The people of God; this is a title that has been a part of the Christian religion since the beginning. In fact, it is inherited from the ancient Hebrews who founded modern Judaism. The term is not one that pious religious adherents take lightly as it is one of the most characterizing terms that is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition; namely, that God is relational and (for whatever divine reason) chooses to have a people. Just as it has for Jews of all eras, the phrase “people of God” gives Christian believers a pattern to follow, a name to live up to and a future to pursue.
The term “people of God” is found in Hebrew texts as early as the exodus of Moses and the Hebrews from the slavery of Egypt. When Moses and his brother, Aaron, approached the pharaoh about releasing the Hebrews, they said “This is what [Jehovah], the God of Israel, says: Let my people go…” (Exodus 5:1) From this very early record of the historical Judeo-Christian tradition, we see YHWH, the God of the Hebrews, claiming the people of Israel as his special possession. We continue to see the Israelites called the people of God as time progresses. For example, we see that the temple worship performed by the Levite priests contained this notion strongly. In a blessing recorded in the priestly handbook, Leviticus, we read of YHWH speaking of Israel and saying “I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people.” (Leviticus 26:12). By Davidic times in Jewish history – approximately 1000 BC – Israel was a well established world power and had really engrained the concept of being special to YHWH into their religion and culture. In the psalms, we read of God delivering his people, protecting his people and giving justice to his people (psalms 53:6, 94:14 and 135:14). No other passage of scripture sums up the Jewish understanding of how they related to YHWH better than the Deuteronomic text that reads “For you are a holy people, who belong to [Jehovah,] your God. Of all the people on earth, [Jehovah,] your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
I draw out the early sightings of this phrase only to demonstrate that as Christians, we must remember our roots. Often times, in western Christianity, we forget that our beginnings were much farther back in time than the incarnation of God. In order to gain a correct understanding of our own inclusion as the people of God, we must give credence to how the writers of the bible understood the term. Obviously, there is a real exclusiveness to the way the Jews understood their repute with God. This idea that they were better than every other people group drove many of their political and economical decisions. More than the way that they understood their relations with the world around them, the title “people of God” shaped their self-image. Piousness was prized due to the self-imposed standard of holiness. I don’t say this in a condemning way – indeed, it is good to strive for holiness – I only mean to demonstrate that this was their primary definition of self and from this definition they looked to the coming of the Messiah with the hopes that he would restore their former glory and power in the same way that they had seen David do as king. In short, the early Jew’s idea of being the people of God meant that they deserved to be in power according to earthly politics. Jesus turns this notion on its head.
In keeping with the traditional understanding of what it meant to be the people of God, we read in the gospel of Luke, the prophecy of Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) in which he speaks of the impending incarnation and what it will mean. He says in verse 68 and 69 “Praise [Jehovah], the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David…” The actions of Christ on earth were far from what traditional Jews expected out of their Messiah. Effectually, what Jesus did was push the boundaries of the small circle that enclosed the people of God to the point where it could include the entire world population. After Christ’s ascension, we see the early church founders writing letters in an effort to guide new Christians in navigating this new definition of being the people of God. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives a decisive voice in the matter of the Jewish ceremony of circumcision. He says “It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God” (Galatians 6:16; emphasis mine). Paul understood those who believed in the deity of Jesus and in the message he came to proclaim to be a part of God’s people via a metaphysical transformation of self.
In order for contemporary Christians to understand what it means to be the people of God, I would like to speak briefly on what it means to be a people. In America, we often forget what it means to be a people. This is largely in due to the fact that our nation is built of people from all nations speaking all tongues. Couple this demographic hurdle with the hyper-individualism of the twenty first century and it is easy to see why post-modern people tend to forget how to identify as a people group first and an individual secondarily. To be a people means that the corporate is greater than the individual. It is in this context that we encounter the phrase “people of God”; Israel, while obviously being made up of many individuals is regarded consistently as a single entity by God throughout the bible. Drawing from the New Testament scriptures, we must continue this understanding of personhood. We are the people of God because we are a part of the single entity that is the ecclesia. Our primary allegiance is to what is traditionally called the Kingdom of God and it is in this kingdom that we are freed from the kingdoms of this world. We then identify with the story of redemption and intimate relationship with the creator which gives us a future of eternal association with the divine to look forward to.
Progressing into our daily lives, we should be like the early Israelites who utilized the title “people of God” as the life defining title over and against every other label they could possess. Understanding that we are God’s own private possession and object of affection is foundational to our own self regard. When we view ourselves in this manner, we find value in the mundane decisions that we encounter in life; this is how we determine our conduct and stewardship of our possessions. This is what makes us distinct from the world around us. We are the people of God; this is our definition of self.
 Townsend, Kenny. "Exodus." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 103. Print.
 Townsend, Kenny. "Leviticus." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 195. Print.
 Tullock, John H., and Mark Harold McEntire. "Israel's Time of Glory: David and Solomon." The Old Testament story. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. 152. Print.
 Townsend, Kenny. "Psalms." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 900, 944, 985. Print.
 Townsend, Kenny. "Deuteronomy." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 275. Print.
 Townsend, Kenny. "Luke." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 1673. Print.
 Townsend, Kenny. "Galatians." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 1996. Print.
 Wilson, Jonathan R.. "The Story of the Kingdom." God so loved the world: a christology for disciples. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001. 23-39. Print.