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.