A Brief History
Throughout Biblical history the people of God have been a family, and it is through this family that God chose to work to rescue a people for himself—from every tongue, tribe and nation—and make them a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. It began with God’s call of Abram out of the land of Ur (Babylonia, present-day Iraq) to go to a new land and settle there. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and promised to bless him and make him a great nation and through him to bless all the families of the earth, thus proclaiming the gospel to him (Galatians 3:8). In his old age, according to God’s promise, Abraham had a son named Issac; Issac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob, and God chose Jacob to inherit the covenant promise made to Abraham. Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel, had twelve sons whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel. Of these twelve, God’s promise of an offspring to bless the whole world continued through the line of Judah from whom we get Jesse’s son, King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” from whose line would eventually come Jesus, the Messiah promised to Abraham (Isaiah 11:10; Romans 15:8-13; Matthew 1:1-16).
While the Jewish nation of Israel was God’s chosen family from whom he would bring the promised savior, God’s family also includes non-Jews who put their trust in the one true God over heaven and earth. Paul explains this by saying that true descendants of Abraham—true Jews—are those who have faith in God just as Abraham did (Romans 9:6-8). There are a number of non-Jews mentioned in the Old Testament who became believers including Adam & Eve, Abel, Noah, Rahab the ex-prostitute from Jericho, Ruth the Moabite, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and even the citizens of the city of Nineveh during the time of Jonah. In the New Testament Paul was appointed as an apostle by the resurrected Jesus to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles, or non-Jews (Acts 9). Previously the Holy Spirit had been poured out only on the Jewish disciples of Jesus (Acts 2), but very soon the message spread to Gentiles who also believed (Acts 8) and received the same sign of being baptized with the Holy Spirit that the ethnically Jewish believers did (Acts 10). Reflecting on this, the apostles reached the right conclusion, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18), thus fulfilling the words of Jesus and the prophesy God gave to Isaiah (John 10:16; Isaiah 56:8).
One New Man
In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus he explains this phenomenon as being a creative act by God:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 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, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
One of the things that set the ancient Israel apart from the rest of the nations was the sign of circumcision. It was a reminder to them that God had set them apart and made special promises to them. In Jesus’ day was a sect of Jews called the Pharisees who believed God’s favor was earned by strictly adhering to the Law of Moses, which included circumcision. It was one of these Pharisees, Paul, whom the ressurrected Jesus appointed to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Since Paul saw that God gave uncircumcised Gentiles the same gift of repentance and of the Holy Spirit that the Jewish Christians received, he reasoned that outward circumcision was useless by itself but is meant to serve as a sign of inward circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; Romans 2:25-29). Because of this, Paul’s argument in Ephesians is that God has made a new type of man by uniting Jews and Gentiles and calling this new kind of people the body of Christ, also known as the Church. This is expounded upon in several ways throughout Paul’s letters.
In Romans 11:11-24 Paul compares this union to that of a wild olive shoot being grafted into the olive tree of God’s family. In their history, the nation of Israel was often symbolized as an olive tree (Hosea 14:6–7), but failed in their mission to point the nations to God, instead becoming like the nations in their idolatry (Jeremiah 11:16–19). Jesus, however, is the true and better vine (John 15:1-17). When connected to him people bear fruit, doing good works based on grace and growing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10). Therefore, while unbelieving Israel was cut off from the vine, beleiving Gentiles were grafted in and any Jew who repents and believes in Jesus can also be grafted back in again (Romans 11:17-24).
Another way to look at this union is that through Christ, Gentile believers are adopted into God’s family. Since Gentile believers have been given the Holy Spirit and are led by him, this is proof that God considers them family (Romans 8:14-15). This was part of God’s plan all along as he set his love upon each individual believer before the world was even created so that he might receive the glory due him (Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12). Therefore, those who are in Christ need no more fear God, but can approach him as Father (Romans 8:14-15).
God’s family is so large that it’s not simply a family, but a nation. By Christ’s blood making atonement for sin, Gentile believers are not only considered family, but also fellow citizens of Israel (Ephesians 2:19). A person is not a citizen of true Israel nor a true descendant of Abraham through ethnic ties, but by believing God’s promise just as Abraham had done (Romans 9:8). And because Gentile believers are considered Abraham’s descendants, they are also fellow heirs of God’s promise of land/rest to Abraham (Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 3:6), which is a shadow or type of the true rest which believers will one day enter (Hebrews 4:1,6), the true land with a city built by God (Hebrews 11:9-10,16).
Our inheritance as God’s family of the kingdom of God, which was inaugurated with Christ’s first coming and the gift of his Holy Spirit, will be consummated upon Jesus’ second coming. It is then that Jesus will judge the wicked, but will reward his own people for “conquering by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11). It is then that all of God’s family, all who believed Him and in Him put their faith, their full assurance in His promise, everyone from creation to final judgement who trusted the promise of God’s mercy as their salvation from God’s wrath, everyone who is a true descendant of Abraham by having the same faith as Abraham, will finally inherit the true promised land, the New Jerusalem, built by God and not by man, and will finally enjoy the full fellowship and true peace of being in God’s presence forever (Revelation 21-22:5).
The church of God is a family. It began with the family of Abraham and continues to this day as a family full of those God chose, purchased and adopted to be his own. Horizontally speaking, all who are in the church are fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers to each other (1 Timothy 5:1). This Ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) has incredible implications in how we view our communities and cultures today, just as it affected the ancient world after the day of Pentecost. And when the Church has viewed herself through this Biblical lens, she has been a powerful force of blessing to the world around her.
Perhaps what can be seen most clearly in Ephesians 2:11-18 is that through the Church, God has provided the one true way to end racism. Because God has reconciled all kinds of people to himself, making ”one new man in place of the two,” and has given them the work of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19), he has ended the hostility that has existed between them through the Church. All are one in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. His Church is the only diversity program that will ever truly succeed, as we see in John’s prophetic vision of Jesus:
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
Care for Orphans and Poor Children
According to James 1:27, part of the religion which God accepts as pure and undefiled is to care for orphans. With the spread of Christianity came the appearance and proliferation of orphanages. One such example of this would be George Muller who established the New Orphan Houses at Ashley Down in Bristol after noting the number of children without parents who lived in the streets or in state-run poorhouses where they were treated badly. The five Houses once held 2,050 children at any one time and some 17,000 passed through their doors before the buildings were sold to Bristol City Council in 1958. While orphanages have all but disappeared in the West with the advancement of foster care and accelerated adoption, the spirit of caring for orphans and children living in poverty remains alive and well through ministries such as World Vision, Compassion International, and many others. Noting that Jesus himself was adopted by Joseph and that God adopts those who are “not his people” and instead calls them sons through Jesus (Hosea 1:10; Romans 9:22-26; 1 Peter 2:10), the care and adoption of orphans shows the world a living example of how God cares for his Church through individual salvation.
Unity Through Self-Sacrificial Love
A phrase that most likely originated in Aesop’s Fable, Hercules and the Waggoner, and has morphed into an anti-Gospel monotheistic version is that, “God helps those who help themselves.” While the purpose of the fable is not unlike the apostle James’ sentiment that faith apart from works is dead, sadly the phrase has degraded to the point of glorifying greed and using others as tools for personal advancement all while sounding very spiritual. On the contrary, the message of the Gospel says that God has helped those who cannot help themselves. In Ephesians 2, we see that while we were helpless and our spirits were dead because of our sin and disobedience, God made us alive because of his mercy and love. In Romans 5, we see that while we were morally weak sinners and self-proclaimed enemies of God, Jesus died to make us God’s friends and give us the moral capacity to live righteously before God and escape his rightful condemnation of us.
In the same way, Christians are to reflect Christ by imitating him (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:1-2). Every Christian is a part of his Church and therefore is a brother to every other Christian, all belonging to the global family of God. Therefore, we reflect upon what Jesus has done and strive to have the same mindset he did when he left his throne in heaven to save his lost ones:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
As Jesus himself tells us in Luke’s gospel account, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
May we repent of self-exaltation and humbly serve each other as Jesus serves us. May we repent of exclusive self-interest and instead tend to the needs of others, especially those who need fathers and mothers. May we repent of racial bigotry and rejoice in the diversity of our siblings in God’s family. May we be like Epaphroditus, who risked his life and nearly died in order to serve his brother in the faith, Paul, in prison. May we praise God, who has united us all with his loving and saving grace.