Understanding Israel in Prophecy

Understanding the prophetic continuity between literal Israel and the contemporary Christian church exposes our identity and destiny

Hans LaRondelle, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel's prophecies is an essential qualification for the Christian interpreter of the Old Testament. Those interpreters who cannot see Christ at the heart of the Old Testament writings are not able to explain the real thrust of Israel's prophecies (see 2 Cor. 3:14).

For Paul, the central truth of the Old Testament was not Israel and its national future but rather the Messiah Jesus, the Lord of Israel, the Redeemer of the world (Rom. 16:25-27; Gal. 3:16, 29; Phil. 3:3-10).

The key to the Old Testament: the New Testament

The cardinal point is this: Are Christians permitted to take the Old Testament as a closed unit, in isolation from the New Testament witness of its fulfillment? Or must they accept the Old Testament and the New Testament together as one organic revelation of God in Christ Jesus?

God Himself is the interpreter of His Word. The words of Scripture receive their meaning and message from their divine Author and must constantly be related to His progressive will in order to hear God's own interpretation of His earlier promises in a "Thus says the Lord." Promises concerning Israel as a people, dynasty, land, city, and mountain are not self-contained promises for the sake of Israel, but are integral parts of God's progressive plan of salvation.

The New Testament emphasizes the truth that God has fulfilled the Abrahamic promise in Jesus and has renewed His covenant with Israel through Christ in a "bet ter covenant" (Heb. 7:22),* introducing a "better hope" (verse 19) for all Christ-believing Israelites and Gentiles (Heb. 8). Thus the apostles testify to a basic fulfillment of the Old Testament promise in Jesus.

The full theological sense of the history of Israel can be grasped only by those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, that God's covenant with the 12 tribes of Israel is ful filled and completed not postponed in Christ's covenant with His 12 apostles (2 Cor. 3; Heb. 4). The central thrust of the gospel and its prophetic hope is that the church of Christ is appointed to fulfill the divine purpose of Israel's election: to be a saving light for the Gentiles. In biblical typology it is not Christ alone who is the antitype but Christ and His people, united in God's saving purpose for the world.

Israel in the Old Testament

The very first use of "Israel" in the Bible, in Genesis 32, presents an explanation of the origin and meaning of this new name. About to enter the land of Canaan, the guilt-ridden Jacob, out of fear for his life, began to wrestle one night with an unknown "Man" who appeared to possess superhuman strength. Jacob persistently entreated this Man for His blessing. The reply was given, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome" (Gen. 32:28; cf. 35:9,10).

Later the prophet Hosea interpreted Jacob's struggle as a struggle "with God," "with the angel" (Hosea 12:3, 4). The new name "Israel" is thus revealed to be of di vine origin. It symbolizes Jacob's new spiritual relation to Yahweh and stands for the reconciled Jacob through God's forgiving grace. The rest of Scripture never loses sight of this sacred root of the name. Hosea presents Jacob's struggle and trust in God as an example that needed to be imitated by the apostate tribes of Israel (verses 3-6; 14:1-3). In other words, Jacob's struggle with God is set forth as a prototype of the true Israel, as the normative pattern for the house of Israel to become the Israel of God.

Isaiah's prophecies of chapters 40-66 promise Israel's restoration after the Assyrian- Babylonian exile. Here we find assurances of Israel's gathering out of the great dispersion; the prophetic focus is not exclusively on the physical descendants of Jacob. Isaiah envisions that among postexilic Israel many non-Israelites who have chosen to worship God would be gathered. Two classes of people, foreigners and eunuchs, who were forbidden entrance into the worshiping assembly of God (Deut. 23:1-3) are now welcome to worship in the new Temple on Mount Zion on the condition that they accept the Sabbath of the Lord and hold fast to God's covenant (see Isa. 56:4-7; also 45:20-25).

When Gentiles join themselves in faith and obedience to the Lord (Isa. 56:3), the God of Israel will give them "an everlasting name" (verse 5). In this way Isaiah unfolds how God's universal outreach to the world will be fulfilled through a new Israel. The essential characteristic of this new Israel is not ethnic descent from Abraham but the faith of Abraham, the worship of Yahweh. Believing Gentiles will enjoy the same rights and hopes of the covenant promises as believing Israelites.

Jeremiah uses the name "Israel" in various ways, depending on each context. How ever, Jeremiah does not focus his promises on the restoration of Israel as an independent political state, but on Israel as a restored spiritual people of God gathered from all 12 tribes. The new covenant that God shall make with the house of Israel and the house of Judah after the Babylonian exile will be explicitly different from the Sinai covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). The restored Israel shall be a praying, worshiping remnant from all the 12 tribes in which each Israelite, individually, has the experience of a saving relation ship with God and obeys His holy law with an undivided heart (verse 6; 32:38-40).

Ezekiel, himself deported to Babylon in 597 B.C., also predicted that a new, spiritual Israel shall return from exile in all nations to their homeland. "They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord" (Eze. 11:18-21).

These and similar predictions (see Eze. 36:24-32; 37:22-26) stress that God's central concern with Israel is her restoration not as a secular, political state, but as a united theocracy, a spiritually cleansed and truly worshiping people of God.

The postexilic Israel was a religious community centered around the rebuilt temple, not around a royal throne. Although the majority of the returned exiles were from the tribes of Judah and Levi, this spiritual remnant regarded itself as the continuation and representation of the Israel of God (Ezra 2:2, 70; 3:1, 11; 4:3; 6:16, 17, 21; Neh. 1:6; 2:10; 8:1,17; 10:39; 12:47;Mal. 1:1,5; 2:11). The last prophet, Malachi, stressed that those Israelites who "fear the Lord" are the people of God, and that only those "who serve God" are recognized as God's own treasured possession in the last judgment day (Mal. 3:16-4:3). Judah is regarded as the sons of Jacob and the inheritor of God's covenant with Israel (Mal. 1:1; 2:11; 3:6; 4:4).

In summary, the Old Testament uses the name "Israel" in more than one way. First, it stands for the religious covenant community, the people who worship God in the revealed truth and Spirit. Second, it denotes a distinct ethnic group or nation that is called to become a spiritual Israel. The original meaning of the name "Israel," as a symbol of acceptance with God by His forgiving grace (Gen. 32:28), forever remains the sacred standard to which the prophets call the natural tribes of Israel to return (Hosea 12:6; Jer. 31:31-34; Eze. 36:26-28).

Whenever the Old Testament prophets portray the eschatological remnant of Israel, it is always characterized as a faithful religious community that worships God with a new heart on the basis of the "new covenant" (Joel 2:32; Zeph. 3:12,13; Jer. 31:31-34; Eze. 11:16-21). This faithful remnant of the end-time will become God's witness among all the nations and includes also non-Israelites regardless of their ethnic origin (Zech. 9:7; 14:16; Isa. 66:19; Dan. 7:27; 12:1-3).

Christ's gathering of Israel's remnant: His church

The Christian church was not created by Paul's preaching among the Gentiles, but by Christ personally within Palestinian Judaism. At His baptism Christ was "revealed to Israel" as the Messiah of prophecy (cf. Isa. 42- 53). God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38) and announced from heaven that He would fulfill the Messianic role of bearing the sins of the world as the Lamb of God (John 1:29-34, 41; Matt. 3:16,17). His coming to Israel was the highest test for the Jewish nation of its relation to the covenant of God. As Messiah, He was to be the "stumbling stone," the "rock that makes them [Israel] fall" (Rom. 9:32,33; 1 Peter 2:8).

The test for Israel had come in its reaction to Jesus as Messiah. Christ claimed that all Israel should come to Him to receive the rest of God or they would stand judged. "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters" (Matt. 12:30; see also 18:20; 23:37).

Christ announced, "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:16; cf. Isa. 56:8).

As the Messianic Shepherd, Christ declares that He was to fulfill Israel's covenant promises of the gathering of Israel. He came to gather Israel to Himself (Matt. 12:30), and more than that, to gather the Gentiles to Himself (John 12:32). By officially ordaining 12 disciples as His apostles (Mark 3:14, 15) Christ constituted a new Israel, the Messianic remnant of Israel, and called it His church (Matt. 16:18). Thus Christ founded His church as a new organism with its own structure and authority, endowing it with "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (verse 19; cf. 18:17).

Christ's final decision regarding the Jewish nation came at the end of His ministry, when the Jewish leaders had determined to reject His claim of being Israel's Redeemer.

Christ's words in Matthew 23 reveal that Israel's guilt before God had reached its completion (Matt. 23:32). His verdict was therefore: "I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit" (Matt. 21:43). This decision implied that the Jewish people would no longer be the theocratic people of God and that the true Israel would continue in a people that would accept the Messiah and His message of the kingdom of God.

Which new "people" did Christ have in mind? On an earlier occasion Christ noticed to His amazement that a Roman centurion showed more faith in Him than anyone in Israel had ever done. Then He had said, "I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven [kingdom of God, Luke 13:28], But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 8:11,12).

Thus it becomes evident that Christ did not promise the kingdom of God the theocracy to another "generation" of Jews in the far future as dispensational writers favor, but rather to Christ-believing people from all races and nations, "from the east and the west."

Only in Christ could Israel as a nation have remained the true covenant people of God. In rejecting Jesus as God's appointed King, the Jewish nation failed the decisive test of fulfilling God's purpose for the Gen tiles. Christ, however, renewed God's covenant with His 12 apostles. He bestowed the divine calling of ancient Israel on His Messianic flock, to be the light of the world (Matt. 5:14) and to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). God was not dependent on the Jewish nation for the fulfillment of His divine purpose for all people. His plan could not be thwarted or postponed by Israel's rejection of the Messiah. The day of Pentecost proved that God was "on schedule." Precisely when the annual festival of Pentecost had arrived (Acts 2:1; literally: "was completed"), new, dramatic events took place in fulfillment of prophecy. From heaven Christ poured out the promised Spirit on His faithful ones.

The Church as the remnant in Israel's prophecies

The apostles stressed that every occurrence in Christ's life, death, resurrection, ascension, His outpouring of the Spirit of God and His enthronement at the right hand of God were all the explicit fulfillments of Israel's prophecies. Peter explained Christ's betrayal and death as the fulfillment of "God's set purpose and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23). Even the persecution of Christ's church in Jerusalem is viewed as what God's "power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (Acts 4:28; with an appeal to Ps. 2:1,2).

With regard to Christ's ascension to heaven and His enthronement as the Davidic ruler of both Israel and the nations, Peter appeals to Psalm 110, saying, "For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, 'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a foot stool for your feet.'" Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:34-36).

Peter's application of Psalm 110 to Christ's present kingship is not a literal exegesis of Psalm 110, but the inspired Christological application of David's prophecy. The apostolic method of interpreting the Old Testament is to apply Israel's prophecy in the light of the person and mission of Christ. Then there is no postponement of Christ's kingdom at all, but only new progress and fulfillment (some 3,000 Jews accepted Peter's interpretation and were baptized into Christ and His church, Acts 2:41).

Peter's interpretation of the outpouring of the Spirit as the direct fulfillment of Joel's prophecy for the last days (verses 16-21) con firms the concept that the church was not an unforeseen entity in the Old Testament. Rather it was the surprising fulfillment of Joel's remnant prophecy. Thus the church is not an afterthought or interruption of God's plan with Israel for the world but the divine realization of the eschatological remnant of Israel.

Shortly after the outpouring of God's Spirit on the church Peter stated categorically, "Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days" (Acts 3:24). In other words, since Pentecost all the prophecies concerning the remnant of Israel have received their fulfillment in the formation of the apostolic church. The church is plainly prophesied in the remnant promises of the Old Testament.

Peter addressed the Christian churches of his time, scattered throughout the Middle East (1 Peter 1:1), with the honorable titles of Israel: "You are a chosen people, a royal priest hood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9; cf. Ex. 19:5, 6).

Although he does not use the name "Israel," Peter applies Israel's calling now to the church. This is his ecclesiological interpretation of God's covenant with Israel (Ex.

19:5, 6). This application is the outgrowth of the Christological interpretation of the Messianic prophecies. The ecclesiological application is the necessary extension of the Christological fulfillment. As the body is organically connected to the head, so is the church to the Messiah. The ecclesiological interpretation removes the ethnic and national restrictions of the old covenant. The new covenant people are no longer characterized by race or country, but exclusively by faith in Christ. This can be called Peter's spiritualization of Israel as a "holy nation." He thinks along the lines of a Passover typology when he stresses that Christians, as "God's elect," were "redeemed" by "the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:1,18,19). Paul also uses this Passover typology (see Ex. 12:5; 1 Cor. 5:7).

Further, Peter's description of the church as being "called... out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9) strongly suggests an analogy with Israel's exodus from the house of bondage (Ex. 4:23; 19:4; Isa. 43:21). As ancient Israel experienced its exodus salvation in order to praise Yahweh's faithfulness, so the church experiences her present salvation from the dominion of darkness in order to "declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (see also Col. 1:13). This amounts to saying that the Christian community is the true Israel.

The land promised to the Israel of God

The prophets described the land promised to the patriarchs and Israel consistently in theological terms: as God's gracious gift or blessing to His covenant people (Gen. 12:1,7; 13:14-17; 15:18-21; Deut. 1:5-8; Ps. 44:1-3). The land itself is called, as it were, to observe the sabbath to the Lord (Lev. 25:2), to symbolize God's ownership of the land. It remained "His holy land" (Ps. 78:54) as long as God dwelt in the midst of Israel (Num. 35:34). The holiness of Israel's land is entirely derivative. The destiny of land, city, and temple depends therefore on Israel's religious relation to the Lord (see Lev. 26). God's judgment on Israel entails His judgment on their land, because it is His land or inheritance. "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants" (Lev. 25:23). Both the covenant people and its land ultimately depend on God.

When Israel became persistently unfaithful to their covenant God, the Lord took His inheritance back from Israel (Jer. 17:1-4; 15:13, 14). That meant Israel's dispersion among the Gentiles and the devastation of the land (Isa. 1:5-9; Jer. 4:23-26). With the rejection of Israel as the faithless nation God also rejected her land as no longer under His blessing.

Christ expands the territorial promise

In His sermon on the mount, Christ promised the kingdom of heaven to "the poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:3; called the kingdom of God in Luke 6:20); to "the meek" or the humble He promised the earth (Matt. 5:5). Two conclusions must be drawn: (1) to His spiritual followers Jesus assigned the whole earth together with the kingdom of heaven as their inheritance; (2) He applied Israel's territorial inheritance to the church by enlarging the original promise of Pales tine to include the earth made new. In ancient Israel, David assured the Israelites who endured suppression by "evil men" that God would vindicate their trust in Him: "But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.... The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever" (Ps. 37:11-29).

Clearly Christ applied Psalm 37 in a new, surprising way: (1) this "land" will be larger than David thought; the fulfillment will include the entire earth in its re-created beauty (see Isa. 11:6-9; Rev. 21,22); (2) the renewed earth will be the inheritance of all the meek from all nations who accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Christ did not spiritualize away Israel's territorial promise when He included His universal church. On the contrary, He widened the scope of the territory until it included the whole world.

One hope for Abraham, Israel, and the church

Abraham and his believing descendants were promised not just Palestine, but "a better country" with a heavenly city (Heb. 11:10, 16). In short, they looked beyond Palestine to a new heaven and earth, and a new Jerusalem. Further, this eternal inheritance is not restricted to the literal Israel. All believers will be united in one inheritance: "God had planned something better for us [the church] so that only together with us would they [Israel] be made perfect" (Heb. 11:40; cf. 13:14).

The church of Christ has no other hope, no other destiny, no other inheritance than the one that God gave Abraham and Israel a renewed heaven and earth (Isa. 65:17). This could not be stated more conclusively than by Peter's words "That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking for ward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:12,13).

The book of Revelation reassures that God's covenant promises find their perfect fulfillment in the new earth of the age to come (see chapters 21 and 22). The lesson for Christians is profound, as John Bright concludes: "So, like Israel of old, we have ever to live in tension. It is the tension between grace and obligation: the unconditional grace of Christ which is proffered to us, his unconditional promises in which we are invited to trust, and the obligation to obey him as the church's sovereign Lord."+

* Scripture references in this article are from
the New International Version.

+ J. Bright, Covenant and Promise (Philadel
phia: Westminster Press, 1976), p. 198.

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Hans LaRondelle, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

June 1997

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