Now we turn to a complex subject in Scripture. The issue of Israel and eschatology. It is complex for many reasons:
1) Definitions. What do we mean by the term ‘Israel’, and what does the Scripture mean by the term ‘Israel’.
We have the issue of race – to be born a Jew does that make that person part of Israel.
Or was it a matter of faith? We have a foreigner prostitute Rahab included among the people; we have Ruth a Moabite an ancestor of David and of Jesus.
That debate is alive in the NT: not all of Israel are descendents of Abraham (Paul); the Jewish sects – who is true Israel?
2) Then there is the issue of the land. What do promises such as ‘forever’ mean; same promises regarding priesthood and kingship.
So we have promises to Israel with regard to the land, but also with regard to a descendent of David on the throne, and to the continuation of priesthood.
3) And of course the biggest issue we face is that of fulfilment but does this mean that every promise pre-fulfilment has been nullified.
4) We have emotional issues that are tied up with the history of the people and we also have the remarkable continuation of a people without a land for centuries.
The emotiveness of the subject also connects with issues of justice. If we have personal relationship with those who are Jews or Palestinians that can certainly colour our convictions. We are also living post-holocaust and that is another element for us. In Europe we have had to rightly face the sins of our fathers over Israel and Jews: much of which was committed by those who claimed to be followers of Christ.
5) We also need to ask how the Israel of today relates to the Israel of the Bible: is there a straight line? What impact does the death of Jesus make on this issue? And even if there were a straight line between the two, this could cause us to ask what a current prophetic word for Israel would be? What would be said? How would the care for the alien and the outcast be framed? What would be spoken into the issue of warfare and arms?
6) And one final theological question, is to do with salvation. Is the Old Covenant still in force: do Jews today need to respond to Christ? Would, for example, a Jew zealous for the Torah, be classified as righteous, or as a sinner in need of salvation? We can sharpen the question by calling that Jew Saul of Tarsus. Did he need salvation through Christ or not?
Although the direction I am moving in will be apparent by the questions I have framed, the further complication is that of ‘the already but not yet’, that will always tend to give us some fuzzy boundaries.
We will not be able to resolve all these issues.
1) Christ is the centre of eschatology, and
2) the centre of eschatology is not future but past. The Christ Event has changed everything – we are living in a new world (yet of course the old decaying – in every sense – world is still present and visible and must be related to).
This has to radically shape our thinking. We cannot think of this issue without placing Christ at the centre. All of Scripture points to and is interpreted through him. We must make sure that our thinking about eschatology is not simply future-oriented. The end-time event has taken place in the Christ Event, which will be brought to a conclusion with the parousia.
So the NT must be the grid through which we understand the Scriptures. We live in a new era.
1. The centrality of Christ, Messiah of Promise and Saviour of the world
1.1 The promises:
All the promises of God are fulfilled in and through the Christ appointed by God. He is not periphery he is central. 2 Corinthians 1:20 says that No matter how many promises God has made, they are Yes in Christ. And so through him the Amen is spoken by us to the glory of God.
This has an impact on every OT promise (particularly as these are the ones Paul had in mind in 2 Corinthians), promises regarding covenant people, land, Temple and king.
1.2 Israel’s story:
In order to see how Christ as Messiah (Messiah is the representative one of the people) it is important to see what Israel’s call and role is in salvation.
They are as much the saving people as the saved people. Election is more to purpose than to salvific status.
The Biblical story is a framework of God blessing Abraham, and thus his seed, in order that they can be a blessing to the whole world. They are to be a redeeming nation, or the means by which the redemption of God can come to the nations. Their election is to a purpose. If they sin and persist then they will end in Exile (this is the message of the Deuteronomic historian who gives the basic outline that judgement came on the people for disobedience starting in 722 BC with the exile of the northern tribes, and again in 587 BC with the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon).
The situation we have at the end of the OT is that the redeeming nation themselves are in need of a redeemer. They are in bondage, and although back in the land, are still in some measure in Exile. The Temple cult is corrupt, the Roman forces rule the land, king Herod is a renegade subservient to Rome. This is not Israel, free to be the light to the world. She is waiting for her deliverance from this exile, she is awaiting the promised restoration.
This perspective is explicitly stated in the inter-testamental work of Baruch:
So to this day there have clung to us the calamities and the curse which the Lord declared through his servant Moses (1:20)
See, we are today in our exile where you have scattered us, to be reproached and cursed and punished for all the iniquities of our ancestors, who forsook the Lord our God (3:8).
So although there was a stream that rejoiced that there had been a return to the land after Babylon the verdict of history was of the Exile, at least in part, continuing.
All Israel is still in Exile just as before, whether she now finds herself in the land, which others rule, or in the Diaspora (O.H. Steck, Das Problem theologiischer Strömungen in nachexilischer Zeit, 1968, p. 454 quoted in Restoration of Israel in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, IVP.).
Tom Wright suggests that if Israel was not still literally in exile, it was at best in semi-exile.
From some points of view, the exile was still continuing: as long as the Herods and the Pilates ruled Palestine, the great prophecies of Ezekiel and Isaiah were still waiting fulfilment. The period which historians call postexilic was seen at the time as semi-exilic. Not until Israel’s God, the God of the whole earth, demonstrated that he was both of those things by liberating Israel from this internal exile would Jews be satisfied that the covenant had been kept. (Themelios, 16.1, p. 11; see also his seminal work The New Testament and the People of God).
This I suggest is the narratival framework of the New Testament in its approach to the OT story. I will seek to illustrate this in this podcast using Matthew’s Gospel and in the following podcast we will turn to other NT Scriptures.
1.2.1. Matthew’s Gospel:
The overall framework is the entire OT story indicating that it is reaching a climax in Jesus and a fulfilment in Jesus. Hence the many references to the fulfilment of the OT Scriptures. The book begins with The book or record of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. This places Jesus firmly in the line of the inheritor of the promises to Abraham and to David with a more than passing reference to the opening book of the Jewish Scriptures.
The book ends with a likewise more than a passing reference to the closing book of the Jewish scriptures 2 Chronicles. There King Cyrus says:
The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you may the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up.
This can be seen to bear close resemblance to Jesus words:
All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me, go make disciples, and lo I am with you to the end of the age.
Thus indicating that the rebuilding of the Temple is on the heart of God the Temple to be rebuilt is not that of an earthly Jerusalem but of a people whose citizenship is in heaven. The true king of Israel, the Messiah would indeed rebuild the Temple, hence Herod’s Temple came with Messianic claims. This is in line with Jesus own words about the Temple and its destruction. The destruction of his own body as Temple marked the end of the Temple in Jerusalem, but he would restore it again a reference to his Temple but not the Temple in Jerusalem. This issue of the rebuilding of the Temple throughout the whole earth is followed through consistently in scripture. It is a necessary follow up to the ripping of the Temple curtain at the death of Jesus. There death of Jesus does not simply restore a Temple in land, but press toward the fulfilment of all of history: a dwelling place for God throughout the whole earth. Holiness is not to be confined to space behind a curtain, but is to break out into the whole earth.
[Stephens speech also makes a big deal of the whole earth being the place of revelation for the Creator God (Acts 7). God is at work outside the land and does not want a Temple. Is it significant that he is the first martyr post-Jesus; that Saul of Tarsus is there receiving the cloaks of those who stone him, but perhaps also in line to receive the cloak that covered Stephen - the mantle of freedom.]
To return to Matthew. His opening chapter concerning the beginning of Jesus is one of setting his birth in the context of the end of exile. He divides the generations into 3 sets of fourteen. From Abraham to David 14 generations; from David to exile fourteen; and from the exile to the Christ 14 (1:17). Six groups of 7 generations so that the fulfilment generation,the seventh group of seven, begins with Christ. There has been a return to the land (in part) but the exile will only end with Jesus coming. With his coming we have Immanuel, God is with us not just in his birth but in his continued presence to the end of the age. The Exile is due to the sin of the people, but in Jesus there is the forgiveness of sins for his people in context this is not to be understood evangelically but theologically and narratively as the end of exile (1:21). It is the forgiveness of the sins of Israel so that Exile can end.
Jesus is then the redeemer of Israel in order to bring salvation to the world.
Whatever place of significance we give to Israel today, we cannot allow anything to obscure the centrality of Christ. The promises (all) are in and through him. A new day has come, not when Israel is the centre, but when Jesus – the faithful son who is called from Egypt is the centre. There is now only one mediator between heaven and earth.