Saturday, December 09, 2017

A Homily That Isn’t

I was about to refer to what follows as a homily, but I must correct myself in advance: properly speaking a homily is a commentary that follows a scripture reading. In this instance no scripture has been read or even referenced:

“The Church was not established in this way so that we could put all settings on autopilot, and wait for the Second Coming. As we look at the history of the Church, we see that we must constantly learn, generation after generation, what it means to be Israel.”

In this case there’s a perfectly good reason the word of God has not been called upon: I cannot think of a single verse of scripture that legitimately supports such a statement.

The Real Israel

Everything God ever wanted out of Israel he has already received in the person of his Son, who in his very few years on this planet became to his Father all that Israel ought to have been and never could be. That’s a whole study in itself, and one that time and space today do not permit. Suffice it to say that God does not need Christians to come along and revisit incompetently the same territory the Lord Jesus has already covered impeccably.

In fact, one very significant lesson we are taught in the New Testament is not to be Israel:
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”
Israel is Israel. The Church is the Church. To conflate the two is to court all manner of confusion.

The Replacements?

The word “Israel” is used 75 times by the writers of the New Testament. The first 51 references are found in the historical material of the Gospels and Acts and are irrelevant to any discussion of whether the Church has superseded Israel in God’s plans and purposes, inheriting her blessings and promises (while miraculously not inheriting her curses). Of the remaining 24 mentions of the nation, not a single one can be adduced to support Replacement Theology with any degree of intellectual honesty, as is evident if we survey them.

The very first of these is Paul’s plain statement to the Romans:
“Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ ”
The apostle contends that some of the men and women descended from Israel’s patriarch Abraham are not his children in any way that matters. They are not his in any spiritual sense, as John the Baptist declared and as the Lord Jesus himself confirmed. This is a proclamation of exclusion, not inclusion: a large number of genetic Israelites had been (and remain today) unfaithful to their spiritual calling. These are not reckoned by God as his. Put in mathematical terms, True Israel is a subset of National Israel, not a superset incorporating a bunch of Gentiles.

Only a Remnant

Again, as Paul puts it in verse 27 of the same chapter:
“Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved.’ ”
The fact that the number of genuine, godly Israelites is small in comparison to the number of Abraham’s genetic descendants is stated repeatedly, and it should be our first clue that the words “Israel” and “Church” are not used synonymously.

A Foolish Nation

In the very next chapter the Church and Israel are set in contrast to one another. First Paul returns to the writings of the prophets and finds in them references to Gentile believers such as those in Rome who were part of the Church of God:
“First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’ Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ ”
And here’s the contrast Paul lays out:
But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.’ ”
It is surely obvious to any unbiased reader that Paul is speaking of two distinct groups here.

The Rest Were Hardened

Romans 11 continues in the same vein: God has not rejected his people [Israel]; there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But the rest were hardened. The nation as a whole “failed to obtain what it was seeking.” A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until such time as the fullness of the Gentiles has come into God’s blessing through the preaching of the gospel.

The apostle’s language is not in the least confusing. Though there are saved Jews in the Church, at no point does Paul call Israel the Church or the Church Israel, nor does he suggest that the Church somehow completes what was lacking in Israel’s performance of its national duty to God. They are two absolutely distinct entities.

A New Creation

In Galatians, Paul again distinguishes the two groups:
“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”
The Church is contemplated first here, in the phrase “all who walk by this rule” (the rule that circumcision or uncircumcision are irrelevant in Christ). Then Paul goes on to make reference to a second group, which he calls “the Israel of God”.

It is sometimes argued that this expression is simply another way of referring to the Church, but there are two obvious counters to that: (1) that the two expressions are joined by the word kai, which is translated “and” or “also” 85 times more frequently in the New Testament than it is translated “even”; and, more importantly, (2) Paul has already established in Romans that there is a remnant or subset within national Israel that constitutes “true” Israel. Such a title is a far more appropriate way to describe faithful Israel than to describe a largely-Gentile church.

Members of the Household

Later, the apostle tells the Ephesians:
“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
One can observe significant — even critical — distinctions between fellow citizens and members of the same household. For instance, I am not my sister, though we are both citizens and were at one time at home in the same house. I am not a woman and she is not a man. Her responsibilities, calling and desired outcomes were and remain greatly different from mine.

Likewise, Paul never tells the Ephesians they are now “Israelites”. In fact, he refers to them as “you Gentiles in the flesh”. Yes, we Gentiles are reconciled to God, have access in one Spirit to the Father and are no longer strangers and aliens, and praise the Lord for that. But Gentiles we are and Gentiles we remain.

Covenants Covered

Moving on to the eighth chapter of Hebrews, there is a lengthy discussion of the differences between the Old and New Covenants. But note that we Gentiles are not under consideration in this discussion, a fact that should not surprise us once we take into account that P46, the earliest text source we possess for the book, has the title Pros Hebraious or “To [the] Hebrews”. The writer speaks of this New Covenant:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”
From Israel’s perspective, the reason this New Covenant is required is that “they did not continue in my covenant”, meaning the covenant of Sinai (the text makes specific reference to Israel being taken by the hand and brought out of Egypt). This is not true of Gentiles generally, nor of the Gentiles in the Church, who had not failed to continue in the First Covenant — the fact is, they had no relationship whatsoever to that covenant — and who had certainly not been brought out of Egypt in any but the most distant, metaphorical sense.

The writer to the Hebrews confirms God’s intent to offer a place of blessing to Jews who love God on a basis different from that of their original covenant; a place of blessing obtained for them by the work of Christ, and that is entered into by faith rather than obedience to law. Now, it happens to be quite true that this is the same basis by which Gentiles are brought into relationship with God, but that is not the matter under discussion in the passage. In Hebrews 8 we have in view the proper relationship of True Israel to its Messiah during the period in which God is doing his primary work in this world through the Church.

Again, there is not the slightest confusion here between national Israel and the Church of God.

Proselytes and Christian Jews

For almost 1500 years, any Gentile who wanted a relationship with the God of Israel had to become a proselyte under the Law of Moses. Today, an ethnic Jew who wants a relationship with God must come into fellowship with him through faith in his Son, becoming in the process a member of his Church. In 2017, observant Judaism will not get the job done. But that reality does not make the Church “Israel” any more than becoming a proselyte or being circumcised magically made Gentiles ethnically Jewish. The terminology in scripture is always quite distinct.

Paul again, this time to the Corinthians:
“Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.”
Once again, the apostle sees no confusion between these groups, unlike today’s Replacement Theologians.

Missing the Boat

After careful examination, I am satisfied there is simply no warrant in the text of the New Testament for conflating Israel with the Church; not one single unambiguous assertion that the Church is “Spiritual Israel” to be found anywhere in the word of God.

Replacement Theology does not arise organically from the pages of scripture. It has to be imported there, fully developed, in the definitions and assumptions of readers whose carefully constructed theological sand castles depend on it.

For better or worse, the Church is NOT Israel. It was and remains something different: its calling is heavenly, not earthly; its relationship with God is characterized by grace rather than law; and it relates to Jesus Christ as Lord rather than King. That’s just for starters. If we imagine the Church to be the final inheritors of Israel’s earthly legacy or the perfectors of God’s purposes through mankind, we have missed the boat. Spectacularly.

Still, there is much the Church can learn from Israel’s history. Jacob despised his brother, stealing his blessing and his birthright. That’s one trick we are better not to imitate.

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