Why Are the Jewish People Called the "Chosen People?"
What are the Jewish people chosen for, anyway?
Mordecai and I had agreed to meet in order to “exchange our points of view.” But both of us knew what we really meant by that phrase: each of us was intent on changing the other one’s mind. I wanted to tell him about my faith in Yeshua, and Mordecai wanted to tell me about the joys of living an Orthodox Jewish life.
“Avi, Avi, Avi,” Mordecai moaned. “I look at you, and I see such a tragedy. You’re like a man who went searching for treasure. But instead of looking in your own backyard, you decided to dig in the gentiles’ yards. Whatever you think you’ve found, it can’t compare with the beauty of what you’ve left behind.” He drew in a mournful breath, then let out a sigh. “Come back, Avi. You’re one of God’s chosen. Come back.”
“Mordecai,” I began without trying to match his gravity. “You’re right. We’re chosen. But why are we chosen?”
It seemed like Mordecai’s profound sorrow suddenly evaporated into indifference, tinged perhaps with a little bit of annoyance at what I’d asked. “Who knows why we’re chosen,” he shrugged. “That’s Ha-Shem’s business. It’s enough to know we’re chosen. So come back.”
I leaned a bit closer. “Mordecai,” I said, grinning like a conspirator, “I know why we’re chosen …”
Chosen in the Hebrew Scriptures
When God in the Hebrew Scriptures refers to us Jews as chosen, he’s saying that he selected us to serve a specific purpose and to carry out a particular task. Our track record for fulfilling that task has been less than stellar. But because of God’s grace and mercy, he has neither rejected the people he chose, nor has he reassigned the national task to somebody else. We’re still chosen, and God is still waiting for us to do what he called us to do. But what’s the task?
Let’s go back to the moment when God revealed in a single phrase our entire reason for existing as a people. Let me take you back to Sinai.
The divine mandate to be different
God had brought us out of our bondage to Pharaoh with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” He had poured out his plagues upon Egypt. He then brought us through the Red Sea on dry ground while burying our pursuers in the waves. A few weeks later, we camped before Mount Sinai while Moses ascended the mountain to receive further instructions from the Lord. It was there that God told Moses …
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ ” (Exodus 19:3-6).
A kingdom of priests? Who were the priests and what did they do? In the ancient world, they instructed people about God and interceded for people before God. Now, if the entire nation of Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests, then what other people were we supposed to instruct and intercede for? Well, who’s left? The rest of the nations of the earth. At Sinai, we received more than the Law of Moses; we received a mandate, rooted in God’s desire to see his revelation go out to all the families of the earth.
God planned to establish a kingdom of priests so that the rest of the nations might learn who he is and come to worship him. This mandate to be a community of witnesses runs through our entire history, beginning as far back as the call of Abram.
The Lord called Abram with the following words:
“Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).
Gentile friends have told me that thanks to the Jewish people, the world has been blessed with artistic achievement, intellectual accomplishment and scientific advance. But as much as I admire the work of Chagall, Spinoza, and Salk, these and other “Jewish blessings” are really secondary compared to what God had in mind.
Primarily, God selected our people to bless the world with his revelation of himself. Through the Jewish people, God gave the world the Scriptures, and then the Messiah of whom the Scriptures speak.
Let my people go
Every year we celebrate Pesach and remember our miraculous deliverance from Egypt. But when God brought us out of bondage, he was not acting on our behalf alone. According to the Scriptural account, the events surrounding our redemption from Egypt were intertwined with God’s desire to reveal to the Egyptians—and in fact, to all the world—that he alone is Almighty God. Through Moses, God spoke to a proud and unyielding Pharaoh:
” … for this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth … indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth” (Exodus 9:14,16).
Even today, the people of the nations where the Bible is found know and read the story of God’s judgment on the false gods of Egypt. And on the day of our departure from Egypt, the Bible explains that we left with a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38), Egyptians who made the choice to forsake their pagan gods and cleave to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Torah, the law and the nations
The Bible tells us that we were given the Law of Moses for many reasons: so that we would not just survive but physically thrive (Deuteronomy 6:3); so that we might be blessed as we lived in the Land (Deuteronomy 28:1-14); to make us distinct from all the nations surrounding us (Exodus 19:5,6); to demonstrate God’s holy character (Leviticus 19:2; Deuteronomy 4:8); to convict us of our sins; and to lead us to faith in the Messiah.
But there was at least one more reason that God gave us the Law. Moses explained:
“So keep and do them [God’s ordinances], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it, as the LORD our God whenever we call on Him?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-7)
The word for “peoples” in this passage is the Hebrew word goyim, and in this context, it refers to anyone who is not a Jew. God gave us the Law as a story to the nations surrounding us.
God wanted every sphere of our existence—our worship, social relations, business dealings—to shine as a light to the nations. He wanted the goyim to understand that our God is real, near to us, and answers when we call to him. He wanted them to turn from their idols and serve only him, the true and living God.
A history of disobedience
How better to do this than by being the example for them to emulate? Instead, history records our persistent disobedience to the One who chose us. Our disregard for the covenant not only demonstrated our profound ingratitude toward God for all that he had done for us; it compromised his story to the nations that he wanted to reach.
We claimed to be God’s special possession, but didn’t live in a special way that distinguished us from the rest of the world. We spurned his love and provided less than a stellar story to the nations. The peoples surrounding us took note of the chasm between the claims of our lips and the conduct of our lives. As a result, instead of causing the nations to desire and bless the Lord, our conduct gave them the excuse to mock and blaspheme his holy name.
What an irony, and what a tragedy.
Over and over again, the Scriptures recorded God pleading for us to keep his ways. He cried out against our faithless behavior and called us to return. But finally, his justice compelled him to execute judgment. So he expelled us from the Land and drove us into captivity in Babylon for seventy years. It was as though he were saying, “Because you would not live in the Land as a light to the nations, I am driving you out of the Land, and you will live in darkness and serve the nations and the false gods that they revere.”
Using the Bad for Good
Yet our expulsion served as a witness to the world! Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel of the judgment that waited at our door, God declared:
“So it will be a reproach, a reviling, a warning and an object of horror to the nations who surround you when I execute judgments against you in anger, wrath and raging rebukes. I, the LORD, have spoken” (Ezekiel 5:15).
By viewing our punishment, the nations were given an opportunity to understand that God holds men and women accountable, that he acts righteously, rewards those who keep his covenant and punishes those who forsake and ignore his ways.
And just as our expulsion served as a witness to the world, so our restoration would serve as a story to the faithfulness of the God who chastises, cleans, preserves and reinstates the people who have been called by his name. Again through Ezekiel, the Lord declared …
“Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land” (Ezekiel 36:23-24).
And now, after nearly two thousand years, many of our people are back in the Land. But are we fulfilling our destiny?
Our Broken World
Something is very wrong with the world. We Jews have always known it, and we’ve tried to do something about it. But whether through science or social philosophy, politics or poetry, our efforts to reform the world have always failed, because the evils in society are just the outworking of the illness that’s inside of every one of us. The Bible—our Bible—calls that illness sin.
God knew what a mess we would make of our lives, and he set in motion a plan of restoration. He promised to send a Messiah who would suffer the judgment that all of us deserve by dying as the payment for our sins and then rising from the dead. And he chose a people to bring that Messiah into the world and to make sure that his message went out to our people first and then to everyone else.
In light of all the tragic events that have befallen us, any number of us has been tempted to suggest (like Tevye the milkman), “Maybe You could choose somebody else for a change.” God is not going to change his mind; we’re chosen. But none of our history makes any sense unless we understand why we have been chosen.
Meaning through calling
If we understand that we were chosen to fulfill a holy calling, then we can understand why forces hostile to our God have sought to put an end to our existence. If we’d perished before the start of the Common Era (CE), the Messiah never would have come to die for our sins, just as the prophet Isaiah said that he would: “He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due” (Isaiah 53:8). If we’d perished sometime during these past two thousand years, then the Messiah would not be able to return, because we Jews have to be here in order to fulfill the words found in the book of Zechariah. “They [our Jewish people] will look on Me [the Messiah] whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him” (Zechariah 12:10).
If we understand why we were chosen, then we can also understand why God hasn’t stepped in sooner to stop all our calamities. Sometimes those calamities were meant to serve as warnings, to cause us to look to him for help instead of to ourselves. Our predicament at the Red Sea is a good case in point. At other times, our troubles came as a specific judgment, the tragic consequence of our unwillingness to turn back to God. The destruction of both the first and second temples are examples of this.
And even though God has used calamities to serve as judgments for our sin, the fact that he loves us and has called us explains why he has never put an end to our existence. If we understand why we were chosen, then we can understand why God has always protected us from annihilation and severely punished—and sometimes even destroyed—the nations whom he first used as the instruments of our chastisement. God has allowed the annihilation of other nations, but he has never allowed us to be destroyed, and he never will.
If we don’t understand the reason that God chose us, then our history is at best an absurd puzzle, and at worst, a malevolent joke. We are either adrift in a meaningless, nihilistic sea or at the mercy of a hateful deified “Cat” who toys with us, his cornered “mice,” by heaping fresh sufferings upon us with each new generation.
But there’s a third option, better than nihilism or the notion of a malevolent God.
A divine plan for every person
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
God has a plan and a purpose for us. Yeshua (Jesus) declared, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). But that abundant life can only be found when we’ve been restored to a correct relationship with the One who chose us. That restoration happens when we openly acknowledge that Yeshua died as the payment for our sins and rose from the dead, just as the prophet Isaiah said:
He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but he LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon Him (Isaiah 53:5-6).
The choice before us isn’t just whether or not to listen to our Scriptures and place our faith in Yeshua. The choice is whether or not to have any meaning and fulfillment in our lives. That’s why Moses told us, shortly before we entered the promised land, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
You are chosen. Will you heed the call?
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.