Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Sign of the Covenant (Part One: One Covenant People of God)

The premise I want to assert in this post is that Scripture teaches that there is only one people of God throughout redemptive history.

To some this may sound strange. Maybe you've never thought about it or maybe you've just assumed it. But I can't take that chance. We need to proceed (as much as possible) in agreement on this fact. So what do I mean and can I prove it from Scripture?

I mean that Scripture is held together by a central theme: God is glorifying himself by redeeming his people from their sin by means of a redeemer; that the phrase there, "his people", means that the object of his redemptive acts (in other words, those to whom he has made the promise to redeem them, and to whom he is keeping his promise) are a single community, defined by their relationship to God: He is redeeming them.

Now the Old Testament case is pretty straight forward. In fact, as far as I know, everyone on both sides of the argument can agree on this: In the OT, there is only one people of God. That people is Israel. God calls them his special possession in Deut 7:6...“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”

This is also easily demonstrated by the entire OT narrative. God is the God of Israel. He gives them a land, a law, is their King, blesses those that bless them and curses those that curse them. He punishes them as a father does his children and then destroys those nations that he used as the instrument of judgment. I don't think I need to belabor this point. If you need more evidence, please let us know in the comments section.

One last point. God uses an important metaphor when speaking of his people in the OT. He calls them his bride. In Hosea they are a wife unfaithful to him. Isaiah uses this imagery to speak of
Israel several times. 62:5 is one such example: “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” Jeremiah uses this as well in 2:2 and 2:32.

The argument, however, arises once Christ has finished his earthly ministry. After the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ we come to the Acts of the apostles. In this Scripture we find the gospel going out to the gentiles and what seems to be a new designation, the Church. Is this church separate from Israel? This is important. If we answer no, they are not a separate people, they are part of the one people of God, then that continuity will give us a very particular perspective on the OT. When God speaks to Israel in the OT, he speaks to his ONE people. What he has said to them, he has said to us. If we say yes, they are separate from Israel, then this discontinuity will cause us to more easily dismiss much of what is said in the OT. I don't mean we will ignore it. But it will be a message for "them" in many regards and not for "us". So what do we find?

Paul teaches in Romans 11 that the gentiles have been grafted into the tree which is Israel. Look at 11:17 and 24. The gentiles are grafted in. The tree (in 24) is "their own" (that is, Israel's). Notice there are not two trees. There is one tree just as there is one people of God. And what makes them one people? It is the root they share. The root is Christ. (11:18)

Keep reading. Look at 11:25-26. Paul distinguishes between ethnic Israel and gentiles in v25. A partial hardening has come upon Israel (that is, ethnic)* until the fullness of the gentiles has come in. But in vs 26 Paul uses Israel in speaking of both together! "And in this way, all Israel will be saved."

"And" obviously connects the thought to the previous verse. "In this way" refers to the partial hardening of the Jews so that all the elect among the gentiles can be brought in. The result of these two actions, the hardening and the coming in is that "all Israel will be saved." To say it another way, the reason there is a partial hardening is so that the gentiles will come in and therefore all Israel will be saved, since without the elect gentiles, some of Israel would be lost. If Paul is applying the term Israel to the gentiles in the NT, how can we argue that they are not part of the one people of God?

But we aren't finished yet! Go to Ephesians 2:11-22. Paul here teaches that the gentiles "were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." That's pretty strong language. What is the situation of these gentiles (at the church at Ephesus) at the time that Paul is writing to them? Look at vs 13. "BUT, NOW in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [as he has just described in the previous verses] have been brought near [the opposite of being far off, and therefore the opposite of everything Paul had just asserted about their previous condition] by the blood of Christ." So what is the opposite condition? These gentiles are now united to Christ, citizens of the commonwealth of Israel, recipients of the covenants of promise, having the only sure hope and the God of Israel as their God. This is not a separate people of God, but a people that has been joined to the one people of God. And in case we missed it, Paul says it outright for us in vs14-15. "For he himself is our peace, who has made us BOTH ONE and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility...that he might create ONE NEW MAN in place of the two, so making peace." Is there any doubt that God only has one covenant people? One people to whom he has made the promise of redemption and in whom he is working out this promise?

Let me close by bringing you back to the OT image of a bride. God's people, Israel, are to him a bride in the OT. In Revelation the church is called the bride no fewer than four times: 19:7, 21:2, 21:9, and 22:17. If Israel and the church are not the one people of God; if they are not one and the same "person", then what are we to make of God's calling us both his bride?

The reference in Rev 19 is in the context of the wedding supper of the Lamb. The Lamb is Christ. The bride is his church. The two are finally to be joined in an amazing celebration that is clearly part of the culmination of redemptive history! Those that teach two separate peoples of God also teach that this supper takes place in heaven during the Great Tribulation when God's other bride, Israel, is still on the earth. Does this make sense to you? It is especially confusing when one considers that the image of a wedding feast is entirely Jewish. This image steeped in Jewish cultural meaning will not be attended by God's bride, Israel. Instead, it will be attended by his other bride, the Church. I'll leave it to you to work out the disturbing implications of this.

Scripture teaches that there is only one people of God throughout redemptive history.

This is my assertion. Are we all on board? If not, let me know. What passage(s) of Scripture do you think I have failed to take into account? I want to make sure we have a well-founded assertion that most of us can agree upon before we move on.

*I concede for the sake of argument that this is a reference to ethnic Israel in vs 25. Whether it is ethnic or not does not effect my argument. However, there is a case to be made that the reference is not to ethnic Israel, but to spiritual Israel. I have no interest in wrestling with that in this context.

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