Thursday, January 9, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Israel of God, by O. Palmer Robertson

O. Palmer Robertson.  The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.  Phillipsburgh, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000.

I found this book to be much clearer and more direct than the previous O. Palmer Robertson book that I read: his 1980 The Christ of the Covenants (read my review of that here).  But there was significant overlap between the two.  Robertson argues against a dispensationalist view that God will literally fulfill God’s Old Testament promises to Israel—-that God will restore Israel to her land with sovereign rights to it and will set up a worldwide millennial kingdom in which the nation of Israel is the most prominent among the nations. 

In both The Christ of the Covenants and The Israel of God, Robertson regards Old Testament Israel’s experience with God as a foreshadowing of greater New Testament realities.  Hebrews 11:10 indicates that Abraham was not primarily focusing on the land of Palestine, but was looking to another city, one that God built.  The Jerusalem of God and Zion in the New Testament are not primarily earthly places but rather are heavenly (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22).  Whereas the Old Testament promise is that the meek shall inherit the land (Psalm 37:11), presumably Palestine, Jesus says that the meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).  Paul even understands God’s promise to Abraham to be about more than inheriting Palestine, and to concern the inheritance of the world (Romans 4:13).  Within the Old Testament, God says that Israel will spend time in the wilderness before being restored to her land (Ezekiel 20:35; 34:25; Hosea 2:14), a promise that Robertson says inspired the Qumran community and Messianic movements; within the New Testament, that wilderness is the experience of believers in Christ in this world (I Corinthians 10; Hebrews 3-4).  Significant elements of Israel’s religious structure are interpreted in Hebrews as foreshadowing the work of Christ: the sacrifices, the priesthood, etc.

I think that Robertson makes a decent case that the New Testament often interprets God’s Old Testament promises to Israel in a spiritual manner and applies them to believers in Christ.  Robertson still thinks that God is committed to physical Israel, on some level, for Paul said that salvation was for the Jew first (Romans 1:16), and in the Book of Acts Paul often preached to Jews before he preached to Gentiles.  Plus, Paul affirms in Romans 9 that God has preserved a remnant of Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah.  Yet, Robertson argues that “Israel” in the New Testament is broader than the Jewish people and the nation of Israel (the unbelievers of which Romans 9 and Revelation 2-3 deny are even truly Israel, according to Robertson), but that it encompasses Gentiles who believe in Christ.  Robertson believes that Jesus himself was ushering in a new understanding of Israel, in that Jesus selected twelve disciples (echoing the twelve tribes of Israel) and affirmed in Matthew 21:43 that the Kingdom of God was being taken away from the Jewish leaders and given to another nation.  And yet, Robertson maintains that this new understanding was not entirely new, for there are indications in the Old Testament that being an Israelite is a matter of God’s grace rather than being part of a specific nation.  Robertson refers to Amos 9:12, where God says that God’s name will be put onto Edom, which Robertson interprets as God’s election (similar to God’s election of Israel).

I not long ago read a book by John MacArthur and others, entitled Christ’s Prophetic Plans: A Futuristic Premillennial Primer.  You can read my review of that here.  Its authors were arguing that God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament should be interpreted literally, and the book appealed to passages in the New Testament to make its case.  There is Matthew 19:28, where Jesus says that his disciples will sit on thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel.  There is Luke 1-2, where Israelites are expecting for God to restore the nation of Israel, and John the Baptist and Jesus are believed to play a role in that.  There is Acts 1:6-7, where Jesus’ disciples have received instruction from the risen Jesus concerning the kingdom, and they still presume that Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel; and Jesus does not tell them that they are wrong.  And there is Romans 11, where Paul appears to suggest that God is still committed to physical Israel, including the Israelites who do not believe in Christ, and that all Israelites will eventually believe in Jesus and be saved.

Robertson in The Israel of God attempts to address these passages, and others.  One argument Robertson makes is that Jesus did not always correct his disciples’ or other people’s misunderstandings right off the bat—-Peter in Acts 10, after all, had to be taught not to regard the Gentiles as unclean, and this was after Christ had risen from the dead and gone to heaven.  According to Robertson, Jesus in Acts 1:7 does not explicitly correct the disciple’s view that the kingdom would be restored to the nation of Israel, but he does seek to give them a broader understanding—–that the role of Israel in God’s plan is that the disciples would start their preaching in Jerusalem and would then spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  As far as the Book of Acts is concerned, Robertson notes that apostles in that book are talking about the Kingdom of God and entrance into it even to Gentiles, and Robertson thinks that would not make much sense if the church still understood the Kingdom of God to concern the nation of Israel’s restoration and preeminence.

Robertson’s interaction with Romans 11 was, well, interesting.  I had heard before the view that “all Israel shall be saved” relates to the salvation of the church—-the new Israel, which includes Jews and Gentiles—-rather than the future salvation of physical Israel, but it was not until I read Robertson’s The Israel of God that I saw arguments for that position.  Romans 11:25-26 is significant in Robertson’s argument.  The passage states in the KJV: “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.   And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.”  Robertson does not believe that this is saying that part of Israel has been temporarily blinded but will spiritually see again after the fullness of the Gentiles come in.  Robertson notes that “until the fulness of Gentiles be come in” does not necessarily mean that the situation of the spiritually blind Israelites will change after the Gentiles come in; it’s similar to how many Catholics argue that Mary was perpetually a virgin, even though Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph did not know Mary UNTIL she gave birth to Jesus: they say that Matthew 1:25 does not mean that Joseph knew Mary after she gave birth to Jesus, but is simply saying that Joseph did not have sex with Mary up to the time that she gave birth to Jesus, indicating that Joseph had nothing to do with Jesus’ conception.  Robertson also argues that Romans 11:25-26 does not say that the fullness of Gentiles will come in and THEN all Israel will be saved, but rather that they will come in and THUS all Israel will be saved.  For Robertson, the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s community alongside the remnant of believing Israelites (and the Israelites who become Christians as a result of jealousy towards the Gentile believers) is the salvation of all Israel.

I don’t know.  I will admit that I have been puzzled by certain interpretations of Romans 9-11.  Why would Paul imply in Romans 9 that unbelieving Jews were not a part of Israel, only to say in Romans 11 that God is committed to them because they are still his people, and thus they will be saved?  Why would Paul in Romans 11 hope that Jews would come to Christ out of jealousy towards Gentile believers, if he thought that Christ would come back and soften their hearts, anyway?  Moreover, I am open to Robertson’s argument that Paul in Romans 11 could view the salvation of all Israel in reference to the salvation of a remnant of Jews, for that is often how restoration works in prophecies of the Hebrew Bible: God preserves a remnant of Israel and builds restored Israel on that.  But I have a hard time denying that Paul in Romans 11 is envisioning a future softening of the hearts of unbelieving Jews to the Gospel, for Paul in Romans 11:28 states regarding unbelieving Jews: “As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes” (KJV).  As far as I could tell, Robertson did not address that verse.

Robertson’s books make me think about why I struggle with the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments.  While I have to respect dispensationalism for interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s passages about Israel literally, I have to acknowledge that the New Testament often treats them as spiritual or as symbolic of aspects of Christian theology.  But I have issues with passages of the New Testament that do this, for they seem to me to violate the intentions, the spirit, and the messages of the Hebrew Bible.  If Abraham or God in the Hebrew Bible truly understood the Promised Land to be symbolic of a heavenly reality or of the entire world, why are we not explicitly told this in the Hebrew Bible?  That makes me wonder if the New Testament is faithful to the Hebrew Bible’s own messages.

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