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.


  1. This may seem like a major point to some, or a minor point to others, but either way, I think it's important to note.

    God's covenant to make Israel a nation was not realized through the biological descendants of Abraham, but to those who put faith in God's promise. Consider these words in Galatians 3:

    7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”[d] 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

    16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,”[i] meaning one person, who is Christ.

    26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

    Certainly Paul still understood that the word Israel could have dual meaning; referring to either the ethnic nation or the spiritual nation. Consider how he distinguishes between the two in these verses from Romans 9:

    6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[b] 8 In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

    Here we see Paul distinguishing "Israel" from Israel. When we look at other writings of Paul, (Romans 2-3, Gal 3) we see him make the distinction between "true" Jews and simply ethnic Jews. Paul would've been the first to agree that the nation of Israel was composed of biological descendants of Abraham. However, I believe his argument, similar to Christ saying he could raise of descendants of Abraham from stones, is that the Israel to whom the promises are applied are no longer the ethnic Jews, but the spiritual ones.

    Gotta run, obviously this is an extensive topic and I've only just scratched the surface. Hope you found this comment helpful.

  2. Obviously by the end of the Acts of the Apostles a tremulous new understanding of the Abrahamic Family has occurred. Tremulous, not because God is contradicting Moses, but because a misunderstanding of the purpose of Law was rampant in Judaism as well as (unfortunately) certain communities of believers. Indeed, God's family of promise holds a place for Gentile believers within its walls, transmitting the promise of the Spirit not through Law, but through Christ.

    Paul is saying that God's work of salvation is independent to the installation of the Mosaic Law, but it is obviously not in contradiction thereto. Rather, he warns that the misunderstanding and misuse of the Law by the Judaisers has led to the exact opposite of what God intended in the Gospel, namely, that both Jew and Gentile believers could be unified in Christ. What does this unity produce? When Paul states that there is “Neither Jew nor Greek,” is obviously not saying our ethnicities are erased, just as much as he is not saying that we lose our genders. He is saying, however, that both types of people have been unified in Christ because they responded in faith to what God did through Christ.

    Nothing here suggests Jews should start living like Gentiles, nor that Gentiles should start living like Jews. But rather, that they should understand who they are and their relation to God primarily beneath the foot of the Cross. This for Paul completely refocuses his understanding of the purpose of Israel and its initiation, which is exactly what I want to discuss. It will take a while to get to Acts. But it is important to start at the beginning. My point in emphasizing that Israel was a person is mainly to rightly understand the “orderly account” (Luke 1:3), in a way as close to what Luke would have wanted as possible. So, when we come to the end of Acts, we may be as startled and shocked as perhaps the book's first readers were. This certainly might be slow and take a good deal of patience.