The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

God’s wrath is of love. This is not something we normally think about, to be sure, but according to the Scriptures God’s wrath is in fact a function of His love, something He exhibits out of love. This is something which struck me a couple weeks ago when I read this text for a Sunday school lesson:

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress. Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.

Judges 2:11-16

The story here is this: Israel was delivered by the free grace of God from Egypt and given the Torah as covenant charter, a document establishing the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The Torah stipulated certain curses if Israel failed to obey, most importantly including devastation at the hands of foreign nations. They obeyed (mostly-ish) for a time under the strong leadership of Moses and then Joshua. But finally Joshua died, and idolatry flooded the nation in very little time. So God was under obligation by the terms of the covenant He entered to punish Israel for their unfaithfulness.

Thus we arrive at this text. In response to Israel’s breaking of the covenant, God responded with the curses of the covenant. They worshipped Baals and Astartes, breaking the first two commandments. So God let their enemies plunder the land, gave them failure in their military endeavors, and put them under wicked, oppressive rulers. When we simply skim some verses about this kind of judgment, we are likely to miss just how strong it is. Imagine for a moment the scene of raiders charging through a peaceful village, killing and burning and stealing. Moms search for their children in rubble, families are suddenly decimated, and hard-working people find their homes and livelihoods reduced to rubble. We speak here of horrendous suffering.

Does the word “love” come to mind in this picture? Do you see love here? Yet Scripture tells us that it is indeed present here. It’s in fact God’s original motivation. For these penalties were imposed by the Torah, which itself was a gift of love by which God made up His covenant with Israel. God chose Israel and made a covenant with them out of love, and yet He included these curses in His covenant. The curses are part of, as it were, the marriage contract between God and Israel.

This covenantal form of love is the context for God’s wrath. His wrath operates for the covenant partner. By sending afflictions on Israel for their unfaithfulness, God calls them to return to Him and find the life which He has to offer. If there is no life except from God, then for Israel to pursue anyone or anything else is to run from life. Therefore it is by love that God is angered by Israel’s unfaithfulness and idolatry. As one analogy, nothing will make you more angry with your child than seeing them engage consistently and unrepentantly in self-destructive behavior. Israel degraded herself by idol worship, which aroused the fury of her Husband who loved her and sought her best.

Yet unlike some of us, unlike the frustrated parents or jealous husbands we know, God’s wrath is never uncontrolled or unpredictable. God will never be overwhelmed with passion or so frustrated that He loses control. He does not fly off the handle. Instead, His anger is specifically limited and controlled. He set the terms of His wrath in the Torah, giving detailed rules and guidelines for how He would respond to Israel’s sins. In God’s covenant of love, He limits and directs His fury. And His fury comes from no place but His covenant of love.

Therefore God is love. And even His wrath serves that love, and is specially controlled and limited for our sake. The idea of a wrathful God ought not scare us or make us uncomfortable at all unless we are also uncomfortable with a loving God. “For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Heb. 15:6).

The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

My series on the Apostles’ Creed must now move on to perhaps what might be regarded as the central section, the section on Christ’s humiliation. This part is gold:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.

The life of the Jesus described so well in the previous line, the Son of God and one Lord, is now described up to the point of His death. So what does the Creed teach on this?

Conceived by the Holy Spirit – Before even the article on the Holy Spirit, He is mentioned as the one by whom Jesus was conceived. This shows that Jesus’ entrance into human life is a miracle, not just any miracle but a miracle performed by the same Spirit who originally created the world. This signifies that the power which brought Jesus into the world is in fact the power of divine creation itself. Jesus is the beginning of the new creation. In Jesus God has acted to begin creation over again with His only-begotten Son in place of Adam, the old son (Luke 3:38). With Jesus the human race is to be reborn.

Born of the Virgin Mary – We also see that Jesus, though conceived by the Spirit, was born of a human woman, the Virgin Mary. Jesus was not purely an interruption and replacement for the existing humanity, but in fact He was the beginning of the new creation in the midst of the old and broken one. Through Mary Jesus was born still a part of the natural human race. If it were not for this He would be some kind of alternate kind of human unrelated to us, one who could be of no use in saving our kind. Through Mary Jesus is the kinsman-redeemer, the one who shares the actual flesh and blood of His people that He may redeem their flesh and blood. This in fact makes the Catholic notion of Mary’s immaculate conception (remember this means that she was born graciously saved from original sin) entirely unnecessary. Jesus from Mary received His original contact with human corruption and sin, and like in all of His other dealings began from that very point His work in healing and sanctifying it. In this line we fine that Jesus entered humanity even in its deadness in order to raise it to new life.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate – We see that the Creed moves immediately from His birth to His sufferings of His trial. This should not be taken as an indication that nothing in between these events mattered or that Jesus’ ministry is ultimately secondary to His death. Instead, we should recognize that Jesus’ entire life before His death was bound up with His impending death, and His death was the climax of the entire life that led to it. Thus the Creed does not simply leave out Jesus’ life, but rather makes its significance inseparable from His passion. In truth, Jesus’ death belonged to His life and His life belonged to His death.

Also important is that we find Jesus’ chief accomplishment, the defining act of which the Creed is compelled to speak, to be His suffering. Suffering is to be understood as essential to what Jesus did. This is startling given the identity the Creed assigns to Jesus. He is the quite divine Son of God. Yet how can God, the eternal Creator who stands above all puny things, suffer? Who can afflict the one who is greater than all? But there is a great mystery and glory in the statement agreed on by the early church fathers that in Christ, “the Impassible suffered.” This is also startling given that Jesus is identified as Messiah. What Jew would have believed that their Messiah would be forced to suffer at the hands of a pagan ruler? These seemingly blasphemous paradoxes are at the heart of the Gospel.

We should also note that this is the second and last time any human besides Jesus is mentioned in the Creed. There are only three humans at all in the Creed: Jesus, Mary, and Pilate. Jesus is the one affirmed as the true subject, God Himself. Mary connects Jesus with the history of humanity and of Israel. And Pilate can be seen to have two major uses. On the one hand, Pilate shows that Jesus, the Jew born of Mary, suffered under pagan rules. God’s Messiah raised up to save His people died under the same hands which they had expected Him to crush. This tells us already that Jesus was suffering as a substitute and representative for Israel, for whom this punishment was outlined in the Torah. God’s covenant with Israel dictated that if they were unfaithful, they would suffer many judgments, climaxing in destruction by pagan nations and exile. This we see that Jesus suffered for them. He suffered under a pagan ruler while cut off from the people of God, accursed on a tree outside the city. In this act Jesus was truly standing in for Israel, and as a good theology of Israel’s election would then add, through Israel He stood in for the world.

The other note about Pilate is that tying Jesus’ death to this particular ruler, Jesus’ death is set in real world history. Jesus suffered at a specific time in a specific place under specific historical and political conditions. In addition to the basic apologetic thrust (which is important; we can iInvestigate the history, for this really happened), it also testifies to how God always deals with man. He deals with us in real history, using historical events. God does not work for us in the abstract or the “spiritual” (if by that we mean non-physical) realm. Time and space and matter are not irrelevant to God’s purposes but are made the context for them by grace. God comes to us in our history to bring redemption to it, and He has done this most fully and climactically in first century Palestine with one single instance of Jewish flesh.

Was crucified – Now the mode of Jesus’ execution is specified. It is crucifixion. This reinforces what was just said regarding the judgment Jesus suffered vicariously for His people. Crucifixion is the ultimate symbol of what Israel was condemned to under the Torah. Crucifixion was a Roman device and represented pagan oppression. It took place outside the city gates, symbolically cut off from the people of Israel and the presence of God. It was associated with the statement in the Torah, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” And of course it was brutal and painful in every way. Nothing would better summarize the curses of the Torah than crucifixion, and this is what Jesus suffered as the true representative of Israel, as their Messiah.

Died – The most impossible statement in all of human history. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father who has life within Himself, died. The immortal God perished as a mortal man. This is at the center of the Creed, both theologically and nearly visually. Jesus died, and on this everything else hinges. Yet the meaning of this death is fleshed out by all of the other statements in the Creed. Death appears not as the significant part in and of itself, but what matters was this particular death filled to the brim with meaning and placed in rich context. Had Jesus died by tripped into a river, none of this would matter. But this death, the one described in the four Gospels in detail, is uniquely redemptive as a one-of-a-kind sacrifice.

Was buried – Finally, the death completed, Jesus was buried. This is significant for many reasons, but l will highlight one of them. In this burial we find that there is a lapse between suffering and vindication. We know that Jesus will be raised before this little story is over. But He did have to wait in the grave, and this corresponds to an ongoing theme of Scripture. God makes promises, but His people must suffer for some time before experiencing the redemption. There is a limbo period where it seems as though God is unfaithful. Jesus by all accounts seemed to be the Messiah, so why did God leave Him in the grave? Why did God let Him die at all? This questions would have been teeming in the minds of the disciples. There seemed to be a paradox, a problem involving the faithfulness of God and His salvation. Israel spent many years in such periods, so did Jesus, and so do we. We have the promise of redemption, and in fact for us even Easter has already happened, but we still live in a limbo period in which God’s salvation is not revealed and the world keeps on going in apparent meaninglessness and death. We wait for God to deliver us. But the burial of Jesus reminds us that there must be such times, and that God will not be unfaithful but in His own time will fulfill all He has promised.

He descended into hell – This statement has been a source of much confusion and debate within the Church, especially in Protestantism. Alas, in this post I have no time or room to address it. I personally read “hell” here as meaning something akin to Sheol in the Old Testament, basically “the realm of the dead.” But I will have to wait to cover this statement in another post, one which will actually be separate from this series. In the meantime, I will simply suggest that this shows the depths to which Jesus penetrated in saving us. He experienced all the deepest pains and suffering, death and alienation included, which plague humanity so that He might redeem us. Whatever “hell” means here, Jesus submitted to it for our sake, out of love, to save us from it.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Alastair Roberts, a favorite blogger of mine, has just finished a 10-part series on the Transfiguration. It’s really interesting, and I highly recommend it for any of you who can fathom 10 blog posts covering just the Transfiguration. Reading this series has given me two thoughts I feel are worth sharing, one more directly from the series and less directly.

The first point of note is the dramatic role of the Transfiguration in the history of Israel and their God. From time to time in Israel’s history, God was seen, but never fully. Moses saw God’s back, the 70 elders saw His feet, Isaiah saw His robe and throne, but His face was not ever mentioned or described. It is something like in a TV show where you never see an important background character, only having name-drops, instructions, references, and maybe even an occasional glimpse of part of their body. Yahweh’s face remained a mystery, one too glorious for human viewing.

Yet there are references linking the Transfiguration to these events, and it is portrayed as essentially the same thing: a theophany. In the Transfiguration, the glory of God is revealed on a mountain like so many times before. But this time that glory shines from a face. The face hidden throughout the Old Testament is revealed, and it is no other face than that of Jesus Christ. Yahweh is no other God than the God whose fullness dwells bodily in Christ, of whose glory the Son is the radiance and exact expression. The face of the main character of the Old Testament finally comes into view, and it was Jesus all along. Now we know who God really is: whoever has seen Jesus has seen Him.

The other interesting point that I drew from Alastair’s posts is this glory is to become our glory. The glory which Jesus bears by nature as the Son of God, we will one day share by grace as sons of God. See, the glory which was revealed in the Transfiguration has been alternately viewed by some either as a divine glory (which Alastair focuses on) or as a prefigured resurrection glory. But there is no need to separate these. The glory of Jesus, of the one who is both God and man, is the glory of God in a human “shape.” Before Jesus rose, this glory remained veiled, with a single peek coming through in the Transfiguration. When He did rise, He was exalted and could be fully and simply an example of a glorious human filled with the life and glory of God.

We are also united to Christ, though. We share in His death and His resurrection, and one day will experience that fullness when our bodies are brought to new life. At that point, when Christ returns, John tells us, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2), Paul notes that we are “looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and Peter says that we will “share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world” (2 Pet. 1:4). Our resurrection, an event in theology often called “glorification,” is the time that we will share the glory of Christ, who is the glory of God. The Transfiguration glory is our destiny. We will be truly and fully humans in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Or, as Irenaeus put it, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ…did…become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”1

With all of this in mind, let us read the Transfiguration account and be moved to worship. Jesus is the God who has been working in salvation history from Abraham to Malachi and beyond, and He is so gracious as to unite us with Himself and raise us to His very own glory. Amen!

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

One theological question which has been a fairly ambiguous realm for much of Church history is that of the actual relationship between Christ’s Church and the people or nation of Israel which came before it. The Biblical data on this is complex and apparently varied, and the historical issue of the Church as becoming predominantly Gentile doesn’t help. This has led to many different views which we might categorize under four basic approaches:

  • Two peoples of God: In dispensationalism, the Church and Israel are two entirely distinct peoples of God. God chose for Himself a nation and race, Israel, in temporal and physical ways, and He also created a chosen people for salvation, the Church. If there is a connection between the two, it is either exclusively or primarily a spiritual analogy or a historical accident.
  • Replacement theology: Various forms of what we might call “replacement theology” have also been generated, in which basically God rejects Israel after their rejection of Jesus, and He chooses the Church as a new people. A lot changes between the kind of people He chose the first time (ethnic, nationalistic) and the second time (spiritual, decentralized). In this case the Church essentially takes the place and role of Israel in a new way, and “steps into their shoes,” but is still a fundamentally distinct body.
  • One people of God but two Israels: In a third approach, Israel is viewed as having always been internally divided between “true Israel” and “false Israel,” those who were faithful to Yahweh and most truly His people, and those who were unfaithful. In views like this, the Church is to be seen primarily as a continuation of “true Israel,” but now expanded to include the Gentiles. The true Israel and the Church are essentially the same body but existing under different covenants (Old vs. New).
  • One people, period: Finally, there is the approach of direct continuity, in which the Church literally is the same people of God as Israel, only now expanded freely to the Gentiles and without all of the trappings of a nation-state or a ceremonial law. Membership is by faith or (depending who you ask) even also by birth. There exists even in this one body some true and some false Christians, but only one covenant people of God.

None of these approaches in their most basic and pure forms quite strike me as fully Biblical. If seems to me that if we are going to appreciate the full scope of what Scripture says about the Church’s place after Israel, we will need to combine some insights from more than one of these approaches, and they will need to be integrated around some kind of key concept. What key concept do we need? What is Biblical?

My own hypothesis is that the key is resurrection and regeneration. The relationship between Israel and the Church should be conceived in terms of the new birth, of the natural man and the man alive in the Spirit, even at a corporate level. It seems most Biblical to me to say that the Church is Israel born again.

The give a full Biblical defense of this position is beyond the scope of this post, which will be long enough. All I seek to do here is to give a narrative description of the hypothesis in the history of Israel, the covenant, Jesus, and the Church. Before I get into that, though, the first principle I should point out in my hypothesis is that regeneration, the new birth, did not ever take place until Christ’s resurrection.1 With this in mind, we follow the story of Israel.

Israel was began as a people created by God from His election of and covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham descendants which would make up a great nation, which nation would bless the whole world. This was a unilateral promise. God would see to it that this would indeed be fulfilled, not just for the benefit of Abraham and his family but for the redemption of the world.2 

In the process of fulfilling this promise God called the Israelites out of Egypt and established another covenant with them, one which established Israel as a theocratic nation with a divinely provided system of law and worship. Part of the point of this endeavor was to make Israel into a light to the nations, an example of human life rightly ordered by communion with God and with each other. But Israel proved incapable of this task. Even with a God-given Torah they could not become what they needed to be, a true example of redeemed human existence. The deep and radical effects of sin made righteousness under the Torah impossible. And without a righteous Israel, God’s promise to Abraham also seemed in danger. Particularly, the terms of the Torah meant that God would have to undo Israel’s blessings in light of their disobedience, and the public corruption of Israel meant that the nations could not be blessed through them.

It is in the midst of this precarious situation that the prophets, enlightened by the Spirit, began to perceive the only possible solution. Humanity, in particular Israel, was too corrupt to go on in its natural form. The roots of sin were so deep that if purposes of creation and election were ever going to be realized, humanity would essentially have to be created anew. If Israel was going to live up to its calling, it would need a new heart and new spirit, indeed a radical new outpouring of the Holy Spirit who had been working in their midst since their birth as a nation out of Egypt. They needed nothing short of a new covenant and a new creation.

Alas, before this need could be fulfilled there was also the need to deal with the consequences of Israel’s sin. By the terms of the Torah, Israel was condemned. Abraham’s descendants were at risk of being cut off from the promise because of their status under the Law. Thus God appeared to be under two conflicting covenant obligations. The terms of the Mosaic covenant required Him to desolate the same people whom the Abrahamic covenant required Him to bless, and through whom He planned to bless the world. So how was God to be faithful to both covenants, restore Israel, and bring about a new creation capable of redeeming the world?

The answer to this dilemma left hanging at the end of the Old Testament is found in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, marking the emergence of a new creation out of the midst of the old one. He sanctified His life by sinless communion with God. By His baptism He identified Himself with sinful Israel as their Messiah and in that role took upon Himself the job of their repentance. He brought about signs and instruments of the new creation: healing, forgiveness, and other miracles of the Holy Spirit.

In the middle of this work Jesus also performed a major symbolic act. He appointed 12 disciples to participate in and carry on His work. They were to be apostles, authorized representatives of Himself and His ministry. Yet for Israel, the number 12 was of great significance. This was not just any number, but the number of Jacob’s sons, the number of the tribes of Israel. The Messiah who took upon Himself the identity of the people of Israel expanded that identity into 12 others. He was reforming, reconstituting, recreating Israel around Himself. With His baptism into Israel’s identity and His appointing of 12 new heads, a fresh life for Israel was in labor.

Yet if there was to be a recreation of Israel, there also needed to be a new covenant. The old had failed, and Israel was under existential threat because of it. So on one fateful Passover, Jesus broke bread and served wine as signs of a new covenant with Israel based on Himself, His life and, crucially, death. This covenant was, of course, for Israel and had been prophesied by Israel’s prophets years in advance. This covenant would establish forgiveness of sins and give Israel the Holy Spirit to finally destroy their sin problem even at the root. But how would it work? And how would God deal with the destruction coming from the old covenant?

For this, Christ was crucified. This was God’s solution to the covenant problem. The same judgment He had prophesied for Israel due to their unfaithfulness, His wrath poured out through Rome3, Jesus Himself experienced as their representative. One man gave His life in place of the nation, and in His dying flesh God condemned sin as was fit to His covenantal obligations. As Paul would later explain it, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”4 Jesus expiated Israel’s sin in His death and so freed God to proceed with His promise to bless Israel and the nations.

With Israel’s sin dealt with, and with a new covenant established by a sacrifice before God, it was finally time for God to bring about the new creation, the regeneration of human life. Three days after Jesus’ death, He raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Him and making Him the “firstborn from the dead.”5 People are often hesitant (or call it heretical) to speak of Jesus as “born again,” but this means no more or less than to say that He was resurrected to incorruptible, imperishable, new creation life. In this Jesus still retains His identity as Israel’s substitute and representative Messiah. In Him Israel itself is born again into the new creation. His resurrection life becomes the ground for a new life for Israel. This new resurrection life empowered by the Spirit is the solution to the biggest problem of the old covenant: Israel’s ongoing sinfulness. Israel formerly consisted only of natural men, unregenerate and without the Holy Spirit. The Torah, God-given as it was, could not penetrate to the depths of human existence to purge sin. But Christ’s sanctified and resurrected life imparted by union with Him through the Spirit is enough. It will finally overcome human sinfulness and turn Israel’s sinners into saints, turning apostasy into faith working through love.

Yet Christ’s victory for Israel was not automatic for those who were already members, and the new covenant of the new creation brought with it new terms of membership, a new stage in election. In this new covenant a relationship to Abraham alone would not be sufficient. The new covenant fulfilled the promise to Abraham exclusively through Christ, the elect Messiah. As God had once restricted the promise from Abraham’s descendants to Isaac’s descendants, excluding Ishmael’s, and then restricted it further from Isaac’s descendants to Jacob’s, so now God further restricted the covenant to those who are in Israel’s Messiah.

This next stage, then, at which people of the old, fleshly Israel are incorporated into Christ and thus Israel in a reborn form, occurs at Pentecost. At this point all is fulfilled as the Father and the Son send the Spirit to Christ’s apostles. These apostles, filled with the Spirit, are the first fulfillment to Israel of the promise. In this the new age and the new creation came to life in the midst of the present by the Spirit. Israel, actual Israelites descended from Abraham, received the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and the Spirit in them. The were incorporated into the resurrected Messiah and so became part of a reborn Israel.

The renewing of election around Christ with a new covenant in place of the old, Torah-based covenant also brings with it an expansion in election. Now it is no longer necessary to be physically descended from Abraham to be a son of the promise. Through the Spirit and faith, even the Gentiles can share in the promise, and thus God’s promise to bless even the Gentiles through Abraham is fulfilled as well. The new terms of the new covenant, reducible essentially to loyalty to Jesus, simultaneously cut off many natural-born Israelites and enable the inclusion of many Gentiles. Thus Israel in its new form, reborn in Christ, becomes also the Church, the assembly of believers.

So what happens to the old, fleshly Israel, Jews who do not recognize their Messiah? They remain in essential exile, having been judged at AD 70 for the last time. Their future lies in the new covenant, the promise of the Spirit. There is no future for them apart from their Messiah. This does not mean that God has abandoned them, for He has fulfilled His promise by instituting a new covenant in which they can have forgiveness and moral renewal. He has taken the next step to rescue them, but those who will not repent and recognize their Messiah cannot benefit from this saving action. The word of God in election and promise has not failed, as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, and in the end we see hints that, perhaps out of continued faithfulness to Abraham and His physical descendants, God will see to it that all Israel will one day find salvation in its Messiah and His new covenant. One day perhaps there will be no more old, fleshly Israel, but all will enter the life of Israel reborn in Christ.

Of course, I am sure that many questions about details and implications of this view may remain. I cannot answer them here, as this post is long enough. But if you have any, drop a comment and I’ll look into making a good reply. I believe the narrative I have articulated here is faithful to Scripture and what is portrays about Israel and the Church. Perhaps one of these days I will get around to developing this further and adding more specific Scriptural support instead of relying so much on allusions and themes I just kind of hope people will recognize.

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

Wait, How Is That Prophecy about Jesus?

The New Testament frequently cites Old Testament prophecy about Jesus. A quick glance, even just through Matthew, shows just how much this was emphasized. Core to the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus fulfills the prophetic word of God in the Old Testament. The ancient Nicene Creed says Jesus “suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”1

Yet another quick glance can make this whole concept confusing. If you try to peek at the Old Testament references for these prophecies, you usually don’t see what they have to do with Jesus. Take, for example, Matthew 2:15. It says:

He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called My Son.

The reference for this quote is Hosea 11:1. So you go back and take a look at Hosea 11:1, and what do you find?

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.

The verse that was cited as a prophecy about Jesus was originally quite specifically about Israel. So how does that work? Was Matthew wrong? Did he misuse Hosea 11:1 and take it out of context?

I’ve heard a lot of people respond to this basically like this: “Well, maybe the verse was mainly talking about Israel, but it was also secretly a prophecy about Jesus. Then God revealed this to Matthew in the New Testament.” You get the impression from answers like this that the Old Testament is just sprinkled with random references to Jesus, almost like inspired Easter eggs, unnoticeable until the Holy Spirit points them out.

I don’t think this is the right way to understand these prophecies. There is no Easter egg hunt, nor are hidden meanings in play, at least in most cases. What we’re missing is that the prophecies for Christ aren’t a connect-the-dots game. People assume that these prophecies are a strict progression of prediction to fulfillment, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, they’re more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff. Oh, wait, that’s Doctor Who.2

What I mean to say is that these prophecies are a lot more about major themes in the relationship, covenant, and history of God and man than they are about checkboxes for Jesus’ life. The story of God, creation, mankind, and Israel all comes together in Christ’s own life, death, and resurrection. So Jesus fulfills, as it were, all of the destinies of election. The promises to David, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, and even Adam all reach their goals in Jesus, the only human who could, being Himself God, work out the right relationship in covenant between God and man.3

What does this mean for Old Testament prophecies about Christ? Their main point is not to make a list of criteria for the Messiah to fulfill. In fact, they can’t really be used that way. (Some people who invented statistical apologetics may be unhappy, but ah, well.) Instead, the primary links are about ongoing themes in the God/world/Israel relationship. So applying that to Hosea 11:1, it’s clear what is going on. Israel was essentially born out of Egypt, before wandering in the wilderness and finally claiming the Promised Land. Jesus now stands to reinvent Israel’s history in His own life, representing His people and undoing all of their mistakes. So He too was called out of Egypt in His youth, and before long spent 40 days in the wilderness before invading the Promised Land with the kingdom of God.4

This same idea can apply to stuff in the Psalms. For example, today I was reading Psalm 34 and ran across verse 20, which was cited in the Gospels about Jesus’ bones not being broken on the cross. Yet in context, this hardly appears to be about the coming Messiah. Here is the last paragraph5 of the psalm, which includes verse 20:

Many adversities come to the one who is righteous,
but the Lord delivers him from them all.
He protects all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Evil brings death to the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be punished.
The Lord redeems the life of His servants,
and all who take refuge in Him will not be punished.

This passage is talking about how God treats His righteous followers. He protects them, saves them, and vindicates them. This ideal of a righteous servant suffering for God is prominent both in the Psalms and in the prophets, and in both cases Israel is often treated as just such a servant. God’s people suffer unjustly as they try to follow Him, but He promises to protect them and ultimately save them from all harm and give them triumph and glory over their enemies.

Jesus, as we see, becomes the ultimate embodiment of this ideal. He fulfills by Himself perfectly the role of the suffering, righteous servant present in this psalm, and in other places like Isaiah 53. The role that Israel was meant to play, Jesus performed perfectly. He lived and died as the Righteous One, the true Israel, and so God fulfilled His promises. He protected His bones from being broken, and indeed raised Him back to life in glory and honor.

I hope by now you can start to see what I’m talking about. Very few of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus are fulfilled in a straightforward, literal detail. But that doesn’t mean they’re random or hidden. The whole story of God and His people is wrapped up in Christ and His fulfillment of all God’s purposes. If you just study the Scriptures, you can see how His story shines brightly.

Wait, How Is That Prophecy about Jesus?

Jesus the New and True Israel

What do God’s redemptive plan and the movie Inception have in common? Complex layers within complex layers. If you don’t know Inception, the movie is about dreams, and involves dreams within dreams within dreams. Each dream is very different, but also very connected to the dreams on the higher and lower levels. The dreams are all important and, after you wake up, end up changing your real life.

How does this relate to God’s redemptive plan? Like the Inception dreams, the history God shapes with His people has many very different but very connected parts. What happened with Adam is connected to what happened with Noah, which is connected to what happened with Abraham, which is connected to what happened with Isaac, Jacob, and all Israel, which is connected to what happened with Jesus. In fact, from the beginning with Adam, everything that happened was similar to and leading up to Jesus.

The most important connections involve Israel. In order to redeem all humanity, God chose one particular human family starting with Abraham (Gen. 12:3). These people came to be known as Israel, and they were not chosen because they were any different than everyone else (Deut. 9:4-5). In fact, as the whole sweep of the Old Testament reveals, the Israelites were no less messed up than all humanity. They had to be for God to bless all nations through them. If a doctor wants to cure a disease, will he study the healthiest person around and use him to test potential cures? No, he will take an average sick person just like all the rest, so that by curing one of them he can cure them all.

So what happened to Israel? First, they were born from a normal family. After an exile to Egypt, who persecuted them and killed their babies, they were baptized through the waters of the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2) and entered the desert, where they were tempted for 40 years. They received God’s laws so that they would love Him and love each other. As a kingdom of priests, God intended to make them shine before the world so that He would be worshiped by every people. After the 40 years they entered their land and conquered the evil people living there. But they disobeyed, so God let them be conquered themselves and carried off into another exile. Yet He was faithful to His promise, so He brought them back. (See a summary of all this in Acts 7:2-50.)

Since Israel failed so miserably and constantly, God’s plan to bless everyone on earth through them seemed to be at a standstill. How would God save the world if His chosen people were so stubborn and always resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)? As the prophets foretold in shadowy and obscure language, God Himself was going to create the perfect Israelite obedience He was looking for. He became a human being, a Jew Himself, so that despite human problems He could fulfill His covenant from both sides. The human being Jesus, who is the eternal Word of God, acted both as the faithful God and the faithful Israelite. But He couldn’t just start from the middle of their failures. He had to go back and redo the whole project.

Jesus was born in a normal family (Matt. 13:54-56). After escaping to Egypt while Herod killed babies, He was called out of Egypt back to the Promised Land (Matt. 2:15-16). There He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan River (Luke 3:21-22), and after that He entered the desert to be tempted for 40 days (Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). He preached to Israel how to really obey God’s law to love Him and others (Matt. 5-7) and made His disciples to be the light of the world for God’s glory (Matt. 5:14-16). Then He went around Israel conquering the forces of evil in all forms: demons, death, suffering, and sin (Matt. 8:16-17). Through the Spirit (Luke 4:14) by means of prayer (Heb. 5:7) He remained obedient to God to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). But God was faithful to His beloved Son and brought Him back from the dead (Acts 13:30-37).

If you missed the strength of these parallels, try reading the paragraph about Israel again. I didn’t even cover them all. There are several smaller details as well, such as the miraculous feedings (Matt. 14:13-21 with 2 Kings 4:42-44), raising children from the dead (Matt. 9:18-26 with 2 Kings 4:18-37), and judging Jerusalem with the Temple (Luke 21:5-24 with 2 Chron. 36:10,15-19). Jesus relived the history of Israel, but with one crucial difference. Israel gave into temptation and disobeyed, leading to exile, and received a partial restoration simply because God was faithfully merciful, but Jesus resisted temptation and remained obedient, leading to a saving death, and He received a total, one-of-a-kind resurrection because of His own faithfulness to God.

This retelling of Israel’s story in Jesus is actually how we are saved. Israel, as we mentioned before, was only ever made of normal people among normal people. They stood before God as a microcosm of the entire human race. So by blessing and saving Israel God intended to bless and save all the world (again, Gen. 12:1-3). Yet Israel was unfaithful, and was always going to turn out that way, so within God’s chosen people God brought forth His chosen Son, Jesus. Jesus redid and repaired Israel’s history in His own life, winning salvation for His people (Matt. 1:21). His people, by the way, are firstly Israel, since He is a Jew, and secondarily all people, since He is human (Heb. 2:5-18). This is how salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and why Paul tells us that salvation and condemnation will come for the Jew first and also the for the Gentiles (Rom. 2:9-10). Jesus’ life fulfilled Israel’s life which fulfills humanity’s life.

Given all this, I can’t think of anything else to say. Words fail the complex reality God has accomplished in His Son. Praise God for Jesus, the new and true Israel!

Jesus the New and True Israel