The Bible uses language of “election” to talk about people who are part of God’s family and share in the blessings of that family. A discussion on this topic is usually dominated by questions and debates about predestination and free will. In fact, some people think only about the philosophical category of determinism when they encounter language about election in the Bible.
But there is something more consistently emphasized when the Bible affirms the idea of election – that God chooses surprising candidates as recipients of his blessings and as participants in his plans for the world.
Mark 1:17 – “And Jesus said to them (fishermen Simon and Andrew), ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.'” And Mark 1:19-20 – “And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boats mending the nets. And immediately he called them.” Mark 2:14 – “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.'”
Jesus chose disciples who had no exceptional characteristics that made them stand out from the crowd. Quite the contrary: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13).
Similarly, the women God placed in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17) – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba – were Gentiles (Rahab and Ruth), widows (Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba), and had been taken advantage of by people more powerful than themselves (Tamar, Bathsheba). Even Jesus’ own mother Mary was poor and a virgin – an unlikely candidate for being the mother of a king.
James, reflecting on the beatitudes that Jesus had proclaimed (Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20), confronts his readers’ preferential attitude towards the rich with the question, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?” (James 2:5).
Paul develops this theme in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28 – “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.”
Jesus applauds God’s intentional disclosure of himself to the overlooked in Matthew 11:25 – “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.”
Paul looks back on Israel’s history from this vantage point in Romans 9 through 11 – discerning that “God’s purpose of election” (Romans 9:11) involved many surprising turns, such as God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over the firstborn Esau, and his inclusion of “wild olive shoots” (the Gentiles) into the family tree of Israel.
This fits in with God’s words to Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6-8 – “For you (Israel) are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.”
What can be learned from this repeated theme of God’s surprising choice? First, God’s choice highlights his grace and silences human boasting (“so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” – 1 Cor 1:29). We are not part of God’s family based on our own credentials. Second, God’s election of unexpected people puts the spotlight on Jesus’ power working through them (as seen in the Jewish leaders’ observation that the lowly fishermen who spoke so boldly “had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Third, God’s loving concern for the overlooked means that we should share God’s heart for those who are poor and discounted – not “dishonoring the poor man” but “loving your neighbor as yourself” – James 2:6-8.
God’s election of unlikely people throughout Scriptures, and his election of us, should spark thankfulness, humility, reliance on God, and an active love for the people around us.