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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 7 (The Church and the Hope of Israel)

The place of the Church in God’s purposes must be understood against the background of the now/not yet tension in the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes.

Jesus chose twelve Jewish men to be his apostles – the foundation of his new community. They represented the twelve tribes of Israel and symbolised the twelve rulers over end-time, restored Israel. Many in Israel accepted Jesus as their Messiah and joined the community of his followers.
This community of Jewish believers in Jesus saw themselves as the renewed Israel of God foretold by the prophets. And, as God had promised through the prophets, they were ruled over by a Davidic Messiah – Jesus – and had received from him the eschatological Spirit. They were indeed living in the time of the new covenant (see posts 4-5 on Israel's hopes)!
In accord with the hope of the prophets, now that the restoration of Israel (recall that Ezekiel 37 speaks of the restoration of Israel as a 'resurrection') had happened in Christ and in his Jewish community of followers, the word of the Lord could go out from Jerusalem to Samaria (Acts 8 - uniting the Samaritans, descendants of the northern kingdom Israel, with the Jews, descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah) and then to the end of the earth (Acts 8, 10-11, 13ff) to bring in the nations to worship Israel's God.
The book of Acts tells the story of the expansion of the Christ-community from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and then through the empire (Acts 1:8 gives a nice anticipatory summary of the progress of the word of the Lord through Acts). It reads as the step-by-step realization of Israel's eschatological hopes.

The conversion of Gentiles was a fulfilment of the prophetic hope of the nations joining with Israel to worship Yhwh. The fact that it was happening now was a sign of the presence of the end-time kingdom of God.

The prophets had promised that in the new age Gentiles would worship Yhwh with Israel whilst remaining Gentiles (i.e., without the need to convert to Judaism). I suspect that this is why the issue of the circumcision of Gentile Christ-believers was so critical for Paul. To make Gentiles get circumcised (an act which symbolized conversion to Judaism and submission the the whole Torah) in order to be full members of the community (as opposed to mere God-fearing 'guests') amounted to a denial that Jesus has initiated the new age. Paul would have none of that! (see esp. Mark Nanos, The Irony of Galatians).
The early church understood itself then as a united body composed of restored Israel (Jewish believers in Jesus) and converted nations (Gentile believers in Jesus). The Gentile believers were seen as being permitted to participate on equal terms in the covenant blessings of redeemed Israel. Of course, in Christ Jews remained Jews and Gentiles remained Gentiles but they were united together in one, diverse, eschatological community. The new unity in Christ was a unity that did not dissolve diversity. It did break down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2) but not by turning Jesus-believers into some kind of third race that is neither Jewish nor Gentile.
It is clear by now that I am disinclined to see the Church as a 'Israel-redefined'. As far as I am aware no NT text ever applies the term 'Israel' to the Church (I know that Gal 6:16 is often read that way but I don't think it should be). A quick survey of the use of the term 'Israel' in the NT would show that it was applied to ... Israel.
Rather I am inclined to see Jewish members of the Church as an anticipation of eschatological Israel - they are a remnant serving as a foretaste of renewed Israel. But the Church includes many Gentiles (now an overwhelming majority of Gentiles) and we are not eschatological Israel in any direct sense. However, they may be an indirect sense in which we are. In my view we are the eschatological nations joined with Israel, through union with the Messiah, by the Spirit (see, e.g., Rom 15:8-13, Acts 15:13-21). We are grafted into the covenant life and blessings of Israel as wild branches, contrary to nature (Rom 11:11-24). We participate in Israel's sonship and kingdom life. Yes, we do participate in the kingdom of God, the eschatological Spirit, the new covenant, the circumcision of the heart, spiritual descent from Abraham, etc. So in an indirect and slightly ambiguous way we Gentiles are part of renewed Israel. (Hmmmm. I really need to think a lot more carefully about all of this - it is rather fuzzy in my head. Who can help?).

We can summarize the ways in which the early Jesus-followers connected their present reality to the hopes of Israel as follows:

  • Israel 'resurrected' = Jesus (Israel’s representative) resurrected

  • The Spirit poured out on Israel = Spirit poured out on the Jewish Christ-community at Pentecost (and later on the nations/Gentiles)

  • Israel saved and ruled by the Messiah = Jewish believers in Jesus saved and ruled by Messiah Jesus

  • New covenant = New covenant made through blood of Messiah

  • Judah and Israel reunited under Davidic king = Jews and Samaritans united under David king Jesus

  • Word of the Lord goes from Jerusalem for the salvation of the nations = Word of the Lord (gospel) goes from Jerusalem for the salvation of the nations

  • Israel and nations worship God as one = Jews and Gentiles united as one community in the Christ

  • New, purified temple where Yhwh would dwell with his people = The Spirit-filled community as the end-time, purified temple where Yhwh dwells with his people.

I am well aware that there are a mass of issues and specific texts that would need considerable discussion to establish the above but it is a quick sketch of where I am tentatively coming from. (I bet that Nathan is wishing he had never asked - and we have not even got to answering his questions yet!)

3 comments:

Teresita said...

...the word of the Lord could go out from Jerusalem to Samaria (Acts 8 - uniting the Samaritans, descendants of the northern kingdom Israel, with the Jews, descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah) and then to the end of the earth (Acts 8, 10-11, 13ff) to bring in the nations to worship Israel's God.

Unfortunately, under mournful edicts by the Christian Byzantine Empire the Samaritans dwindled from a population in the hundreds of thousands to near exinction (there are about 700 of them today). And they never united with the Jews except as common citizens in the secular state of Israel.

The book of Acts tells the story of the expansion of the Christ-community from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and then through the empire (Acts 1:8 gives a nice anticipatory summary of the progress of the word of the Lord through Acts). It reads as the step-by-step realization of Israel's eschatological hopes.

But gentiles were brought into the Christ-community without having to adhere to the Mosaic laws, except for four temporary measures decreed by the council of Jerusalem. Eventually the number of Jewish (and Samaritan) converts leveled off, despite the efforts of most of the original twelve apostles, but the gentile conversions continued their explosive growth under one energetic new apostle, Paul, such that the Church took on a decidedly gentile flavor. And when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD the Church became almost exclusively gentile, to the point where Christianity ceased as a variety of Judaism, and came into its own as a separate religion in its own right.

It is clear by now that I am disinclined to see the Church as a 'Israel-redefined'. As far as I am aware no NT text ever applies the term 'Israel' to the Church (I know that Gal 6:16 is often read that way but I don't think it should be). A quick survey of the use of the term 'Israel' in the NT would show that it was applied to ... Israel.

Paul does not write "Israel of God" in isolation without first preparing the way with theological groundwork. In Galatians chapter 4 he makes the astonishing assertion that equates the Jews of the flesh with the lineage of the bondwoman Hagar, and the Jews of the spirit (the Church) with the lineage of the free woman Sarah.

[22] For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.
[23] But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.
[24] Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.
[25] For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.
[26] But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
[27] For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.
[28] Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.
[29] But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.
[30] Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.
[31] So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.

James Pate said...

Hi Robin,

I started this series today, and I'll probably read more in the coming days. What I like about it is that it shows how the New Testament can fulfill the Old Testament while remaining true to it.

I have some questions:

1. What do you make of the parts of the Old Testament where Gentiles observe the Sabbath (e.g., Isaiah 56; 66)? In Zechariah 14, they observe the Feast of Tabernacles. I'm writing a series on Sabbatarianism, so I'm interested to your response on this.

2. Ezekiel 44:9 says, "'Thus says the Lord God, "No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the sons of Israel, shall enter My sanctuary." How would you reconcile that with Gentiles coming into the church uncircumcised?

3. You seem to apply Ezekiel's temple to the church and--eventually--God's presence on earth. But why does Ezekiel discuss all these dimensions, or the division of Palestine? That sounds pretty literal, don't you think (though I've heard some argue it's unrealistic)?

4. I'm not sure if I'd apply the restoration of Northern Israel to the Samaritans. One reason is that they were half-Israelites. Plus, there are passages that seem to suggest the northern tribes will be brought in from exile (Ezekiel 37).

Robin Parry said...

Teresita

Hi. I meant that in the Church Jews, Samaritans (Acts 8) and Gentiles (Acts 8, 10-11) were united into one body. THAT happened, according to Acts.

Your historic survey is essentially correct. To my mind the problem is that the Gentile dominance led to a slight misdirection in Christian ecclesiology which down the road had big and terrible implications.

I will look at Galatians more carefully and get back to you (when I can). You raise a fair point. Galatians has several 'problem texts' for my thesis. It is a tricky letter to interpret (as is evidenced by the controversy surrounding its interpretation in NT studies).

Robin