Why do we hesitate to enter into agreements that seem imbalanced or “unfair” to one party or the other?
One of the greatest divisions in protestant Christianity is between dispensationalists (many Baptists, non-denominational and Pentecostal churches) who read all the promises in the Old Testament as if they will be fulfilled literally to ethnic Jewish people at some time in the future, and covenant congregations who believe that the Jews in the Old Testament were God’s covenant people but the group expands in Christ to accept Gentile believers as well. Which is it?
If we can understand the promises made to Abraham—the father of the Jewish people!— and the New Testament affirmations about the identity of Israel, much of the confusion could be alleviated. The good news is that Jesus changes everything!
Genesis 12:3, 18:18, and 22:28
As we already alluded to the previous lesson, God’s promise to Abraham was a blessing to “all nations,” that is, all people groups on earth. Was Abraham alive to see that promise fulfilled? Hebrews 11 says “no.” The promise extended far into the future. But just how could such a promise be fulfilled?
- First, with the expansion of Israel. As the people of God prospered, so their influence was to expand. Other nations would be drawn to Jerusalem and Israel’s prosperity, as was the case in the time of Solomon. The more Israelites around the world, the more people groups could hear of Israel’s God, and His invitation to join in the covenant.
- Second, with preservation of the lineage through whom the Messiah would come. The promise in Genesis 3:15 continues through Abraham’s offspring, the hopeful future of God’s deliverer, a mighty one who would save His people.
- Third, by remembering that the other nations were God’s special care; Israel was privileged with a message about God, but not alone with the blessings from God. The purpose of God was not an “us vs. them” attitude, but an “us and also them” perspective. God loved all people, and desired a relationship with the nations (see Jonah’s experience)
- Fourth, by recognizing the messiah when He came, and joining in His work in the world. What a surprise that the Messiah should be God’s very own Son, not just another human on whom God put His stamp of approval.!
What did Israel do with the privileges afforded them to them as witnesses of God to the nations?
How did the Jewish people view the nations around them throughout the Old Testament narratives including the Babylonian exile, the 2nd Temple period (post-exilic period), and the 1st Century time of Jesus?
Remembering, and Deuteronomy 26:5
When Israel entered the promised land after Egyptian bondage, they were to remember their history. They were small in number, but God fulfilled the promise made to Abraham. Over and over in the first 8 chapters (and a few later on) of Deuteronomy, Israel was urged to remember, warned not to forget, the promises of God and His role in their deliverance. He was the one who was fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant of making them into a great nation, and of blessing them to bless others. Even the Sabbath command in Deuteronomy 5 urged them to remember that they had been slaves, and thus to treat their servants with respect and honor, as “humans whom the Lord loved.”
What role did forgetfulness and arrogance play in Israel’s failure to be a blessing to their neighbors? How might they have avoided the elitism that cropped up later? How might we avoid the same predicament?
True Israel: Romans 2, Ephesians 1-2, and Galatians 3
Paul was very clear about Israel, that in Christ, the doors open to accept the nations into fellowship with ethnic Jews. Together, they make up Israel, the faithful followers of God. This was a revolutionary idea, and Paul even calls it a “mystery” in Colossians, that Christ’s Spirit could dwell in the gentiles by faith just as in the Jews.
This is the ultimate consummation of God’s promise to Abraham, that in Christ, all the promises of God are “yes,” they are a blessing to all people. The Greek word for “nations” is also often translated “gentiles,” the word from which we get “ethnicity.” The Jews were racist in that regard. But in Christ, those boundaries fall and all are one.
How does it change one’s reading of the New Testament if “ethnic Israel” is no longer the main focus, but rather Israel by faith in the messiah, made up of blessed people from every nation?
Can there be a greater promise made to an individual in history than that made to Abraham about His descendants? And the powerful truth is that if you’re in Christ, you’re part of His offspring!