Saturday, January 18, 2014

TorahBytes: A Permanent Choice (Mishpatim)

Thus says the Lord: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I will reject the offspring of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his offspring to rule over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them. (Jeremiah 33:25-26; ESV)

One cannot read the Bible without noticing the central role of the people of Israel. It’s not that the Bible is only about Israel. The Scriptures are about God. Not any god, however; but the God of Israel. And it is within the context of this particular nation that the only true God has revealed himself to the world. The centrality of Israel is not the case only in the Hebrew Scriptures, that part of the Bible commonly referred to as the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. All but one of the New Testament writers are Jewish, and all write from the perspective of a Jewish worldview. The New Testament constantly quotes or alludes to the Hebrew Scriptures and tells us that the Old Testament stories are life lessons to learn from (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:6). Most importantly, Yeshua (Jesus) himself cannot be fully understood apart from his being the promised Messiah of Israel.

There are many Christians who acknowledge the special place of Israel in the Bible, but only in the past, the ancient past. They claim that with the coming of Yeshua their special role within God’s plans and purposes came to an end. Many conclude that since most Jewish people don’t accept Yeshua as the Messiah, God has given up on them. Having had their chance, they blew it. Others don’t take such a negative position. They see the Messiah’s coming as ending Israel’s exclusive claim to be God’s chosen people and regard the whole community of Jewish and Gentile believers as the new Israel, the old Israel becoming non-Israel. Either view claims that the Israel of the Old Testament has run its course—great for Bible teaching object lessons, but having no current relevancy.

But this is not how the Bible sees Israel (do note that I am discussing Israel the people, not the Land or the political state – important issues for another time). Our reading from the prophet Jeremiah is but one of many passages that is clear that God’s commitment to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is unchanging. In Genesis chapter 12, God made a promise to Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him (see Bereshit / Genesis 12-13). This promise was passed on by God to Abraham’s son Isaac and to his grandson Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel after which the nation is called. The people’s subsequent history with God would be a difficult one, but God’s adoption of the nation as his special possession was not conditional on anything but his promise to them.

Another way that some Christians undermine the continued legitimacy of Israel’s chosen-ness, is by asserting that even in Old Testament times there was an authentic Israel within the nation as a whole. This way of thinking has some legitimacy, since the faithful ones within the nation reflected what God intended for the whole. Still, God’s commitment to the whole is never redefined or undermined. Even though individuals who neglected to live in right relationship to God failed to receive many of the benefits of chosen-ness, they always retained a claim to it. Also, whether or not the people of Israel trusted and obeyed God, God always used them to accomplish his plans and purposes on the Earth. If only the faithful within the nation are regarded as Israel, then why does God say what he does through Jeremiah? The reason for such words of commitment is only due to the ongoing unfaithfulness of the majority as they were facing judgment.

It can be difficult for Christians to understand the ongoing chosen-ness of the people of Israel, since according to the New Testament the basis of right relationship to God has always been a matter of faith. Doesn’t the unfaithfulness of the majority of the nation, therefore, discount any claim it might have to the status of being God’s chosen people? What Christians don’t often grasp is that the national covenant relationship of Israel established by God through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not identical to the individual covenant relationship established by God through faith. For someone, Jew or Gentile, to have a right relationship with God personally, they must repent of their sins and put their trust in Yeshua as Messiah. At the same time, God has made particular promises to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; promises he will keep no matter what.

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