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"The Israel of God" and the New Testament

By Dr. Frank Stagg

 

When in 1948 the United Nations created the modern state called Israel, the age-old question of the place of the Jew in the purpose of God gained new importance for much of the world.

Many Christians, especially certain ones in the United States of America, have seen in this political state one step toward the fulfillment of God's work of redemption. These see Israel as the people of God. Others, Christian and non- Christian, strongly reject this interpretation, seeing in it a sanction for the action of the United Nations with its far- reaching effects for both Jews and non-Jews.

The Jews them- selves are not in agreement as to the significance of the state of Israel. Many Jews protest the idea of being a "chosen" race, having seen the strong resentments this idea has awakened in others.

The purpose of this paper is a limited one. It is concerned with what the New Testament means by the "Israel of God." The answer to this question may have far-reaching implications, for Christians at least, as to the meaning of the political state of Israel. The paper is not concerned with the action of the United Nations nor with the future of the nation Israel. This writer does not purpose to champion the partisan interests of any group. His conviction is that the true people of God include or should include persons from all nations and races. As a Christian he understands the New Testament to set forth as God's purpose the creation of a fellowship of persons in Christ transcending all distinctions of nationality and race.

The Israel of God

The people of God described in the New Testament at the church (ecclesia), the body of Christ, the Israel of God, or subjects under the kingdom (sovereignty) of God, and by various other terms, transcend all national and racial categories.

The people of God as described in the New Testament are not to be identified with any existing or future political state. The New Testament recognizes the importance of ordered societies and hence of political states, but never does it confuse the kingdom of God or the church with a nation or race of people. Reference to the people of God as the Israel of God is only an apparent exception, for in the New Testament the "Israel of God" is made up of Jews and Gentiles wherever and when- ever they may live.

The Bible is basically the story of what God has done and is doing for man's salvation. Since men are persons and persons are brought to their true being only in relation to persons, it is not surprising to see in both Old and New Testaments the purpose of God to create a redeemed people.

The Old Testament is built around God's calling of Israel.

In the New Testament major attention is given to the creation of a new community variously termed the church, the body of Christ, or the Israel of God. Jesus and the Church.

The New Testament is primarily concerned with Christ and his people. Jesus called people to himself, not just to a certain doctrine or practice. He formed a group of disciples about himself, and soon he made known his purpose to build his church (ecclesia), an indestructible fellowship of persons under the sovereignty of God.

From the four gospels it may be seen that Jesus found it necessary to resist false ideas about the work of Messiah and to correct his hearers at many points. Many looked for Messiah as one who would "redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). Even the disciples closest to Jesus entertained this idea, and after his resurrection they asked him if he at this time was to "restore the kingdom to Israel" (Acts 16). They obviously thought that the kingdom of God would emerge in terms of Israel's emancipation from Roman rule and her restoration to her former position among the nations. Jesus rejected this attempt to identify the kingdom with national Israel. He refused to be a Zealot leader, concerned with a political state. In fact, he did not identify himself with the special interests of any party of the Jews: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, or other known party. Jesus himself struck the death blow at artificial and superficial criteria for determining the people of God. He rejected the false distinction made by the Pharisees of his day between the "righteous" and the "sinners." He classed all men as sinners and called all men to the same repentance and faith (Mark 2:17). The Pharisees opposed him chiefly because of his rejection of their distinctions between "clean" and "unclean," between the "righteous" and the "sinners."

The Apostle Paul Paul is explicit in identifying the true Israel of God. He clearly distinguishes between national Israel and the true Israel of God, between Israel according to the flesh and spiritual Israel.

In Galatians 6:15 he wrote: "Neither is circumcision anything nor uncircumcision but a new creation." That is, the true people of God are not determined by circumcision or uncircumcision any more than by any physical condition or act. They are a special creation of God. In the next verse, Paul alludes to the people who are this new creation as "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16).

In First Corinthians 10:18 he referred to "the Israel according to the flesh," alluding to natural or national Israel as distinguished from the true Israel of God.

In Romans 9:6, Paul declared that "not all out of Israel are themselves Israel." The context leaves no doubt that he is distinguishing between those of natural Israel and those who are of Christ. In Romans 2328f. Paul distinguishes between the outward Jew and the inward Jew: "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not of men but of God." (American Standard Version).

Galatians 3:26-29 is equally clear: "For all ye are sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. For whatsoever ones of you who were baptized into Christ did put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor freedman, neither male nor female; for all ye are one in Christ Jesus. If ye are of Christ, indeed ye are Abraham's seed, heirs according to promise."

One of the most forceful of the New Testament portrayals of the people of God is found in the epistle to the Ephesians. This epistle is concerned with God's eternal purpose to create in Christ a new fellowship of persons, the church, the body of Christ. This new fellowship transcends the superficial distinctions of nationality and race and constitutes "a new man" (2:15), neither Jew nor Gentile. This is the true Israel of God, made up of people circumcised and uncircumcised, Jews and Gentiles. Paul is concerned to show how God has broken down the middle wall of partition (Ephesians 2:14) which had separated the "Circumcision" from the "Uncircumcision (Ephesians 2:11). Through the "Cross" Christ purposes to create in himself of the two (Jew and Gentile) one new man, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:15f.). This church (ecclesia) of God or body of Christ is thus the new or true Israel of God, transcend- ing the old distinctions of nationality or race. The true Israel consists of all the people of Christ.

The Early Christians The book of Acts traces much of the development of the Christian community through the early decades of its existence, and in this book it is made clear that the bitterest struggle was not over the person of Christ but over the inclusion of Gentiles with Jews in the fellowship of the church. It was not the preaching that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, that ultimately forced the Christian community out of the Jewish synagogues; it was rather the position that uncircumcised Gentiles were to be included in the church. In other words, it was the struggle between two concepts: Israel according to the flesh and the true Israel of God. The earliest Christians were Jews as was Jesus himself. The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus and the earliest Christians. Jesus and the earliest Christians worshipped in the synagogues and at the temple in Jerusalem. For some decades thousands of Jews were followers of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. At the time of Paul's last recorded visit to Jerusalem, he was told that there were myriads (tens of thousands) of Jews who had believed, all zealous for the law (Acts 21:20). By the end of the first century of the Christian era, however, it seems that the Christian community was almost entirely Gentile.

When the Gospel of John was written, the author, himself probably a Jewish Christian, referred to "the Jews" as though they were a group clearly distinct from the Christians. It seems that within the first half-century of its history, the Christian community changed from a Jewish to a Gentile constituency.

Why? Over what issue?

The book of Acts plainly indicates that the change represented the unwillingness of the Jew to continue in a fellowship in which "the Israel of God" included Gentiles as well as Jews. The book of Acts shows how the intention of God to save all who would believe and thus to create a new fellowship of people in Christ came gradually to be understood by some of the disciples. Philip and Stephen seem to have pioneered in the preaching of a gospel unhindered by limitations of nationality and race. Saul of Tarsus bitterly opposed this and then, following his conversion, became the chief exponent of the gospel designed for all men and a fellowship inclusive of all who would believe. In brief, Acts shows the triumph of a gospel unhindered. It also traces out the tragedy of the self-exclusion from the Christian community of the very people from whom it had its rise. Thousands of Jews were able to follow Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, their savior and Lord. But to surrender their nationalistic claims and lose themselves in a fellowship that transcended these lines was the rock over which they ultimately stumbled.

The tragedy of this is hightened by the fact that this very fellowship of persons was first championed by men of Israel, the prophets of the Old Testament. It must be remembered that in the New Testament the great champions of a universal fellowship transcending all narrow particularism of nationality and race were Jews: Jesus, Philip, Stephen, Paul, and others!

The great voices of Israel herself cry out against confusing the people of God with any nation or race.

Conclusion

This generation has seen the creation of the modern state of Israel. It is not the purpose of this paper in any way to contest or concede the validity, the rightness, or importance of this development. The state of Israel today is a nation among nations, and it must as a political state pursue its destiny as any other political state. It must be judged as any other political state.

But to identify modern Israel, the state or the Jewish people, with the "Israel of God" is to miss the teaching of the New Testament at one of its most vital points.

 


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