Part of N.T. Wright’s contribution to contemporary theology is his understanding of the place of Israel in the great, grand narrative of scripture.
For most of us, Israel is like a mistake God made and wishes never happened. Jesus came to erase Israel, we seem to think. Therefore, we can save ourselves a lot of time and trouble and skip Old Testament studies, because it was all a big mistake.
Or we might see Israel as simply a place to find great children’s stories — a spiritual version of Aesop’s fables. Therefore, we study Abraham in middle school but never among the adults.
Several scholars have worked to better connect Old Testament and New, Israel and the church. We recently studied a series on the book Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan. by John H. Walton. The gist of the book is to show that God’s purpose in giving us the scriptures, old and new, is to reveal himself to his people. Why?
Much of the answer is found in the fact that God is a covenanting god. He wants to be in relationship with certain elect people, with whom he makes covenants.
He elected Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants through Isaac and Jacob, to be the parents of the nation of Israel. Why?
(Gen 17:4-6 ESV) 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.”
As we’ve earlier seen, Paul points out that the entry of the Gentiles into the Kingdom, which is the elect covenant people, makes Abraham the father of a multitude of nations.
(Gen 22:17-18 ESV) 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
And, of course, God’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham’s offspring (seed) further assures the eventual entry of the Gentiles.
Through Isaiah, God charged Israel to be a light to the nations —
(Isa 42:6-9 ESV) 6 “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. 9 Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”
(Isa 49:6-7 ESV) 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
God elected Israel, through Abraham, not just to be his people. They were to be a light to the nations. They were to display the greatness of YHWH, so that the Gentiles would be brought in.
There’s a subtlety in the last several chapters of Isaiah, which speak of God’s “servant.” In some places, the servant is clearly Israel. In other places, it’s clearly the Messiah, Jesus.
Wright explains that Jesus stepped up and did what Israel failed to accomplish by itself. He became a light to the nations, fulfilling Israel’s charge.
As Simeon the prophet declared in the Temple when presented with the infant Jesus —
(Luk 2:29-32 ESV) 29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
But this describes, according to the Prophets, not the Messiah but Israel. Nonetheless, Simeon declares that Jesus will fulfill the purposes of Israel the nation!
And as Paul proclaimed to King Agrippa,
(Act 26:22-23 ESV) 22 “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
Therefore, it was Israel that was intended to suffer to show God’s love to the world, but Jesus who suffered in Israel’s place —
(Isa 44:1-2 ESV) “But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! 2 Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.”
(Isa 45:4 ESV) 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.
(Isa 48:20 ESV) 20 Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!”
(Isa 49:3 ESV) 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
(Isa 52:13-15 ESV) 13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. 14 As many were astonished at you– his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind– 15 so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.
(Isa 53:11 ESV) 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
You can see the ambiguity. “Servant” is plainly Israel in the first several passages, but by Isa. 52:13, “servant” seems to be an individual, the Messiah. Jesus thus became the light of the world and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah in place of Israel. His sacrifice was for Israel (into which the Gentiles have been grafted!), but also to complete the nation’s task. He completed the work God gave to Israel.
It’s not entirely fair to ask whether Israel failed or succeeded, because Jesus, an Israelite, succeeded for Israel. And the history of Israel, you see, has become the history of Christianity — due to the ingrafting of the nations.
This is one reason Jesus had 12 apostles. He was symbolically placing himself in the position of Jacob — also known as Israel — the father of 12 sons. It’s obscure to a Westerner, but an Easterner would know that numbers symbolize a message — a message that does not have to be explained to be understood. Jesus became the new Israel.
In what sense is Jesus Israel? Well, he is light of the world, he is the Suffering Servant, he brought about the blessing of the nations, even the entire world, through his work on earth.
But there’s another element. We Christians are baptized “into” Jesus. The church is the body of Christ. We are charged to complete his mission.
(Mat 5:14-16 ESV) 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Jesus literally spoke to Israel in calling them the light of the world, but we understand that, having been grafted in, we step into that calling as well.
(Phi 2:14-16 ESV) 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
Oh. It’s great that Jesus chose to step into Israel’s role as Suffering Servant, charged to show the world the nature of God in a most surprising, upside-down way — God who suffers for his children.
We now share in that mission.
(Rom 5:3-5 ESV) 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
(Mat 10:34-39 ESV) 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
This is tough stuff. Theology is fun, until it hits home. Here is home.
(Rom 11:19-22 ESV) 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”
And so we’ve come full circle.