Paul’s thought is most fundamentally shaped by the Scriptural narrative of the Creator God and his call of Israel as his special possession. The God of Israel created the world and everything in it. He spoke a creative word, ordering the world and placing humanity within the garden of Eden. God charged Adam and Eve to fill the entire earth and to cultivate it. They were to rule over creation as viceregents on God’s behalf in such a way that reflected his ultimate rule and brought forth the earth’s fruitfulness. They were to cultivate shalom, the flourishing of humanity and creation together. God’s original intentions, therefore, were political, having to do with the reign of God and the right ordering of humanity’s social behaviors.
Humanity rebelled, however, and no longer ruled creation in the name of the one true God, and they no longer sought to cultivate shalom, looking after God’s good world in harmony with others. They now exploit the creation for short-term and selfish pleasures, spoiling it and exploiting one another. The fall into sin introduced a disordered politics of chaos and destruction.
In response to this, God made promises to redeem, and began to fulfill these promises by calling Abraham, promising to make of his descendants a great nation and through it to redeem the nations of the world (Gen. 12:1-3).
God called Israel out from Egypt to make them a “holy nation,” his own unique possession. Through Israel God intended to fulfill his promises to Abraham, making them a blessing to the nations. This is what is meant by Israel as a “Kingdom of priests.” They were to represent God to the nations, and were to lead the nations in the worship of the one true God. From the very beginning, then, we have a political vision for God’s people, involving both domestic and international relations. Domestically, they were to be “holy,” having an internal life that was to be completely different from the nations. They were to be a nation of justice and compassion, looking after the poor, the orphan, and the widow. There was to be no one needy among them, since they were all brothers and sisters, and the one true God whose world is one of plenty was to dwell among them uniquely.
And they had a very unique foreign policy. While maintaining their distinct identity, they were to welcome the nations, developing relationships of mutual sharing in order to disciple the nations in the way of the God of Israel, who was also the Great King over all the earth. Their foreign policy as a kingdom of priests was a seriously risky mission! It involved, after all, a military policy of vulnerability and weakness. According to God’s original design, however, if Israel was faithful to God regarding its domestic practices and international relations, God himself would be their security.
As the story goes, however, Israel failed on a massive scale. Rather than being a light to the nations, they wanted to be like the nations. Rather than cultivating a politics of holiness, they mimicked the corrupted political, economic and social practices found among their idolatrous neighbors. They developed practices of injustice, exploitation of the weak and defenseless, and adopted the worship of the gods of the nations. They did not trust God to protect them or their national interests so they made treaties with the nations in order to guarantee their security.
And they perverted their foreign policy of holiness, distorting God’s Law. They turned its practices into a set of distinctives that they then held over against their neighbors, adopting an arrogant and judgmental posture toward the nations God wanted to redeem. Rather than being agents of the life of God to the nations, they grew to fear and despise the nations, longing for their destruction. And they imagined that God regarded outsiders with the same attitude of disgust. Because of the vast range of their corruptions as a body politic, God sent Israel into exile.
Even in exile, however, God wanted his people to maintain a political vision of holiness. They were to stick together and become a wandering people among the nations—a polis among the poleis, a cohesive body politic among foreign kingdoms and nations. They were to cultivate internal practices of mutual care, love, servanthood, humility, and economic sharing. And they were seek the blessing of the surrounding polis—the wider culture within which they were now situated. Looking ahead, the political vision of a wandering people faithful to God while among the nations likely shaped Paul’s vision for the church more than anything else.
While they were in exile, the God of Israel insisted that this was not the end of the story. He promised that he would return to gather them back to the land and establish his Kingdom among them once again. He would return to restore his people, sending his Spirit to breathe new life into dead bones and reconstitute Israel as a nation that would truly “know God.” God would make them finally into the just nation that he called them to be. They would practice justice and look out for the poor, the orphan, and the widow, and they would lead the nations in the worship of the one true God, enjoying together his magnanimous blessing.
These promises of a restored body politic shaped Jewish expectations of salvation in the centuries preceding the turn of the eras. First century Jews lived under the oppressive domination of Rome and called out ever more passionately for redemption from the God of Israel. This redemption was political—they wanted freedom from oppression, the installation of righteous leaders, a society of justice and compassion where everyone was looked after—they longed for shalom, the political order of flourishing that comes from God’s very presence among them.