Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Israel Means Israel, Part 2

In the first blog on "Why Israel Means Israel," I looked at the many OT promises concerning the restoration of Israel (e.g. Amos 9:11-15; Jer 33:6-12; Ezek 36:24-32) as the starting point for the belief that the Bible teaches a future for the people of Israel. However, many theologians would argue that the national and land promises to Israel in the OT are fulfilled figuratively and spiritually through the church in the New Testament and that the church has completely and for all time replaced Israel. In his essay, "The Kingdom Promises as Spiritual," Bruce Waltke argues that the prophets "represented the new under the imagery of the old." The national promises to Israel in the Old Testament are merely typological of Christ and the church in the New Testament. The earthly Jerusalem of the Old Testament merely anticipates the heavenly Mount Zion of the New Testament (cf. Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22), and the type becomes obsolete when replaced by the antitype. The spiritual kingdom of the New Testament replaces the earthly and physical kingdom of the Old. Waltke argues that "not one clear NT passage mentions the restoration of Israel as a political nation or predicts an earthly reign of Christ before his final appearing."

In response, I would agree with Waltke's perspective at a number of points. The NT teaches that the church in a very real sense has replaced Israel as the people of God. By appointing twelve disciples corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, it appears that Jesus is symbolically reconstituting a new Israel, and the church that Jesus forms has become the new covenant community (cf. Matt 18:16-18). The apostles apply the names, titles, and roles of Israel to the church (cf. Gal 6:16; Phil 3:3; 1 Pet 2:9). In addition, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is completely removed in Christ (Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-22), and all who believe in Christ are part of the spiritual seed of Abraham (Gal 3:29).

Waltke is also correct that the last days and kingdom era promised by the OT prophets was inaugurated with the first coming of Christ and his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father. At the synagogue in Galilee, Jesus announced that he was the herald of God's eschatological salvation promised by Isaiah (cf. Luke 4:18-19; Isa 61:1-3). On the day of Pentecost, Peter explained that the pouring out of the Spirit was the fulfillment of what Joel had promised for Israel in the last days (cf. Acts 2:14-21; Joel 2:28-32). At the Last Supper, Jesus informed his disciples that the cup represented the blood which brought into effect the new covenant (Luke 22:20). Quotations of the new covenant prophecy from Jeremiah 31 in the book of Hebrews clearly demonstrate that the church inherits and presently enjoys the blessings originally given to the house of Israel and Judah (cf. Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-13; 10:15-17). The NT perspective is that we are already living in the last days promised by the OT prophets (cf. Heb 1:2; 1 John 2:18).

I would also agree that the NT writers often read the OT typologically because of their conviction that persons, events, and institutions pointed forward to spiritual realities in the NT. The NT writers often employ typology as a means for reading OT prophecy. Matthew, for example, applies OT prophecies to Christ in a typological way to draw a comparison or analogy between the experiences of Israel in the OT and the life of Jesus (cf. Matt 1:22-23 and Isa 7:14; Matt 2:15 and Hos 11:1; Matt 2:18 and Jer 31:15).

It is also true that later prophecies often modify, revise, or expand earlier prophecies. We see this even in the Old Testament itself. Jeremiah prophesies that Israel will return from exile in Babylon after 70 years (Jer 25:11-12; 29:10), but Daniel later clarifies Israel's full restoration will not occur until after seventy weeks of seven years (Dan 9:24-27). The OT prophets viewed the future kingdom primarily in terms of Israel's past and present—there would be a return to the glories of the Davidic-Solomonic empire and Israel would enjoy great blessing and prosperity in the Promised Land. The spiritual blessings of the NT certainly expand and transcend these earlier promises. The OT prophets looked forward to a restored Jerusalem and a new temple; the NT ultimately promises a New Jerusalem where the whole earth becomes the dwelling place of God and there is no need for a temple (Rev 21-22). God promised Abraham that his descendants through Isaac would possess the land that extended from "the river of Egypt to the Euphrates" (Gen 15:18); Jesus promises his followers that they would inherit the entire earth (Matt 5:5).

In spite of these areas of agreement, Waltke's view that the promises concerning Israel's restoration are merely typological and figurative of spiritual realities in the NT is not the best way to understand how these prophecies are fulfilled. As noted in the previous blog on this topic, the promise of Israel's restoration as a people and nation are grounded in eternal covenants that God has obligated himself to fulfill by sworn oaths. These promises cannot be reduced to mere typologies of what God had designed for the church. Rather than arguing that the promises concerning Israel in the OT must be fulfilled by either Israel or the church, I would see the NT teaching to be that these promises are fulfilled by both the church (now) and Israel (not yet).

Despite the fact that the church inherits and enjoys the spiritual blessings promised to Israel in the OT, the NT continues to affirm that God's specific purposes for the people of Israel remain a critical component in the working out of salvation history. As David Lowery has stated, Israel is a "people both first and last in the plan of salvation." Jesus came to earth in order to accomplish the long-anticipated and promised deliverance of the people of Israel (cf. Luke 1:74-78), and he focused his public ministry on "the lost sheep of Israel" (Matt 10:6; 15:24). Paul's strategy was to take the gospel to "the Jew first" (Rom 1:16; cf. Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10, etc.). As Lowery explain, Paul's methodology was "more than a practical strategy" and reflects "Paul's understanding both of the historical priority of the people of Israel in God's plan of salvation and also the importance of preaching the gospel to Jews until God's plan is completed." Paul teaches in Romans 11:26 that the climax of God's plan will be the salvation of "all Israel." Just like the prophet Zechariah in the OT, Paul anticipates a national repentance and turning to God on the part of Israel (cf. Zech 12:10-13).

Romans 9-11 is clearly the most definitive passage on the future of Israel in the New Testament, but theologians continue to dispute the meaning of "all Israel." N. T. Wright argues that "all Israel" refers to the Jews and Gentiles being now saved (vv. 5-6, 11-12) who form the people of God and that Paul has thus redefined the term "Israel." However, the view that "all Israel" refers to the present church does not fit with the consistent use of Israel to refer to national, ethnic Israel (Paul's "brethren" and "kinsmen according to the flesh") throughout Romans 9-11. Equating "all Israel" with the church in 11:26 is particularly difficult in light of the immediately preceding reference to the "hardening of Israel" in v. 25. Witherington observes, "Paul gives no hints or qualifiers to lead the listener to think that Israel means something different here in v. 26 than it meant in v. 25." Moo also argues that Paul using the term "Israel" to refer to the predominantly Gentile church is incompatible with the "polemical purpose" of Romans 11 where Paul is warning Gentile believers not to "boast over the branches" and believe that they have completely usurped Israel's place in God's economy (11:17-24). Moo writes, "For Paul in this context to call the church 'Israel' would be to fuel the fire of Gentiles' arrogance by giving them grounds to brag that 'we are the true Israel.'" Even Waltke and a growing number of Reformed/covenant theologians who reject premillennialism recognize that "Israel" in Romans 9-11 cannot be simply equated with the church. Waltke views Romans 11:26 as pointing to the future salvation of a remnant from "ethnic Israel," but rejects the idea that this restoration involves the reconstitution of Israel as a nation in the Promised Land during a millennial kingdom.

In Romans 11, Paul explains both the "now" and "not yet" aspects of Israel's restoration. The present unbelief of Israel does not abrogate God's covenant promises to Israel but does result in Israel's restoration being carried out in two stages. At present, God is saving a remnant of Jews who like Paul become a part of the predominantly Gentile church through faith in Christ (Rom 11:1-2, 5-6). The present hardening of Israel is only temporary "until the full number of Gentiles has come in," and then God will graft Israel back into the olive tree so that "all Israel will be saved" (Rom 11:25-26). Seifrid comments, "The final act in the drama of redemption is not the formation of a church that consists largely of Gentiles, but the creation of salvation for the people of Israel."

There are two distinct groups who make up "all Israel" in Romans 9-11—the "elect" remnant in Rom 11:6 and the "rest" of Israel (Rom 11:7) that is hardened in unbelief. Paul's explanation of how Israel will be saved does not just focus on the inclusion of currently believing Jews but also on the transformation of the corporate unbelief of the "rest." The root "hardened" describes corporate Israel and provides an inclusio for Paul's discussion of Israel's present unbelief (verbal pwro,w in v. 7, and nominal pw,rwsij in v. 25). However, their present "transgression" will be turned into "fullness" (v. 12) and their current "rejection" into "acceptance" (v. 15). These branches that have been "broken off" will be regrafted into their own olive tree (vv. 19-24). The term "fullness" (plh,rwma) as used by Paul with reference to Israel in verse 12 and the Gentiles in verse 25 provides confirmation that verse 26 is looking forward to a restoration of national or corporate Israel. If the "fullness" of the Gentiles in verse 25 refers to the Gentiles who have and will be saved, then the "fullness" of "all Israel" in verse 26 also involves "the adding of the now-unbelieving Jews to the believing ones to make a full complement." Thus, if "all Israel" is taken as a reference to all of Israel's elect believers, then it must include those Jews who will turn to the Lord as part of this national conversion in the end times.

While Romans 11:26 promises a national turning of Israel to the Lord for salvation, "all Israel" does not mean that every Jew without exception will be saved. As Witherington notes, the term "all Israel" is a corporate term for the nation (cf. 1 Sam 7:5, 25; 1 Kgs 12:1; 2 Chron 12:1; Dan 9:11; Jub 50:9; Test Lev 17:5; M. Sanhedrin 10:1) and refers specifically to those Jews who will make up the future remnant. The timing of this salvation of Israel would appear to be the second coming of Christ. The references to the future resurrection "from the dead" (v. 15) and the entrance of "the fullness of the Gentiles" (v. 25) point to the eschaton. As Moo explains, "the current partial hardening of Israel will be reversed when all the elect Gentiles have been saved; and it is unlikely that Paul would think salvation would be closed to Gentiles before the end." The use of the future tense for the verbs "will be grafted in v. 24 and "will be saved" in v. 26 also points in the direction of an eschatological fulfillment. Paul bases his confidence of Israel's future restoration in a combined quotation of Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9. The original reference to the coming of the Redeemer in Isaiah 59:20 speaks of Yahweh coming to deliver his people from exile, but here most likely refers to the second coming of Christ.

As noted in the first blog, the ultimate issue in this discussion of the future of Israel is God's faithfulness to his word and his covenant promises (cf. Exod 34:6-7; Num 23:19; Mal 3:7-10). It is significant that emphasis on God's covenant faithfulness frames Paul's discussion of the future of Israel in Romans 9-11. In chapter 9, Paul begins by providing the reminder that the covenants essential to the outworking of God's plan of salvation history belong to Israel (9:4). After affirming that God will save "all Israel" in 11:26, Paul asserts in verse 29 that the "gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." Paul's confidence in Israel's salvation is founded upon the "covenant" referred to in Isaiah 59:20-21, in which God promises to remove Israel's sin and to make a "covenant" with his people. This covenant involves God permanently placing his Spirit and word within his people. God will ultimately act unilaterally to overcome Israel's unbelief and disobedience. God's dealings with Israel reflect his faithfulness to promises made long ago, his sovereign power to overcome human unbelief, and his infinite wisdom in using Israel to extend his salvation to the nations and then in turn using the salvation of the Gentiles to bring his people back to himself. As Paul exclaims, "Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways" (Rom 11:33).


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