LCM DIRECTOR OF STUDIES ALAN BLACK EXPLORES THE CENTRAL PART THAT ISRAEL PLAYS IN THE UNFOLDING HISTORY OF THE WORLD. PART FIVE IN A SERIES OF SEVEN.
At the end of each of the four Gospels, Jesus commissions his disciples to go into all the world with the gospel message. Mission to all peoples was not a later development within church history, but the commission of the church from the very beginning. Yet in the ancient world this was unheard of. No other god, no other people assumed that the worship of their god was for anyone else but themselves. Why then, of all the religious movements in the ancient world, did Christianity alone assume its message was for all peoples, and assume this right from the offset?
The Bible story tells us. For the Bible story is first and foremost the story of God’s mission, a story that focuses on Israel as God’s chosen people through whom all nations would come to worship the one true living God. And this story climaxes in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to restore Israel to the Lord, so that the restored Israel of God could be a light to the Gentiles. That is why at the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry on earth, having redeemed his people and saved them from their sins, mission to the world was inevitable. He had redeemed them so that Israel could be what they had always been chosen to be – a light to the Gentiles.
All too often we look at Jesus without any recognition of where he fits into the Bible story, other than his coming as the promised Messiah. For the Gospel writers, Jesus is much more than the one who fulfils a handful of Old Testament predictive texts about the Messiah. They are instead especially concerned to tell us that his coming was the continuation and climax of the whole story of Israel, and not in any way to negate or replace it.
That’s why they depict him reliving the story of Israel; their testing in the wilderness, their entry through the Jordan into the land, the giving of the Law, the Passover etc. That’s why he speaks of all the Scriptures being fulfilled in him. Peter Leithart in A House for my Name says that to read a Gospel without any knowledge of what has gone before, is like reading the climax to a great story which you haven’t heard.
You read about the handsome prince kissing a sleeping beauty, at which she awakes, after which they marry and live together happily ever after. But this is a very dull story if you don’t know the story that has gone before, that means not only does she awake from a hundred-year sleep, but all she knew in her previous life awakes with her. Because Jesus’ ministry transformed the lives of a number of individuals, we can read it simply in terms of a timeless message of salvation for individual people; but that is to ignore the context. The people to whom Jesus came were the people who had been chosen as the instrument of God’s mission to the world.
The time at which Jesus came was the climax of God sending his servants the prophets to Israel, and the climax of Israel’s rejecting God’s Word by killing his servants. Similarly, Jesus’ messages of judgement were not timeless messages of judgement for the last day, but focused on the people of his day, on ‘that generation’ – which Jesus repeatedly describes as an evil and adulterous generation – and on the cities he had ministered in, especially Jerusalem. Yet if the Israel of Jesus’ day was to be judged, and Jerusalem and its temple destroyed once again, he died in their place, bearing their punishment, that out of the judgement there might emerge a restored Israel, raised up to be the light of the world.
As Paul puts it in Romans 15:8, 9, “Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy”. And so, the mission baton that had been passed from Abraham to Israel, and from Israel to Jesus, then passed to the restored Israel, with 12 apostles as their new foundation, and Christ Jesus the chief cornerstone. In Christ, we are God’s missional people and mission is the hallmark of the church. We exist as a people in order that the earth might be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, and all peoples might worship the God of Israel.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1–3
In the next issue, Alan turns to the place of the church