There is an old principle of catholic theology, dating at least to the early 3rd-century theologian Origen, that God is never arbitrary. This means that God does not just randomly decide one day to do something, but rather consistently acts in accordance with a plan and purpose.1 This truth applies to our redemption. The accomplishment of it through the work of Jesus Christ is the culmination of a plan, the preparations for which had been in the making ever since human beings had first stepped away from the intimate relationship of communion with God for which they had been created.2
The general shape of God’s preparatory work is initially set out in the book of Genesis, just a few chapters after the event which precipitated humankind’s needing redemption in the first place. Genesis 12 relates God’s call to Abraham (at this point still called Abram), at which time God promised, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). All the future tense verbs make clear that God has a plan, and that plan ultimately includes “all the families of the earth.” He set that plan into motion with Abraham.
The “nation” made from Abraham became known as Israel, taking its name from Abraham’s grandson. To this nation, God would eventually give his Law at Mount Sinai after their Exodus from Egypt. The Law is without question a gift from God; it is not a burden or a punishment. The Law is the body of teaching and instruction God gave the people of Israel that would enable them to live in covenant relationship with him.
But Israel found there was a problem. Simply put, the problem with the Law is the keeping of it. The people turned away from the Law time and again, and learned as a result that God both hates sin enough to punish it and loves his people enough to forgive and restore them. God proved ever faithful, even if his people did not.
In living with God under this covenant, the people of Israel, slowly and over many generations, began to know God more deeply. At the same time, the people of Israel also began to know themselves more deeply, realizing how pernicious and intractable the problem of sin was, even with the gift of the Law. One of the ways God prepared the world for redemption was to teach humanity (through Israel) to articulate our need for it.
To the people of Israel, God also sent his messengers, the prophets, both to call the Israelites to repent and return to the Lord and also to reveal more and more of his plan, including specific promises that would be fulfilled only in the person of Jesus. Here and there the prophets also call Israel to remember that God’s promise to Abraham ultimately extended to all nations. This wasn’t all about them; God was preparing his people that he might bring all nations unto himself (see Isaiah 42:9, 60:1-14).
But what about the rest of the world, which Christ also came to redeem? In his epistle to the Romans,3 St. Paul explains that during this time prior to sending his Son, God was also convicting the nations beyond Israel of something similar, namely that they too were living as slaves to sin and unrighteousness and so in need of redemption.
While fertile soil for the message of redemption offered by the gospel, the knowledge that humankind is unrighteous would not have been sufficient in and of itself to prepare the world for the great act of redemption that came through his Son. God had to match knowledge of our unrighteousness and unfaithfulness with knowledge of God’s righteousness and faithfulness. It was that knowledge which God prepared in his people Israel, the nation into which his Son was born, and from whom the whole world was redeemed.
The Rev’d Andrew Van Kirk is Campus Priest at St. Andrew’s Westridge and Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s, McKinney.
Origen used this point to argue that the Son of God must have always been a part of the Godhead, but that’s a matter for a different blog post. ↩︎
The biblical account of this is the story of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, Gen. 2:4-3:24 ↩︎
Broadly speaking I am following Romans’ argument about Israel in the Law in the explanation above. ↩︎