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Please explain: What sets Old Testament Israel apart from other people?

What is the difference between God’s love for Old Testament Israel and his love for other people?

Our boat slipped out of the harbor just before dawn. We were coming around the point of an island. Patches of fog hugged the water while cloudy skies diminished the poor visibility. In this dark setting, the beam of light from the lighthouse shone all the more brightly. Without that lighthouse, a modern GPS kept us out of danger. Nevertheless, it makes you appreciate the purpose of a lighthouse: to shine indiscriminate light to help people in the darkness.

A special privilege

God’s Old Testament chosen people, Israel, were not special by human standards. Every nation, tribe, and people have a unique history, culture, and traditions. Yet they all have one thing in common: Each generation is steeped in sin. This has always been the world’s dark landscape, and God’s promises are the only light.

God first promised the Offspring to two people (Genesis 3:15). But with so many nations arising over so much time, from which family tree would this branch come (Isaiah chapter 11)?

Just as dreams of a growing plant begin in the heart and mind of the one who plants the seed, so too God’s gracious plan took root. The Lord chose Abraham. He said, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:2). Those words echoed to Isaac and Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. The Lord always prevails. And so will his people, no matter what they faced.

When they were enslaved in Egypt, God provided a way for his people of the promise. God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM . . . [I am] the God of your fathers . . . Go!” (Exodus 3:12-16). Joseph assured his brothers, the 12 tribes of Israel, that God would surely take them back to the land of their fathers (Genesis 50:24). Through the deep waters and the desert wilderness, God would bring them back to the Promised Land.

When they faced threatening nations, God protected his people of the promise. He raised up kings who would shelter his people and point them to him. When David wanted to build a temple for God, God flipped the plans on David. God would “build” David’s house to be the lineage of the Savior (2 Samuel chapter 7; Psalm 110).

When the Israelites’ land was destroyed and they were carried into captivity, God preserved his people of the promise. While captives like Daniel were carried off to Babylon, the remnant was left behind. God eventually brought his people back to their land. And when they rediscovered God’s promises, they recalled how God will always keep his promises (Nehemiah chapter 8).

What a special privilege for Israel! God could have chosen any other nation. But it was Israel. He provided, protected, and preserved his handpicked people throughout it all! Who can overlook such grace?

But is that it?

Consider again a lighthouse. It doesn’t keep that beam of light in one spot or direction. The light spins and spans to reach everything around it. So too, God chose Israel for a special privilege that was always part of his more spectacular plan. His grace to Israel in the Old Testament was only the beginning, not the end.

A spectacular plan

It is hard, even impossible, to see God’s love carried out to Israel without seeing his plan for all. God’s initial words to Abraham included: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).

Isaiah gives us a lens into God’s plan. Israel was to be a light for the Gentiles so that the Lord’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6). The light of God’s promises has no limit. When nations would pass through this common corridor because of travel or commerce, they would be exposed to the promises of the God of Israel. When Israel had any interaction with other nations, its unique history revolved around God’s promises. Beyond the outsiders whom we know were brought into God’s family (e.g., Ruth, Rahab), who can count the number of other adopted souls reached in Old Testament times?

His grace to Israel in the Old Testament was only the beginning, not the end.

God’s love for the Old Testament people of Israel may be different in terms of practical history and purpose of preservation. But according to the ultimate promise, all who believe in God’s promised Savior, Jesus, are God’s people. In this way, all believers are the spiritual and eternal Israel of God, children of Abraham by faith (Romans 4:16,17). Thus, the result of God’s love to those believers inside and those believers outside the nation of Israel is the same!

The goal was always to bless all nations because the Savior coming from Israel was coming for all! It’s all about Jesus, the Savior of the world! Consider the number of ways we have seen this plan play out.

  • Christmas: Greater than the brightest lighthouse, angels lit up the night sky with blinding glory and a deafening “Gloria!” There’s more: “On earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). God’s bright plan of salvation has come to light in the person of Jesus Christ.
  • Two missionaries: Paul and Barnabas were preaching in front of a large crowd in Antioch. Despite their clear sharing of Old Testament promises, the Jews rejected their message. But then Paul and Barnabas shared that passage from Isaiah 49:6, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Do you know what happened? “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:48).
  • Our calling: The apostle Peter writes, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). By faith in Jesus, we are chosen for God and for the purpose of sharing the light of his gospel with the rest of the world!
  • The young: We can still hear them singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” In that moment, they are proof that God’s bright promises have reached through time and space to enlighten young and distant believers.
  • The elderly: I know an old man who spent most of his life apart from Christ. Once old enough, he left his parents’ and God’s house as quickly as possible. Through what he calls “God’s special eye on me,” he recounts how God brought him back to Jesus. Now that man is reaching family members and friends with this story of God’s grace.

The light of God’s love has no limits. His promise of grace in Christ reaches throughout generations and for all nations. It’s like a lighthouse shining in the dark landscape of a world that isn’t better now than it was in Old Testament times. Through his special privilege of choosing Israel, God has carried out his special plan through Israel for all. And with God’s promises, even when the landscape of our days may seem dark and dreary, we can say and even sing, “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Author: Caleb Kurbis
Volume 111, Number 01
Issue: January 2024

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