A vocation is a calling, and to call someone is to give them a clear message, whether by way of a personal invitation, summons or instruction. The words calling or vocation are still sometimes used today in connection with a person pursuing a path that is thought to be above and beyond the mundane, as for instance following a career in medicine or law. Our intention here is to examine the holy, high and heavenly calling that came personally from God to every believer, which because it was obeyed now distinguishes them from the rest of mankind, so that presently their lives are above and beyond the mundane: it is a calling out from the world and to Himself, irrespective of our present status in the world.
Old Testament Callings
God originally called people in Old Testament times, when in grace He summoned individuals and groups out from the world to Himself. For instance, with regard to an individual, He reminded Israel that with respect to Abraham ‘I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him’, Isa, 51. 2. Thus God’s dealings with him began with a call. We later learn more of the nature and purpose of this call, ‘By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went’, Heb. 11. 8. Obedience to the call of God needed faith on the part of the hearer, because the revelation of truth in the call was progressive, and often depended on successive compliance.
With regard to groups, God called the nation of Israel, and also later reminded them there was a time ‘when Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt’, Hos. 11. 1 and He is thus able to speak of them as ‘Jacob and Israel, my called’, Isa. 48. 12. There were special blessings for Israel associated with being called, as particularly pointed out in Isaiah, ‘I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee’, 42. 6; ‘But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine’, 43. 1; and ‘1 have called him: I have brought him, and he shall make his way prosperous’, 48. 15. God not only called, but also cared for those who obeyed the call.
The calling of Samuel is interesting, and is described to us in more detail then any other. It started with a misunderstanding, but ended with Samuel entering positively into divine service: ‘the Lord called Samuel: and he answered, Here am I’, 1 Sam. 3. 4. Then ‘the Lord called yet again, Samuel. And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou didst call me. And he answered, I called not, my son; lie down again’, 3. 6. Lastly ‘the Lord called Samuel a third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou didst call me. And Eli perceived that the Lord had called the child’, 3. 8; ‘And the Lord came, and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel. Then Samuel answered, Speak; for thy servant heareth’, 3. 10. Perhaps the Lord is calling the reader to service, but as yet the call is misunderstood. This story is both a challenge and an encouragement.
Vocation in the New Testament
The first mentions of calling in the New Testament are two references in Matthew to the many who are called, ‘So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen’, Matt. 20. 16 and again in 22. 14. Whatever this means – and there are a number of interpretations – it shows clearly that many were recipients of divine calling. In the epistles, we start in Romans, where Paul first refers to himself as ‘Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the Gospel of God’, Rom. 1. 1, see also 1. Cor. 1. 1, then he refers to his readers also, ‘ye also the called of Jesus Christ’, Rom. 1. 6. Later Paul could say ‘God … called me by his grace’, Gal. 1. 15; so although his calling to service was to be an apostle, nevertheless his individual call was on the same basis as theirs.
God uses the gospel to call men and women individually to Himself, as Paul told the Thessalonians, ‘[God] called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’, 2 Thess. 2. 14 and Peter likewise reminded his readers of ‘him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’, 1 Pet. 2. 9. See also Gal. 1. 6. In many places we learn that calling is associated with salvation, and the divine Saviour ‘who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling’, 2 Tim 1. 9. Further, we note the statement of the Lord Jesus that ‘I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’, quoted in different contexts in both Matthew, 9. 13, Mark 2. 17 and Luke 5. 32. The well-known parable of the invitations to the feast, told by the Lord Jesus, see Luke 14. 13, shows that it is the most unexpected that are eventually called to the feast - ‘the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind’ – when the presumed who had been called [AV bidden] refused the call.
In considering the blessing of those who have obeyed the gospel call today, we are reminded of the earthly blessing for Joseph, both immediate and lasting, when ‘Pharaoh … called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh’, Gen. 41. 14. Our calling has likewise brought us both instant and enduring blessings; namely justification, Rom. 8. 30; eternal life, 1 Tim 6. 12; grace, Gal. 1. 6; fellowship, 1 Cor. 1. 9; hope, Eph, 4. 4; and eternal glory, 1 Pet. 5. 10. We also find a number of examples where ‘called’ is combined with other descriptions, so that Jude could speak of believers as ‘them that are sanctified… and preserved… and called’, Jude 1. 1; and those associated with the Lamb in Revelation as ‘they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful’, Rev. 17. 14.
God’s calling is without distinction of race, as anticipated in the early days of the gospel; ‘For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call’, Acts 2. 39, and stated explicitly later as follows, speaking of ‘them which are called, both Jews and Greeks’, 1 Cor. 1. 24; ‘Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?’, Rom. 9. 24. It is also without differentiation of persons - ‘For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called’, 1 Cor. 1. 26. All believers are now, without distinction, ‘holy brethren, partakers [sharers] of the heavenly calling’, Heb. 3. 1. They, like those at Rome and Corinth, are ‘called to be saints’, Rom. 1. 7.
As noted above in the Old Testament section, there are great advantages to being the called, so today ‘we know that all things work together for good … to them who are the called according to his purpose’, Rom. 8. 28. This, ‘calling of God … [is] without repentance’, Rom 11. 29 on God’s part, so we will never lose it, since He does not change His mind about it on any account. However, we do always appreciate the advantages we have via our calling, so a suitable prayer for us today is that of Paul’s for the Ephesians that ‘ye may know what is the hope of his calling’, Eph. 1. 18.
The practical outcome of obeying the call of God
There should be clearly discernible effects in the lives of those who have obeyed God’s call: Paul and Peter are most insistent on this point: ‘I … beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called’, Eph 4. 1; ‘For, brethren, have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another, Gal. 5. 13; That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory’, 1 Thess. 2. 12 and ‘as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy’, 1 Pet 1. 15.
The apostle Paul realised the practical side of his call as he showed that he bent all his efforts towards reaching it, ‘I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’ Phil. 3. 14. He also saw this as the outcome of his prayers for his converts, ‘we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power’, 2 Thess 1. 11, ‘For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness’, 1 Thess 4. 7. Domestic situations are, if possible, to be resolved amicably for ‘God hath called us to peace’, 1 Cor. 7. 15, see also 1 Pet. 3. 9. Also when perplexities and tensions arise in our hearts we should ‘let the peace of God rule [arbitrate]… to the which also ye are called’, Col. 3. 15.
Another interesting but challenging practical consequence of this doctrine is that those who have answered the divine call should have a large degree of contentment with their present situation and should not have an unsanctified hope for better earthly circumstances of various kinds, see 1 Cor. 7. 15-24, where there are at least seven references about them being called. Dissatisfaction with our earthly circumstances can spoil our appreciation of our call to higher, heavenly things. On the other hand, being called should help us cope with severe testing, ‘For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps [of suffering]’, 1 Pet. 2. 21.
Personal calls to Service
Finally, we can consider the call that individuals receive for service which were as clear as that of the child Samuel (see above). The call of Barnabas and Saul to service abroad came as they were busy serving at home, ‘as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’, Acts 13. 2. This initial call to general service was later supplemented by more specific calls such as the one reported ‘after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them’, Acts 16. 10. This call was to a new field of service, and of course there is no general rule that says that missionaries should stay for ever in one field: all is dependent on the call of God.