calling as God’s people, we cannot be merely “New Testament Christians.” A Christian who only reads the New Testament is like someone who walks into the second act of a two-act play. Every time a character comes on the stage, they ask, “Who is he? Why is she saying that? I don’t understand. I’ve missed something.” And of course, they have. The story of Scripture begins not in Acts nor even in Matthew but in Genesis.
God has given us the Old Testament to—among many purposes—set the stage for what follows. It presents the central questions to be answered and the glorious promises to be fulfilled. With the fall of Adam, we see the origin of the world’s troubles. In the covenant with Abraham, we see the beginnings of God’s solutions. In the exodus, the law, the conquest, the monarchy, and so on, we see the promise moving forward. And as we come to the end of Malachi, we find ourselves saying with all of the prophets, “Who is the one that God has promised will finally redeem His people, and the nations with them?”
The Old Testament: God’s Promises
The book of Genesis tells us how after man’s fall in the garden and God’s judgment in the flood, God called Abraham. Abraham was to leave his own land and people in order to be made into a great people. God makes him this promise:
I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. (Gen. 12:1–3 NIV)
This was the very beginning of what Jesus came to accomplish: to “purify for himself a people that are his very own” (Titus 2:14 NIV). In His grace, God chose a man in time and space to be the beginning of His mission of redemption and the patriarch of a family of God’s people. And the blessing represented in Abraham’s family would not be restricted simply to his physical descendants. It would overflow to “all peoples on earth.”
God established this promise, or covenant, with Abraham, and He reiterated it to Abraham’s son Isaac (Gen. 26:2–5) and to Isaac’s son Jacob (Gen. 28:13–15). Jacob and his sons died in Egypt, but Abraham’s descendants grew into a nation there. God raised up Moses to lead that nation, and He established a covenant with them so that they might be His people. Then, after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God told them through Moses,
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:4–6 NIV)
God had graciously carried them out, so that they were a people that He had redeemed. He brought them to Himself, so that they were His own people, set apart especially for Him. Now he was giving them a special calling: to be “a kingdom of priests,” representing God to the world, and “a holy nation” walking in the goodness of God’s commandments. And after all these words, God would give the people the law so that, having already been graciously rescued from slavery in Egypt, they might walk by faith and live in purity, in accordance with God’s will.
Yet as we read on in the Old Testament, we find that things don’t go as we might have hoped. The Israelites waste almost no time before they betray and despise God—and they seem unable to stop doing so. In the wilderness wandering, in the conquest of Canaan, in the time of the judges, and in the monarchy, Israel rebels against God’s promises again and again. And again and again, God disciplines them, even as He seeks after them, faithfully working to establish the people that He had redeemed for Himself and to whom He had promised Himself.
God chose a man in time and space to be the beginning of His mission of redemption and the patriarch of a family of God’s people.
In the midst of all of this, God made another covenant with David, Israel’s greatest king: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16 NIV). Yet as David’s descendants grew bolder in their rebellion against God, God’s judgment eventually fell on them, in the form of the Babylonian conquests of Jerusalem. David’s descendent was stripped of his throne, and the kingdom seemed to be at an end.
Yet God again promised that His people would be rescued from captivity and returned them to their land (Isa. 40:1). And in the midst of all of this, the prophets assured them that the promise to David wasn’t broken—that a King from Bethlehem would rise up to redeem Israel once again (e.g., Micah 5:2).
The New Testament: Christ’s Fulfillment
God had promised Abraham that He would make him into a nation. He promised that through Him, He would bless the nations of the earth. And as you go down through the line of the Old Testament, the question is always in the background: How is this going to happen? How is God going to bring this to fulfillment?
All of it comes to pass in the Lord Jesus Christ. The call of God to Abraham’s family from Ur to Canaan to be His people, the call of God to the descendants of Jacob from Egypt to the promised land, and the call of the remnant out of Babylon—all of these and more—foreshadowed what was going to take place in and through Jesus and His work.
Jesus is the offspring of Abraham who blesses the nations. Jesus is a prophet like Moses, delivering and fulfilling God’s commandments. Jesus is the offspring of David who will reign forever. Through the death and the resurrection of Christ, God’s purpose to call out of the world a people for Himself, to redeem them from sin, and to cause them to inherit the promises of salvation is fulfilled. Without a proper understanding of the Old Testament, we miss the richness of those realities.
When we look for the origins of the church, we have to look back in time to understand God’s eternal purpose, which He has been working from the very beginning.
In his first epistle, Peter goes as far as to label Christians with terms similar to what God had used of Israel when He called them out of Egypt: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV). Peter knew that those titles for ethnic Israel were fitting to describe all who are included in Christ in His church—Jew and gentile alike.
Jesus Christ, the offspring of Abraham and of David, has called us to Himself so that we might know forgiveness of sins and life in the Spirit—blessings for which Israelites of the Old Testament could only hope. In Christ, we know how the blessing promised beforehand to Abraham is fulfilled.
The church is not a human invention but a divine institution. And when we look for its origins, we have to look back in time to understand God’s eternal purpose, which He has been working from the very beginning.
So, as we seek to understand our own identity as Christian people, we need to do so as whole-Bible Christians. Jesus Christ didn’t come as God’s plan B. He didn’t come to throw the Old Testament in the bin and make something new. He came to fulfill all that the Old Testament promises (2 Cor. 1:20). As we turn our eyes upon Jesus, our perception of His wonder and glory will be magnified as we search all of His Word.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Where Do I Belong in the Church?” by Alistair Begg.