The Israel of God (Part 2)

So I am in the midst of a series on what I believe the Bible truly teaches about the Israel of God. Ultimately, I believe the New Testament teaches us that Christ is the great Israel of God because He fulfilled Israel’s role to the ‘T’. And, therefore, I believe that all those who are in Christ and have become part of the new covenant – both Jew and Gentile – make up the new covenant Israel of God.

In my last article, I begun by sharing one major pointer as to why I believe those in Christ are the Israel of God. That specific point was that God has instituted a new circumcision through the new covenant. Whereas the old covenant people were defined by physical circumcision, though it was to point to an inward circumcision, such a physical circumcision is of no longer of any consequence within the new covenant. What matters is that one is circumcised by the Spirit of Christ (i.e. Romans 2:28-29).

Matter of fact, Paul tells the Philippian church:

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:3)

Those in Christ are the true circumcision. Paul did not say this because they had their physical foreskins removed. He said this because the foreskins of their heart had been removed by the Spirit. Therefore, they were those who were not putting their confidence ‘in the flesh’.

I will now move on and share two more pointers as to why I see the New Testament teaching that all those in Christ are the Israel of God.

A New Creation
We are quite familiar with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17. But I point out a passage that is maybe not as familiar to us:

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:15)

Again, I am sorry to sound like a broken record, but Paul seems to make it absolutely clear that circumcision of the foreskin counts for nothing. What matters is that one become a new creation. And, going back to my point from the last article, it is those who have been circumcised within by the Spirit of God that make up the people of God. There is no free pass into the kingdom. No matter what our heritage, no matter what our race – Jew or Gentile – we must become new creations in Christ to be part of the people of God. That, I believe, is the sum teaching of the new covenant.

A New People of Faith
During Christ’s ministry, He had some very harsh words to say to the hard-hearted religious leaders of the day. Here is one particular statement:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Matthew 21:43)

Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom of God would be taken away from a faithless and fruitless people, and would be given to a new people producing the fruits of the kingdom. I do not desire to walk down the line of ‘replacement theology’ where one says that God has discarded the Jews and replaced them with the church (mainly made up of Gentiles). That is not my heart. Rather, I believe that the new covenant people of the kingdom are a continuation and fulfilment of God’s desire for a covenant people. Therefore, the ekklesia of Christ – made up of Jew and Gentile – is the Israel of God.

Thus, going back to Christ’s words in Matthew 21:43, we see that He was emphasising and underlining that His people would be a people of faith shown through fruit. The pointer to being part of God’s people was not heritage or circumcision. Rather, one was included with God’s people by a circumcision of the heart, which would produce both a life of faith and a life of fruit.

With regards to physical Israel, Paul had some hard words to swallow. Matter of fact, it was hard for him to even make such a statement knowing these were his people:

6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” (Romans 9:6-7)

I believe that Paul’s thoughts from Romans 9:6-7 can be expressed in the picture below:

One theologian has these words to say about ‘spiritual’ Israel:

‘Thus, Paul [in Romans 9] continues the Old Testament distinction of a spiritual Israel within the nation Israel. The prophets called this spiritual Israel, ‘the remnant,’ and it was to be the bearer of God’s covenant promises.’ (Hans LaRondelle, The Israel of God In Prophecy)

I find this statement of Paul’s quite interesting: He says that all the children of Abraham are not really Abraham’s children (see vs7). He said that the line was to continue through Isaac. But why Isaac?

Both Ishmael and Isaac were circumcised (see Genesis 17:23 and 21:4). You would think that both were to be included as part of the covenant people of God. But the reality is that Ishmael was not the son of promise nor was he of the line of faith. Instead, Isaac had come from the promise of God and it was through him that the covenant line of faith would continue (see Genesis 17:19-21).

Therefore, just because someone was from the physical line of Abraham, this did not mean they were of the line of faith. And just because they had been circumcised, this did not automatically mean they were of the line of faith being true descendants of Abraham and Isaac. Ishmael is the greatest example. Rather, true Israel was to follow in the footsteps of faith, just as Abraham and Isaac had done as well.

He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well. (Romans 4:11)

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Galatians 3:7)

Therefore, in the new covenant, God had constituted a new people of faith that were to be new creations in Christ. Whether Jew or Gentile, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, one must become a new creation and incorporated into Christ by faith. Christ is the great Israel and those who are in Christ are the Israel of God.

Here is the link to my next article in this series.

The Israel of God (Part 1)

I have begun a series that is in two major parts. The first major part considered how Christ is the great fulfiller of Israel (part 1, part 2). In support of such a claim, I shared five specific Scriptural pointers as to how we can know Christ fulfilled Israel’s role:

  • Jesus was God’s great firstborn Son
  • Jesus was the true vine
  • Jesus was faithful in His temptation
  • Jesus was disciplined by the Father
  • Jesus received the promises of Abraham

It is those five things in particular that I believe show Christ is, if you will, the great Israel Himself.

Knowing such, I, then, concluded that this truth should lead us to another theological conclusion: all of those in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are the new Israel of God. It is this subject that I plan to take up over my next few articles.

Most who have studied Pauline theology recognise that one of the main themes in his letters is the concept of believers, or the church, being ‘in Christ’. This phrase, and similar wordings, show up some 164 times in his epistles. It is the body of Christ, His ekklesia, that has been joined and united to Christ. We see such especially highlighted in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight…11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:1-14)

Such is an amazing passage that details the reality of what it means to be in Him, or in Christ.

Thus, all those joined to Christ are to participate in and receive all the blessings that belong to Christ. Consequently, if Christ is the true Israel, and I propose that He is, then all those who are in Christ, Jew and Gentile, must be the true Israel of God.

Consider these words from theologian Michael Green:

‘If he [Jesus] was Messiah, his followers must be the true Israel. It was as simple as that. The Messiah was inconceivable apart from his flock. Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament, and his people were therefore heirs to all its promises. This meant that those Jews who did not put their faith in Jesus were renegades from the true Israel; they might be Jews outwardly, but were not so at heart.’ (Evangelism in the Early Church, p144)

But what does Scripture say, right? Well, that’s what I do want to take up. I believe there are six specific Scriptural pointers as to why the church, the ekklesia consisting of both Jew and Gentile in Christ, make up the new covenant Israel of God:

  • A new circumcision
  • A new creation
  • A new people of faith
  • A new Jerusalem
  • A new group of twelve
  • The continuity between the Hebrew word qahal and the Greek word ekklesia

I shall end this article by considering the first point mentioned:

A New Circumcision
The nation of Israel was a people who were to be recognised by the covenant sign of circumcision. We see this established through the covenant with Abraham:

9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” (Genesis 17:9-11)

But even within the old covenant, physical circumcision was to be a sign of something greater, for consider these two passages from Jeremiah:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD;
remove the foreskin of your hearts

O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;

lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,

because of the evil of your deeds. (Jeremiah 4:4)

25 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh – 26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.” (Jeremiah 9:25-26)

In the eyes of God, there has always been something more important than the cutting away of flesh from the male reproductive organ. Circumcision was to be a matter of the heart, not simply the foreskin.

Paul confirms this in his letters as he expounded on the new covenant work of Christ by the Spirit:

28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:3)

Yes, it is true that God had declared circumcision as an ‘everlasting covenant’ (see Genesis 17:13). But it is the everlasting aspect of this covenant that is fulfilled in the new covenant. Therefore, all of those in Christ, both Jew and Gentile, who have been circumcised by the Spirit, are the ones who comprise Israel.

God is not ultimately bothered whether our males are circumcised in their flesh or not. If one circumcises their children (I believe America is one of the few nations, maybe the only, that practices such outside of Jews), then that is completely fine. But whether one comes from a Jewish background or a Gentile background (America included), God ultimately wants a circumcised heart by His Spirit. That is what brings new life, that is what brings regeneration, that is what makes one part of Christ’s ekklesia.

As a final thought, Edmund Clowney gives these insightful words about the Spirit-circumcised Israel:

‘[Paul] never explained that Christians were joining a new entity, the church, and not Israel, and that circumcision was therefore inappropriate. On the contrary, he claimed for the church the true spiritual circumcision of Christ, gained by union with him.’ (The Church, p43)

Thus, for those of us, whether Jew or Gentile, who are truly in Christ, we constitute the one and only people of God. And God has always desired such a people who have had a circumcision within by the work of the Spirit of God. That, my friends, is the Israel of God.

In my next article, I will take up these two points: a new creation and a new people of faith.

Christ, The Great Fulfiller of Israel (Part 2)

I am currently writing a short series on how Christ is the great fulfiller of Old Testament Israel. Whereas Israel had fallen short of the purpose and promises of God, Christ came through as the great One to fulfil the covenant purposes of God.

In the last article, I mentioned two ways in which Christ fulfilled Israel:

  • Jesus was God’s great firstborn Son
  • Jesus was the true vine

But there are three more points I wanted to cover in this article, the first being this:

Jesus’ Faithfulness in Temptation
Most of us will be aware that, in the Old Testament, Israel had been tested for 40 years in the wilderness.

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. (Deuteronomy 8:2)

While Israel could have entered the promised land of Canaan quite soon after the great exodus from Egypt, they rather decided to harden their hearts, not believe God and grumble constantly. Thus, they were to spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness until a new generation would be raised up to enter the land. You can see this summarised in Numbers 14:20-23.

Yet, though Israel had fallen short in those wilderness wandering years, we see that the Son of God was faithful in His own wilderness testing. True, Christ’s testing in the wilderness was only 40 days rather than 40 years. But theologians have no doubt that this number 40, as well as that Christ had been tempted in the wilderness, points to the parallel account of Israel in the Old Testament. These are the some summary words from Luke’s account:

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil… 14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. (Luke 4:1-14)

And, interestingly enough, we are told that the Son of God was led by the Spirit into this wilderness. This account of Christ should give us some helpful insight into a holistic and Biblical understanding of suffering, quite contrary to some of the prosperity gospel teaching.

These words of theologian and professor at London School of Theology, Max Turner, ring true when considering this particular aspect of paralleling Christ’s life with that of Israel:

‘The final ‘temptations’ echo Israel’s in the wilderness but, while they ‘rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit’ there (Isa. 63:10), the new representative of Israel remains faithful and overcomes the tempter.’

Jesus Disciplined by the Father
In that wilderness testing, we read that Israel was being disciplined by God for their unfaithfulness and unbelief.

Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:5)

Though we know well that Jesus Christ, the divine Son, was perfect and sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22), He was to receive the Father’s discipline at the cross. We see this expounded on in the book of Hebrews:

…2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted…5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.

6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Hebrews 12:2-6)

One cannot imagine how the perfect One would receive the undeserved chastisement of the Father. But we also know this is an amazing and necessary reality of the gospel, the good news. Christ was giving His life on behalf of a rebellious humanity who had defied their Creator and Father, all that we might be restored and reconciled back into the love relationship for which we were created. The faithful One was faithful to endure the discipline of the Father at the cross.

Jesus Receives the Promises of Abraham
Though I mention this point lastly, by no means does this indicate it is of little importance. Matter of fact, I would say it is this point that carries the greatest of weight.

The great explainer of the Old Testament, that being the New Testament, teaches us that it is Christ who is the one to truly receive the promises of Abraham. Yes, those promises were to Abraham and his offspring, this offspring being previously understood as Israel. But Paul brings clarity to the inheritance of these promises in his own words to the Galatians:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16)

Whereas Israel had always been seen as the offspring of Abraham, Paul declares that Christ is actually the great offspring of Abraham. He was the One singular offspring. Thus, it is ultimately to Christ that all the promises and blessings of Abraham belong. As Paul also remarks:

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 1:20 NIV)

Christ is not only Abraham’s offspring and the receiver of such promises, but He also is the fulfilment for all of God’s promises.

Therefore, I believe we can conclude that Christ was the faithful One to the Father, coming as the Messiah of Israel who would Himself fulfil Israel’s role. He was God’s firstborn Son, the true vine, faithful in His wilderness temptation, endured the discipline of the Father, and received all the promises of Abraham, even fulfilling every promise of God.

Knowing that Christ is the great fulfiller of Israel, I believe such only leads us to conclude that all of those in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are the new Israel of God. This is what I plan to consider over my next few articles.

Christ, The Great Fulfiller of Israel (Part 1)

Not too long ago, I shared an article about our Christ-centred gospel. While it’s ok to study and believe in peripheral things to the centrality of Christ, such as Calvinism or amillenialism, we want to make sure we are ultimately looking to connect those beliefs into Christ, for He is the great summation of the purpose and promises of God.

One particular belief that I am not too much a fan of is known as Zionism. Now, some will already think I am going to get nasty here, as there are a lot of emotions that arise when one discusses the nature of Israel, the people and the land. But I promise, I am not going to get nasty. If you think I am acting in such a way, then you’ve simply read me wrong.

This belief of Zionism became quite popular back in the late 1940’s with the reestablishment of the Jewish state of Israel in the middle-east. While the world gets caught up in the politics of it all, the church has tended to get caught up in the theology of it all, though there are plenty of Christians who disguise their political involvement with theological talk.

Now, I really don’t want to get involved in the all the political talk. I am aware of some of the stuff between Palestine and Israel, as well as other Semitic and Arabic groups, but I am a theologian (of some sorts). And so I usually approach topics by thinking things through theologically as I ponder Scripture. For me, that’s the starting point. So that’s what I will do.

I simply wanted to do a short series entitled, Christ, the Great Fulfiller of Israel. And I think I will follow the series up with something on the ekklesia (church), both Jew and Gentile, being the great Israel. But we shall see.

Still, getting back to the focus of our Christ-centred gospel, my main problem with Zionism, from a Christian perspective, is that such a strong view has tended to get the focus off of Christ and onto something peripheral. Hence, that moves us away from the importance of our Christ-centred faith and gospel.

Of course, not every dispensationalist will be a hard-nosed Zionist. But for many Zionists that I have engaged with in conversation (or debate), there can almost be an obsession with the Jewish people. Now, though this will sound really a harsh blow, I want it to be taken as a challenge to some who I would consider over the top. Whereas I can be accused of replacing Israel with the church (though I don’t think that is a faithful summary of my belief, as I shall expound on in later articles), it is almost like some Christian Zionists have replaced Jesus with Israel. Again, this does not describe all Zionists, and definitely not all dispensationalists. But I believe some are leaning that way. And I challenge such a strong view that brings this whole discussion outside of the centrality of the work of the Christ. That, or rather, He is the point and focus of our faith. We are called to, first and foremost, stay Christ-focused.

Moving on, though…

What do I mean when I saw Christ is the great fulfiller of Israel and how would this be supported in Scripture? Well, I want to consider five main points covered over two articles:

Article 1

  • Jesus as God’s Son and Firstborn
  • Jesus as True Vine

Article 2

  • Jesus’ Faithfulness in Temptation
  • Jesus Disciplined by the Father
  • Jesus Receives the Promises of Abraham

In the New Testament, we read that, at just the right time, Jesus, the Anointed Messiah, arrives on the scene.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law… (Galatians 4:4)

Jesus was born and began His earthly ministry exactly as the Trinity had planned – not a day too soon, not a day too late.

Christ was faithful to proclaim the good news concerning God’s rule (Mark 1:15) and faithful to give His life a ransom for mankind (Matthew 20:28). But I very much believe Christ had another special assignment. This task is not as easily discerned from a group of people reading the Scriptures some 2,000 years after it was finished, but it is in there if we consider the text carefully. This is that other special assignment of Christ: Whereas Israel had been unfaithful to God throughout the Old Testament, the Messiah stepped into human history to faithfully fulfil the role of Israel.

So, my first two points in laying out such a case:

Jesus as God’s Son and Firstborn

I don’t know if many people realise this this, but Israel was actually referred to as both God’s firstborn son and His son. Here are a couple of texts:

22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’ (Exodus 4:22-23)

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1)

Now, turning to the pages of the New Testament, we see Jesus is God’s one and only Son and the firstborn over all creation.

14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15; which quotes Hosea 11:1)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15)

1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord… (Romans 1:1-4)

Now, just as a side note. The passage in Romans 1:1-4 does not refer to the time when Christ became the Son of God. Rather, it is in reference to His resurrection from the dead being a public proclamation of the already existing truth. It was a stamp of approval upon the reality of Christ being the Son of God.

Also, whereas groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses will use the Colossians passage to teach that Christ was physically created by God the Father, this is a misunderstanding of the text. A simple understanding of Old Testament and Jewish culture will help enlighten us in regards to the meaning of this passage. The word firstborn was a term to denote the special role of the first son. The firstborn was the preeminent one, the special one that would receive a double portion from the father. It was the important firstborn blessing from the father that Jacob had stolen form Esau (see Genesis 27).

Therefore, Colossians 1:15 is declaring that Jesus is the firstborn, or special and preeminent One over all creation. And, of course, being the divine Son of God and King of kings, such would be true. We also see this underlined even more when we continue to read into vs16-20.

But, let’s move on to see more of how Christ had come to fulfil the failed role of Israel.

Jesus as the True Vine
Another point people do not realise about Israel is that one descriptive picture-word used to describe them was that of a vine.

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. (Psalm 80:8)

Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine? (Jeremiah 2:21)

Now, we all will probably remember that Jesus referred to Himself as the true vine.

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)

But, knowing that Israel was referred to and pictured as a vine, it is interesting that Christ would call Himself the true vine. Perhaps He was really communicating something of significance to the people. I think He was. Jesus was stating that He had come to be the true and faithful fulfilment of all the promises of God. He was the true and faithful Israel.

I shall share more thoughts in a few days and sum it all up.