The Bible is the story of how the all-loving Creator is reconciling selfish people back to Himself. In the beginning, God created a perfect world for mankind to exercise dominion as His vice-regents made in His image (Gen. 1:26-28). Humans were created as an image of God to display His glorious craftsmanship and gracious character. But within the first three chapters of God’s story, mankind pridefully raised their fists in rebellion against their King and desperately grasped after their own crown. We longed for autonomous self-rule. If the image of God is a cloth, sin is a glaring stain making it impossible to bear God’s image well. But God’s stubborn delight in His selfish creatures led Him to purpose restoration of His image in His creation.
God’s redemptive plan begins in Genesis 3:15 when He promises a ruler who would one day rescue humanity from the consequences of sin. Some thousands years later, Jesus would show up on the scene and conquer the sting of death by being killed on a cross and rising again victoriously. But God had to prepare the way for Jesus’ entrance into the world by preparing the hearts of His people. In Genesis 12-15, God enters into a covenant with Abraham by promising Abraham descendants, land, and blessings. God declared that through Abraham’s descendants, the world would experience the blessings of knowing God and being known by God. It’s through God’s sovereign election of Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, that Jesus would come into the world.
In Exodus 19, centuries after God’s initial promise to their patriarch Abraham, God entered into a covenant with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. As God’s chosen people to bear His ultimate blessing to the world, Israel had to live up to a certain standard of holiness. Israel’s lifestyle set them apart from the unholy nations around them. As such, God gave them the identity as a “light to the nations” (Isa. 49:6), or a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). Just as Israel’s priests helped purify Israel from all unholiness, so God chose Israel to bear redemptive light to their pagan neighbors. As priests sacrificed on behalf of Israel to cover their sins, God commanded Israel to corporately sacrifice on behalf of other nations so that the world would experience the blessings of a relationship with Him. Through His election of a localized people group, God wanted to redeem His global creation by restoring their selfish hearts. But Israel’s external behavior couldn’t change their internal rebellion against God’s rule. The very thing that was meant to bring Israel life instead brought death (Rom. 7:10). No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t live up to God’s holy standard.
After facing their own destruction, the penalty for breaking the covenant with God, Israel (and the rest of the world) were primed for the blessings of good news that Jesus would bring. Jesus is the realization of the perfect image of God, how God created humanity to be. When God sent Jesus, His Son, into the world, He brought a message of hope: Human relationships with God were no longer dependent on adherence to a moral code but instead on God. This is the manifestation of the blessing God promised to bring the world through Abraham’s descendants in Gen. 12-15. Through Jesus’ grisly death on the cross and victorious resurrection from the grave, the grip of sin on human hearts loosened. The stain of sin on the image of God is washed clean by the blood of Jesus, the slain Lamb of God (Rev. 7:14). God’s people will continue to sin, but sin no longer masters His people like it once did. After the cross, sin became less about action and more about the posture of our hearts towards God. Therefore, our relationship with God wasn’t about our action or inaction but about Jesus’ death on behalf of His people. And instead of God’s people being confined to the nation of Israel, now anyone who receives Jesus and believes in His name is a child of God (John 1:12). They die to the unattainable holy requirements of the Israelite law and are raised in new life through the grace of God. God shut the mouth of sin once and for all when He atoned for the transgressions of His people (Ezek. 16:63; Isa. 53:5).
The restorative purpose God will accomplish through His people has not changed even though His people have. Before the cross, God’s children were the Israelites through His covenant with them. After the cross, God’s children are all those who place their hope in Jesus’ finished work on their behalf rather than their own self-righteousness. This new people of God is the Church. Yet the Israelite mission has now become the global mission of the Church. Just as Jesus became our sacrifice by taking our sin upon Himself before the Father, so the Church, as the body of Jesus (1 Cor. 12:27), sacrificing themselves so that others may know Him through their witness (Rev. 12:11). Until Jesus returns, the Church is commanded to maintain the identity of a kingdom of priests in their schools, in their workplaces, in their churches, in their homes, among their friends, in politics, in their communities, in other nations, in danger or safety by proclaiming the blessings of good news that Jesus’ death and resurrection can reconcile rebellious and selfish hearts back to their intended purpose of imaging God’s glory well.