Israel of God

Lionel Windsor

In his recently published book, Paul and the Vocation of Israel (BZNW 205. Berlin / Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), my good friend and colleague, Lionel Windsor, discusses how Paul viewed his own vocation as Apostle to the Gentiles within the larger picture of Israel’s vocation as the classic people of God. Lionel has recently blogged about one of Paul’s often misunderstood phrases: the ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6.16. You can read Lionel’s short summary here, and even download an electronic copy of chapter 3 from his book.

I recommend Lionel’s work highly.

 

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Delusional Exegesis from Jefferts Schori

Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Click HERE for the text of a recent sermon by Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church in America, given at All Saints Church, Steenrijk, Curaçao (Diocese of Venezuela) on 12 May 2013.

In line with one of the respondents, I think this has to be one of the most delusional pieces of exegesis and theological extrapolation I’ve ever encountered. Jefferts Schori equates Paul casting out the demon from the Philippian slave girl (Acts 16), thus ending the exploitation by her pimps, as depriving her of her beautiful and holy gift. Apparently the demon in her was the Spirit of God!

Yep! You read that right. You can read the whole thing HERE to see that I’m not taking it out of context, but here’s an excerpt:


But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her
 [the slave girl] of her gift of spiritual awareness.  Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. […] It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.

This is what passes for biblical exegesis? By a bishop? A presiding bishop, no less? I’ve heard some shocker sermons in my time, but mangling the text like this to say the complete opposite of what it’s actually saying is breathtaking. How in God’s name can this be taken seriously?

God help us!

 

The Good Book

ABC Radio National’s Encounter program recently featured a piece titled The Good Book. The program looked at how the Bible is understood today as both literature (‘a good book’) and Scripture (‘The Good Book’). Among those interviewed were myself (George Athas) and some of my students from Moore College (Dan Wu, Tim Escott, Tom Melbourne, John Hudson), Cheryl Exum (Sheffield), Robert Alter (UC Berkeley), Lori Lefkovitz (Northeastern), and John Carroll (La Trobe). The range of contributors present an interesting collage of views about the Bible. If you’d like to take a listen, you can click one of the links below. The program is 54 minutes.

The Good Book (listen now online)

The Good Book (download mp3)

The Good Book (transcript)

A Rapturous Event: Jesus will take us all… by surprise

I’ve written a blog post for ThinkTank about the recent non-rapture of May 21st. Just click HERE to read it.

Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 3)

In the previous instalments of this short series, we critiqued two views pertaining to the restoration of Israel. We first saw that the restoration has nothing to do with the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948. We then saw, through Paul’s theology, that the Church does not replace Israel. Rather, ‘Israel’ continues into the Church. I now want to draw the threads together and argue for a third option, namely that Israel is restored through the apostolic testimony about Jesus, as attested in the book of Acts. This option is, I believe, more in line with the Bible as a whole.

Let’s return, then, to the question that the Apostles posed to the risen Jesus (Acts 1.6). When does he restore the kingdom to Israel? We observed how Jesus doesn’t repudiate the notion of Israel’s kingdom being restored. He simply tells his apostles, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority.” (Acts 1.7) This sets up the expectation that Jesus will indeed restore the kingdom of Israel, albeit according to the timing determined by the Father. Yet Jesus does not leave the issue there. He goes on to say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8) This is not some random prediction unrelated to the Apostles’ question. Rather, Jesus is clearly linking the restoration of Israel to the apostolic witness of him in the three classic loci of the nation of Israel: Jerusalem (the royal capital), Judea (that is, the southern kingdom of Judah), and Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel).

As we read on through the first eight chapters of Acts, that is precisely what we see happen. Starting with Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2), we see the Apostles testifying about Jesus in Jerusalem and, after being scattered by persecution (Acts 8.1), throughout Judea and Samaria as well. As this occurs, people from the disparate parts of Israel hear their testimony and come to acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. In other words, in the first eight chapters of Acts, we witness the reunification of Israel under its Davidic king. What the prophets of old had looked forward to now becomes reality as Jews and Samaritans both put their faith in Jesus as ruler, saviour, and Messiah, for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 5.31, 42). Here, then, is the beginning of Israel’s restoration. What’s more, this occurs with a fullness never before experienced, as those who would otherwise have been excluded from the inner ranks of Israel, such as the lame (Acts 3) and the eunuch (Acts 8), are enabled to become full citizens of restored Israel (cf. Isa 56). Only once the restoration of Israel under its rightful king, Jesus, is truly underway do we then observe the gospel going out to the Gentiles. In fact, the rest of the story of Acts (chs. 9–28) is the story about how the king of Israel, Jesus, becomes the king of the world, as the gospel eventually reaches the imperial capital, Rome.

The leaders of Israel at this time were the Jewish Sanhedrin. Luke describes them as ‘the full senate of the sons of Israel’ (Acts 5.21). They, however, fail to recognise Jesus, the one they had executed, as ruler, saviour, and Messiah (Acts 5.29–32). By this rejection of the apostolic testimony they are seen to be illegitimate rulers. Ironically, one of their number, Gamaliel, convinces the Sanhedrin to release the Apostles after their arrest, arguing that if their message was merely ‘the work of men’, it would die out, as many other movements within Israel had (Acts 5.38). The tragic irony here is that it was not the apostolic movement that died out, but the Sanhedrin itself. In rejecting Jesus, the Sanhedrin revealed itself as ‘the work of men’. When Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, it went the way of the other failed movements within Israel.

The implication of this is that the portions of Israel that failed to recognise Jesus’ kingship forfeited their status as ‘Israel’. Indeed, this idea seems to be behind Paul’s important statement in Romans 9.6 that ‘not all who are descended from Israel are Israel’. Paul views only those in Israel who have believed (or will believe) in Jesus as members of the true Israel. As such, when Paul states in Romans 11.26 that ‘all Israel will be saved’, he is not talking about everyone descended from Abraham. Rather, he is implying that only those ethnic Jews who believe in Jesus (following the example of Gentiles who do the same) are true Israel.

There are a number of implications that arise from our considerations.

Firstly, true Israel is no longer defined by geography or politics. If we take Paul’s view, true Israel is defined as those of Jewish ethnicity who believe in Jesus as Messiah. That being the case, we must conclude that the modern state of Israel has no particularly special place in the grand scheme of things. It should not be privileged above any other state entity. It should, rather, be treated as any other modern nation state.

Secondly, we should not be expecting a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity marking the last days of history as we know it. Paul was not envisioning such a thing in Romans 11.26. Rather, Paul was pointing out that because many Jews rejected the apostolic testimony about Jesus, the gospel was able to go to the Gentiles. And as Gentiles believed in Israel’s Messiah, Paul hoped that these Gentiles would then take the gospel back to the Jews. In other words, Paul was not predicting a sudden eschatological conversion of Jews against all previous expectations, but was rather advocating some good old evangelism. The entire gospel message is, after all, native to Israel—it is for the Jews first, and then also for the Greek (Rom 1.16).

Let’s now summarise. In the revelation of Christ and the granting of the Spirit, we see the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament fulfilled: the Messiah had come and God had poured out his Spirit, resulting in the restoration and, indeed, the transformation of his people, Israel. Yet, so monumental is this salvation that it affects all of humanity. Salvation occurs within Israel, but not just for Israel. The gospel breaks out beyond the confines of Israel and spills out to the nations. As the apostolic testimony of Jesus goes forth, the Church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, is built. The Church is not Israel renovated with an extra room out the back for Gentiles, for Gentiles are not called to become a part of Israel. Nor does the Church do away with Israel, for Jesus is the King of Israel, and the gospel is for the Jew first. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles together form one body, the Church, and together have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit (Eph 2.18). The Church is a truly international entity.

The scene that John depicts in Revelation 7 is perhaps a fitting way to wrap things up. In that scene John sees the multitude of the saved gathered around the divine throne. There are people there from every people group and language—so many that they cannot be counted. But at the forefront of this multitude John sees 144,000 people from Israel. This is a symbolic number, indicating both numerical size as well as the fullness of Israel (there are twelve tribes in Israel, and multiples of twelve abound in the symbolic number). In other words, we see what Paul describes as ‘all Israel’ (Rom 11.26). Here, then, is a magnificent picture of the Church: the fullness of restored Israel standing alongside a multitude of Gentiles before the throne of the Lamb who was slain for them all.

Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 2)

A second widely held view about the restoration of Israel is what might be termed the ‘Replacement’ perspective. This view states that the Church has replaced Israel in the purposes of God and has taken over all the prerogatives that Israel once enjoyed as the people of God. In other words, the Church is the ‘New Israel’.

There are some significant implications that stem from this view. For example, the actual ‘Promised Land’ (what is today the State of Israel and the territories of the Palestinian Authority) is no longer of any theological consequence in the scheme of God’s plans. Rather, biblical statements about the physical land are spiritualised either to refer to any place where God’s people meet, or to heaven, or to a recreated earth after the Day of Judgement. Also, if the Church is the ‘New Israel’, then spiritually all Christians are ‘New Jews’. However, this is where I believe the view comes unstuck. Let me explain.

Galatia

The Gentile churches in Galatia that Paul had founded during his journeys faced a significant problem after Paul left them. Apparently, Jewish believers came to them and demanded that they be circumcised (Gal 6.12). The point of this was to turn these Gentile Christians into Jews and, thereby, make them part of the covenant people of God, who alone had access to the special salvific blessings God had bestowed. After all, Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. This ‘Judaising’ view initially seems quite in line with the classic promises of God in the Old Testament, which were made specifically to Israel. However, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul was at pains to demonstrate to these Gentile Christians that they had already received God’s Spirit as Gentiles and, as such, were already party to the fullness of salvation without the need for becoming citizens of Israel (Gal 3.1–5). Now, the Judaisers, who were demanding a change of ethnicity in these Gentiles through circumcision, were not claiming that the Church had replaced Israel. They were, in fact, implying that Israel was the Church. However, in critiquing this ‘Judaising’ view, Paul also effectively critiques the Replacement view, for he denies that there is any ethnic (racial or spiritual) dimension to salvation. On the contrary, anyone who believes in Jesus, whether they are Jewish or Greek, male or female, slave or free, are saved children of God (Gal 3.28).

Artistic Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

Paul effectively faced the opposite problem with the Gentile Christians in Rome. Most of the Jews in the imperial capital, as throughout most of the Roman Empire at the time, did not acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s long awaited Messiah. In the eyes of Rome’s Gentile Christians this was just another sign of Israel’s continued history of obstinacy towards their God. They believed that God had finally abandoned Israel once and for all and now offered salvation to Gentiles. In other words, they believed Jews were a lost cause, and that to be a Christian was to be non-Jewish. Paul corrected this view by pointing out that the Jesus-centred gospel was actually for the Jew first, and then for the Greek (Rom 1.16). He urged Rome’s Gentiles to become living sacrifices (Rom 12.1) who would give up their legitimate freedom in the gospel (Rom 15.1–2) in order to serve the circumcised, just as Christ himself had done (Rom 15.8). In other words, Paul wanted the Gentile Christians of Rome to live in a way that attracted Jews to the gospel and helped them to recognize Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. In so doing, Paul states that Israel is still very much within God’s grand plans. God had not abandoned Jews (Rom 11.1–2), but rather was using their ‘hardening’ as an opportunity for bringing the gospel to Gentiles who, in turn, could then take the gospel back to the Jews (Rom 11.11–27).

What all these things show us is that God does not see saved Gentiles as a part of Israel, nor does he see the concept of ‘Israel’ replaced by a new concept called ‘Church’. The reality of ‘Israel’ continues into the ‘Church’, and yet Gentiles are not actually part of ‘Israel’. They are Gentiles! There is, in other words, a very clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the Church, and the distinction is such that the Church cannot really be viewed as a ‘New Israel’. In fact, the term ‘New Israel’ never appears in the New Testament. The earliest cognate we have for the term, as far as we can tell, is from Justin Martyr in the mid-second century AD in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. In this ‘discussion’, Justin, a Gentile Christian from Samaria, tells a Jew named Trypho that, because Jews had rejected Jesus, what had once belonged to Israel was now the preserve of Christians alone. For Justin Martyr, the Church had replaced Israel and become the ‘True Israel’ (Dial. Trypho 123; 135). I have little doubt that the Apostle Paul would have strongly objected to Justin’s view had they been contemporaries, since Justin’s view smacks of the elitism that Paul sought to correct in Rome a century earlier.

So where do we go from here? Hopefully, a way forward is beginning to suggest itself. But we’ll save a discussion of it until the next instalment in this little series.