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.