The Identity of God's People
I lived in Cairo, Egypt for sixteen years. While there, I learned that the subject of Israel is a dangerous topic. An Egyptian acquaintance gave me a private showing of his personal library including a multi-volume history of the people of Israel. I was curious to know the source of his fascination with his Hebrew-speaking neighbour. He confided to me that knowledge of one’s enemy is the key to survival. My attempts to defend Israel against such animosity brought a rapid and undeserved accusation of collusion with the ‘Zionist agenda.’
I have now lived in the United States for the past four years. As a pastor, I have had numerous opportunities to speak about the Middle East and my mission experience there. I have been surprised at how many times I have been misunderstood simply because I have called attention to the great need of the Arab people to hear and understand the gospel. It seems that pejorative labels are proliferating on both sides of the Atlantic!
I have become increasingly aware of the strong proclivity among American evangelicals for political and economic support of the state of Israel. The roots of this proclivity draw from the Scriptures of the Old Testament and are thoroughly watered by a theological understanding of Israel’s identity that is scarcely open to question. The fact that Israel is surrounded by Islamic nations, many of whom have been active aggressors against that state, only serves to cement popular evangelical support of the Israeli state.
Follow me back to the Middle East where one more anecdote will further highlight the critical nature of the situation. Protestant mission efforts since the 19th century have made some inroads in the Middle East as evidenced by the presence of churches with denominational titles not unfamiliar to North American and British Christians—Baptist, Brethren, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Christian Missionary Alliance, Pentecostal, etc. Although it is not a blanket truth that one would paint with a broad brush over the entire Middle Eastern church, many have nevertheless observed the reticence of these churches to preach and teach from the Old Testament. The ostensible reason for this reticence is the fact that the Old Testament is often addressed to ‘Israel.’ The presence of a political state by that same title, not to mention a state that is often viewed as a political and military adversary, creates a conundrum for some of these churches. It forces us to ask the question, should we not revisit the assumption that the ‘Israel of the contemporary Middle East’ is also the ‘Israel of God?’ Are the two the same thing or is the name ‘Israel’, as it is now applied to a political state, a false guide in our reading of the Bible?
This article will suggest on biblical and theological grounds that the two are not the same. The Israel of the contemporary Middle East has common military, political and territorial roots with the Israel of the Old Testament. However, it does not share the spiritual roots of faith that are determinative of the identity of God’s people. To use a physiological analogy, we might say that the political state of Israel shares a common blood type with the Old Testament people of God. Contemporary Christians often mistake the blood type for a deep and enduring kinship. Closer analysis, however, reveals a differentiation in DNA (Israel’s spiritual and faith heritage). It is this DNA that demonstrates the political state of Israel to be unrelated to God’s purposes for his Old Testament people. The enduring kinship with the Old Testament people of Israel lies with another—namely Christ himself. Therefore, it is a case of mistaken identity to read the contemporary political state of Israel into the Old Testament. It has disastrous effects on the church and produces massive political fallout.
My reader may already be crying ‘replacement theology!’ Some are concerned that ‘replacement theology’ leads to despising Jewish people and the kind of atrocities that have been committed by anti-Semites throughout history including the horrors of Nazism. The concept I am attempting to get across bears at least two distinctions from what is often pejoratively labelled ‘replacement theology’—so-called because the church is said to ‘replace’ Israel. First, the true fulfilment of Israel is Christ, the true seed of Abraham, who is the head of the church. Thus, this is not a ‘replacement’ at all, as Christ is the final objective of the entire Old Testament revelation. Jesus’ view is that the Old Testament is about Himself (See Luke 24:25-27; 44-49; John 5:39). Secondly, Israel is not replaced, but fulfilled in Christ who becomes the progenitor of a vastly expanded Israel consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. The nations become the people of Israel by adoption into Christ. Furthermore, you might anticipate that this article will advocate that the Jews have no further role to play in God’s unfolding redemption of the nations. That is not at all the intention of this article. Stay with me and we will discover a role of honour and value for those who identify themselves as Jews in our day. Let us begin by examining the biblical identity of the Old Testament people of God known as Israel.
Abraham: Father of Many Nations
I contend that two elements of God’s blessing on Abraham are consistent throughout the entirety of Scripture. These elements are 1) the inclusive nature of the blessing and 2) the expansive nature of the blessing. Leslie Newbigin has pointed out that God’s election of Israel is often misconstrued as an election based on preference—Israel is God’s favourite. However, the text of the Abrahamic blessing indicates clearly that God’s election of Israel is based on purpose and that purpose is clearly the blessing of the nations through the election of a particular nation. In the words of Newbigin: ‘The promised blessing is, in the end, for all the nations…and the faithful remnant are the chosen bearers of it… Bearers—not exclusive beneficiaries… Again and again it had to be said that election is for responsibility, not for privilege.’ We might rephrase Newbegin to say that election is a privilege with responsibility. The two imperatives in the Abrahamic blessing of Genesis 12 are ‘go’ (12:1) and ‘be a blessing’ (12:2). Abraham is clearly told that through him, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. This is particularly striking in the context of the division of the world into languages immediately preceding God’s election of Abraham (Gen 11). The Babel incident is not God’s ruse to destabilize humanity, but his preservation of humanity from a false, self-promoting salvation. His call and blessing of Abraham reveals an unfolding plan that will ultimately lead those nations of Babel back into the blessing of reconciliation with God.
Therefore, God’s blessing on Abraham was a blessing through Abraham and his seed to all the nations of the earth. In the words of Christopher Wright, ‘Blessing for the nations is the bottom line, textually and theologically, of God’s promise to Abraham.’ I hope that there will be little disagreement on that point. The disagreement comes in identifying the nation of Abraham today. After God has given Abraham’s offspring the land from the ‘river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,’ (Gen 15:18) He appears to Abraham with another significant promise. The promise is simply that Abraham will be the father not of a nation, but of many nations. ‘Behold my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.’ (Gen 17:4). Notice that there are two planes on which the promises of God are expanding. The first plane is one of geography. Abraham was originally told to go to a land that God would show him (Gen 12:1). The land given to Abraham’s offspring is a land that extends from Egypt into Iraq – ‘from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates’ (Gen 15:18). It is not merely the land of Canaan, but also includes the land from which Abraham originated and extends to Abraham’s furthest sojourning – Egypt. Later, God’s promise to Jacob indicates an even greater expansion of the land. ‘The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.’ (Gen 28:13-14) The spread of Jacob’s descendants will be universal extending to the four points of the compass.
The second plane is that of ethnicity. Abraham’s fatherhood will extend to a multitude of nations. This word can hardly be mistaken for a small number of Middle Eastern ethnic entities each having a blood relation to Abraham. Something much larger is in view here. Abraham had previously received the promise that his descendants would equal the number of stars in the heavens, a sum now known to be virtually infinite. This is the promise that Abraham believed, and it was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ (Genesis 15:5-6). Later, the promise is that Abraham’s seed will be like the sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17). If we presume that these promises will be fulfilled through the biological descendants of Abraham, Yahweh is making promises to Abraham that are simply too great to come true. If, however, we understand these promises in the light of New Testament realities, their meaning becomes quite clear. Abraham’s fatherhood is not merely the fatherhood of his biological descendants, but of all who share the faith of Abraham. The land that is given to Abraham is not merely the land of Canaan, but all the land on which his seed has sojourned. The entire earth is the possession of Abraham’s descendants. In summary, God’s blessing on Abraham is expansive and inclusive—to all the earth (geographically) and to all nations (all ethnicities). I acknowledge that the expansive nature of the Abrahamic promise may be a new concept and difficult for many Evangelical readers. Nevertheless, it is a consistent, though often implicit, dimension of redemptive history. Further on we will consider Jesus’ and his apostles’ important contribution to the idea.
Israel: What is in a Name?
Jacob’s name is changed to Israel after the wrestling match in which Jacob declares that he has seen God face to face. Who then might this God be other than the same person who appeared to Jacob’s father Abraham, enjoyed a meal with him by the oaks of Mamre and ultimately became the object of his intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah as Abraham boldly requests that Yahweh spare the city for the sake of a minority of righteous people (Genesis 18)? Jesus, the supreme interpreter of the Old Testament, makes clear that Abraham rejoiced to see his day (John 8:56), that the Old Testament bears witness of him (John 5:39), that the law, the Prophets and the Psalms, which are about him, must be fulfilled (Luke 24:44). We can come to no other conclusion than that Christ himself, in a pre-incarnate appearance, was revealing himself to the patriarchs. The change of Jacob’s name to Israel could not be more revealing of God’s true purposes for this people related to him by covenant.
The name ‘Israel’ consists of two words: yisra’ and el. The first word can be translated ‘he contends’ or ‘he strives.’ The second word is the pronoun referring to God himself. Thus, it is possible to translate the name Israel in one of two ways: ‘God contends’ or ‘He contends with God.’ While the first rendering is possibly the most straightforward translation, a contextual factor favours the second rendering. Genesis 32:28 asserts, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ Thus, Jacob is ‘one who strives with God,’ and this is the commonly understood meaning of the name Israel. However, it is possible, and, I contend, probable, that a double meaning is intended by this name. Clearly, Jacob did not prevail against God. In fact, it was a mere touch from God that crippled Jacob, presumably for life, leaving him to walk with a limp. Thus, Jacob’s prevailing was a gift of God; it was, in fact, God’s contending on his behalf that allowed him to prevail both in his human struggles with the likes of Esau and Laban, and in his spiritual struggle with God Almighty. Jacob walked with a limp to remind him and all who saw him that his striving would prove fruitless. God’s striving on his behalf would prosper him and bless him, securing for him the fulfilment of God’s promises to his fathers. Jacob was wrestling with one who would ultimately prevail and secure the blessing for Jacob’s seed.
Much is at stake in this name ‘Israel.’ Is it the striving of Jacob that produces the fulfilment of God’s promise or is it God’s contending on behalf of Jacob that secures the blessing for him and his descendants after him? The Old Testament is clear that God has favoured Israel, not because of her righteousness, size or status (See Deuteronomy 9), but for the sake of His glory and fame. He will demonstrate his power and glory through his indwelling of a people—Israel. The very name of Israel provides for us a key to interpreting the identity of this people. Israel is the people for whom God contends.
A Few Surprising Israelites
It is instructive to note that Israel was never identified solely along lines of biological descent. Paul made a similar argument in Galatians 3. However, is there Old Testament evidence to support our thesis? Incidentally, the evidence of the inclusion of non-ethnic Jews in Old Testament Israel should give great impetus to the ‘all-nations’ missionary vision of the contemporary church.
We are not arguing that all of these individuals became Jews. It might be helpful to envision concentric circles. Israel itself is the innermost circle with Yahweh’s enthronement above the cherubim as the heart of Israel. The presence of Yahweh among His people attracts the people of the nations. The Old Testament is replete with stories of individuals and nations who were either drawn into the orbit of Israel or who moved into the outer rings of our concentric circles and closer to a true faith in Yahweh through Israel’s instrumentation. Examples of those who actually became part of the Jewish people include Ruth the Moabitess, Rahab the harlot and Israel’s slaves who were circumcised and became partakers in the covenant (Gen 17:11-13). A little further from the centre circle are others who worshipped Yahweh, Israel’s God, acknowledging that He alone is God. These include Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, Naaman the Syrian, Nebuchadnezzar, the mariners who cast Jonah into the sea and the Ninevites. There are many others who witnessed the greatness of Yahweh and acknowledged Him even though we do not know the depth of their faith. Examples of these include the Egyptians after the Exodus, Cyrus the Mede, the widow who served Elijah and the Queen of Sheba.
While this is a cursory overview, the evidence is strong to indicate that inclusion in the covenant people of Israel was not solely on the basis of biological descent. In fact, there were those who were biological descendants of Abraham who were excluded from the covenant. Others who were clearly not of ethnic Israel were included in the covenant people. The law of Moses does not insist on the ethnic identity of the people to participate in the Passover and Israel’s other feasts. It does insist on the sign of the covenant—circumcision—as the criteria for covenant participation. All of ethnic Israel was to be circumcised, but others who joined themselves to Israel could be circumcised irrespective of their ethnic identity.
We could easily go into much more detail on how the Psalmist and the prophets foresaw the worship of Yahweh by the people of the nations. One stunning prophecy among many others is Isaiah’s declaration ‘blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork and Israel my inheritance.’ (Isa 19:25) After a long litany of Yahweh’s chastisement of Egypt, the tone of this prophecy begins to change as the prophet pronounces the phrase ‘in that day’ a total of six times. With each pronouncement, the unfolding grace of God is revealed to Israel’s enemy. They will tremble with fear before the Lord (v. 16). They will swear allegiance to Yahweh and among them will be those who speak the language of Canaan—perhaps this is a reference to Israel’s fulfilling her priestly role to the nations (v. 18). There will be an altar to Yahweh in the midst of Egypt (v. 19). They will know Yahweh (v. 21) and they will worship and make vows to Yahweh. Imagine the shock such a prophecy would cause to a native Israelite. How could the prophet use these monikers for Egypt—Israel’s enslaver—and Assyria—Israel’s exiler? Surely Israel alone is Yahweh’s people! Israel alone is Yahweh’s handiwork! Yet Isaiah prophesies of a day when Israel will be joined with Egypt and Assyria as God’s people in the earth.
Another stunning example is Isaiah 49:5-6—one of the ‘suffering servant’ songs of Isaiah. The servant of Yahweh, said to be Israel in verse 3, is told that it is ‘too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel.’ The prophet says this magnificent cause of restoring Israel and Jacob is simply not enough. ‘I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ God’s clear intention for Israel is that she be a vessel to bring his saving power to all the nations of the earth! Matthew identifies Christ as this suffering servant (Matthew 12:18-21) and Christ lays claim to the words of Isaiah’s song when he declares himself to be the ‘light of the world’ (John 8:12). These are but two examples of a multitude of prophecies that indicate God’s expansive work among the nations.
The point is simply this: Although Old Testament Israel is broadly identified as the physical descendants of Abraham, exceptions abound. We find non-Jews entering the covenant people. We find Jewish people being excluded from the covenant people. Thus, biological descent is not the sole criterion for becoming an Israelite.
The exile is a tragic story of Israel’s failure to live in covenant relationship to Yahweh. Ezekiel and Jeremiah clearly show that Yahweh will no longer treat Israel as His people. They will be cast off the land, they will be taken into exile, their homes and temple will be destroyed, cannibalism will take place in the streets of Jerusalem and ultimately the presence of God’s glory will depart from Israel. (Jer. 25; Ez. 21) Could it be more clear that the covenant relationship with Yahweh is not a most-favoured status for the nation to enjoy? It is a purposeful calling characterized by covenantal relationship. When that covenant is broken, the covenant status is transformed to shame and disgrace. Yahweh acted for the sake of his name: ‘But for the sake of my name I did what would keep it from being profaned in the eyes of the nations.’ (Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22; 36:22)
However, what about God’s clear and persistent promises that He will never forget or forsake Israel His people? ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.’ (Isaiah 49:15-16) Is it not true that Ezekiel and Jeremiah, although they prophesied disaster for Israel, also prophesied of a new covenant when God’s laws would be written upon the peoples’ hearts and He would dwell among them? (Jer. 31:31-37; 32:36-41; Ez. 36:22-36) The new covenant promises the return of Israel to the land where Yahweh had planted her. Thankfully, God’s covenant is a covenant of grace from beginning to end. Israel has not been forgotten even though she miserably failed to keep the covenant. The people did return to their land, and even though that return was less glorious than hoped, it was the necessary preparation for the coming Messiah.
Jesus: The Completed Israel
Jesus’ title ‘the Son of God’ has been the subject of great debate in the Middle East. Muslims presume the title indicates a physical act of procreation on the part of God or they view it as a reference to a pre-Islamic concept of lower gods and goddesses who were known as the sons and daughters of God. Such a concept is rightly rejected by Muslims. In this article, we will not presume to unpack fully the theological meaning of the title, but to point toward one aspect of its meaning, which has particular bearing on our question of the identity of Israel.
Yahweh instructed Pharaoh to let Israel go in order that the nation might serve him. He referred to the nation as ‘His firstborn son.’ (Ex. 4:22-23) The plagues visited upon Egypt reach their climax in the death of Egypt’s firstborn in return for Pharaoh’s belligerence and refusal to release Israel. The lesson could not have been more poignant for Egypt. ‘Oppress my firstborn son (Israel) to your peril!’ The prophet Hosea confirms the imagery: ‘Out of Egypt have I called my Son’ (Hosea 11:1). Matthew, whose gospel is punctuated with not-so-subtle challenges and reprimands to Israel’s leaders, quotes Hosea and applies that quote directly to Christ’s sojourn in Egypt (Matt. 4:11). Is this mere coincidence? Does Jesus have an uncanny similarity to Israel, or is Matthew, along with the other apostles, pointing us to some deeper significance? Further examination demonstrates deeper affinities between Jesus and His ministry and Israel. For instance, commentators have noticed repeatedly that Jesus stood upon a mount (as did Moses) to give his discourse—the Sermon on the Mount—which stands as a further elucidation and authoritative interpretation of the Law of Moses. Consider also Jesus’ selection of the twelve apostles. Without doubt, the number twelve recalls the twelve tribes of Israel. Again, is this mere coincidence, a type of literary parallelism that mirrors the Old Testament? Or is there greater significance to these intentional references to Israel’s history?
New Testament scholar Gary Burge has pointed out that John, in his gospel, shows Jesus’ superiority to the land of Israel. The land held the temple, but Jesus’ body was the real temple (Jn. 2:21-22). Jacob’s well in Samaria offers water that satisfies only temporarily. Jesus’ living water satisfies eternally (Jn. 4:10). Jesus heals conditions that the pool of Bethesda cannot heal (Jn. 5:1-9). Jesus radically redefines the concept of holy place by telling the woman of Samaria that true worshippers will worship ‘neither on this mount nor in Jerusalem.’ For John, Jesus is the new Moses (Jn. 1:17). He feeds his people the true manna from heaven (Jn. 6:1-34). He leads his people to their final dwelling place (Jn. 14). The vineyard, a symbol of the land of Israel (Isa 5), is refined by Jesus who points to himself as the source of true rootedness for Israel—the vine (John 15). When John says, ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us,’ he uses a special term: dwelt, which is the same word used for ‘tabernacle’ throughout the Old Testament. In effect, Jesus is the new place of God’s dwelling.
Jesus’ view of the Old Testament surprises us as well. Jesus stated categorically that the Old Testament was about Him. He charged the Jewish leaders with searching the Scriptures to find eternal life, and yet not realizing that those Scriptures give testimony to him (John 5:39). He instructed his disciples that the Old Testament in all of its parts (Law, Psalms and Prophets) are about him and must be fulfilled. Furthermore, they point to his suffering, death and resurrection. We presume that Jesus’ unpacking of the Christ-centred implications of the Old Testament comprised much of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching of the disciples, since that element is pre-eminent in the teaching of the apostles (Acts 4:12 and Acts 5).
What is the point? The apostles understood Jesus to be the Son of God—the Israel of God, the true embodiment of God’s contending for his people. Where Israel failed, Christ succeeded. Israel broke the covenant. Christ kept the covenant. Israel embraced the nations’ idolatry, which led to the departure of God’s presence and glory from her temple. Christ loved the Father with perfect love and was perfectly one with the Father such that He could declare, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father.’ Jesus’ selection and commission of the twelve disciples is a reconstituting of Israel. He is known as ‘the messiah’—the anointed one. His anointing as prophet, priest and king witnesses to the fact that he has been given pre-eminence over all. His passion and crucifixion is a parallel of Israel’s exile. Jesus is the Israel of God. As such, he is gathering the people of Yahweh into his sheepfold—both Jews and Gentiles (John 10:16)—so that they will be one flock with one shepherd. He will not fail to do this. It is vital to see this Christ-centred understanding of the Old Testament. If we fail to understand Christ as the final interpreter of the Old Testament, we will fail to see the fulfilment of the Old Testament story in Christ. Perhaps this is why so many see a duality in the people of God with the ethnic nation of Israel continuing to hold a central place in God’s unfolding story. Those who see the Old Testament as being about Christ will have no difficulty seeing that Christ majestically accomplishes what Israel did not. It is not a ‘sell-out’ of the Old Testament to see it as Christ’s story, nor is it an ‘over-spiritualization’ of the Old Testament. It is Christ’s own understanding that leads us to see him as the final fulfilment of all God’s purposes through Israel. He is the seed of the woman who crushes the head of the serpent. He is the seed of Abraham through whom the nations are blessed. He is the seed of David—the exalted king over a multitude of nations!
Jesus’ Teaching on Israel
Perhaps the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ has lost some of its appeal due to a surfeit of Christian trinkets that constantly invoke the question. Nevertheless, it is instructive to ask how Jesus responded to the legitimate leaders of Israel in his day.
In Matthew 21:33-45 Jesus relates the story of a vineyard—imagery that the Old Testament used for the nation of Israel (Isa. 5:1-7)—in response to the questioning of his authority by the chief priests and elders. The tenants were expected to be stewards of the precious fruit that was the sole possession of the owner of the vineyard. Unbelievably, they beat, wound, mock and abuse messenger after messenger sent from the vineyard owner. In a final attempt to rectify a desperate situation, the vineyard owner sends his very son. The response of the tenants defies imagination. They beat the son and kill him! What then will the vineyard owner do when he returns? He will cast out those wicked men! In the same way, Jesus tells the Jewish leaders of His day, the vineyard will be taken from you and given to a people producing its fruit. The leadership of God’s people was indeed taken from the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees and given to the apostles of Christ. Those apostles produced fruit among the Jews and the nations. Christ’s desire was that His vineyard be tended and cared for in order to produce the fruit he intended—the purpose of the Abrahamic covenant, the blessing of all nations. May I be clear to suggest that this parable does not teach the rejection of the Jews, but the replacement of the Jewish leaders by the apostles who would carefully tend the vineyard of His people whom we know to include both Jews and Gentiles.
The Romans were a non-Jewish occupying force. Doubtless, their presence ran roughshod over Israelite sensitivities and religious preferences. One might well anticipate that the Jewish Messiah would prophesy the removal of Rome from the ancient homeland of the Jews. Such a prophecy is conspicuously absent from Jesus’ teaching. In fact, to my knowledge, Jesus never once reprimands Rome or its rulers for their usurpation of the Jewish homeland; nor does he endorse it, of course. Jesus’ preoccupation is not with a political entity, an earthly realm or a geographically defined homeland (neither Israel nor Rome). He came proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven—the Kingdom of His Father. That was his preoccupation throughout his public ministry.
In this atmosphere of military and political exploitation, the Roman centurion stands out as a refreshing counter-example. We find his story in Matthew 8:5-13 and the parallel passage in Luke 7:1-10. Apparently, the centurion loved the Jewish nation and had constructed a synagogue. His statement is a startling recognition of Jesus’ authority: ‘For I too am a man under authority.’ Jesus specifically declares that He has not seen such faith in Israel. Furthermore, He declares that the Kingdom of Heaven will be populated with such people who will come from the east and the west, and recline with Abraham in the Kingdom of heaven while ‘the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside.’ Jesus elevates the criterion for entry into the Kingdom of God beyond the status quo of the day. The criterion is not birthright. It is faith in Him, as the Roman centurion so aptly demonstrated. The sharing of the family meal with the patriarch will be enjoyed by such people irrespective of birthright or religious pedigree.
Many other facets of Jesus’ life and teaching suggest a re-envisioning of the identity of God’s people. These include:
The inclusion of Gentile women (Rahab and Ruth) in Jesus’ genealogy. (Matt. 1:5)
Jesus’ delight in the ready response of the Samaritans. (Jn. 4:34-38).
The geographic spread of Jesus’ ministry into Tyre and Sidon and the Greek Decapolis.
Jesus’ harsh denunciation of the Shepherds of Israel—the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 24.
Jesus’ willingness to defile himself by drinking from a Samaritan vessel and sleeping in a Samaritan village. (Jn. 4)
Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem coupled with the warning that Jerusalem had failed to recognize her salvation. (Matt. 23:37-39; Lk. 19:41-44)
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple quotes Isaiah 56:7, which states that the temple is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. (Lk. 19:46)
Jesus’ insistence that he has other sheep not of this fold, and that He must go and bring them in to be one sheepfold with one shepherd. (Jn. 10:16)
Jesus is portrayed as the fulfilment of the suffering servant (Matt. 12:18-21) whom Yahweh would use to bring his light to the nations and his salvation to the Gentiles. (Isa. 46:5-6)
Jesus’ identification of his own family and people as those who ‘hear the word of God and do it.’ (Matt. 12:48-50)
In summary, we contend that Jesus, in word and action, gave sufficient indication that the true people of God are those people who believe the testimony about him and join themselves to him to become one with him. Jesus is the spiritual progenitor of a new people, a new nation consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. This nation is the inclusive and expansive continuation of Old Testament Israel. The difference is that now the anointed prophet, priest and king has appeared. God’s eternal purpose for His people is fulfilled in Christ. To use the language of Hebrews, the shadow has now given way to the reality. In Christ, God’s purposes are not merely proclaimed, but achieved. Christ is the Israel of God.
The Apostles’ Understanding of Israel’s Identity
This Christocentric understanding of the Old Testament and Israel is clearly discernible in the apostles’ teaching. Paul refers to the body of Christ as the temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph 2:21). We recall that it was the Old Testament temple—the heart of Old Testament Israel—that was to be the dwelling place of Yahweh. The new temple is made of living stones that are the dwelling place of the Spirit of Yahweh. This building is founded upon the cornerstone—Christ himself—with the foundation stones being the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20-22). Furthermore, in this temple, the veil of separation has been torn asunder. In terms of participation in this Kingdom, there is no further differentiation between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, barbarian, Scythian, male and female (Gal 3:28-29). Paul’s unflinching conclusion: ‘If you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.’ His words are unequivocal, stunning in clarity and poignancy.
Paul is not alone in highlighting the identity of Israel in God’s new covenant people. Peter quotes from Exodus 19—the prologue to the Decalogue—to make a startling identification of God’s new covenant people with Old Testament Israel: ‘But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation that you should show forth the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.’ It strains the mind to realize that a Jewish apostle is applying these words, originally addressed to Old Testament Israel, to Christ’s Kingdom—His followers comprised of people of all tribes, tongues and nations.
Consider Paul’s statements in Romans 2 and Galatians 3, which leave no margin for doubt as to how Paul identified the Israel of God. ‘A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men but from God.’ This is a key passage that must be reckoned with in any attempt to identify the true Israel. Paul clearly indicates that the outward sign of circumcision (presumably including an ethnic identification with Israel) is not the deciding factor. Who then is the Jew? It is the person who is inwardly circumcised (see Jeremiah 9:24-26). Paul spells this out even more clearly in his passionate plea to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ (Gal 3:28-29) It is the believer belonging to Christ that identifies him or her as Abraham’s seed.
The reader may well object: ‘Yes, but Paul clearly sees a future for Israel in Romans 9 through 11.’ Paul argues that the ethnic descendants of Abraham are included in the identity of Israel. His famous analogy of an Olive tree that contains both wild branches, which have been grafted in (representing the nations), and branches native to the tree (representing the Jewish people) is critical to understand. The tree is one tree which includes both the ethnic descendants of Abraham—the Jews—and the seed of Abraham by faith—the nations. The point of the analogy is the inclusive and expansive nature of the new entity. The people of God are one people that include Jews who are ‘in Christ.’ These Jews have a place of distinction in the one tree of God’s people because, as Paul says, ‘the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises’ come through them (Rom. 9:4-5). It is an honourable distinction that is drawn from the Old Testament. Paul states that God has not forsaken his people as is indicated by the fact that Paul himself is a Jew (Rom 11:1-2). The inclusion of the Gentiles is not tantamount to the rejection of the Jews, as some have argued. Paul seems to anticipate a greater inclusion of the Jews in the future based on Romans 11:15: ‘For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?’ This is the place of honour given to the Jewish people, to which I referred earlier. Jewish Christ-followers are our older brothers. We honour them, since the law, the worship, the covenants and ultimately the Messiah came to us Gentiles through them. Personally, I also anticipate and pray for many Jewish people to find life in Christ. I believe Romans 11:15 suggests this anticipation. The dividing line between a theology of replacement (which I reject) and a theology of inclusion (of which I am a proponent) is this. An inclusive theology of Israel maintains a place of honour and hope for the Jewish people. It clearly recognizes the indebtedness of the Gentiles to the Jewish nation and passionately yearns for the return of all Jewish people to their Messiah--Christ. The church does not replace Israel. Rather, Israel is expanded to include the nations.
Is it any wonder that Paul would send his final greeting to the Galatian church using the moniker ‘the Israel of God?’ (Gal 6:16) It is the natural and anticipated result of all we have been saying. God is bringing his eternal purposes for Israel to fruition. He is contending for a people. He is indwelling that people by His Spirit and thereby bringing blessing to a multitude of nations who will rise up to be called by his name.
Missional and Political Implications
If such an understanding of Israel were embraced, what implications might we see as this understanding of Israel spreads through the church?
First, this understanding of Scripture must never be used to justify anti-Semitism. I want to say explicitly that this is not an attempt to justify the tactics of terror that have been used to take innocent Israeli lives. I am not in solidarity with the Egyptian acquaintance that I quoted earlier. The state of Israel is certainly not my enemy. I pray for the peace and security of the people within that state and I hope and pray for political solutions that honour that people as well as the surrounding Arab nations. Objective observers of the Middle East will readily admit that atrocities have been committed against Israel. Christ-followers must stand against those atrocities as well as the injustices that have been committed against the Palestinian people.
Nevertheless, I believe that this understanding of Scripture would assist the church to identify the Kingdom of Jesus as its first loyalty and priority rather than a political state with geographic borders in the Middle East. The regathering of Israel might instead give great impetus for intercessory prayer and incarnational ministry. The state of Israel, as a geopolitical entity, is a present reality in our world but is not synonymous with God’s Kingdom. That role belongs to Christ alone, not to any political entity anywhere in the world. One missiologist friend referred to the current state of affairs in Israel and Palestine as a missiological emergency. Muslim nations are deeply offended by what they perceive as impartial political, military and economic support of the Israeli state by Western Evangelicals. Some may see this as a purely political issue without reference to the church. However, the truth is that the Western church has become enmeshed in the political and monetary support of this state. The church must realize that her theology of Israel implicates her in responsibility for atrocities committed against Palestinians and Israelis. Many have pointed out the complacency of the church as the Third Reich began to perpetrate injustices against the Jewish people. Can we not learn the lesson of history to examine the claims of all peoples in the light of what is just and equitable? This calls for deep contrition and humility on the part of the church.
The missional implications for the current state of affairs are staggering. The Muslim world perceives, rightly or wrongly, a perpetual repression of the Palestinian people and a solemn denial of injustices committed against that people. If we as the church are unwilling to consider both sides of this ongoing struggle in the light of Biblical justice, we lose credibility as ambassadors of Christ. Is the contemporary church guilty of the same gross misrepresentations of the gospel that our forbears expressed in the Crusades and the Inquisition? Has the contemporary church resorted to faith in a military solution to bring lasting change to the Middle East? Do we really believe that transforming the Middle East will be wrought by a ‘free market economy?’ This writer does not. Elisha struck the water with Elijah’s mantle and asked, ‘Where is Yahweh, the God of Elijah?’ The contemporary church would do well to ask itself, ‘Where is the power of the gospel?’
Secondly, equipped with this Biblical understanding of Israel, the people of Christ would seek to be effective peacemakers in the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people and perhaps gain credibility as peacemakers in countless other irascible conflicts that cover our globe. Perhaps the church could make a tangible contribution to the peace of earthly Jerusalem, at long last. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God.’
Third, Christians would begin to return to the study of the Old Testament, not just for its Jewish background, but also for discipleship. The church would seek to learn the lessons of Israel in its mission in the world. A Christocentric hermeneutic could re-energize the preaching and teaching of the Old Testament. The church’s eschatology would also take a different shape. The limited scope of this article prohibits further discussion of eschatology, but suffice to say that a paradigm shift in our understanding of the Biblical Israel will have profound implications on our eschatology.
Finally, the body of Christ universal would be armed with an innate understanding that the final Kingdom of Christ cannot be identified with any nation or its capital—Washington, DC, Mecca, Jerusalem, Geneva, etc. The capitol of our Kingdom is a heavenly Jerusalem where Christ is enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. We await the promised descent of this Jerusalem to earth (Rev 21:2)—the consummation of the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated during his earthly ministry. ‘Your Kingdom come.’
The Israel of God is Christ. Those who are in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are fully embraced in the Israel of God. They are those for whom God has contended in Christ. We reject the title of ‘replacement theology’ with its pejorative connotations and suggest the title ‘Inclusive Israel’ or ‘the expansive people of God.’ It is a reading of Scripture that holds the Jewish people in high esteem and anticipates their eventual embrace of the Messiah. It refuses to elevate ethnic descent over faith or any earthly political entity above the Kingdom of Christ.
1 I am aware that the vast majority of the Middle Eastern church is not Protestant, but from Middle Eastern Orthodox roots. To my knowledge, the Orthodox view of Old Testament Israel does not posit a continuing role for those who hail from the Jewish faith while repudiating Christ. Thus, the problem of teaching the Old Testament is alleviated for the Orthodox churches.
2 Newbigin, The Open Secret, p 32.
3 Christopher Wright, The Mission of God, p 194.
4 See The Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol 2: p 304-316.
5 It is revealing to note the number of times in which either Yahweh or Moses states that the Egyptians will know that Yahweh alone is God because of the plagues. I counted at least nine times in the early chapters of Exodus.
6 Consider the story of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16 or that of Zimri in Numbers 25.
7 I am aware that certain nations were excluded from Israel based on their response to the Exodus. However, these were specific cases in point, not the general rule.
8 The best treatment I have found of the ‘all-nations’ vision of the Old Testament is Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God.
9 Gary Burge, Whose Land? Whose Promise? P 176-177.
10 Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand explains this idea in the third section of the book on the crucifixion.