Identity is fundamental to personal and corporate life. The words or metaphors we choose to define ourselves individually (i.e. macho, cool dude, skater) or collectively (i.e. canucks, white-collar workers, seniors) speak volumes about our sense of dignity, place, and purpose. Sometimes we choose the terms that define us and sometimes we get tagged with monikers – designed either to praise or malign. What term does God use to define His people?
From the Old Testament we might develop an extensive list of God’s terms for his people – some that are complimentary and others that are critical. When Israel first arrives at Mount Sinai after their Exodus experience, God acts to form His people through covenant. He recounts to Moses how He had “carried you upon eagles’ wings and brought you to me” (Exodus 19:4). If God’s offer to Israel of a special covenant relationship is accepted, then God promises that Israel will be “my special treasure (segullah) among all the peoples because I own the whole earth”. In other Old Testament contexts this term (segullah) indicates something very valuable. In Ecclesiastes 2:8 the term describes “the treasure of kings”, i.e. silver and gold. The author of Chronicles uses it to describe the wealth David collected to construct the temple (1 Chronicles 29:3).
We also get a sense of its significance from usage in other cognate, non-Hebrew literature. In some inscriptions a person is described as the “treasure” of his god. In a letter from a Hittite king to his vassal in Ugarit, the Ugaritic ruler is described as his servant and his “treasured possession”. The use of this term in religious and political contexts suggests that God is quite deliberate in His choice of this term to define Israel, His people. It speaks to their religious responsibility as well as to their political accountability to God as their Sovereign.
As Israel’s story proceeds, we discover this term occurring in Moses’ instructions to Israel in Deuteronomy (7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19). The Psalmist affirms that Lord has chosen Israel as His “special possession” (135:4). In Malachi the prophet (3:16-18) reports that those who feared God wrote their names in “a book of remembrance” and God announces that they are His “own possession”, the righteous who serve Him. And so we discover that this term continues throughout Israel’s history to define their sense of unique relationship with God – something of immense value to Him and a people that is special among all the nations.
When the Greek translator of Exodus came to this passage, he used the Greek phrase laos periousios (‘a treasured people’, ‘a people of very special status/chosenness’). By adding the term laos (‘people’), he stressed the application of this metaphor to Israel. This terminology is so significant to him in the defining of Israel that he repeats it in Exodus 23:22, even though there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text, at least the ones we possess.
Paul uses this same terminology in Titus 2:14. Jesus’ death has redeemed believers “from all lawlessness” and through this act he has “purified for himself a laon periousion.” There is an eschatological ethos to this terminology because it expresses the hope God’s people have in His saving work. This is both what believers are and will be. In this current age this new identity motivates and empowers them to be “zealous for good works”.
It seems that Peter in his first letter also refers to Exodus 19:5-6 as he describes the people of God formed in Jesus as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (laos eis peripoiesin)1 that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). But in this verse Peter blends language from Exodus 19:5-6 with terminology occurring in Isaiah 43:20-21. The similarity in sound between laos periousios (Exodus 19:5) and laos eis peripoisesin (Isaiah 43:21) probably contributes to Peter’s intermingling of these two Old Testament passages. The Isaiah passage, however, predicts the renewal of God’s people by His direct intervention because he is “doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19). Peter rejoices in the re-formation of God’s people based on the cross-work and resurrection of Jesus that allows for the inclusion of Jew and Gentile within the people God has formed for himself (laon mou, hon periepoiesamen). We who were “not people, now are ‘people of God’”! (1 Peter 2:10)
What Paul and Peter together affirm is that the language God uses in the Old Testament to identify His people, He continues to apply to His re-formed people in the New Testament. We today who are ‘in Christ’ can claim to be God’s “treasured people”, “a people belonging to God”. In this declaration we find promise for the future, as well as strength and purpose for today. But it also carries with it the note of responsibility – to be “zealous for good works” as Paul urges and to “declare God’s virtues” as Peter demands. If we are the crown jewels in God’s Kingdom, then this value will be demonstrated in a coherent and powerful way through our lives – individually and corporately.
- 1. This phrase also is used by Paul in Ephesians 3:14; 1 Thess. 5:9; 2 Thess. 2:14. Also cf. Hebrews 10:39