We are all familiar with the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2, “I will make of thee a great nation.” In Genesis 18:18, God further expressed the surety of that promise when He said, “Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation.”

This promise has several layers connected with it. At one level it will be fulfilled when Abraham’s natural descendants become a strong nation. It began when Jacob “went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous” (Deut 26:5). It will be complete when Israel is once more a powerful nation in the Kingdom age (Ezek 37:21-22; Mic 4:7).

A second tier to this national promise occurred in Genesis 28, where Isaac sought God’s blessing upon his son in these words: “God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people” (v3). This last phrase can be translated “an assembly of peoples.” The LXX translates it as “an assembly of races” and this hints at the idea of the Gentiles being adopted into Jacob’s national family. Indeed, when God gave Jacob the promise, He specifically indicated that Jacob’s seed would burst forth and spread far and wide (v14).

In Genesis 35:11 God echoed this thought when He said, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins.” Here God was promising two very distinct developments—a single nation descended from Jacob, and a group of other nations linked to Jacob by other means. We learn from Isaiah that this other means was to be by adoption: “One shall say, I am Yahweh’s; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Isa 44:5) and again: “For Yahweh will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and set them in their own land: and the strangers shall be joined with them, and they shall cleave to the house of Jacob” (Isa 14:1).

When we think of the concept of a great nation, we generally imagine a powerful and successful nation-state. We tend to focus on its political, military and economic strength. But God had a deeper objective. He sought a greatness in its spiritual contribution to the world. He explained this in Deuteronomy 4:6-7, “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as Yahweh our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?”

Its greatness before the world was to lie in its obedience to God’s laws and its closeness to God in prayer and worship. To fulfil this intent God offered Israel a wonderful destiny in Exodus 19:4-6:

“Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.”

The timing of this offer was very pointed. It was given immediately before the establishment of the old covenant and therefore formed no part of that covenant relationship. It was as though God was offering them an altogether different path to greatness outside the Law of Moses.

The terms of this offer are extraordinary. It was offered to those who had faith; for those who could see the eagles’ wings protecting them during their life. It was a desire to bring these people close to Himself, in contrast to the Law which would create separation and distance in worship. It was for those who would obey God’s voice in faithful obedience like Abraham (Gen 22:18). It was for those who were prepared to keep God’s covenant—not the Mosaic covenant which had not yet been ratified, but God’s own covenant expressed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—by walking before God in faith and exercising uprightness in their life (Gen 17:2-9).

If the faithful could keep these covenant terms then they would become a peculiar treasure unto God above all people. Imagine that! A special, valuable treasure guarded and cared for by Almighty God (Mal 3:17). They would also be a kingdom of priests. Their constitution would reflect the workings of Melchizedek. They were to lead like kings and bring men to God like priests and in that very activity they would become holy above all nations.

When the spirit of the Law was offered to Israel in Deuteronomy the language of Exodus 19 was incorporated into the national covenant (Deut 26:16–19) but sadly Israel neglected to obey in faith and keep God’s covenant, and through their failure, this promise has been passed on to us! Peter tells us that we are a holy priesthood offering up spiritual sacrifices to God by Jesus Christ, and then applies the words of the promise given to Israel at Sinai to us: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:5,9). This is not speaking about replacement theology. It is talking about the privileges of that covenant relationship being widened and expanded to include faithful people from all nations.

Our Lord predicted this change in Matthew 21:43 when he said: “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” Paul also highlighted this transfer of privilege when he quoted the song of Moses in Romans 10:19, “I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people, and by a foolish nation I will anger you.” Israel were a froward generation and hence they were rejected to make way for a “foolish nation.” This is a description of the Gentiles who were not exposed to the ways of God as a wise and understanding people (Isa 55:5; 65:1). We have been called to this national greatness even though we are from many different national backgrounds. We have embraced a special constitution subordinate to a heavenly citizenship within the framework of the commonwealth of Israel (Phil 3:20; Eph 2:12).

There have been thousands of generations from the time of Adam until today. But we are part of a single, chosen generation drawn from 6000 years of turbulent history, born in Zion (Psa 87:4-6). We form part of a royal priesthood. We have been called as kings and priests, inducted into the line of Melchizedek. We therefore must develop kingly qualities like justice, judgment and truth, ensuring that we can rule our own spirit with the assistance of the Word. We must cultivate priestly qualities like compassion, empathy and reconciliation. Our spiritual sacrifices are described in these terms: yielding our lives as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1), offering prayer as incense (Rev 8:3), praying with holy hands (1 Tim 2:8), offering the sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:15), doing good (Heb 13:16), offering the odour of a sweet smell (Phil 4:18) and pouring out our lives like a drink offering (Phil 2:17).

We have been called to proclaim God’s praises and virtues; to respond in thankful appreciation for all His goodness. We await the day when the earth will bring forth a single nation of faithful men and women in a single day, when the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter into the Kingdom with glory and honour (Isa 66:8; 26:2).