Two Reasons Why “Israel” Can Possibly Be a Spiritual Term for the “People of God”

Theological continuity between the testaments will no doubt create a close relationship between the Church and Israel. Viewing a “big-picture” theological portrait of the testaments, will provide a close relationship between the Church and Israel. I want to propose a continuity of a few theological thoughts that appear early in the OT and frequently reappear in the OT and NT undergoing various modifications. I don’t have another framework to think through, other than “theological modes”. That is, a theological thought will use a vehicle to communicate theology and this theological thought will frequently reappear throughout the testaments but with varying vehicles of communications.

Take for example the “vehicle” of Eden. Eden is viewed as the initial dwelling place of God; Beale, in The Temple and the Mission of the Church, views Eden as the first temple. However, throughout Isaiah and Ezekiel, Eden is subsequently viewed as a place of refreshment for the people of God in Exile as a land far off. Yet it will be the renewed created order (heavens and earth) in the remote future that will provide the fullest expression of Eden-like realities (God’s dwelling place, trees of healing, endless rivers, etc.). Though not fully explained in this small paragraph, Eden initially, as a physical place, also serves as a vehicle of sinless life and possibly an initial temple; the mode changed to refer to a land that would provide refreshment to those in Exile and final culmination with the New Heavens and New Earth.

Another theological Mode is that of the “Temple” of God. It morphed from a physical building, to Jesus, to the people of God, and finally to that of the New Heavens and New Earth (that contains no physical temple). So, this “modal” type of communication is what I observe with the description of “Israel”. I appreciate John Feinberg’s article in Continuity and Discontinuity who argues for multiple meanings or expressions of “Sons of Abraham.” I want to do the same thing with the idea of Israel. I observe Israel as a national entity (Rom 11), the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as “Israel”, but in the following two arguments, I am arguing for a modal expression of Israel to include the entirety of the “People of God.” Therefore, Israel not only expresses a national people group but is a term used (by some biblical authors) to express the full expression of the people of God.

I’m not too comfortable with supersessionism but I do know this idea comes close. I am however uncomfortable with the counter theological position of a strict distinction between Israel and the Church. Israel is not an expression always used to express the Church or the entirety of the People of God, but is a term to include those two.

(Note: I find this topic to provide too much divisiveness, and that is not my intent. I don’t observe this topic to be a reason to disavow fellowship [and in some conversations, that is my impression]. However, the theological implications of Gentiles being heirs of numerous OT promises are great and I am still working through the implications of this theological shift in my thinking.)

Reason #1: Covenant Israel Titles Applied to the Church

A less clear example, though nonetheless, helpful in the transference of titles from a national entity to a new people group, the picturesque imagery of 1 Peter 2.9–10 offers a new role for the Church. As seen in the inauguration of Mosaic legislation, Israel receives specific titles as they relate to the world. They are a “treasured possession”, a “kingdom of priest”, and a “holy nation” (Exod 19.5–6).

When the reader observes the similarity in titles given to the church in 1 Peter 2.9–10, a clear transference of Israel to the Church rings with more clarity than the Church being the “Israel” of God. However, the Petrine Church has the same names and spiritual qualities as that of OT Israel.

However, it is the entire literary argument of 1 Peter 2 that argues for a transference of a new name to the people of God. Temple theology ran through the veins of every Israelite (Beale argues for the Garden serving as the proto-temple). When observing the “big-picture” of biblical revelation, the idea of “Temple” morphs through the historic timeline of Scripture. By the time the reader picks up the Gospel of John, their “Temple-Theology” is shifted again with Jesus serving as the “true-Temple”. Moreover, once Pauline theology is developed, the people of God serve as the next expression of the “temple” or residing place of God.

In like-manner, Peter uses this same Temple language and applies it to the people of God with Jesus serving as the corner-stone. Thus, the temple is no more in the physical sense but the temple of God is the people. This literary change observes the same language and concept of temple, but changes the mode of its expression throughout redemptive history.

Therefore, with this backdrop of a literary shift, the people of God are given the same spiritual titles of Israel. Any reader comprehends these titles given to national Israel are then given titles of the Church. In the same manner of a modal change of a Temple, so is there a modal change of Israel from a national people group to the full expression of the Church.

Reason #2: The “heard” and “saw” correlations in Revelations

In the book of Revelation there are plenty of literary parallels to go around. One of the frequent literary markers of Revelation is John’s continual use of the “I saw”, “I heard”, “I looked”, etc. Some of these present new sections of thought and provide a disjoiner to what preceded or preceded the assigned section. However, there are only three times in this book that John mentions that he “hears” something, immediately turns to “see” that which he had heard.

The first “heard–saw” correlation is found in Rev 1. In verse 10, we observe John hearing a voice behind him that sounds like a trumpet. Upon hearing what the voice like a trumpet had said, John turned to see the voice.

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.” Rev 1:12–13

Here we have John providing a direct correlation between what was heard and what he saw. The two are the same party; that is, the voice like a trumpet was from the one like a son of man.”

The second “heard–saw” correlation is found in Rev 5. Here we have one of the elders speaking to John about the Lion of the tribe of Judah.” John hears the Messianic description of the elder and then turns to see the object. However, I’m sure John anticipated in seeing the Messianic figure or the person of Christ, instead he sees something different.

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirit of God sent out into all the earth.” Rev 5.6

The elder told John to look upon the Lion of Judah, and upon turning he sees a lamb. It would be difficult to see a literal standing lamb but probably was the crucified Christ as the Pascal lamb. Either way what was heard and what was seen are the same object.

The final “heard–saw” correlation is found in Rev 7. Here we have John hearing a great number. In verse 4, John describes this number as a 144,000 from the people of Israel. They are further defined as 12,000 from the various 12 tribes. What is intriguing about this relationship is what John turns to see. One would expect to see a fair-skinned people group with various cultural and facial distinctive elements from ethnic Israel. Instead, we have John seeing something entirely different.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…” Rev 7.9

Therefore, with the previous two “heard–saw” correlations as the same figure, so is this final “heard–saw” literary feature. I would consequently conclude that though John heard Israel, he saw the entirety of the people of God and its great national diversity. John informs the reader that restored Israel is the great people of God before His throne. Consequently, “Israel” is not an ethnic people group, exclusively, but is now broadened to include the entire people of God.

* * * * *

The term “Israel” is, thusly, a literal term to express the national people group but is also a spiritual term to include the full expression of the “People of God.”

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