God’s miraculous deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt was an important turning point in the nation’s history. Numerous times, God referred back to that pivotal point to remind the Israelites of their relationship with him and of their dependence upon his mercy for their continued sustainment. Psalm 124 captures the essence of Israel’s situation from the time they were delivered from bondage in Egypt to the time when they were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Psalm 124:1-5 states:
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
The imagery of being swallowed up alive and of a flood sweeping them away were meant to depict the consuming destruction that comes on people who are enemies of God. This kind of imagery was used in the book of Jeremiah in connection with God’s judgment on the Philistines. Jeremiah 47:2-4 states:
“Thus says the Lord:
Behold, waters are rising out of the north,
and shall become an overflowing torrent;
they shall overflow the land and all that fills it,
the city and those who dwell in it.
Men shall cry out,
and every inhabitant of the land shall wail.
At the noise of the stamping of the hoofs of his stallions,
at the rushing of his chariots, at the rumbling of their wheels,
the fathers look not back to their children,
so feeble are their hands,
because of the day that is coming to destroy
all the Philistines,
to cut off from Tyre and Sidon
every helper that remains.
For the Lord is destroying the Philistines,
the remnant of the coastland of Caphtor.”
The Philistines were among the nations that the LORD left in the Promised Land to test Israel by them. “They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether they would obey the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses” (Judges 3:4). After the household of Eli was rejected by God as Israel’s priests, Israel was defeated by the Philistines and the Ark of the Covenant was captured by them. “The Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon” (1 Samuel 4:2). “Canaanite deities, such as the Baals and the Ashtoreths, remained a problem for Judah until the Babylonian exile. Other Canaanite deities included the Asherahs (Judges 3:7) and Dagon (Judges 16:23)…Overall, the religion of the Canaanites was extremely corrupt. It was characterized by the practices of human sacrifice, ritual prostitution and homosexuality, and self-mutilation” (note on Judges 2:13). The Philistines’ placement of the Ark of the Covenant next to their god Dagon was intended to signify his dominion over the Israelites, but God caused Dagon to fall face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD (1 Samuel 5:3-4) and eventually, the Philistines voluntarily returned the ark to Israel (1 Samuel 6:1-14).
Samuel’s duel role as a judge of Israel and also a prophet was a part of the shift in leadership that occurred when Israel demanded a king to rule over them. 1 Samuel 8:1-5 tells us, “When Samuel become old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.’” “Like Eli, Samuel neglected to discipline and teach his sons properly. The failure of Samuel’s sons led the people to reject their authority as judges and to reject God as well, who in his sovereignty had set the judges in place to rule over his people” (note on 1 Samuel 8:3). “God knew that the Israelites would someday desire a king. He had previously given guidelines that were to be followed by the people and by the kings that would reign over them (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). The people seemed to be motivated by the desire to avoid further military losses (1 Samuel 8:20) and to get rid of corrupt potential leaders, the sons of Eli and Samuel. Samuel saw their request as a rejection of himself, but God affirmed that they had actually rejected him. The people were no longer satisfied with the system of judges that had been established. They improperly attributed the failures during that time to the system itself, not to their sin. They rejected God because they wanted to be like the other nations, not a peculiar people, set apart as the chosen ones of God. They wanted a visible deliverer in whom they could place their trust (cf. Judges 8:22). They wanted to walk by sight, not by faith. In so doing, they sought to escape the moral demands of the law by doing away with the theocracy under which they had been living” (note on 1 Samuel 8:5-7).
When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, after being delivered from slavery in Egypt, God declared his intention of transforming them into a unique people. It says in Exodus 19:3 that God called to Moses out of the mountain and instructed him to tell the people of Israel:
“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:4-6)
The Hebrew word that is translated treasured possession in Exodus 19:5, çᵉgullah (seg-ool-lawˊ) “signifies ‘property’ in the special sense of a private possession one personally acquired and carefully preserves. Six times this word is used of Israel as God’s personally acquired (elected, delivered from Egyptian bondage, and formed into what he wanted them to be), carefully preserved, and privately possessed people” (H5459).
Moses reminded the Israelites of their special status just before they entered the Promised Land. Moses said, “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all people, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). Moses used the Hebrew word bachar (baw-kharˊ), which means “to choose” (H977), to refer to Israel’s election as God’s holy nation and indicated that God’s motivation for choosing Israel was his love for them. The Hebrew word that is translated love in Deuteronomy 7:7, chashaq (khaw-shakˊ) means “to cling, i.e. join” (H2836). The Apostle Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians that God’s election of those who would be redeemed by the blood of Christ took place before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and that all who will receive an eternal inheritance from God will do so by “being predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). The Greek word proorizo (pro-or-idˊ-zo) or predestined, “is used to declare God’s eternal decrees of both the objects and goal of his plan of salvation (Romans 8:29, 30), of the glorious benefits that will come from that salvation (1 Corinthians 2:7), and of our adoption and inheritance as sons of God (Ephesians 1:5, 11)” (G4309).
The Israelites’ desire to be like everyone else was rooted in the fact that they were worshipping the Baals and the Ashtaroth (Judges 2:13). Samuel challenged the people of Israel to be faithful to God. Samuel said, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 7:3). In spite of his faithfulness in subduing the Philistines, the people of Israel refused to accept God’s authority over them (1 Samuel 8:7). 1 Samuel 8:19-22 states, “But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, ‘No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ And when Samuel heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Obey their voice and make them a king.’”
One of the epithets of Jesus was King of the Jews. During the time when Jesus was living on the earth, the nation of Israel couldn’t have a king of their own because they were under the Roman government’s authority. King Herod was the Roman Jewish client king of Judea and Matthew 2:1-2 tells us that wise men from the east came to Herod the king, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” After Herod determined the location of Christ’s birth, he sent the wise men to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word that I too may come and worship him” (Matthew 2:8). The wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, Herod “became furious and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matthew 2:12, 16). At his trial before the Roman governor, Jesus was asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11). Later, the governor’s soldiers stripped Jesus “and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisted together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (Matthew 27:28-29). At his crucifixion, the title of King of the Jews was used to condemn Jesus to death. Matthew 27:37 states, “And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’”
Israel’s tragic mistake of asking for a human being to rule over them instead of God is evident in the final book of the Bible, Revelation which deals with end-time events. The nation of Israel isn’t mentioned in the book of Revelation, but instead its contents are addressed “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4). Both Peter and Paul elude to the fact that the holy nation that God intended for Israel to become was replaced by the church that Jesus established before his death on the cross (Matthew 16:18). Peter stated:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:4-10)
Peter pointed out that believers in Christ are considered to be God’s people. He said, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Peter 2:10). Paul echoed this thought in his letter to Titus where he spoke of Christ’s followers as “a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). The Greek word that is translated for his own possession, periousios (per-ee-ooˊ-see-os) means “being beyond usual, i.e. special (one’s own)” (G4041).
Paul talked in his letter to the Romans about the people of Israel being grafted back into the tree from which they were cut off through their unbelief. Paul explained:
So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusionmean!
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 11:11-24)
Paul indicated that Israel’s rejection of their Messiah made it possible for the world to be reconciled to God and identified them as the firstfruits of God’s plan of salvation. The grafting back in that Paul was referring to in this passage may be the purpose behind the great tribulation that is depicted in the book of Revelation.
According to Paul, one of the key outcomes of believing in Christ is being conformed into the image of God’s Son, “in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). Paul warned believers to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians that Christ had made both Jew and Gentile one “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14-16). God’s ability to transform the minds of both Jews and Gentiles and bring people from both groups into the body of Christ has been demonstrated through the conversion of many Jews to Christianity, but God’s ultimate goal of grafting the nation of Israel back into the tree from which it was cut off seems to be a larger objective that has yet to be accomplished.
The book of Revelation, which opens with John’s greetings to the seven churches, focuses primarily on God’s judgment of the earth and his overthrow of a world system that is opposed to the kingdom of heaven. Before God’s angels are allowed to harm the earth or the sea, John tells us that 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel are set apart to serve God. Revelation 7:3 states, “’Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of God on their foreheads.’ And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” Later, John says:
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless. (Revelation 14:1-5)
John indicated that the 144,000 had been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb (Revelation 14:4). The Greek word that is translated firstfruits, aparche (ap-ar-khayˊ) means a beginning of sacrifice, i.e. the (Jewish) first-fruit” (G5360). This seems to suggest that the 144,000 will be the first to be martyred for their faith during the great tribulation. Revelation 13:15-16 states that anyone who would not worship the image of the beast would be slain. “Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” It seems that God intends for the 144,000 to not be like everyone else and to be killed because they refuse to submit to the false prophet’s demands.