The Church and Israel

4159116430 Perhaps you have run into a Messianic Jew or a member of the Christian Zionist movement and have wondered how their views stack up against Scripture in able to better converse with them.  The following is a helpful essay by Dr. Michael Horton, writing from a Reformed and covenantal perspective, on how Christians should consider Israel in relationship to the church in New Testament times.

The center of the entire prophetic forecast is the State of Israel,” declares prophetic pontiff, Hal Lindsey. On May 14, 1948, Israel became a nation again and, writes Lindsey, “For this reason I am convinced that we are now in the unique time so clearly and precisely forecast by the Hebrew prophets. Thus, all the various prophecies will come to pass during this generation.”

The Dispensationalists have maintained that the prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel regarding a future restoration of Israel are fulfilled in the recreation of that state in 1948. What about this? Is that what the prophets had in mind? A further question must then be asked: Are the promises God made to Abraham fulfilled in the Zionist movement or in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? But first things first: 1948.

Ezekiel prophesies, “I will now bring Jacob back from captivity and will have compassion on all the people of Israel, and I will be zealous for my holy name” (39:25). Daniel’s prophecies are delivered in 530 BC, just fifty-five years after Ezekiel’s and also point to a future restoration of a now destroyed nation of Israel. During Ezekiel’s ministry, the nation is dismantled and carried off into Babylonian captivity and both prophets are offering the people hope in the midst of tragedy. One hundred years later, the promises made through these two prophets are fulfilled as Nehemiah and Ezra are allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem with released exiles. The walls are rebuilt, God’s people return, and although they are an imperial satellite, Babylon’s rulers empty their own treasuries to assist in the rebuilding. This is all in line with the prediction that God will bring His people out of exile back to Jerusalem is finally fulfilled. A new temple is even built with the assistance of the Persian king.

All of this was fulfilled within a century of the prophecy. The temple was rebuilt, sacrifices were renewed, the city was rebuilt, and the exiles came home. So much for 1948.

Of course, there are predictions made, by Daniel, for instance, which require fulfillment beyond the return under Nehemiah. One example is the vision of the four kingdoms–Babylon and Medo-Persia (two empires which existed during Daniel’s own lifetime), and Greece (second century, BC) and Rome (first century, BC through first century AD). All of these world empires will collapse, two of which Daniel knew first-hand, while the latter two were fulfilled as late as the first century AD. These earthly empires would never outlast the empire of the coming One who will finally bring all of His scattered tribe (Jew and Gentile alike) home: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (Ez 34:23). It was just this prophecy which Jesus proclaimed Himself to be fulfilling in His self-designation as the Good Shepherd in John chapter ten. Thus, Ezekiel is not about Jewish Zionism in 1948, but about the return of the exiles in 440 BC and ultimately about Jesus Christ as the Son of David.

What about the destruction of the temple? Was it not predicted in the New Testament that there would be a final destruction of the temple and the city? Indeed, it was. “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ He asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” This is often taken to refer to a fulfillment in our own lifetime, and yet, when the disciples wanted to know what the signs of this would be, He said, “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death.” Doesn’t it sound like Jesus was preparing them for an immediate fulfillment? The fact is, this was fulfilled in AD 70, when the city was destroyed by the Romans, Jews and Christians were slaughtered and scattered, and the temple was destroyed to the extent that “not one stone” was “left on another.” The Roman emperor, proclaiming himself God, sat in the Holy of Holies, fulfilling the “abomination of desolation” predicted in Daniel. And if, after years of Dispensational teaching on the “abomination of desolation,” taking place during the tribulation, it is difficult to accept this interpretation, just look at our Lord’s own remark: “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken through the prophet Daniel–let the reader understand–then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Would the original audience not have clearly understood Jesus to be preparing them for events which were right around the corner? “So when you see standing in the holy place…”

Therefore, the prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel do not have to find their fulfillment in 1948 or in any other period which coincides with remarkable current events.

The second question, however, is of more central concern: Is the modern state of Israel and Zionism in general the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham? Classical Dispensationalism presents to programs of salvation, though recent revisions have toned down on the radical discontinuity. In classical Dispensationalism, God’s ultimate program involves the nation Israel. The Church is a “parenthesis” (Chafer), a sort of footnote or sidetrack in contrast to God’s main mission to save ethnic, national Israel.

We believe that this position gravely misunderstands the plan of God and the clear teaching of the Scriptures. In so doing, it risks offering false hopes to modern Jews of a plan of redemption which, at least in temporal matters, does not require the mediation of the world’s only Savior. If you think this is a caricature of the position, just attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Honor of Israel in Washington, DC. I did that one year and I remember fundamentalist preachers and prophecy “experts” leading the Jewish-Christian gathering in prayer “to our common Father–the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Now, if another group of Christians down the street had a prayer service of Christians and Moslems or Christians and Hindus, it would be considered a basic denial of the uniqueness of Christ and His mediatorial work, but for these people, Jews evidently did not need the Gospel, for there was no reference to it even in passing. Not one prayer ended with the name of Christ.

The Apostle Paul would call this the Galatian heresy. “Understand that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture predicted that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. All who rely on observing the law are under a curse” (Gal 3:6-10). Thus, there are not two programs. Jews and Gentiles alike are “under a curse” and can only approach God and receive His promises by faith in Jesus Christ. To suggest that God is fulfilling promises to national Israel apart from Christ surely borders on heresy.

But God is not fulfilling promises to national Israel. The abomination that makes desolate in AD 70 did, in fact, make the temple desolate. While we rejoice with the persecuted Jews of the world in their homeland, there is no prophetic significance to the year 1948.

If we look very carefully at the promises made to Abraham (Gn 12:2-3), and the many warnings which follow throughout the Old Testament, the promise of the land is conditional upon Israel’s obedience. The promise of a final Promised Land and resting place, however, is by faith alone. Thus, the Old Testament patriarchs were not as interested in a plot of land as modern Dispensationalists. “By faith, Abraham made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country, for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised” (Heb 11:8-13). What? They didn’t receive the things promised? They were in the land, weren’t they? But the Bible says that this was not the ultimate promise. “They admitted they were strangers on earth [even in the promised land]. People who say such things who that they are looking for a country of their own.” But they had a country of their own! “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were looking for a better country–a heavenly one” (Heb 11:14-16).

So, you see, the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ and passed along to all those who belong to Christ by faith. Whether Jew or Gentile, all who are relying on the works of the law are still under a curse and apart from the Messiah there is no promise of anything but judgment.

“I ask then: Did God reject His people? By no means!,” writes the Apostle Paul, citing his own conversion to Christ as a Jew. “So too, at this present time (not some future time) there is a remnant chosen by grace” (Rom 11:1,5). In this present age, God is grafting in with Israel branches from alien, Gentile trees and forming one single family in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile….For all are one in Christ” (Gal 3:28).

If you are interested in reading further on confessional Reformed covenant theology, the following book by Revs. Zach Keele and Mike Brown is a very helpful introduction.  I have a number of copies for purchase.

Sacred Bond

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For something more focused on end times theology from a Reformed and covenantal perspective, this book by Rev. Kim Riddlebarger is helpful as well.

Case for Amil

 

Baptism into Christ’s circumcision (Col. 2:11-12)

What does your baptism mean to you?  In the early church, baptism was taken very seriously.  It was not uncommon for new converts to Christianity – known as “Catechumens” – to spend up to three years learning the fundamentals of the faith before being baptised into God’s covenant community.  Unfortunately, in the church today baptism has lost much of its importance and significance.  For many, it is a just a distant memory of “something” that Jesus did.  That “something” is often unclear.  The fact that believers today at times get baptised over and over again is evidence of the misunderstanding surrounding this sacrament.  Like the Lord’s Supper, baptism can be for many churches an uncomfortable and confusing ritual at best.

But is this Paul’s perspective on baptism?  Not if the book of Colossians is anything to go by!  According to the Apostle, baptism belongs right in the thick of our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  In Chapter 1, the Colossian Christians have just heard a soaring description of the all-sufficiency and preeminence of Jesus Christ as creator and redeemer of the world.  In Col. 1:24-2:8 Paul shares how he is willing to gladly suffer as a follower of Christ and a minister of the gospel.  And then he encourages the Christians at Colossae to stand firm in Jesus in the face of false teaching that would exchange the liberty of the gospel for slavery to human works.

It is in the midst of this struggle of faith that Paul directs our attention to salvation in Christ and its sign and seal, which is our baptism.  In Col. 2:11-15, Paul shows how the reality of Christ’s death and the sign of baptism are intimately connected – in fact, for those of faith they mysteriously become one.  In our passage, Paul teaches that in baptism we have come to share in Christ’s circumcision death at the cross, which has brought us forgiveness of our sins and new life.  Baptism is God’s badge of ownership of us in Christ. 

God’s promise of salvation and circumcision

In the beginning of our passage in Col. 2:11, Paul uses another “in Him/in Christ” statement, which signals that he is about to tell us more about what it means to be united to Jesus by faith.  He writes: In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.  Now to understand Paul’s reference to circumcision here – which will also help with our understanding of baptism – we need some familiarity with its OT symbolic and theological meaning.  Generally speaking, circumcision was a bloody cutting off of the male foreskin that signified entrance into God’s covenant community (OT church).  The physical actwith hands” had no power to save.  But rather the external sign of circumcision pointed to a person’s participation, by faith, in the spiritual realities of God’s salvation.  In other words, it confirmed God’s promise of salvation made to Abraham in the early chapters of Genesis.  Circumcision was in the OT the sign and seal of the covenant of grace.

In Gn 15 God makes an unconditional or unilateral covenant with the patriarch Abraham.  Out of his eternal love, God makes an oath-bound promise to give Abraham an innumerable offspring with a land as an inheritanceYet, while God’s promise of redemption is a free gift from Abraham’s standpoint, it still had to cost someone: blood still had to be shed.  Remember that in Gen 3:15 God prophesies that salvation will come through the seed of the woman – the seed of Abraham – who will one day crush the head of the serpent, Satan.  But the seed of the woman will suffer in the process.  Why?  Because in order for God’s holy justice to be satisfied, the moral problem of human sin must be dealt with.  And this is what circumcision was supposed to teach Abraham and is illustrated for us in the peculiar ritual recorded for us in Gn 15.

Here we read that God confirmed or signed in blood his covenant promise to Abraham by passing through the bloodied bodies of a goat, ram, turtledove and pigeon cut in two.  By walking through the pathway of severed animal halves in dark of night God was swearing to be cursed if he did not keep his promise made to Abraham.  But it was also meant to confirm – like the sign of circumcision – that God would indeed be the one who would suffer the curse for sin in order to make his promise in Gen. 3:15 and to Abraham come true.  In other words, what we have in Gen. 15 is God’s covenant with Abraham and his offspring to walk the way of the Cross.

Two chapters later, in Gn 17, God makes the covenant of circumcision with Abraham.  Here, God makes such an intimate connection between circumcision and the promise of salvation, which it symbolised, that God calls circumcision “the covenant – in fact he calls it an everlasting covenant in your flesh.”  This teaches us that circumcision was inseparable from God’s covenant of grace.  This is why we call circumcision the sign and seal of the covenant.  It was supposed to teach Israel and confirm to them God’s sworn oath to save his people from their sins, which would one day be fulfilled in Messiah.

Now, consider for a moment the physical act of circumcision itself.  Israelite circumcision involved the pain and bloody mess of cutting away part of the male reproductive organ.  It symbolised partial judgment upon the individual, as well as the need for further and ultimate bloody judgment involving the whole person.  Yes, circumcision signified separation from the world unto God, but more importantly the need for complete purification from sin.  But, again, there is that big problem, isn’t there?  Sinful man can neither purify himself nor endure God’s fiery judgment.

Consider the striking illustration of this fact in Gen. 22 where God keeps Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, on the altar.  Why?  Because not even the cutting off of Isaac’s entire life could secure the promise made to Abraham. Not even the son of righteous Abraham was holy enough.  Instead, God provided the substitute of a Ram caught in the thicket.

In fact, throughout the OT we see that Israel was made to feel her impotence and powerlessness in the face of God’s call to purity and obedience.  For example, in Deut 10:16, God admonishes Israel: Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer be stubborn.”   However, Israel could neither change her heart nor remove the stain of sin; she could not produce the spiritual reality symbolised in physical circumcision!  Therefore in Deut 30:6, we find God’s promise that he alone would one day act, single-handedly,[He] The Lord will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

Our circumcision in Christ’s death

And, how has God fulfilled this promise?  He has acted in his Son.  Our hearts have been circumcised and our sins been washed away through the blood of Jesus

Therefore, beloved, to be in him – to be united to Jesus by faith – is to have the “circumcision made without handsthat Paul speaks of in Col. 2:11.  What physical circumcision with hands could not do, but only point beyond itself, God has fulfilled by cutting off his Son with his own hand of judgment!  The circumcision of Jesus has put an end to OT circumcision. The partial cutting away of the flesh of the male foreskin has given way to the crucifixion of Jesus.  Jesus alone has met the need for bloody purifying judgment that Jewish circumcision cried out for.

Jesus became like the bloody dismembered animal parts, and God has passed through them in flaming judgment on a cruel Roman cross.  Jesus became the substitute ram caught in the thicket.  He was burned on the altar of God’s judgment to make purification for our sins.  In his Son, God has made purification for sin, once and for all: by putting off the sinful nature or body of flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.”  Brothers and sisters, the wonder of faith is that together with Jesus we have entered the passageway of death and judgment for our covenant breaking for our sin, only to exit safely on the other side: dead to sin and resurrected to new life.

This sounds a lot like what Paul says elsewhere about baptism, doesn’t it?

Our baptism into Christ’s death

Notice how Paul continues his line of thought on circumcision in v11 and connects it to baptism in v12.  Notice how in the same sentence on circumcision – in the same breath – Paul introduces baptism.

Like circumcision, water baptism also symbolises the passageway of purification from sin through judgment and death.  In 1 Peter 3, baptism is likened to Noah’s ark passing through the floodwaters of God’s judgment.  In 1 Cor 10, the Israelites are described as having participated in the baptism of the Red Sea in which the pursuing wicked Egyptians were put to death.  In Luke 12, Jesus speaks of his impending death on the cross as his baptism.

Now, here in Col 2:12, Paul tells the Colossian Christians that their participation in the circumcision death of Christ also means their having been buried with him in baptism.”  Like circumcision for OT Israel, Christian baptism also signifies our undergoing God’s judgment in Christ’s death.

Do you see it?  Circumcision and baptism point to the same spiritual realities.  At the cross, circumcision and baptism overlap in the bloody judgment of God’s only begotten Son.

In Christ’s circumcision death, the centuries of partial bloodletting in physical circumcision came to an end with the floodgate of Christ’s atoning blood.  The OT sign of circumcision has been replaced with baptism as the NT sign of entry into the covenant community, the church.  The eternal life through death that bloody circumcision pointed forward to, the non-bloody sign of baptism points back to in Jesus Christ.  Our baptism teaches us that God’s salvation promise to Abraham has been fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This is why Paul can go on to say in v12b that not only does baptism represent our dying with Christ to sin, but our also being raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”  For Christ did not remain under the power of death, but overcame it, and therefore so have we.

Conclusion

Beloved, our baptism is the Spirit’s constant reminder to us that our life is found in Jesus and not us.  For no amount of good deeds, no matter how rigorous or impressive, can add to or replace God’s redemption of us in Christ.  This is the gospel truth we must believe, even when others tempt us and our own hearts tell us that God needs our good works in order to forgive us of our sins.

The thing is that according to Paul in v13, we are spiritually dead in and of ourselves because of our sinful nature.  But God in his mercy has made us alive together with Jesus by canceling our infinite debt to God created by sin.  Through Jesus, our record of obligation to God created by the law has been done away with.  It has been nailed to the cross.  In exchange for our record of death, we have received a place in the Lamb’s book life.

So, beloved, when you are tempted to doubt your salvation, remember the significance of your baptism into the death and the resurrection life of Jesus.  For in baptism, everything that Jesus has earned has become ours by faith.  In Jesus, we have overcome sin, death and hell.  In Jesus, we reign triumphant over every God-hating ruler and authority in this present evil age.  With Jesus, we will one day rule the world in heavenly glory.  May God grant us the grace to keep on coming back to out baptism until Christ returns.  Amen.

RCSS morning service, March 10, 2013