The Church and Israel in the Old Testament

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In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve to be a worshipping community: He would be their God and they would be His people. The fall, however, shattered their fellowship with one another as well as with God, a division that was deepened even further in the next generation when Cain murdered his brother. The trajectory away from God begun by Cain’s line ended with a counterfeit worshipping community in Babel (Gen. 11). At the same time, a line of true worshippers ran through Seth to Abram—Abraham—whom God promised to make a great nation and through whom He promised to bless all nations of the earth (Gen. 12:1–3).

God promised Abraham’s grandson Jacob that He would make his twelve sons into a harmonious worshipping “community of nations” (Gen. 28:3) that would be known by his new name, “Israel.” Significantly, the Hebrew word used here for “community” is qāhāl, which the Greek translation of the Old Testament often renders as ekklēsia, “church.” This goal of a worshipping community was reached after the exodus from Egypt when the people came to Mount Sinai. There God declared the Israelites to be His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:5–6). The Lord promised to dwell among them as their God (Ex. 29:45). But the people had no sooner committed themselves to this covenant relationship with the Lord than they abandoned Him. While Moses was at the top of the mountain receiving instruction from the Lord, the people were at the bottom fashioning false gods. It was clear from the outset that the “holy nation” had no power to live up to its calling.

The prophets unfold for us the rest of Israel’s history: in spite of God’s faithfulness to them, they were corrupt and rebellious children (Isa. 1:2) and an adulterous wife (Hos. 1–3). This heritage of unfaithfulness belonged equally to the northern and southern kingdoms: Israel and Judah were two twisted sisters from the same family (Ezek. 16; 23) who would each face the punishment of destruction and exile (Ezek. 4:4–6). The Lord could not dwell in the midst of such an unholy people. He abandoned His chosen dwelling place in Jerusalem, leaving His people at the mercy of their Babylonian enemies (Ezek. 8–11).

Yet the destruction of Israel in the exile could not be the end of the story. Because the Lord had attached His name to Israel, the nation would have to be restored lest His holy name be profaned among the nations (Ezek. 20:14). The promises made at Mount Sinai had to be fulfilled (Jer. 33:20–21), so the two nations of Israel and Judah would be restored by the Lord into a single, reunited body made up of all of the clans of Israel (Jer. 31:1) under a single king (Ezek. 37:16–22). The most important promise was the spiritual transformation of Israel into a new people whose unresponsive hearts would be changed into new hearts under a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–33) by an outpouring of God’s Spirit (Ezek. 36:22–28). The new Israel would become the Lord’s servant, a light for the Gentiles, bringing healing to all nations (Isa. 42:6, 10). However, the new Israel depicted in Isaiah 40–48 continued to be a struggling and weak people who needed constant exhortation to pursue obedience as well as encouragement to trust in God’s faithful love for them. To fulfill God’s purposes, another, better Israel would be required, a servant who would take Israel’s place, doing what Israel was unable to do, fulfilling her calling to bring light to the nations (Isa. 49:6).

This servant “Israel” took flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. From the moment of His birth, He reenacted Israel’s history, going down to Egypt so that He could be the true son whom God called out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15, quoting Hos. 11:1). Just as Israel passed through the Red Sea, Jesus passed through the waters of baptism (Matt. 3) before being led out into the wilderness, where He successfully faced the same temptations that Israel had failed to endure (Matt. 4). At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus read aloud Isaiah 61:1–2, declaring that the Scripture had been fulfilled in His hearers’ presence (Luke 4:18–19): He was Himself the promised Servant upon whom God’s Spirit rested. As the new Israel, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the demands of the law. The new covenant that Jeremiah anticipated was established in His blood (Luke 22:20). Jesus fulfilled God’s original design for human holiness, thereby personally embodying the new Israel for which the prophets looked.

Since Jesus Christ is Himself the new Israel, all those united to Him by faith are also incorporated into the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). He is the true vine, the classic Old Testament image for Israel, and we are His branches (John 15). Because Christ is the living cornerstone of God’s house, those who are joined to Him become living stones in that house (1 Peter 2:4–5) and can be described by the same terminology that described Israel in the Old Testament: in Christ, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9–10).

Being part of this new covenant Israel is, thus, not a matter of physical descent from Abraham, but rather sharing Abraham’s repentance and faith (Luke 3:8). The new people of God includes Jews and Gentiles together (Gal 3:28), as both are grafted into the new olive tree, Christ/ Israel (Rom. 11:17–24). That does not mean that God has forgotten His promises to those physically descended from Abraham (Rom. 11:1). Certainly not. But not everyone who is descended physically from Israel is part of the new Israel (Rom. 9:6). The restoration of Israel promised in the prophets is accomplished as the gospel is preached to Jerusalem and Judea (the southern kingdom), Samaria (the northern kingdom), and to the ends of the earth, thereby finally bringing God’s light to the Gentiles (Acts 1:8).

In the book of Revelation, John heard God’s people described as a group of 144,000 made up of the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 7:4–8). Yet when he looked again, he discovered that the same group was an innumerable crowd from every tribe and nation (Rev. 7:9–12). The Lord’s bride, the image used in the Old Testament for Israel, is the church and will one day be defiled by her sin no longer but beautifully adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:2). In that day, God’s original purpose and plan for Israel—to have a united, holy people belonging to Himself—will finally be fulfilled in the marriage of Christ and His church.

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