Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Israel was a Person

Israel was a person and His God’s name is YHWH. God made a covenant with Israel’s dad and grandpa, and promised to establish them as a nation, to remain in covenant with their offspring, to give them the land of Canaan, and to be their God (Gen 17:6-8). Israel had sons, and they moved to Egypt. They were called the Sons of Israel. This phrase “Sons of Israel” is quite common in the OT. It refers to the people descended from Israel. Exodus starts its first chapter with the words: “These are the names of the Sons of Israel…” So in the initial stage of the nation of Israel, the text’s meaning is quite clear: Israel refers to the nation of Israel.
On Mount Sinai, God commissions them to follow his ways and to worship Him in the land of promise. While the patriarchs had already received the rite of circumcision and other sanctifying (in the sense of setting them apart) qualities, God’s Law given on the mountain of Sinai supplied Israel with a thorough set of rules, which set the nation apart for God. This made the nation distinct from other people groups, so that even upon entering the promised land, the people remained unique. God planted Israel in the Land with what she needed to grow in to a prosperous nation who walked according to His ways and be a light to the gentile nations. What if a son of Israel rebelled against the Lord? He was cut off from the people. But what if the entire nation rebelled against the Lord?
After some time in the Land, Israel’s frequent rebellion against YHWH crumbled the nation. She had a flourish of glory under David, but this transient phase gave way to a divided monarchy. Moving farther away from their God, Israel was cast into exile for her sins. Her temple was destroyed, the monarchy ended, and the people scattered abroad to foreign gentile nations.
During this confusing time, a line begins to be drawn, a redefinition of Israel where we would not expect it- within Israel itself. Here is where we learn an extremely important concept, namely the “remnant”. The word remnant in Hebrew has a punitive ring to it. Its basic meaning refers to that which is not destroyed, the survivors, the ones who are left from some great disaster. It was for instance used to describe the remaining people not destroyed in the conquest of Canaan (Deut 3:11 for instance). God had pronounced judgment on the nations living in Canaan, and commanded the Israelites to destroy them upon entering the Land. Noah’s family also, for instance, could be thought of as a remnant, or survivor of the pagan rebellious pre-flood world. Enslaved Israel, rescued from the wrath of God upon Egypt retained the qualities of a remnant. Theologically, the remnant is composed of those who fear the Lord and find refuge in Him during the day of His wrath.
Eventually the word became a proper name referring to a  particular set of righteous Jews. Some first century Jewish sects, such as the Qumran desert community, saw themselves as a group destined to be God righteous remnant, reviving the glory of Israel. True, the nation had been made desolate and under the rule of a foreign power, but the Qumran remnant sought to nevertheless exist, faithful to God’s covenant. And someday, this group hoped it would be the building block of the restored Israel, after which the messianic age would occur, with the Qumran remnant vindicated with the rest of the faithful remnant from ancient times of Abraham Isaac, and Jacob. The Kingly Messiah, having arrived in splendor, would rule in peace and prosperity, though all those, Jew or Gentile, disobedient to God’s Sovereign rule be destroyed.
In Isaiah 10:20-23 God describes the remnant as a diminished amount of the whole of Israel. Although the nation of Israel be as numerous as sand, the remnant will not include all the nation. The return of the Remnant to the Promised Land will be likened to the exodus from Egypt as in Isaiah 11:16. Jeremiah 23 describes the remnant of a scattered flock, whom the Lord will gather and provide shepherds over them. Jeremiah 31:17-21 speaks of the remnant like a disciplined youth returning to his loving father. And later in the same chapter, verse 27, the Lord speaks of sowing the house of Israel like seed.
The remnant is believing Israel; the Israel that is responsive and humbled by the discipline of the Lord, who look to Him and call for His mercy for the nation. The part of the nation that does not return and is not responsive is unbelieving Israel.
So here we have a more defined picture of what Luke presents in his first chapter. Zechariah, at first disbelieves the angel’s report. Why? Because it is incredible. But it is hard to say which part of the angel’s message was more incredible, birth from a barren woman or the coming of a man who would turn the “Sons of Israel” to the Lord their God. The outcome of his disbelief is dumbness, muteness. How could the word of the angel be true? But when the unfruitful womb brings forth life, Zechariah believes the angel’s report, and instead of a mute tongue, his mouth is opened, and opened to prophesy. Zechariah says: this is it, the Lord has begun his work, His salvation is come, and the remnant shall return, like the exodus, as he promised to Israel’s father and grandfather.
Zechariah does not know what to expect at this point in the story. There is more to the gospel than Zechariah understands, but I do not think Luke wants us to understand any farther at this point in his narrative. It is very easy to read the end into the beginning, but patience bears many children.

A hope is presented to the reader, is now the time for the remnant of the believing Sons of Israel to return?
But what about the believing gentiles? Are they part of believing Israel? Luke addresses these exact questions.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Who are Israel?

Who are Israel? and Who did God come to visit? I want tackle this question a little at a time through Luke’s work. I do not think the answer needs to be the one and the same. Let us take the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel and ponder on two streams of thought. I am going to address two options, which immediately present themselves. There very well may be more. The first option is that Luke intends the reader to understand that Israel is 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.

The first option necessitates an abstraction of the term Israel. This reuses what (for instance) Zechariah might have thought about the liberation of Israel. Perhaps Zechariah’s nationalistic understanding of Israel is an incomplete understanding, so Luke uses Zechariah’s primitive understanding to describe the Church, a concept he would not understand at his stage in history. This line of thought assumes the reader has a certain degree of information about ecclesiology available before the reading the gospel. The reader must have an understanding of the typological nature of Israel and its relation to the Church. So Luke may well mention Israel, but the reader, as many modern readers, may be thinking of the Church. And God did in fact come to liberate the Church. So when we read that God is coming to visit Israel, we may read into the story that God is coming to visit the Church. That is option one.

However, leaning toward our second option, we find this hard to support if we restrict ourselves to the first two chapters of Luke, who therein puts forth no effort to redirect the reader from assuming he is referring to national Israel. For example, noting that Zechariah descended from the line of Abijah, a priest named in the roll of Nehemiah’s covenant renewal document (Neh 9:38, 10:7), and later including Zechariah’s prophecy of Israel’s liberation, and straight through to Simeon’s prophecy speaking of the “glory to your people Israel” in 2:32, there seems to be no clues to suggest Luke wants us to understand the word “Israel” in any way other that national Israel, at least in the first two chapters. That is option two.

I will not say here for certain that the word “Israel” in Luke-Acts is static. Perhaps Luke intends to take the reader on a reunderstanding of the term by the end of his work. Perhaps not. I want to dig into these first to chapters, and take the road slow. Our understanding developed in the gospel is integral to the way we understand its sequel, Acts.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I shall take Luke as the author of both the gospel by his own name as well as the Acts of the Apostles. In writing his gospel, he recorded an account of God’s visitation to the people of Israel. The word which Luke used can be translated “visit” from Greek, but also makes one think of an older brother or a father coming to make sure his kid brother or son is ok. It means to regard or to inspect. The NT uses a version of this word to speak of “overseer” in the organization of the Church. But the Greek OT also uses this word. God had “visited”, or gave regard to His people long ago, before the time of Luke. Long ago before Ezekiel, David and Samuel. His coming was a big deal for the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, who, crying out in anguish for many years, likely wondered if the ancient promises to Abraham and his descendants would ever be fulfilled. So when He finally shows up after 400 years or so of enslavement in Exodus 2:24, it is a moment of epic importance. When the people of Israel hear of the Lord’s interaction with Moses and see His signs and wonders, Exodus 4:31 says the people “believed”.  They understood that the Lord “had visited” (ESV) the sons of Israel or “was concerned” (NASB) with them. Finally God had come to free them from their enemies so that they might serve Him without fear. Similarly, Luke records another moment of visitation. When all hope was lost for the sons of Israel, and (as we shall see) for the world, he gathers us in to hear of this climax of moments. According to the opening chapter of Luke, Zechariah the priest prophesied aloud to his hearers: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed His people” (Luke 1:68).  Zechariah’s hope reflects that of the pre-exodus enslaved Israel when he goes on to proclaim the arrival of the “mercy promised to (his) fathers” (Luke 1:72). 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dispensationalism and Israel's Future

I want to talk about the future of Israel and the many surrounding issues. We as humans need shelter, a fit place to lodge ourselves, and along with certain other minds I shall pitch my tent in the realm of Dispensationalism. I cannot say that I always agree with how things are run here, but I am content with the environment. If you are a curious passer-by, and wonder why I think thoughts that would associate with the oft-loved oft-hated “Left Behind Series”, give me your ear and your patience. The following blog suggests a discussion concerning Israel’s future in the context of both the Gospel According to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The content of this blog will revolve around Luke’s use of the word “Israel”, and discuss whether or not the term remains static throughout or reforms to include gentile believers. I have done some research already in this area and I feel the need to exercise my thoughts once more concerning this topic.
So feel free to throw stones at my place of shelter. A few forewarnings, however. I am currently limiting this blog to the study of Luke-Acts. Any quotations and the context thereof is fair game as well.