A Divine Division
The history of Israel is the history of Abraham. God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans and from his father's house. The redemption and calling of Abraham were built on the idea of separation. Jonathan Edwards helpfully pointed out that there was a difference in the way in which God delivered Noah from the corruption of the world and the way in which He delivered Abraham. He wrote:
It pleased God now to separate that person of whom Christ was to come, from the rest of the world, that his church might be upheld in his family and posterity till that time. He called Abraham out of his own country, and from his kindred, to go into a distant country, that God should show him; and brought him first out of Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, and then to the land of Canaan.
It was before observed, that the idolatrous corruption of the world was now become general; mankind were almost wholly overrun with idolatry. God therefore saw it necessary, in order to uphold true religion in the world, that there should be a family separated from all others. It proved to be high time to take this course, lest the church of Christ should wholly be carried away with the apostasy. For Abraham’s own country and kindred had most of them fallen off; and without some extraordinary interposition of Providence, in all likelihood, in a generation or two more, the true religion in this line would have been extinct. And therefore God called Abraham, the person in whose family he intended to uphold the true religion, out of his own country, and from his kindred, to a far distant country, that his posterity might there remain a people separate from all the rest of the world; that so the true religion might be upheld there, while all mankind besides were swallowed up in heathenism.
This was a new thing: God had never taken such a method before. His church had not in this manner been separated from the rest of the world till now; but were wont to dwell with them, without any bar or fence to keep them separate; the mischievous consequence of which had been found once and again. Before the flood, the effect of God’s people living intermingled with the wicked world, without any remarkable wall of separation, was, that the sons of the church joined in marriage with others, and thereby almost all soon became infected, and the church was almost brought to nothing. The method that God then took to fence the church was, to drown the wicked world, and save the church in the ark. Before Abraham was called, the world was become corrupt again. But now God took another method; he did not destroy the wicked world, and save Abraham, and his wife, and Lot, but calls these persons to go and live separate from the rest of the world.
During the time of their bondage in Egypt, the Lord told Israel that he intended to make "a difference between the Egyptians and Israel." One of the first ways that He did this was by not sending all of the plagues on Israel. This certainly did not mean that Israel did not deserve judgment as well. In fact, the Lord showed them in the tenth plague that unless there was the blood of a lamb to stand between them and the Lord they would suffer the same judgment from the destroying angel in the loss of their firstborn. Ultimately, God brought out those who put the blood on the doorposts of their houses. He separated them from the world by bringing them to Himself at the foot of the mountain to be a worshiping community.
In order to define Israel's distinctiveness from the nations, the Lord gave the division between clean and unclean animals in Old Covenant redemptive history. There was nothing innately unclean about certain kinds of animals (see Matt. 15:11 and Rom. 14:14). Like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Lord arbitrarily singled out certain animals to be "off limits" for His people in the Old Covenant. This, in turn, served the purpose of distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles. This is clear from the New Covenant's explanation of the redemptive-historical nature of the animal distinction in the Old Covenant (see Acts 10:9-16).
When He gave cultic practices to Israel, the Lord set apart a priesthood for Himself by separating the Levites from the rest of the tribes. In this way, God was showing that there had to be a mediator who was wholly separate in holiness from the people. Ultimately, this Mediator would be God Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews tells us that He is the great High Priest who is "holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners."
Sadly, the Scriptural record reveals that Israel failed to be what they should have been. Their history was full of intermarriage with the pagan nations around then, idolatrous worship of pagan gods and goddesses and a continual longing to be like the nations around them rather than separate from them. The great corruption of subsequent generations of Israelites is seen in their nationalist pride and self-righteous appropriation of God's plan of separation. Instead of seeing God's call to separation as occurring through the redeeming work of Christ, they took to themselves a nationalistic and bigoted mentality of separation. Instead of seeing God's plan as always including the redemption of Gentiles, Israel sought a earthly separation of exclusion from God's program of mercy in Christ.
The New Testament bears out the record of God's redeeming work in Jesus in bringing about the great redemptive separation that He desires for His people. In 1 Peter, the Apostle Peter explains that believing Jews and Gentiles are now God's "chosen generation, royal priesthood, holy nation, His own special people, that proclaim the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). The Apostle Paul often draws on the illustration of light being separated from darkness to illustrate what has happened to God's people through the redeeming work of Christ. In Colossians 1:13 he explained that God the Father "has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love." Paul had, no doubt, gotten this idea from the Lord Jesus Himself, who, when he converted and called him, gave him this commission:
I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ (Acts 26:16-18).
Here we discover that the work of redemption is paralleled only in time and space by the work of creation. Eric Alexander helpfully explains the nature of Paul's appeal to light shining into darkness at creation in order to illustrate the world of redemption in Christ when he suggests:
The New Testament ransacks the universe for comparisons that will be adequate to describe what has happened to us when we became God’s children. And the only two possible comparisons are the creation of the universe at the beginning and the resurrection of Jesus on the third day. So Paul says the same God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts. And the same God who raised the Lord Jesus from the grave and broke its bondage over Him has raised us in Jesus into newness of life.God must separate a people for Himself if they are to dwell with Him because He Himself is separate in holiness. Again, He notes:
This preaching of the Gospel which the apostle speaks of, this mighty act of God which he can only parallel in the creation of the world in the beginning, you get something of the sense of the majesty of the Gospel that the apostle is preaching: ‘The same God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of His glory in the face of Jesus Christ.’ Brethren, I tell you it is something when a man can only find a parallel in creation to what has happened in his own soul. And this is the majesty of the Gospel of God if he preaches it.
The believer's high calling to embrace the reality of separation from the idolatry and course of the world is see in the Apostle Paul's charge to the New Covenant community regarding their worship. Citing Isaiah 52:11 in In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, he wrote:
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.”
“Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.” 18 “I will be a Father to you, And you shall be My sons and daughters, Says the Lord Almighty.”
Finally, the Apostle John gave us the record of the Lord calling His people to be separate--in holy living and worship--from the world when he wrote: "I heard another voice from heaven saying, 'Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins'" (Rev. 18:4).