Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two?
Every year, thousands of Christian books are published worldwide. Of those thousands, there are usually only a small handful that are worth reading. Of those that are worth reading, there are only a few that are worth reading repeatedly. David Holwerda’s Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two? is one of those rare few. The basic purpose of Holwerda’s book is to examine the topic of promise and fulfillment in Scripture from a Reformed, covenantal perspective. In order to thoroughly deal with this significant topic, each chapter of the book is devoted to addressing one specific issue that sheds light on the relationship between Jesus and Israel. The topics that are addressed include, for example, the temple, the land, and the law. Though not an explicitly stated purpose of the book, the examination of these issues from a covenantal perspective also provides a very helpful contrast with the popular dispensationalist ideas of promise and fulfillment.
The first chapter of the book is titled “Jesus and Israel in the Twentieth Century.” In this chapter, Holwerda asks a crucial question: “How should one write or speak about Jesus and Israel after the Holocaust?” (p. 6). He notes the fact that it has become more difficult since World War II for Christians to deal with issues related to Israel because “the contemporary Church encounters modern Israel with a guilty conscience” (p. 6). Holwerda observes that many scholars have sought to alleviate this guilt and foster dialogue with representatives of Judaism by glossing over the unique claims of Christ. While acknowledging that the Church has been guilty of anti-semitic words and actions in past centuries, Holwerda rightly rejects the claims of these liberal Christians, pointing out that Christianity simply cannot give up the claim that Jesus is the Messiah without giving up Christianity itself. Following this necessary introductory chapter, Holwerda proceeds to outline the main questions that will be asked and answered in the remaining chapters of the book:
- Who is Jesus?
- What is His relationship to Israel and the Old Testament with its law and its promises?
- What is His relationship to the promises concerning the temple, the land, and Jerusalem?
- What should Jews and Gentiles think of Him?
In chapter two, Holwerda deals with the most basic question: “Who is Israel?” This chapter lays the foundation for the remainder of the book because the answer to this question dramatically affects the interpretation of all prophecy. Holwerda devotes the bulk of chapter two to an examination of the Gospel of Matthew because this Gospel in particular is an extended answer to the question: “Who is Israel?” Through a careful and fascinating look at various passages in Matthew, Holwerda concludes that Jesus is the true Israel. In the opening genealogy, for example, Matthew links Jesus to Abraham and David in order to show that the promises of blessing given to Abraham and David are now being fulfilled in and through Jesus, the true Son of Abraham and the true Son of David. Jesus is a “corporate person” who represents a group of people (Israel) and in whom that group of people is representatively embodied (p. 34).
Matthew’s answer to the question, “Who is Israel?” is also indicated through his geographical references. What happened to Israel in the past provides types of the person and life of Jesus. The threat to his life as an infant, the flight to Egypt, and the time in the wilderness all parallel events in the history of Israel. As Holwerda notes, the recognition of this fact helps to explain Matthew’s use of such prophesies as Hosea 11:1 (cf. Matt. 2:14ff.). If the entire context of Hosea 11 is examined, it can be seen that exile for Israel was not God’s final word. God promised a new exodus by means of which He would create His new people. Matthew’s use of this prophecy in connection with Jesus shows that this long awaited new exodus has begun with His coming (p. 40).
Matthew also records the words God speaks from heaven in 3:17 and 17:5. In both passages, God says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The language reflects Isaiah 42:1, a passage in which God promises to place His Spirit on His servant to enable Him to complete His messianic work and bring salvation to the world. Matthew records these words from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. What this means, according to Holwerda, is that the “story of Jesus’ baptism is intended to proclaim Jesus as God’s anointed servant (p. 43). In Isaiah, the servant is “both Israel and the one who by representing Israel renews Israel” (p. 43). Jesus is the One who fulfills the role originally assigned to the nation of Israel - to be a light to the nations.
The identity of Jesus as the true Israel raises an important question. If He has taken the place of the Old Testament nation of Israel, what is the status of this nation? As Holwerda observes, “Continued possession of promises cannot be maintained apart from the faith that God gives to His people” (p. 54). This is indicated in Matthew in chapters 11-13 where the consequences of covenant breaking and faithlessness are spelled out. Who, then is Israel? Holwerda explains the answer.
Jesus, a literal descendant of Abraham, himself a Jew, is the Israel who is the object of God’s love. He is chosen by God and responds in perfect obedience, fulfilling the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17) and all righteousness (3:15). Since Jesus is the corporate representative of Israel, God now recognizes as Israel all who respond in faith and obedience to the presence and will of God revealed in Jesus. Of course, the first to so respond are in fact Jews. Jesus’ condemnation of Israel is not a blanket condemnation of all Jews but only of those who do not believe. The crowds that follow him do not receive from him the same radical judgment as is pronounced on the leaders of the nation. Instead, Jesus has compassion on the crowds as “sheep without a shepherd” and declares to his disciples that the harvest is plentiful (Matthew 9:36-38). So long as they do not reject Jesus, the possibility of becoming Jesus’ disciples remains open to the people. Will they accept the definition of Israel and the fulfillment of the promises revealed in Jesus? Will they acknowledge the presence of God and the arrival of the kingdom in the person and ministry of Jesus? Will they comprehend the mystery of the kingdom? That was and continues to be the only question that decides the identity of Israel: Not ancestry but faith, not human achievement but God’s gift, calling and election, acknowledged in Jesus, son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God (pp. 56-57)
In chapter three, Holwerda discusses the temple, asking whether prophecy requires the rebuilding of a temple of stone on the site of the previous temples in Jerusalem. After carefully examining the history of the Old Testament temples and the temple promises, he observes that Jesus’ ministry fulfills all that the temple symbolized. Jesus is the true temple of God, and those who are in Christ are part of this temple (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16ff.; 2 Cor. 6:16-7:1; Eph. 2:20-22). Chapter four is devoted to the highly controversial issue of the land promises. Holwerda points out that while the land promises are irrevocable, they are also conditional. Israel cannot claim that she has a “right” to the land. The land belongs to God and remains His even when Israel possesses it (cf. Lev. 25:23). Israel may only continue to possess God’s gift of the land by keeping the covenant (Deut. 4:25ff.). As Holwerda observes, “maintianing possession of the land while violating the stipulations of the covenant is utterly impossible” (p. 92). ” A holy land cannot tolerate an unholy people and it will vomit Israel out when Israel defiles the land just as it vomited out the wicked nations before Israel entered the land (Lev. 18:28)” (p. 93). In Israel’s past, she was driven out of the land by God for idolatry (Hos. 9:1-3) and for oppressing widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor (Zech. 7:8-14). In order to maintain possession of the land, God’s people must be holy even as He is holy (p. 95). The New Testament indicates that the land promises have now been universalized. They are no longer focused on the particular land of Palestine. They now include the whole earth (cf. Rom. 4:13; Eph. 6:2). In addition, the New Testament points out that the heir of the promises is no longer the particular nation of Israel but Christ and all who are in Him by faith (Gal. 3:16, 29). Holwerda notes:
The conditions for inheriting the land are fulfilled only in Jesus and since He is the temple where God dwells, the New Testament locates Jerusalem where Jesus is. Jesus is in heaven and so is Jerusalem. Claims to citizenship are established by faith in Christ, and hence the members of the Church, the body of Christ, are also citizens of that city. Both the Church and the new Jerusalem are called the bride of Christ, indicating that the members of the Church and the citizens of that city are the same (2 Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 22:2, 9; 22:17) (p. 111).
Holwerda turns to the question of the law in chapter five. What happens to the law when Jesus comes? Christians have suggested a number of widely differing answers over the centuries. Jesus Himself says, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Jesus came to fulfill the Prophets, and He came to fulfill the law. What does this “fulfillment” mean? Holwerda offers a helpful explanation.
With regard to the prophets, Jesus’ announcement is not so difficult to understand, even though Matthew’s own presentation of the fulfillment of certain prophecies may be very complex. Fulfillment of prophecies means simply that the reality promised in the prophetic word becomes an actual event in human history. What then is the fulfillment of the law? Obviously this fulfillment happens when the righteousness articulated in the law similarly becomes reality in human history. The law is an articulation, under the specific circumstances in which Israel lived, of the righteousness that will cover the face of the earth. Therefore, fulfillment of the law entails a realization in history of the righteousness articulated in the law. To bring that about was the intention and achievement of Jesus’ mission.
In chapter six, Holwerda raises the question of a future for Jewish Israel. If Jesus is the One through whom all of the promises are fulfilled, then what possible place could there be for Jewish Israel? Holwerda addresses this question by examining Paul’s answer to the question in Romans 9-11. Holwerda points out that Paul approaches the problem of Jewish Israel from two-angles. First, Paul points out that God has not rejected His people because even now there is a believing remnant. The remnant is now being saved, but the rest have been hardened (Rom. 11:7). Yet, according to Paul, even this judgment upon the rest of Israel is not final. They have stumbled, but they have not fallen (Rom. 11:11ff.). All of this is been part of God’s redemptive plan. Israel’s hardening led to salvation for the Gentiles. The salvation of the Gentiles will lead to jealousy and ultimately a removal of the hardening on the part of the rest of Israel. According to Holwerda, “all Israel” in Romans 11:26, “refers to Jewish Israel in its eschatological fullness” (p. 170). It is not merely the sum total of the Jewish remnant over the centuries. ‘The remnant holds out hope for the rest” (p. 176).
The strength’s of Holwerda’s book are many. It offers insight into the meaning of Scripture on virtually every page. It is almost futile to underline the most helpful parts of the book without underlining every sentence. His examination of the centrality of Jesus in the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promises is a crucial antidote to the rampant dispensationalist hermeneutic that virtually bypasses consideration of Christ as the true “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:16). His outline of Paul’s argument in Romans 11 is also particularly good. The book is not only extremely insightful, it is also very clearly written. While offering numerous avenues of exploration for seasoned scholars, it is also readily accessible to students and serious laymen. Holwerda’s choice of topics is also particularly helpful since the promises related to the land, the law, and the temple are some of the most disputed points of biblical interpretation among conservative Christian scholars today.
There is only one issue that I believe should have been addressed more explicitly and thoroughly in the book and that is what the attitude of the Church toward the modern state of Israel should be. Since many Christians today see the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and since this belief leads many Christians to give virtually unqualified support to the modern Israeli government, it would have been helpful to see how Holwerda would have applied the principles outlined in his book to this issue. Are modern Jews, for example, still the true heirs of the land promise regardless of their continued unbelief in Jesus Christ? Even if Israel has a claim to the land promises apart from faith in Jesus Christ, does she have a claim to the land promises apart from the Old Covenant stipulations attached to those promises? If Old Testament Israel was thrust out of the land for violating these stipulations, could the modern state of Israel also be thrust out of the land by God if she commits the same sins her ancestors committed—refusal to acknowledge God, oppression of widows, orphans, foreigners, etc.? How should the Western Church respond when Arab Christians in the territories occupied by the armies of Israel since 1967 complain of continual human rights abuses? These are important questions, and the principles outlined in Holwerda’s book could provide some help as we grapple with them. I am not sure why Holwerda did not deal with this important question, especially since he devoted the entire first chapter of the book to an examination of the Church’s interaction with modern Jews since the Holocaust. However, in spite of this one minor criticism, I strongly recommend Holwerda’s Jesus & Israel to all who seek a better understanding of the nature of biblical promises and their fulfillment.
Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.