Monday, February 13, 2012

Joseph, Daniel, Jesus

Part One - Joseph: The Abrahamic Blessing Personified

I am going to try to do a three part series on Joseph, Daniel, and Jesus. It occurred to me the other day that they share some remarkable similarities, and I wanted to think about them.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis probe insufficiently for a resolution to the situation of cursed Adam. Three major catastrophic events define these chapters- the Fall of Adam, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. This chronicle of recurring wickedness and increasingly global infection preludes the introduction of Abraham’s family. But God’s covenant with Abraham seems an unexpected and inadequate response to the deteriorating condition of the world. How could a small nomadic family influence the growing kingdoms of the world? The trend in the first 11 chapters suggests that with the passage of time and the multiplication of Adam’s descendants, evil increases. And the establishment of cities and kingdoms only compounds the problem.

The story of Joseph is not just about how the Israelites end up in Egypt. It is the first major confrontation between a chosen representative of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World, and fulfils the Abrahamic promise to “bless the nations” albeit in a limited sense. It is a paradigmatic story, laying groundwork for an increasingly global showering of grace and mercy. In the story of Joseph, the failures of the previous chapters are confronted and defeated, not by totally obliterating all evil in one fell swoop, but by showing how the evil motives and tendencies of man do not stop the design and intentions of the sovereign God. As the old hymn says: “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet”.

Joseph was a young Hebrew loved by his father but envied by his brothers. When sent by his father to meet his brothers in a field, an envy and a burning desire to take the life of Joseph(Cain anyone?) overcame the brothers. Calmed by Ruben, they sold Joseph for 20 shekels of silver. This handsome, intelligent lad became the servant of an official named Potiphar in the land of Egypt. The Lord’s blessing followed everything that Joseph did, and Potiphar quickly promoted him to second in command of all his house. But at his prime, the wife of Potiphar attempted to seduce Joseph, who strongly refused. In response she crafts a false story attempting to prove Joseph’s disloyalty for Potiphar, who threw him in prison. When Pharaoh had a dream about the future of the land of Egypt, God provided for Joseph’s freedom in order to counsel Pharaoh. It turned out that this dream impacted the entire known world. Joseph revealed the meaning of the dream, which foretold a heavy famine over  the earth. Then, in order to prepare for this disaster Pharaoh promoted Joseph to second in command over all Egypt and he became so powerful that he said: “He (God) has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Gen 45:8)” When Joseph’s brothers apologize for selling him in their jealousy, he points out that God worked their evil for good, exalting him to the position of lordship over the greatest kingdom in the world at the time. The climax, therefore, of Genesis (I would say) comes when Israel (Jacob) himself stands before Pharaoh and blesses him (Gen 47:7). The nation to come of Israel’s loins becomes the gift God sent to the world.

The stories of Genesis almost seem historical, simply recounting cosmic events. But the book has a purpose deeper than history. The question is: how is Genesis describing God? And how is Genesis describing the relationship between God and the world? Genesis contrasts two starkly different avenues describing God’s method of interaction with creation. In the beginning part of Genesis, God employs the expected form of power- changing the world directly. But a contrast becomes clear upon the calling of Abraham. The narrative surprises the reader; the story slows down and describes a broken family with problems and an annoying tendency to deceive and do everything possible counter to God’s plan. It is slower and more annoying only because God begins working all the evil and broken aspects of Man and his Fall for good. But this eternally more glorious and more powerful method of interaction builds the groundwork for the rest of history and the rest of the story of redemption. Specifically in regards to the story of Joseph, the stubborn brothers had no idea what they were doing. In fact, the “stubborn brothers concept” becomes so central a theme in the redemptive plan that eventually the Messiah is lifted upon a cross as a result of the nation of Israel's stubborn and unrepentant heart. But what Israel intended for evil, God intended for good, exalting Jesus for bearing the sins of the world, making him ruler over all- Lord of the Universe. More on that in a later post. 

So who is God? Genesis tells us he is the all-powerful creator, who made a promise to Noah- to work for the good of creation, not by destruction, but by redemption. He is patient and long-suffering. He meticulously works the evil of men to our good and His Glory. And accomplished his purpose in Genesis by using a young nomadic child who gets sold as a slave to the most powerful kingdom of the world, exalting him to become ruler of that kingdom for the good of the world. The stubborn hearts of men cannot comprehend the wisdom of God.  To agree with Paul “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33- the end of Paul’s discussion of the problem of Israel’s disobedience)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Luke chapter 1 review

Those critical of a perspective that grants Israel a national reformation returning to its Davidic glory days might suggest that in fact the Church is Israel, founded on the work of Christ. But even if we concede that the Church and Israel have become interchangeable proper nouns, our research so far from the first few chapters of Luke leaves open the questions of how the term came to be re-understood, when this was done, and why. Whoever Luke’s original audience was, or even if we propose the Holy Spirit moved him to consider the saints of centuries to come, we must either be content to allow Luke’s gospel narrative to begin right where the OT story left off, or we force the conclusions of the future upon it. Either Luke intentionally begins his story from the perspective of Old Testament Israel, or his opening chapters are about the New Testament Church with absolutely no explanations and plenty of vaguely appropriate OT echoes which can be loosely applied to both the Church and Israel. 

Since Luke chapter 1 includes no clear clues to redirect our thoughts, I take his narrative to begin exactly where the years of silence post-exile Israel left off. And this runs congruent with the reality that Jesus came to Israel. For instance, he came to announce salvation, a message which only makes sense when it starts with Israel and is extended to the whole world as in Isaiah 49:6. He came to announce the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that starts with Israel, and overcomes the whole world as in Daniel 7-12. The messages of the parables, undoubtedly, must start with Israel, before the universal individual messages can be reaped. The parable of the “lost sheep” for instance, makes the most sense in the context of passages like Jeremiah 50:6.  All this is because Israel has always been integral, not secondary, to Gods soteriological purposes for the cosmos. Therefore, we must track Israel in the drama of Luke-Acts and allow the (I would say obvious) initial distinction between Israel and the Church to germinate without any outside influence.

The clear “us” (Jews) vs. them (gentiles) clash in Acts, I believe, comes from the post resurrection questions of “what happens now?” Acts is the only thorough treatment in the NT on the question of Israel’s future, and should be studied in a way that allows the reader to be equally be surprised at its conclusion as at the associated gospel’s.

To review points made thus far:

At the opening of Luke, the term “Israel” refers to the nation composed of 12 tribes that are mentioned in Exodus (Exodus 1:1-5). Whether the term Israel comes to include Gentiles later in Luke’s Gospel has not been discussed.

Israel contains within it two groups which we have named “believing” or “true” Israel, and “unbelieving” or “rebellious” Israel.

While southern Israel (Judah and Benjamin) had returned from Babylon, northern Israel remained scattered from the land. All the Major Prophets promised a return from exile as specifically a return for all 12 tribes, which YHWH would unite reunite from a righteous remnant. The throne of David, the eternal symbol of the once glorious undivided monarchy, is the prophetic key to this reunion. Jesus himself had all 12 tribes in mind as in Luke 22:30 (additionally mentioned in Matthew 19:28).

YHWH had established a specific covenant with Israel, which Zechariah invoked in his prophecy in Luke 1, because he expected God to act on behalf of Israel in order to end the exile and reinstate a righteous King.

The forgiveness of sins occurs in the context of the political and religious crimes of Israel.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Forgiveness of Sins

           Israel’s story depicts theology and politics as they are in reality: integrated and interactive. The Covenant with YHWH, by definition, is a political situation with bylaws by which both YHWH and Israel are bound to each other. Obviously YHWH had the upper hand in this particular agreement, as He extended the law to Israel only by His grace, and by no prior worthiness. And His extension of law was not just a convenient way of keeping people “in line”; it laid out the very explanation of what life was to be about and how to go about living it. Likewise, God extended the land. The land was, like the law, intertwined life itself. Here Israel could dwell in safety, worship, plant, harvest, multiply. While this was land promised to Israel, she entered the country as a tenet, not a landowner. Even during at the height of the monarchy, King David identified himself and the nation as sojourners along with Abraham their ancestor (1 Chron 29:15). The nation of Israel was a nation because YHWH formed her, and she had a land because YHWH provided it.
But embedded within the political aspects of Israel, YHWH established the groundwork for an interactive relationship between Himself and His people. The God breathed ritual, the liturgy and the communication built into the temple and the priests of Israel, developed a medium for the people to grow in their understanding of God, learning about Him, experiencing His blessing, and experiencing His forgiveness. The relationship with YHWH progressed from the correct observance of His law, therefore law was theology par excellence.
Israel’s government, therefore, closely integrated her theology, so that a political offens,e was a theological (or relational) one, and a theological offense was a political one. When Israel broke covenant with YHWH, their relationship suffered, their national stability suffered. Ultimately, YHWH expelled the unruly tenants for their apathy and hypocrisy towards the law, something He had extended to guide their lives and to develop the God-man relationship. Obviously God knew the nation was imperfect- He had established a way to deal with sins committed against the covenant and willingly imparted forgiveness to the humble men who approached Him with humility and sacrifice according to the law. But eventually the nation became hopelessly wayward, living in lawlessness and abusing the forgiveness that God freely offered.
Eventually YHWH expelled the tenants from the Land, but He did leave a glimmer of hope for the wayward nation. Sojourners once again, Israel became landless, but the prophets suggested that the relationship between YHWH and Israel had not ended. In fact, God promised a forgiveness of sins as never before, one that would reestablish the people as God’s dwelling place, save the people from foreign rule, and purge the nation from evil. This great forgiveness of sins is what Zechariah and every other righteous Jew longed to see. It was not just about Zechariah’s own misdeeds (though it encompassed them), this was the long awaited eschatological moment of reconciliation, the forgiveness that preceded the renewed relationship with YHWH, the return from exile, and the establishment of righteousness by the Davidic King.
The lingering exilic predicament of Israel ripened her world to what would be later known as “Good News”, and in a sense, Luke and Acts are all about the forgiveness of sins. Jesus, the Logos, fulfilled for wayward Israel those words she had come to hold most dear. Forgiveness had become connected with salvation, because of what it promised to trigger- the New Exodus. Like their forefathers, Israel was under a haughty, sinful foreign power that prevented the reclamation of full sovereignty over the Promised Land. The nation had come in full circle. The land had been taken from them because they had broken covenant with YHWH their God. But the hope of the mercy of God remained; the hope that even though God had sent His people into exile, the same had promised to bring them back out. That is what Zechariah’s prophecy is all about.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:76-79

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Judgement and Salvation

One could hardly understand the situation Luke presents in the opening chapter of his gospel without a working knowledge of the Old Testament. God’s election of Israel is the starting point for our theology of redemption, not only because Israel’s sacrificial system was a convenient prophetic way to have men learn about redemption, but also because Israel actually plays a specific role in the New Testament redemption of mankind. And one could hardly understand that role without a knowledge of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. It was through this relationship that God planned to extend his salvation to the nations.
Expectations galore accompany the messianic arrival, and every character in Luke’s story has an opinion on what ought to happen when the Messiah arrives. Even a righteous priest, a devout follower of the Law such as Zechariah, would be surprised with the outcome of Acts, not because he was wrong about what he was supposed to expect (Why else would the Holy Spirit move him to prophecy?) but because God intentionally chose an alarming method for redemption.
In Luke chapter 8, Jesus teaches the parable of the sower to a crowd of people, but later when He is alone with His disciples, the meaning eludes them, and they seek its meaning directly from Jesus. Before giving them a little help, Jesus clues them in on something going on below the radar in all his prophetic and parabolic presentations. He says: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  Why would Jesus do this? Preaching in such a way as to cause Israel to not see or hear what is going on seems a bit cruel.
According to Luke, Jesus came as a prophet declaring the Isaianic message of divine judgment. In order to understand this important aspect of Jesus’ vocation, we must travel back to Isaiah’s book, whose main concern initially was not proclaiming salvation, but rather judgment. During Isaiah’s vision in 6:8, God inquires: “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds “Here I am, send me!” The message to go out here in the first half of the book of Isaiah, however, was not good news- it was very, very bad news. Isaiah was to proclaim judgment and wrath upon the nation of Israel; in fact his ministry was a precursor to Jesus’ own. Isaiah’s job was to “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” When Isaiah asks the LORD how long this message should be preached, the LORD responds: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away”.
The beginning of Isaiah states the problem: God has rejected Israel because of what they have allowed in their land, the worst of which being the idols and pagan culture which turns Israel away from trusting their God. Isaiah chapter 3 describes their subsequent situation, the just reward for their wicked actions against both the Lord and the poor and oppressed. Therefore, God gives a message to be preached, a task to be completed. God has been warning His people to return to Him, to cast away evil and the idols of foreign nations. But since they have refused to do this, God will continue to send his message of repentance, mixed with a message of judgment. God’s salvation is extended for the repentant, but it will be clouded by this message of judgment until further notice. Isaiah’s book begins with a message of judgment in chapter 6, but ends in one of salvation, beginning in chapter 40. Interestingly, Luke supplies the reverse, beginning with messages of the arrival of salvation.  Then he progressively dilutes the message of salvation with one of judgment, until by the end of Acts, the Jews have returned back to Isaiah 6 in full. BUT also at the end of Acts—praise God in his infinite knowledge—salvation comes to the gentiles.
Jesus, like Isaiah, brought a message of repentance shrouded in a message of judgment. The humble, the ones thirsting for the Kingdom of God and His justice, those who have waited faithfully for God, all these have nothing to fear- their salvation has arrived, the wait is over, and the promises are fulfilled in Christ. They are given the eyes and ears to understand both the Kingdom of God, and the work of God in Christ. This is “believing Israel.” But Luke makes no clear distinction in the beginning. Israel is Israel and there are no clear demarcations in the first chapter at least. But this adds to my initial argument that Luke’s “Israel” means national Israel with no spiritual corpus in mind, because the Isaianic mixed message of judgment and salvation is sent to Israel the nation, rebellious and stubborn, yet still in covenant with God. If “Israel” means “the Church,” then no message of judgment would be appropriate.  Further, I would argue that the message would not make much sense. One cannot understand Jesus’ cosmic mission while neglecting His mission to the nation of Israel.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel”
eujlogeto;V kuvrioV oJ qeo;V tou:  jIsrahvl

-Luke 1:68a

Sometimes a special name comes with a special title. For instance, Barak Obama gained a special title upon his presidency. Now he signs important documents with the title: “Barak Obama, President of the United States.” Similarly, Israel had a special title for their lord. Since the formation of the covenant Abraham made with his suzerain, a special title accompanied covenant relations. The first development of the covenant title noted in Scripture seems to be in Exodus 3:15. It states:

“God also said to Moses, Say this to the people of Israel, The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Ex 3:15 italics mine)

         Due to reverence for YHWH (hwhy), the divine name, the ancient  Hebrew people would substitute the four consonants of God’s name for ADNY (ynda), the letters that make up the word Adoni. Therefore, while some translations of the Bible include a transliteration of YHWH such as YaHWeH or JeHoVaH, most tend to replace YHWH with LORD in all capital letters. So in Exodus 3:15, the italicized phrase actually reads: “Yahweh, the God of your fathers…”
The formula evolved once more when Moses announced God’s plan of intervention in the case of Israel. In Exodus 4:29-31, Moses and Aaron gathered the people to demonstrate with word and sign that God’s ear had turned to them. And when the people saw God’s redemptive intention, the people believed and worshiped their God. Specifically, they worshiped the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of whom had interacted and communicated with YHWH. Through the signs and words which Moses and Aaron performed, YHWH newly revealed himself to these, the sons of Israel, and became their covenant God.
Though this covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel in Exodus 4 and 5 was yet young, Israel could expect YHWH to act on their behalf. Conversely, YHWH could set down rules of life and expect Israel to follow them. Once established among them as their lord, YHWH’s next step is to free Israel from their enemies. In Exodus 5:1, Moses and Aaron stood before Pharaoh and shouted, Thus says the YHWH, the God of Israel (lacy yhla hwhy rma־lk) let My people go!”
This exact phrase became used throughout scripture in situations of covenant obligation, either of YHWH or Israel.  Sometimes the holiness of the people of the covenant was at stake, as is illustrated in Exodus 32:27, Joshua 7:13, and 1Chronicles 15:14; in the covenant renewal ceremony of Joshua 24 (specifically in verse 2); occurrences of divine protection and establishment  as in Joshua 10:24, Judges 11:21, Judges 11:23,  and Isaiah 37:21;  individual protection as in Ruth 2:12, 2 Samuel 12:7  and Isaiah 41:17;  times of unfaithfulness on Israel’s part where they followed baal or other gods as in Joshua 24:23, 1 Kings 15:30, 1 Kings 16:13 (the occurrences are quite numerous in Kings); Times of recounting covenant history as in 1 Samuel 10:18, 1 Chronicles 16:36; In times of Divine judgement such as Psalms 59:5; and remembering covenant promises like in 1 Kings 1:48, 1 Kings 8:15,  and Psalms 106:48; and finally as part of a Divine command for repentance as in Jeremiah 7:3 and Jeremiah 11:3. This list is by no means exhaustive, but the general trend can be noted that the phrase “the LORD the God of Israel” appeared when discussing covenant relations.
The only two times this combination of words is used in the New Testament is in the first chapter of Luke. The first time the phrase is used, though not exact, occurs in the angel Gabriel’s revealing of John the Baptist’s job description. The angel’s words: “…he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God (kai pollouV twn uion israhl epistreyei epi kurion ton qeon autwn).” Here, Luke sets the context of his work squarely within the rebellious idolatry of the people of Israel. The story begins where the Old Testament leaves off, the exile and estrangement from God. Luke never lets this theme disappear, but allows it to run its course straight to the end of Acts. Running victoriously on top of this dark and ominous theme, however, is the story of God’s redemptive plan.
Zechariah’s prophecy that starts in Luke 1:68 is all about covenant relations. He signals this by beginning his prophecy with the phrase "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel (eujlogeto;V kuvrioV oJ qeo;V tou:  jIsrahvl). Now this is Greek, but the common way to translate YHWH in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) is to automatically put in the Greek word for Lord (the equivalent of Adoni), which is “kurios”, so the phrase might be rendered: “Blessed be YHWH the God of Israel.”  No wavering accompanied Zechariah’s faith at this point. Joy replaced his doubts. In a spirit of prophecy, Zechariah invoked YHWH, as did the great men of old- Moses, Joshua, David. YHWH, “The Lord the God of Israel” remembered the covenant after all. Covenant obligations rushed back into view, and after Israel had despaired for several centuries due to their estrangement from YHWH, their God finally came back to revisit His people. With His return came the old loyalties, the promises, and, best of all, the restored Kingdom. YHWH came to establish His Kingdom.

All of this suggests that Zechariah’s understanding of Israel remains nationalistic. Nothing in Zechariah’s words propose a reunderstanding of Israel in a New Testament light. Interestingly, his prophecy sounds like something right out of the Old Testament. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Throne of David and the Return from Exile

"And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

Luke 1:31-33

Zechariah and Elizabeth experienced the power of the God of creation to carry out His plans and fulfill His promises. Elizabeth’s body produced offspring at a time when the effects of decay had already conquered her fertility. An earlier post said that an earlier post that Elizabeth’s victory was to foreshadow God’s plan for the nation of Israel.

Important to consider, however, are God’s powers to reverse life. This sounds obvious, but part of a proper human humility before God is to recognize both His power to bring life and His power to take life—power to build and power to destroy. We tend to think of God’s works of deliverance in Egypt for Israel, the “signs and wonders”, as beautiful signposts of God’s saving ability. However the connotation of “signs and wonders” is just as negative as it is positive.  In the context of the exodus, the “signs and wonders” were given as proofs of God’s covenant faithfulness towards Israel, as well as His kingly power over all nations as the one true God. This was done by abasing the pharaoh and his country with the “signs and wonders”, thereby proving to them God’s glory. In Egypt, these consisted of great demonstrations of mastery over different parts of the land, culminating in the ability to directly take the lives of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.

If these “signs and wonders” on behalf of Israel do not bring about the correct fear of God that leads to obedience, God promised to redirect these atrocities back at Israel herself. The curses of Deuteronomy 28 predicted various dooms for the disobedient nation, including infertility of the womb, soil and animals (v. 18), disease (v. 22), death in battle (v. 25), and boils that won’t heal (v. 35). Eventually the nation will become overrun with foreigners who oppress it, eventually leading to a seige and causing even women to eat the afterbirth and the child of her labor (v. 57). Not only will the Lord bring the diseases poured upon Egypt, but also every sickness not recorded in the book of the Law (v. 61). And all this will climax with expulsion from the land (63, 64). But Deuteronomy promises that God will be so deliberate with the expulsion that Israel will be “scattered among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other”.

The important connection here in Deuteronomy is not just the disobedience of Israel, but the connection between the decay of life and expulsion from the land. These two concepts, bound together, reflect a continuous Old Testament prophetic theme regarding the nation’s theo-political status. This connection is most potently recognizable in Ezekiel 37, between verses 1-14 where Ezekiel was commanded to prophecy to dry bones until they regain flesh and breath and life. Why were they dead? God had poured his anger on the nation, bringing about all the judgments promised in Deuteronomy and culminated them in dispersing Israel among the nations. In the previous chapter, Ezekiel revealed God’s message:

 “Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds. Their ways before me were like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual impurity.
So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed in the land, for the idols with which they had defiled it. I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries.”
Ezekiel 36:17-19

God’s wrath against the nation brought upon it pestilence, trouble, and death, ultimately leading to the exile. Precisely at this point, God introduced the concept of a resuscitation of life from death in Ezekiel 37:1-14, where God intricately tied death and decay with exile, and conversely life and renewal with return from exile. After the initial pericope discussing the reviving of the bones, God commanded Ezekiel in Ez 37:15-28 to pick up two sticks and write on one “For Judah” and on the other “For Joseph”. The first stick was symbolic of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and the other, the lost ten tribes. God continued, saying: “And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. (vs 17)” He explained that this gesture referred to His plan to gather the scattered tribes of Israel from all nations, and making them one nation in the land. Central to all of this, God promised an end to the divided monarchy between northern and southern Israel, and instead announced the reestablishment of the Davidic line (v. 24). Finally, God declared that He would once again return to the land and dwell with the people (v. 27).

The connection between death and exile and life and return from exile is easily perceived. This is the logic behind 1st century Jewish eschatology. While the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin had returned from Babylon, the other ten tribes, as prophesied, were spread to the “four winds” (Zechariah 2:6). The ingathering and reformation of all twelve tribes remained paramount in the writings of at least Isaiah (Is 11:10-16), Jeremiah (Jer 23:5-8) and Ezekiel (Ez 37:15-28). Integral to the prophetic hope of a unified Israel lies the messianic hope, that one day the throne of David would be filled.

Mary heard the announcement from the angel Gabriel that her son would “reign over the house of Jacob forever” and that “His Kingdom would have no end” (Luke 1:33). The hope of a restored Israel under a god sent messiah was as impossible as a dead man coming back to life. But as the angel reminded Mary: “nothing will be impossible with God (Luke 1:37)” 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Zechariah's Response

Who are Israel? Does the word “Israel” refer to the Church?

Luke prefaces his work with a statement of his confidence in the validity of the history he records. However, Luke has no interest in recording history  for history’s sake. Although his resources may have been more extensive than the material he includes in his writing, Luke includes only one short story from Jesus’ boyhood and then skips to his ministry. The Spirit guided Luke to select certain parts of the history surrounding the gospel to reflect on the nature and purpose of the messianic mission. Even in the womb, Jesus’ “Way” was being prepared. And while God’s sovereignty rightly causes us to see this way as unstoppable, Luke spares no means to prove to the reader how dubious and risky the whole operation was.
The first story of Luke recounts Zechariah the priest’s interaction with the angel Gabriel. With the stories of the stubbornness of Israel in mind, the reader might predict Zechariah’s response, but whenever I read Luke’s account, I am taken by surprise. In Luke 1:6, both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are described as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” While the opening scene of Luke records the start of something new, Zechariah is an old man; age and wisdom follow him like a cloak. Upon beholding the angel Gabriel during his service in the temple, he becomes afraid. But the angel reassures Zechariah and informs him that his prayer for a child has been heard. His wife Elizabeth would soon conceive, and more than this, the child would prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah. An answer similar to Mary’s “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” in verse 38 would seem appropriate. But instead of rejoicing at the angel’s report and humbly submitting to the obviously divine message, Zechariah responds in disbelief. "Are you kidding me? I'm too old!" Is all he could say in response. For this, muteness falls upon his tongue, which will be released upon the completion of the things reported by Gabriel.

Luke’s point at issue in this short account of Zechariah’s life roots itself in actual history, but Luke is seeking to discuss the very nature of Israel as a people. The scenario described to Zechariah prefigures the one soon to be presented to Israel the nation. Let us presume that Zechariah, old man that he was, joyfully believed that his elderly wife would conceived and bear a child. Upon exiting the temple to place the blessing on the attendant multitude, would they have believed Zechariah? Perhaps he would have said: “Behold a child from my loins shall be soon born to prepare the people of Israel for the coming messiah!” Would Israel explode with joy and praise the name of the Lord for the arrival of long awaited salvation? Judging from what has already been discussed concerning Israel’s obstinacy and disbelief, they would likely have responded with incredulity to rival that of Zechariah before the angel.
Have you caught the theme yet? Zechariah and Elizabeth are old. Their bodies’ capabilities for producing life have expired. For God to fulfill the promise of a baby to Zechariah and his wife, a reversal of the effects of decay must first take place. The same is true of Israel. As a whole, the nation is rotten. For God to revive this stubborn country would be like reversing the effects of decay and bringing life from death. Luke is developing the age old problems of Israel because it is within this very specific scenario that messiah was meant to be planted. 

Who are Israel in Luke’s introduction story? What makes the most sense? The nation, Israel, would scarcely believe it if God sent an angel like Gabriel to declare the good report. As we shall see, there is hope for Zechariah, but for Israel as a whole, the nation is divided. Would Israel respond in joy and exultation to the coming messiah?
These are the questions tossing in my mind, especially meditating on the multitude waiting for Zechariah. Let us return to our two options. In a previous post I said:

“The first option is that Luke intends the reader to understand that Israel is composed of the believing Church of Christ, and God came to visit His Church. The second option suggests Luke did not have any deeper meaning. Israel means Israel and God came to visit her, and the byproduct resulted in the establishment of his believing Church.”

Does Luke have a deeper meaning in the story of Zechariah? For instance, who should we see standing and waiting for Zechariah to come out of the temple? Is the Church to be depicted as obstinate, unwilling to believe the angel’s report? Firstly my definition of the Church does not allow this. If the church is composed of those whom we call “believers,” why should she be depicted as stubborn and refusing to rejoice at the Lord’s provision? The Church is composed of the people who respond correctly to God, and is not divided. Secondly, in verse 16 the angel foretells that Zechariah’s son will turn “many” of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. If not all of Israel will turn to the Lord their God, how can she be equated with the Church? Obviously, members of the Church may be included in the multitude- that is- Believing Israel may be standing among the multitude along with Unbelieving Israel. But ultimately Luke has not yet developed anything to suggest a deeper meaning for Israel.