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.