God made a covenant with his people — Israel — to make them a great nation. He would also send a Savior to rescue Israel from oppression. That Savior ushered in a new religion: Christianity. Israel was no longer the sole recipient of God’s grace and care, yet Israel is still important to a full understanding of God and of the Christian faith.
The Importance of Israel
God had chosen Israel “for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:2). We must get to know his beloved people for at least five reasons:
1. Their interactions with God reveal his character. The Bible demonstrates and displays God’s mercy, righteousness, reliability, consistency, wrath, love, goodness, glory, power, etc. towards his fickle nation, Israel.
2. Through this relationship, God created evidence by which skeptics could test his omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness.
3. Jesus emerged from Israel.He told his prophets that God would come down, and he would be an Israelite whose lineage could be traced back directly through the great patriarchs.
4. Christ connected Israel with the New Church.
5. By their pattern of sin and redemption, Israel repeatedly plays out the gospel and foreshadows the coming Christ.
Israel and the Character of God
Zephaniah 3 says a lot about the Lord’s formidable anger, justice, and jealousy. He told his people what he wanted from them, but they disobeyed. He said, “Surely you will fear me;
you will accept correction” (v. 7). They did not, so the Lord promised, “to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all my burning anger; for in the fire of my jealousy all the earth shall be consumed” (v.8).
His wrath would not burn forever, though: later verses look forward to a time of relief, speaking of that day in the past tense as a reality in which Israel could place their trust. “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil” (v.15).
Israel had constantly turned from God to the worship of idols. They forgot his covenant promises, but he kept his covenant mercifully in spite of their rebellion. “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 1:19-20).
Christians rely on God’s consistent mercy because, like Israel, we rebel and fall away continually. We need to revere him and trust that his discipline is good because by his righteousness God will punish those who oppress his people.
We see Egypt’s army crushed by the waters of the Red Sea. Later, we watch Joshua lead God’s people across the Jordan on dry land to take possession of their new home. “As soon as all the kings of the Amorites [...] and all the kings of the Canaanites [...] heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them” (Joshua 5:1). We tremble before him in awe and with love, but the enemies of God’s people will be utterly destroyed.
Setting the Test
Jesus said, “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7). The Lord himself, however, established a covenant by which he could be tested. “The LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. [...] Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:43-45).
God made two promises to Abraham. Firstly, as Earl L. Henn explained, he promised to make him “the father of many nations” and they would “inherit the land of Canaan.” But he also said this inheritance would extend to “the whole world” referring to “Abraham’s spiritual descendants” in Christ. His promises came to pass, which enables us to trust that the final future promise for Abraham’s spiritual descendants (Christians) will also take place.
The Lord is reasonable, and in his reasonableness, he expects people to ask good questions. These are the ways by which we test his Word, and he answers those questions. While we must accept some level of mystery, typically God provides solid answers to our questions if we are willing to dig into the material he has provided, especially the life of Christ as presented by the gospels.
Jesus Emerged from Israel
Prophecies, such as the one in Psalm 132:11-12 about the throne of David being occupied by one of his own sons forever, point to Christ. He is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. He came as their Savior, not to conquer physical opponents but to defeat sin, which is their (and our) biggest and worst foe.
He also united Israel in his person, while also grafting Gentiles onto the Vine. “Paul says that the Old Testament promises about God’s preservation [...] apply to Jewish Christians.” Moreover, he clarifies that the nature of being a Jew is less to do with one’s blood line than with one’s heart. Those who stopped loving God were essentially Gentiles according to Paul’s logic.
As Jared Compton explains, much of Israel was “disconnected from the olive tree and in desperate need of mercy.” They had “broken off from the tree and, like the Gentiles who are “a wild olive shoot, were grafted in [...] and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree” (Romans 11:17).
A Big Family Olive Tree
If Israel is no longer Israel, what is she? Compton says she is the church. God’s people in Christ are the church, just as Israel was God’s chosen nation. God’s promises to Israel for salvation “are fulfilled by Israel and in the church. Paul, in fact, draws a pretty straight line from Old Testament referents to their New Testament fulfillment” (Ibid.).
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
Peter is speaking about the church, the body of Christ. “We are not a race in the sense of our family, ethnicity, skin color, or country of origin. We are a spiritual race, [...], we share a single spiritual Father.” and are set apart from all other nations.”
When God chose his people to be set apart for him, it would seem that the rest of the world was excluded. At times, however, Scripture foreshadows the inclusion of Gentiles in his plans to save the whole world. Hosea refers to those outside of Israel (Gentiles) in 2:23. The Voice Translation puts it this way: “I’ll rename her Mercy. I’ll tell Not My People, ‘You are now My People!’ and he’ll respond, ‘You’re my God!’”
Christ is the pivot point. He connects the Old and New Testaments, just as he connects Israel and the Gentiles. Jesus addresses anyone who will listen; eats and drinks with any person who wants to know more about God. Pure Jewish blood or an unbroken record of religious observance was not the way to eternal life with God.
A Pattern of Sin and Redemption in Israel
Without knowing it, Israel was reinforcing the gospel in the Old Testament by their desperate need for God’s grace over and over. James M. Hamilton Jr. points out that “as ugly as Israel’s adulterous faithlessness has been, it cannot extinguish God’s resilient, redemptive love.” Israel was like a faithless wife, sleeping around with other gods.
Their righteousness came from God; they could not keep his commandments in their own strength. They could not pay for their sin. Israel is important to us as Christians because we see that God’s chosen people were not better than us because they were more religious. We are not less than them because we are not Israelites.
And we also see that, from the start, though he set Israel apart, there was an expectation that Israel’s dispersion and apostasy would lead to offshoots, which would be grafted into the true Vine because of God’s grace and mercy through Christ.
The Future of Israel
Thomas D. Ice wrote that “the Jewish people are going to have to be Believers in Jesus as their Messiah in order to be rescued by Him at the second advent. This is exactly what will happen.”
He cites Ezekiel 20:33–38 “that speaks of a Jewish regathering to their ancient land” prior to the Tribulation, before the purging of those who will not believe in the Messiah for salvation.
Christians watch Israel closely and follow the Messianic movement, waiting for the day when a full third of Jews are returned to their homeland and proclaim the name of Jesus. This will signal the End Times and the imminent start of our new, eternal life with Christ.
All who believe in Jesus for salvation are beloved by the Lord. We will reap the fruit of God’s promises to Israel, and we can have confidence in God because he has always been faithful to his people.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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