church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

One occasionally finds people who believe that the Old Testament is a Jewish book written for the Jews, while the New Testament is a Christian book, written for the Christians.  Though this odd popular perception is wrong, one does see how some people come to hold it:  the Old Testament focuses upon Israel as the people of God and as the center of God’s purposes, while the New Testament focuses upon the Church.   The question therefore is how do the people of Israel and the Church relate to one another?

It is a complex question, but an important one.  It is also one that sometimes excites emotion, especially given the lamentable history of anti-Semitism in the history of the Church.  I have little more to say here about such anti-Semitism apart from denouncing it as evil and demonic.  But I observe that both anti-Semitism and distress over Christian anti-Semitism both make poor lenses through which to view and exegete the New Testament material about Israel.

The New Testament material not only pre-dates the rise of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe, but also pre-dates the later radical distinction between Christians and Jews.  When the New Testament was being written, the disciples of Jesus who acknowledged Him as the Lord and Messiah, though denounced wittily as “Christians” in some parts of the Gentile world (see Acts 11:26 and 1 Peter 4:16) were known among themselves and their neighbours as followers of “the Way” (see Acts 9:2, 19:9, 22:4, 24:14).  That is, they were considered as another Jewish sect or movement, rather like the Pharisees or the Essenes.  It was only later, after the traumatic events finally obliterating the Jewish state and its Temple in 70 A.D. and 132 A.D., that a definitive parting of the ways (no pun intended) took place and the Way was understood as something incompatible with the Judaism from which it sprang.  Originally the quarrel between Christians and Jews (to use later terminology) was an in-house Jewish quarrel.

So, let’s begin our discussion of what the New Testament says about Israel and about how Israel and the Church relate to one another.   For ease of discussion, I will number the points.

1. The people of Israel remain central to the purposes of God on the earth. Thus Isaiah declares that Israel will blossom and sprout and will fill the whole world with fruit (Isaiah 27:6).  The glory of the Lord will arise upon Israel and nations will come to their light and kings to the brightness of their rising (Isaiah 60:2-3).  God’s purpose in creating a people from the descendants of Abraham and the patriarchs was not simply to provide a national backdrop for the Messiah.  Israel itself had a role to play in the salvation of the world.

2. After the national apostasy and defection of both the northern and southern kingdoms and their resultant exiles to Assyria and Babylon respectively, Israel remained languishing under the judgment of God even after their partial return to Palestine following the Babylonian captivity.  Once back the Promised Land, Israel continued to wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises to glorify His people and return to them in the splendour of which all the prophets spoke.

The Messiah was the One through whom all those prophecies would be fulfilled.  He was the One through whom Jerusalem, then under the power of the Gentiles, would be redeemed (Luke 2:38); He was the One who would redeem Israel from their continuing slavery to pagan domination (Luke 24:21).  It was only after Israel had been thus redeemed that they could play their role in bringing salvation to the rest of the world.

3. The tension between Jesus and groups such as the Pharisees began early in His ministry, as Jesus constantly contrasted God’s requirements with the practices of the Pharisees.  These latter He referred to as “the hypocrites”, since they did not practice the good things that they preached (see Matthew 6:2, 5, 16, 23:1-3).  Indeed, Matthew’s Gospel contains a compendium of such criticisms of the Pharisees (chapter 23), comprising a dossier of prophetic denunciation.  The Pharisees were of course only one sect or movement within Israel, and did not then speak for every Jew.  Many Jews hearing Jesus (including some Pharisees) would have agreed with His critique of such hypocrisy (compare Mark 7:9-13).  Such denunciations should not therefore be read as levelled at “Judaism”, but at the practices of one movement within it.  (The suggestion that later Judaism came to be dominated by such a Pharisaic approach cannot be dealt with at length here.)

More contentious were our Lord’s claims to Messianic status with which He began His ministry, and which were instantly a source of controversy.  At His first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth when He claimed to be the One that God had anointed to bring good news to the poor—i.e. to be the Messiah—His claim was brusquely rejected by His hearers, who promptly hustled Him out of the synagogue and out of town to the brow of the hill on which the town had been built to cast Him over the brink (Luke 4:16f).  His claim to have divine authority to forgive sins—to say nothing of His claim to equality with God—were also hotly rejected by most of the Pharisees, who viewed such claims as blasphemous (Mark 2:1f, John 10:30-33).

The division among the people over the claims and status of Jesus formed the background of the entire Gospel narrative:   “There arose a division again among the Jews because of these words.  And many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is insane; why do you listen to Him?’  Others were saying, ‘These are not the sayings of one demon-possessed.  Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”  (John 10:19). Eventually the opposition to Jesus hardened into a judicial decision:  “The Jews [i.e. the influential Jews who opposed Jesus] had already agreed that if anyone should confess Him to be Christ he should be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22).  This local decision would soon be multiplied in other locales as the tension between the followers of Jesus and their opponents grew in the decades to come.

Jesus predicted such opposition on the night on which He was betrayed.  Speaking to His apostles, He said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.  But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.  If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also…They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.  And these things they will do, because they have not known the Father, or Me” (John 15:20, 16:2f).  The opposition from His foes that characterized His ministry would continue in the future decades.

4. As is well-known, the opposition to Jesus from certain circles in Judea (i.e. from “the Jews”) eventually led to His arrest and crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.  For pretty much everyone at the time, Jesus’ death on the cross constituted the decisive refutation of His claims to be the Messiah, since the Messiah was, by definition, the One who would defeat the Romans and exalt Israel to a place of supremacy in the world.  Why then, one must ask, did the apostles persist in proclaiming that He was the true Messiah after all?  The answer:  because of His Resurrection from the dead.  His bodily Resurrection on the third day proved finally and decisively that He was not a false-Christ or a false prophet, but that His claims to divinity and to be the Christ were true.

But this meant that the very essence of what it meant to be Messiah—and with it, Israel’s role in the world—must necessarily undergo a radical transformation.  Since Jesus was the Messiah, all the prophetic promises for Israel’s glorification had been and must be fulfilled in Him—not politically, but spiritually.

But this transformation of the role of the Messiah also meant a transformation of the way those prophetic promises were read and understood.  Those promises had been understood as having a political fulfillment:  Israel would be exalted to a place of worldwide international prominence, ruling the globe politically in much the same way as Rome was then ruling the globe.  Now the promises for Israel’s glorification must be understood as having a spiritual and eschatological fulfillment.  That is, Israel was to be glorified through their sacramental incorporation in a glorified Messiah, so that the promises for glory were fulfilled through the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus and the believer’s participation in that glory.

This paradigm shift from the this-worldly to the eschatological, from the political to the spiritual, was hard for the Jews of that time to accept, since they were suffering under the oppressive boot of Rome and longed for liberation.  That is why there was such resistance to the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel and declaration that Jesus was the longed-for Messiah.  A crucified Messiah—and by implication, a non-political Kingdom—was “a stumbling block to the Jews” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  They did not want a Messiah who allowed Himself to be crucified by the Romans.  They preferred someone like Barabbas—a Zealot who least was prepared to die in his struggle against Rome (Mark 15:6-11).

All of this re-ordering of the expected fulfillment of the prophetic promises from a political Kingdom to a spiritual one followed inevitably from the belief that Jesus was the Messiah.  The Messiah was originally believed to be the One who would bring in a political Kingdom for Israel.  Jesus clearly did nothing of the kind, so that many Jews in His day rejected His claim to be the Messiah.  But when His Resurrection vindicated and proved His claim to be the Messiah, a radical re-ordering of the understanding of the Kingdom became necessary.  The nature of the expected Kingdom of God therefore depended entirely upon whether or not Jesus was the true Messiah (as the apostles claimed) or a false Messiah (as His Jewish opponents claimed).

5. Since Jesus was the Messiah and since the prophetic promises for the glorification of Israel found their fulfillment in Him, those who accepted this Message were the ones who experienced the promised glorification.  That is, the prophetic promises found their fulfillment in His followers, so that His followers therefore were the true Israel.  The Church therefore did not replace Israel in a kind of covenantal supersessionism.  The Church was Israel—specifically the faithful remnant that Paul declared existed in every age (Romans 11:1-5).  The part that Israel was to play in the salvation of the world (see Isaiah 27:6) was now to be played by the faithful remnant within the nation—that is, by the Church, the true Israel.

That is why Paul refers to the Church as “the commonwealth of Israel” and as “the Israel of God” (Ephesians 2:12, Galatians 6:16).  For not all of racial or national Israel, (or in Paul’s words, “Israel according to the flesh”) were the true Israel (see Romans 9:6).  Those Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah had no part in the true Israel in which the prophetic promises were now being fulfilled, any more than did the Israelites who worshipped Baal in the days of Elijah.  The followers of the Way were the faithful remnant.  In this the Church’s claims were not so different from the claims of the Essenes, who similarly claimed to be the faithful remnant in the midst of an apostate people.

This also lay behind the meaning of the denunciation in Revelation 2:8 and 3:9 of the local Jewish population in the cities of Smyrna and Philadelphia who were strident and effective in their persecution of the local Christians there.  In Revelation 2:8 John presents Christ as saying to the Christians of Smyrna, “I know your tribulation and your poverty and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan”.  In Revelation 3:9 we find another such word to the Christians of Philadelphia, referring to the local Jews as “those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie”.  (Exegetical note:  the hostile reference to the “synagogue of Satan” presupposed the local Jewish persecution of the Christians of those cities, and should not be universalized to refer to all Jews everywhere.)

It was understood by the Church that the true Jews were the Christians.  Israel found its destiny and glory in Jesus, and so the ones who acknowledged Him were alone the true People of God.  (It is significant in this regard that in Revelation 7 the Church was imaged as 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel, and that in chapter 11 it was symbolized as the Temple of God.)  The answer to the question, “Which group is the true Israel?” (as far as the Christians were concerned; the Essenes had other criteria) depended upon the answer to the question, “Was Jesus the Messiah or not?”

Next:   Israel in the New Testament  2 – Ongoing tensions between the Church and the Synagogue

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.