The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The People of God

Many Christians refer to the Jews as “God’s chosen people.” If, by this expression, they merely mean “the people whom God chose to form a covenant relationship through whom He gave the world its Saviour in His Son Jesus Christ” then it reflects Scriptural truth. Unfortunately, the usage of the expression suggests that more often than not it means something like “God’s favourites, whom He loves above all other people, the treatment of whom is the standard by which God judges everybody else, so you have better be nice to them and say nothing bad about them or God will get you”. This is not Scriptural truth but a doctrine of racial supremacism. Ironically, those who are most likely to use the expression in this way are those who pride themselves the most on following the Bible rather than “man-made tradition” and on interpreting it literally rather than figuratively.

When the expression as used in this manner is taken seriously and applied to world politics it has some truly terrible implications. We recently considered religious Zionism which, contrary to the orthodox teachings of both Judaism and Christianity, identifies the current state of Israel with the Restoration Israel prophesied in the Old Testament and so gives that state its unqualified support, encouraging our governments to do the same lest they lose God’s blessing and invite His wrath. Israel is to be preferred over the terrorist organizations with which she is perpetually at war, because she is a legitimate state representing a civilized society whereas they are irresponsible madmen who aim rockets at her civilian neighborhoods from bases they put in their own civilian neighbourhoods so that when she strikes back their own women and children are killed. That she takes their bait, however, is to be attributed to the fact that she is under the control of a radical, nationalist/expansionist, faction with a growing fringe element that increasingly uses the language of racial supremacy to justify their own cause and the language of extermination about their enemies. Under these circumstances, it is insane to offer her support without qualification or condition.

The problem with this concept goes much deeper than its political implications. Scripturally, it is correct to say that God made a covenant with the children of Israel, after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, in which He agreed to be their God, and they agreed to be His people. In making this covenant, He went out of His way to demonstrate that He was and is not just another petty tribal deity like Baal, Chemosh, Moloch, Dagon, and every other idol that the other peoples of the ancient Near East worshipped, but rather the One true and living God of the whole world. The way many Christians seem to think of the relationship between God and the Jews, however, tends to reduce God to the level of one of these tribal deities.

That God is the one true and living God and not just another idol is a doctrine established from the very first words of the Torah in which God is declared to have created the heavens and the earth – including all things which the heathen nations worshipped as gods, such as the sun, moon, and stars. The first promise of redemption in the Torah, is made not to the patriarchs of the nation Israel, but to the mother of all living (Gen. 3:15).

Therefore, when God called Abram to leave his country and go west to Canaan, promising to make a great nation out of his descendants, He said “in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed”. (Gen. 12:3) a promise He reiterates when Abram, now Abraham, passes the test of his faith when he is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. (Gen. 22:18). He further repeated this promise to Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and Jacob (Genesis 28:14). To each of the patriarchs of Israel, the promise that their descendants would be made into a great nation was linked with the promise that all of the peoples of the world would thereby be blessed. God’s purpose, therefore, in bringing this nation into being and entering into covenant with them, was much larger than the nation itself, but pertained to the whole world.

After God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, He brought them into the wilderness of Sinai and presented them with an offer. If they obeyed Him and kept His covenant, He would in turn make them a kingdom of priests and holy nation (Ex. 19:1-6). This offer was accepted and the terms of the covenant were handed down to Moses, beginning with the famous Ten Commandments which begin by prohibiting the worship of any other gods and the making of idols. These were announced to the Israelites by Moses, then written down in a book and read to the Israelites, who each time agreed to the terms, and the covenant was sealed with the blood of a sacrifice. (Ex. 24:1-8).

The overarching theme of the covenant, the details of which continue to be spelled out throughout Exodus and Leviticus and which are reiterated in Deuteronomy on the eve of entry into the Promised Land, is that God is not like the gods of the other nations, and therefore Israel is not to be like those other nations. The gods of the other nations lead their worshippers into practices the true and living God considers abhorrent, therefore Israel is not to worship those idols, or commit those practices, but is to keep herself separate and holy. To further the distance between her and the idolatrous nations, she is given detailed instructions on where and how to worship God, her own priesthood, and a set of ceremonial and dietary instructions.

Yet when we come to the prophetic literature of the Old Testament we find that it is filled with promises of a day when the nations of the world would flock to Jerusalem to learn the ways of God (Michah 4:2, Zechariah 8:22) and the Temple in Jerusalem would be a house of prayer to all people (Isaiah 56:7). Most significantly, it is prophesied that God would raise up priests and Levites out of every nation (Isaiah 66:20-21), indicating that in this day, all peoples would be God’s people.

The literature that contains these promises was addressed to the nation at the time when she was facing imminent judgement, in the form of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, after a history of violating the covenant by worshipping idols and following after the practices of the heathen. The promises are connected to the message of hope contained within these prophecies of doom – that God would break the cycle of rebellion and judgement, by sending a final deliverer, the Messiah, Who would make good on all the promises God had ever made to Israel and her patriarchs, would establish a new covenant in which His laws would be written on their hearts, and would restore them to the land promised to their forefathers.

Judaism is still looking for that Messiah, but Christians know that He has already come, and furthermore, that He has established the new covenant by the blood of His sacrifice on the cross, a fact of which we are reminded each time we come to the Lord’s Supper and hear the words with which the Lord instituted the sacrament on the eve of His crucifixion. How does this affect our understanding of the old covenant, and the people with whom God made that covenant?

There is much confusion about this due to a number of errors that have sprung up. One new doctrine, very popular among North American evangelicals, teaches that the present age in which God is working through the Church, is a parenthesis in His dealing with Israel which will be resumed after the Church is removed in the rapture. Another doctrine, teaches that God has rejected His ancient people, just as they rejected His Messiah, and that the Church has replaced Israel as the people of God. The truth, as traditionally understood, is more nuanced than either of these views.

God does not have two different covenants with two different peoples. The first covenant, the old covenant, was fulfilled by Jesus Christ, Who also established the new covenant. God’s people, are those with whom He has a covenant relationship, and since the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, such a relationship is through the new covenant.

The new covenant offers salvation from sin through the grace of Jesus Christ to be received freely through faith. The offer is made to the whole world. Anybody can receive this grace by believing in Jesus, and when they do so they are made part of the people of God. This does not mean that God has replaced His old people, Israel, with a new people, the Church.

The Church is a continuation of Israel, not a replacement for it. This is clearly what St. Paul the Apostle teaches, when he writes that the ceremonial law, which separated Israel from the Gentiles, has been torn down so that believing Gentiles are no longer “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” but “fellow citizens with the saints” (Eph. 2:11-19). In the Book of Acts we see this unfold, as Christ commissions His disciples to take His Gospel, from Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, then to the rest of the world (Acts 1:8), as the Gospel is taken to the Gentiles, and the dietary laws (Acts 10) and circumcision (Acts 15) are revealed or ruled to be unnecessary in the Church, the body of Christ in which the Gentiles are united with Israel, through faith in the Messiah. St. Paul uses the metaphor of an olive tree to illustrate how the Church is a continuation of Israel. Israel is the root and trunk of the olive tree, from which certain branches (unbelieving Jews) have been pruned, and into which wild branches (believing Gentiles) have been grafted (Rom. 11). The tree of Israel in this condition – unbelieving Jews cut off, believing Gentiles grafted in, is the Church.

When he uses this metaphor, St. Paul writes that the day will come in which the unbelieving bulk of the nation will believe and be grafted back into the tree (vv. 23-31). This clearly coincides with the Old Testament prophecies of the Final Restoration, and equally clearly makes the conversion of the unbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ the necessary pre-condition for that Restoration. The unbelieving state of Israel in the Middle East today is therefore not that Restoration, although there are good grounds for supporting that state against her mortal enemies for other reasons.

Under the new covenant, a person who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ cannot claim a covenant relationship with God on the grounds of racial descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whereas a person who does believe that Jesus is the Christ, although ethnically a Gentile, has been made a full partaker of the commonwealth of Israel. That is the orthodox Christian doctrine on the subject, and there is no support in it for the kind of racial supremacism in which Arab life is treated as cheap and worthless compared to Jewish life, which supremacism is disturbingly becoming more prevalent among Israel’s governing class, and her supporters.

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