The concept "people of God" is based primarily on biblical presuppositions and a patristic understanding of ecclesiology. The people of God is the pleroma of the church; quahal, the congregation of God's people. The laos (people) is distinct from the ethne, or gentiles, who were engrafted into the body of Christ. The theological underpinning of the concept of the people of God in Orthodox perspective is highly dependent on the biblical understanding of God's covenant with the people of Israel and the Christian self-understanding as the new Israel. So, the search for an Orthodox understanding of the concept of the "people of God" must be sought in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, and the patristic tradition. The present study will address the Orthodox presuppositions and understanding of the concept of the people of God, beginning with some biblical and patristic reflections.
In the Scriptures we read, "And the Lord has chosen thee this day that thou shouldest be to him a peculiar people, as he said, to keep his commands, and that thou shouldest be above all nations, as he has made thee renowned and a boast, and glorious, that thou shouldest be a holy people to the Lord thy God, as he has spoken." And in another place it is stated that, "Only the Lord chose your fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you, beyond all nations, as at this day."
This is the basis of the scriptural understanding of God's people where they are set apart to worship God, to obey God's commandments, and to proclaim God's truth to the whole world. The Septuagint version of the Old Testament became normative in the early church and in Orthodoxy. For that reason I am compelled to offer briefly an understanding of the Septuagint use of the laos or people.
Generally speaking, in the Septuagint, the use of laos or "people" refers specifically to Israel. This is evident in the fact that the continual recurrence of the phrase laos tou theou or "people of God" simply denotes Israel. The use of laos as people and ethnos as nation is a marked distinction in that the word laos implies God's people, whereas the ethne are the nations of the earth. God separated Israel as God's "peculiar possession." They are the holy people of God by divine selection. The Scriptures declare that "Thou art a holy people to the Lord thy God [laos hagios ei kyrio to theo sou]." They continue "and the Lord thy God chose thee to be to him a peculiar people beyond all nations that are upon the face of the earth [kai se proeileto Kyrios oTheos sou einai auto laon periousion para panta to ethne, osa epi prosopou tes ges]" The word laos implies a possession freely chosen by Yahweh. The election of Yahweh was made out of his love.
The understanding of Israel as the people of God does not mean a naturalistic particularism. The words "And ye shall be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation [hymeis de esesthe moi basileion hierateuma kai ethnos hagion]" imply divine choice. Some Jewish interpreters are of the opinion that the "royal priesthood" is "to teach and to guide the entire human race" to call upon the name of God.
The Scriptures do not intend to promote a racist view of the people of God, but, rather, to draw attention to the universal mission of Israel as the people called by God to promote holiness and show forth the way by which salvation might be found. It is not the state (ethnos) as such that enlightens the nations but God's "people" insofar as they are "obedient" and "faithful" to God. It is not my intention here to restate and interpret the history of Israel and its relation to God but to have one understand the people in relation to God in the patriarchal period and later, when God liberated this people from the bondage of Egypt and guided them to the Promised Land. It seems that the prophets subordinate the state to God's covenant, Zion to Sinai.
The dominant theme of the Old Testament as it relates to our theme might be summarized as follows: God created the world out of nothingness. God called Abraham out of paganism to a life centered on the worship of the true God. God delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt to be a people with a purpose. God gave the Torah at Sinai and brought the Israelites to the promised land that they should be God's own chosen people, a holy nation, observing the divine commandments and keeping the covenant of true worship. All of these things God did.
The important biblical term "people" is in Hebrew "am" and in Greek "laos" to indicate the sociocultural dimension of the people of Israel as a social entity. In contrast, the term "nation" (in Hebrew "goy" and in Greek "ethnos") mainly designates the political dimension of the state of Israel.
God made a choice in electing the people of Israel to be God's own "possession." This is indicated explicitly in Deuteronomy and Second Isaiah. God chose Israel to be the "holy people" (laos hagios) and "beyond all nations" (pera panta ta ethne), to know and worship God alone as Lord God.' The nations (ethne) in the Old Testament usually are portrayed as attacking Zion, the holy city; they are the earthly powers that oppose the rule of God.'
It mustbe noted that a conception of divine election was not unique to Israel but was, rather, a general belief in the ancient Near East. The uniqueness, however, of the biblical idea was that Yahweh created and governs the world, and is superior to all other gods. God chose God's people with a special destiny. God gave Israel a special revelation, that is "the testimonies, and the ordinances, and the judgments" are to be handed down from father to son that they may "inherit the good land."
The emphasis of the Old Testament was to deny absolutely the existence of other gods. It is clearly stated that Yahweh created the entire universe and controlled it with the Torah in accordance with God's ultimate purpose. That is, ultimately all humankind should be united as one people, to attain knowledge of the One God and live according to God's statutes. God chose Israel as God's people not for special favor and glorification but to bring God's light to the "nations," to be the divine messenger and witness to all the peoples of the world.
The emergence of the Christian church was conceived by its early Apologists as being the inheritor of this heritage from the Old Testament. The church is in continuity with the Israel of God. The church Fathers made this clear in their writings and the Orthodox Christian Church maintains the position that the church is the people of God and the new Israel. Father Georges Florovsky made this clear in the following statement:
The first followers of Jesus in the "days of His flesh," were not isolated individuals engaged in their private quest for truth. They were Israelites regular members of an established and instituted Community of the "Chosen People" of God ... Indeed; a "Church" already existed when Jesus began His ministry. It was Israel, the People of the Covenant... The existing Covenant was the constant background of His preaching. The Sermon on the Mount was addressed not to an occasional crowd of accidental listeners, but rather to an "inner circle" of those who were already following Jesus . . . "The Little Flock" that the community which Jesus had gathered around Himself was, in fact, the faithful "Remnant" of Israel, a reconstituted People of God. . Each person had to respond individually by an act of personal faith. This personal commitment of faith, however, incorporated the believer into the Community. And this remained forever the pattern of Christian existence: one should believe and confess, and then he is baptized, baptized into the Body.
The New Covenant continued the Hebrew understanding of the people of God in its own terminology and perception. The Christians looked on the people of God as the "saints" and "holy people." That is, Jesus' disciples, or the Church corporately conceived, were thought of as thegedoshin, "hoi hagioi," the saints and gedosh, "ho hagios," the holy ones." The term "hagioi" was used in the early church to designate those who followed Jesus or all the Christians. The terms "saints" or "holy ones" came to designate a universal community, one that was not distinguished according to race or nationality or class or sex, as explicitly stated in the letters of St. Paul. Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus."' The term "holy people of God" designates the church. The church is open to all, transcending all barriers between Jews and gentiles.
A contemporary scholar makes the following observation of the New Testament understanding of Israel as the people of God. He states:
- For Matthew, Israel has been replaced by another people, coming from all Gentile peoples: Matt. 8:11-13; 21:43; 27:15-26.
- Paul grants Israel, as the people of God, a general amnesty, as the whole of Israel after a temporary rejection shall be saved at the end of times: Romans 11.
- The Gospel of John shows that throughout the history of Israel there were always two groups among the people; these were separated through the coming of the Messiah-Jesus. Only one of the groups is and has been Israel, and this group is found in the Church.
The church is the Israel of God, "nor a new Israel, but the one and only people of God, Israel in a new Face of history, namely, that of Jesus." The church is all encompassing and provides divine revelation and salvation to all people and races. One interpreter of St. Paul makes the point that; "In Jesus there is a new universalism, not a bare transposition from Israel to the Church. "
There is a relation of Church (Ekklesia) and the people of God as perceived by the New Testament documents. However, the Church of God (He Ekklesia tou Theou) is also an eschatological community and exists to gather all peoples and nations under the rule of God in recognition of Christ as the Messiah.
The Ekklesia is a universal manifestation of God's concern for the entire human race. The Lucan understanding of the "people of God"(laos Theou) shifted from the pre-Christian view of Israel as the people of God to that of the Christians as the people of God.
It is interesting to note that in John's Gospel, "ethnos" (nation), "laos"(people) and "tekna tou Teou" (children of God) are identified and also contrasted. Children of God are "all who received him [Christ], who believed in his name." "It is faith, this total adherence to the person of Christ, as revealed and expressed through his name, that makes of us 'children of God." The Johannine literature seems to suggest this identity with the Christian community- that the terms "laos" (people) of God, "tekna Theou" (children of God) and "ethne" (nations), refer to all those, Jews and gentiles, who unite themselves into this new people by the death and resurrection of Christ the Messiah. The signs are that they are born of God and are "children of God," are believers in Jesus Christ and that they are "holy" and righteous.
A contemporary Greek Orthodox New Testament scholar best expresses the biblical understanding of the "people of God" by the Orthodox Christian Church in a statement as follows:
The term laikos is etymologically derived from laos, the semantic significance of which is the idea of the people of God, the pleroma of the church. After all, the Church cannot be theologically conceived in terms of superior and inferior classes, but only as a unity, as one body; nor can it reflect secular structures based on power and divisions, but the inner life of the Holy Trinity, which according to Christian dogmatic tradition, is unity, communion, love and sharing.
The term "people of God" in the Orthodox Church is understood as members of the body of Christ and as the pleroma (fullness) of the Church, the "Israel of God," the "saints," the "elect," the "chosen race," and the "royal priesthood. In the New Testament, as understood by the Orthodox, the "people of God" is the church as the body of Christ. In the First Epistle of Peter it is clearly stated that, "At one time you were not God's people, but now you are his people." The church is "God's holy people," the baptized participating in God's realm, as manifested in the divine Eucharistic liturgy.
The church Fathers generally accepted the Old Testament as a precursor to the coming of Christ. The Epistle of Barnabas refers to the circumcision not as a physical mark of the chosen people but as that of the "circumcision of the ears," that is, to hear God's word and to keep it. All these are a "type" (typos) of Jesus and the church. The sacrifices of the Old Testament serve as a prefiguration of the good news (evangelion) and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The acts performed in the Old Testament all point to Christ.
The foregoing background serves as the basis for an Orthodox Christian perspective on what it means to be the people of God. Subsequent Orthodox theologians continue to the present to uphold similar views on the topic. The identity of the "people of God" as being the elect, or called by God, is manifested in the fellowship (koinonia)they have with Christ. The covenant, the bond God made with Israel on Mount Sinai, is fulfilled on Calvary, sealed with the blood of Christ as Savior of the world. This Orthodox view of the people of God is based on reiterations of Scripture referring to these believers as "people of God," "chosen race," "a peculiar people" (Titus 2:14), and as "Christian people" (St. John Damascene). These terms refer to the mystical body that is inspired by theHoly Spirit and governed by the divine head, which is Christ.
The Orthodox sees the Old Testament rites and events as a "type" and a foreshadowing of the church. The people of God are under the protection and guidance of the power of God. The oppression of slavery and release in the Exodus experienced by Israel is a "type" of and foreshadowing of the suffering and the joy of salvation experienced by all God's people through history. Other such types exist. A type of the church is the Ark of Noah, which protected and saved the human race and the animal world at the time of the deluge. A type of the church is the people of Israel who suffered so much to preserve the Law and perpetuate the faith of the One True God. God's holy people under the leadership of Moses were guided to the Promised Land and liberated. The church as the people of God continues to offer this ministry to the world.
The following statement provides a dear understanding of the call and uniqueness of the people of God that I, as an Orthodox theologian, can accept as my own:
In a broken world God calls the whole of humanity to become God's people. For this purpose God chose Israel and then spoke in a unique and decisive way in Jesus Christ, God's Son. Jesus made his own the nature, condition and cause of the whole human race, giving himself as a sacrifice for all. Jesus' life of service, his death and resurrection, are the foundation of a new community, which is built up continually by the good news of the Gospel and the gifts of the sacraments. The Holy Spirit unites in a single body those who follow Jesus Christ and sends them as witnesses into the world. Belonging to the Church means living in communion with God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.
The question raised in this essay is what is the relation of the church as the "people of God" to the people of biblical Israel. The answer given by the Orthodox Church lies in its espousal of a "fulfillment Christology." The late Georges Florovsky, universally accepted as the leading Orthodox theologian of the 20th century, in the following way, defined this:
The famous phrase of St. Augustine can be taken as typical of the whole patristic attitude towards the Old Dispensation.Novum Tesramentum in Vetere latet. Vetus Tesramentum in Novo patet. The New Testament is an accomplishment or a consummation of the Old. Christ Jesus is the Messiah spoken of by the prophets. In Him all promises and expectations are fulfilled. The Law and the Gospel belong together. And nobody can claim to be a true follower of Moses unless he believes that Jesus is the Lord. Any one who does not recognize in Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed of the Lord, does thereby betray the Old Dispensation itself. Only the Church of Christ keeps now the right key to the Scriptures, the true key to the prophecies of old. Because all these prophesies are fulfilled in Christ.
The Old Testament is treasured as part of the revelatory heritage of the church in its preaching, worship and theology. The Holy Scriptures, including the Old Testament, "was an eternal and universal revelation" for the Fathers that was delivered "to the Chosen People alone." The Orthodox Church makes a clear claim that the baptized are the people of God. It seems that all baptized believers in Christ who receive the Holy Spirit arc "sons and daughters of God" and "Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29ff). Further, there are now no differences whatsoever within the 'Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16) in the covenant members' relationship to the Lord, for in the "new creation" all believers are "one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).
The people of God are those who participate in the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ. The unity of the people of God is manifested as one body in the Eucharist wherein the church realizes its fullness. Contemporary Orthodox theologians repeatedly emphasize the view that baptism and Eucharist are the manifested signs of the people of God. The following statement expresses the idea that the community, thus constituted, stands in deep sacramental union with God as the people of God:
The manifestation of the Kingdom of God is inaugurated in the Church and through the Church, as the historic Body of Christ into which all of the faithful are incorporated as members, and as such constitute the People of God. As members, of the one and same body, the faithful are united with each other and with the divine Head of the Body through divine grace in the new life in Christ. Through this they live the new reality as a continuous communion (koinonia) with the Triune God thus becoming "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (I Pet. 2:9). All of the members of the Church share in the prophetic, high priestly and royal office of Christ. They become through divine grace communicants of all of the blessings of divine glory by their adoption. They live the fullness of the divinely related truth in the Church and obtain the experience of the variety of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the mystical (sacramental)"mystiriake" life of the Church.
The human race created by God was united as humanity. Originally, humanity in its entirety was created alike as children of God. However, humanity lost this unity in its rebellion against Cod's will (that is, the fall), which resulted in the division of people into different races and nations. The principle of the oneness of humanity is deeply rooted in the Orthodox Christian tradition. St. Basil made the point that all humans are related and that gall are brothers and sisters [adelphoi]from the one Father" who created all. However, the fullness(pleroma) of the church is an expression of the universality of God's message of election and salvation in a covenant that was made by God repeatedly in the Old Testament and sealed by the New Testament. This means that entrance into God's covenanted people requires an election. St. Irenaeus clearly points out that the pleroma (fullness) of the Church, the holy people of God, is received in baptism in order to preserve the "rule of truth" (kanona tes aletheias). The people of God are the guardians of the truth. The Orthodox maintain the unity of Scripture (Old and New Testaments). The church's self-understanding relies on the word of God. The following statement makes this clear:
We have no right to oppose the Old Testament to the New, or to choose from either that, which appeals to us, and bypass, neglect or reject the rest, through caprice, or following an attempt at rationalizing our choice on the basis of a preconceived ideology. This would be properly heresy (hairesis), and there have been heretics all along the history of revelation. Samaritans read exclusively the Pentateuch, a heresy by ignorance originating in a defective indoctrination. The Karaites professed Biblical purism to the exclusion of rabbinical tradition - from a Jewish standpoint, a formal heresy. St. Paul had denounced the rise of heretical cliques among the Christians of his time.
The church is especially the church in the Eucharist where it is manifested as the Body of Christ; it is an organism. Florovsky pointed out that the Church is a community of those who abide and dwell in Him, and in whom He himself is abiding and dwell in the Spirit" and that the Church in Christ as his Body is his "fullness" (pleroma). Through baptism one enters into membership into the church, which is incorporation into the Body of Christ. Again, Florovsky has told us "it is self-evident truth, for salvation is synonymous with membership in the Church, which is the Body of Christ. To be saved means precisely to be in Christ, and in Christ means in His Body. Further, the "covenant" is related to the church.
I must affirm that Orthodox Eastern Christianity must not fall into the trap of "faith and works" or "law and grace," which lead to a kind of "denigration" of the Jewish way of life based on the Law as hateful to God. Father Theodore Stylianopoulos aptly states:
If the sharpest theological disagreement between Jews and Christians can be faithfully treated and discussed in a humble and respectful manner, thus preserving continuity while working at renewal in relations between the Jewish and Christian communities, it is obvious that the other important areas of our 'roots' can be discussed with less difficulty...
With regard to the ongoing community as a nurturing ground of our life and faith, faithfulness to our community does not need to deny the right of other people to be faithful to their own communities. In particular, Christians ought to relearn and be repeatedly reminded of the welcome and joyous fact of which shows that God has neither rejected nor abandoned His people just as St. Paul declared long ago (Rom. 11: 1,11). Contemporary Orthodox theologians support this continuity of the Sinai covenant for the Jewish people as an ongoing relation between God and God's people, the Jews. This is evident also in a statement by Patriarch Bartholomew, who emphasizes that the Jews and Orthodox Christians are "members of the same spiritual family."
The contemporary theological interpretation of the Sinai Covenant is clearly stated as a fulfillment in Christ but not necessarily as a rejection of the Jewish people. However, in the present times, the relationship of God with God's people is to be understood in terms of the Church. The late Professor Barrois pointed out that the Old Testament "is an essential organ of Gods self-disclosure and it has its message for today and for the days to come" and that the Law will not pass 'til all be fulfilled" (Matt. 5:17).
The emphasis of Orthodox theology is on communion. No one can be exempt from this relationship or communion of persons, both divine and human. The centrality of the communion of persons is manifested in the church in the Eucharistic communion. "No one in the Church can put himself outside the Law of Communion."
In the new Israel, the church, all human beings are incorporated without regard to their race and gender-united into one Body of Christ, both Jews and gentiles, brought together in Christ. The formerly "separated" and "distanced" Jews and gentiles now exist in harmony in the church as the Body of Christ. The salvific mission of Christ is universal. By creating the church, Christ introduces a "new creation" and "a new human person." The "new human person" (Eph. 4:24) is the renewal of the "old human person" that now has a new existence in Christ. The "new creation" constitutes the people of God who exist in Christ and are manifested in His Body the Church. All humanity is called to participate in this "renewed" existence as one body of God in the incarnate Logos.
Christ clearly stated, "I have come not to abolish the Law and the prophets... but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17). The Mosaic Law has its origin in God and has permanent value for the life of all people. Christ did not destroy or reject the Law or the Sinaitic covenant but came to fulfill it. He fulfills the Law by guiding people, that is, his followers, into a deeper understanding of the spirit of the Law; and, secondly, Christ implements in his life that which the Law and the Prophets mandate. Christ taught the people the law as the will of God.
Our question might again be raised, "Who are the people of God? The Orthodox have not discussed this issue in great detail. However, theologians speak of the "people of God" as the church. The people of God, the Church, begin with the creation of the world and moves forward to its final goal. God created human persons to be God's people, to be God's realm, that is, to live and be ruled by His divine will. This view of the people of God includes all people. The people of Israel in the desert were the church of God. The entire history of humanity participates in the continuing call of God to be God's. When the fulfillment of time came, the Son of God, the Divine Logos, becameanthropos (human person) to call humanity to come close to God. Jesus' entire life and mission were to call all human beings to enter the Reign of God. The eternal plan of God is fulfilled in Christ. All humanity, including Jews and gentiles are united in Christ and His Church as the people of God. The Church, made up of the "people of God" is a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and His own special people. (I Peter 2:9)
The church as the Body of Christ is not to be confused with Christ himself. Christ is the Head, the Body, and the Church is the people of God, the fellowship of the Saints. The people of God are the guardians of truth and Christian doctrine. In response to the West, an encyclical from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the last century firmly stated, "the guardian of religion is the very body of the Church, that is, the people (laos) itself. "
In summary, an Orthodox understanding of the people of God must be expressed as follows:
- God's creation of the human person as being in God's image is the place to begin for our understanding of the idea of the term "people of God."
- The history of Israel is the history of the people of God, seen particularly in God's promise to Abraham and the covenant made with Israel on Mount Sinai.
- The creation of the Church by the Incarnate Logos of God established a new relationship with God's people that draw into the covenant all races and all human persons.