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The True Church and being Citizens of Israel

“Remember that you were formerly gentiles in the flesh — called the uncircumcision by those called the circumcision in the flesh by hands — that you were at that time without Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and a stranger to the covenant and the promise, being without hope and an atheist in the world.”

(Ephesians 2:11-12)

One more note before we move to verse 13…what is this language about the citizenship of Israel? Is this a reference to becoming part of national Israel as some would suppose? What is Paul referring to here?

First of all, no. In Romans 9, Paul has already distinguished between national Israel and True Israel, the latter being the children of the promise who are the spiritual children of Israel (Romans 9:6-9). This, in context, is a reference to those God elected to save (Romans 9:10-13). In Galatians 3:29, Paul refers to all of those who are in Christ as the ones who are Abraham’s offspring and thus heirs according to the promise (a.k.a… Children of Promise spoken of in Romans 9). And thus, all of the promises of God to Israel find their fulfillment in Christ and are directed toward the Christian church (2 Corinthians 1:20-22). 

So, in the absolute sense, this is not just saying to the gentiles in the church in Ephesus that they were apart from the Jewish nation of Israel; this is saying that they were outside of True Israel and hence they lived amongst the sons of disobedience.

This raises an important point as to the significance of the church. Christians are not called to be “Lone Rangers” as it were; they were called to be part of a unified body with Christ as the head. Any time we are outside of that context, we find ourselves in a place of separation from the covenant and promises of God. Within it, those promises are meaningful and true, belonging to us.

Yet, in the west, we have embraced the notion of rugged individualism. And while that is an admirable thing in secular culture, it is an idea that is alien to Christian living. We have also embraced a form of commercial mentality when it comes to our church attendance. We go here for a while so long as the preaching pleases us and then we go there. That does not mean there is not a right time to leave a church, but leaving should not be predicated by whether you enjoy the preaching or the activities of the larger body. Leaving should be based on the question of whether the church which you are attending is a true church. If it is a true church, remain. If it is not a true church, flee to a true church.

What constitutes the true church? What distinguishes the gathering of the Children of Promise? There are three things found in the Scriptures and laid out for us in the Belgic Confession (Article 29): the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached, the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and church discipline is exercised for the chastening of sin. If the whole council of God is not preached or if the doctrines of men are preached instead of the doctrine of God, then it is a false church. If sacraments are treated casually and not with prayerful introspection and commitment, then it is a false church. If church discipline either is ignored or if it is practiced to create a legalistic caste system in the church, then it is a false church. If the church leadership are confronted with their failure in one or more of these areas and they refuse to repent, then you are in a false church from which you must flee. 

They may have good intentions in that false body, but of what value are good intentions when the Apostle Paul condemns that church body as “accursed”? If you graft a healthy body part into a body where the whole of the body is diseased and gangrenous, of what benefit is the healthy part? Will it not too become diseased and gangrenous? If you cling to the doctrines of men, will they save you? Of what hope can they bring? 

While it is true that no church is perfect according to the standards of God, the question is, for what are they striving? Will they repent if their error is shown to them or are they committed and bound to human traditions? What is preached? What is taught? What is sung? What is their foundation? Shall it not be God’s word in all of these areas? Shall we set aside Divine Writ in favor for the ways of men? Is this honoring to God? I would say, “no,” and I would say that such an approach betrays the fact that you are committed to being outside of the citizenship of True Israel. 

If you are tempted to doubt the concept of True and False churches. Maybe you just see me as a grumpy theologian who prefers to sit in his own corner and grump (sometimes I feel like that anyway), then I ask you to look at what has been held by the church fathers through the ages. You will find that they would speak very much like I have spoken. You will find that this notion of rugged individualism is an anomaly when it comes to the history of the church. Look to the confessions, look to the creeds, look to the ancient councils of the church. Over and again you will find that they proclaim the same message, that in salvation we are bound to a body and that there are things that define a true Christian church body, separating it from the false ones. Sometimes it is a matter of doctrine and sometimes it is a matter of practice. But, believe whatever you want to believe “just so long as you love Jesus,” is a notion alien to the church in history and it ought to be anathematized today. 

The Inheritance of God

“He chose our inheritance for us — the splendor of Jacob, whom he loves! Selah!”

(Psalm 47:4 {verse 5 in English Translations})

 

In the immediate sense, the psalmist is clearly thinking about how God is the one who not only brought the people into Canaan, casting out the Canaanites, but also that it is God who set aside the promised land in the first place and that it is God who gave to each tribe of Jacob a portion and an inheritance in the land. The only exception being the Levites, who were scattered as ministers of grace throughout the land and whose inheritance was God himself.

That statement in itself is enough to dig deeply into, but there is more to what is in sight. You see, an inheritance is something that is secured by the Father and then given to the children. Indeed, such is the way that God brought Israel into the land, scattering armies and nations ahead of them by divine might, but that also takes us back to another inheritance that was given — that of the world to Adam and Eve and repeated in a slightly different form in the Great Commission. No longer is Christ’s church bounded by physical and geographic borders, but wherever the Spirit will lead we must go. As the old hymn goes, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north!”

What is very sad, as you look at ancient Israel, is how far shy of the original boundaries that God set that they came. The original promise given to Abraham included everything bounded by the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates River to the East (Genesis 15:18) — yet Israel never realized those borders because of their unfaithfulness to the inheritance they were given. Yet, are we as Christians any less culpable? Truly, in 2000 years of the church age, should we not have been able to spread the Gospel to every corner of the earth? Yet we have not. There are numerous people groups that have neither heard the Gospel nor have access to the scriptures in their native tongue. How sad it is that we too have failed to take the inheritance that our heavenly Father has secured in his Son and given to us.

May the “selah” — the triumphal lifting of ones voices — be a call to us today, here and now, to refocus our hearts and our lives. Let us not remain complacent, but with missionary zeal, may we fill the earth with the Gospel — for this is the inheritance that God has given to us — to we who are true Israel through faith in Jesus Christ — we for whom God has demonstrated his great love by giving us his son Jesus for our salvation.

 

Shema! (Mark 12:29)

“Jesus answered, ‘The first is: ‘Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord, your God, the Lord is one!’’”

(Mark 12:29)

 

To answer this question, Jesus quotes what is known in Hebrew as the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4).  The Shema is easily the single-most important text in the Hebrew Bible; it defines the Hebrews as a people and perpetually reminds them of their place in relationship to God.  Many scholars have argued that the book of Deuteronomy itself is essentially a constitution for the Israelite nation when they enter into the promised land, and if this is the case, the Shema is the Preamble to that constitution.  It is the first prayer that a Jew prays in the morning when he awakens and the last prayer that he prays before bed; in times of distress, like during the oppression of the Jews in Nazi Germany, it was the Shema that was used as a means to identify oneself as a Jew to the Jewish community in hiding.  It is also the first prayer that is prayed (normally sung or chanted) at the beginning of a typical synagogue service.  And here, Jesus uses this prayer, this statement of faith, to sum up what it means to obey the law. 

The Shema begins with an imperative statement:  “Hear!”  The word in Hebrew that this is derived from is the term [m;v. (shema), which is where it gets its name.  More importantly, though, the term [m;v. (shema) does not simply mean “to listen,” but it also carries the connotations of obedience and submission to what follows.  It is a command to the people to hear the words that are being said, to internalize them, to submit to their authority, and then to live in obedience to what is being commanded of the listener.  There is no room for ambiguity in this command—you must hear is the idea that this command is conveying.

The second word that is found in the prayer tells us to whom the prayer is addressed:  Israel.  We, as Christian believers, must be reminded here that the name Israel applies to us today.  Paul reminds us in Romans 9:6-8 that one is not a member of Israel simply because of genealogical descent, but through the promise of God—through faith.   In Galatians 3:29, Paul also reminds us that we are counted as Abraham’s offspring—heirs according to the promise and members of true Israel—through faith in Jesus Christ.  Thus, this command of “hear, O Israel,” is a command that is set before our very ears today and must be laid upon our own hearts as well. 

Yet, what is significant about this language of “Israel” is not simply that we are part of the promise (though that is a great and a wonderful thing), but it is a reminder that we are bound together as one people in Jesus Christ and we have been given a name.  Israel was not a name that Jacob chose for himself, but it is a name that was given to him after he wrestled with the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 32:28).  The name means, “One who has striven with God.”  Now, we usually think of striving as a totally negative thing, yet let us never forget that while striving against God is not an act of submission, it does mean that God’s hand is upon your life.  The reprobate and pagan who has rejected the things of God does not need to worry about striving with God in his or her life—Paul reminds us that God has given them up to their sinful ways—allowed them to pursue the sinful things that will destroy them (Romans 1:24-25).  God’s hand is only upon his people, rebuking us when we sin, drawing us toward himself in righteousness.  In our sin we strive against God; we wrestle with his calling upon us, yet his calling is upon us; his hand is in our lives.  Israel is a name given to us as God’s people to set us apart from the rest of the world, to remind us of our corporate unity as God’s people, to remind us that it is a name given to us by our God (only the Master has the authority to give a name to those in his service), and it is a reminder that God’s hand is upon our lives.  It is a reminder that we should rejoice in as gentiles, for once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people—once we had received no mercy, and in Christ Jesus we have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10—a fulfillment of Hosea 1:23).

The next words that are pronounced are, “the Lord,” or kurio/ß (kurios) in Greek.  In Hebrew, this would be pronounced, “Adonai,” which means “Lord of Lords.”  Yet, Adonai is not the Hebrew word that is used in Deuteronomy 6:4, hwhy (Yahweh) is.  Yet, out of reverence for God’s covenantal name, the Hebrew people developed a practice of never pronouncing it and saying “Adonai” instead.  That practice carried over into the Greek writing, and thus, kurio/ß (kurios), or “Lord,” was used instead.  What is important about this language is that this is the covenantal name of God that he gave to Moses in Exodus 3:14, which is a statement of his eternality and uniqueness.  “I am who I am,” is how we often translate this name into English; that God is, he always has been, and he always will be.  God is eternal and there never was a time when God was not—nor will there ever be a time when God will cease to be.  All things that are had a beginning and this beginning is found in the creative work of our God.  Yet, this God, as great and mighty as he is, chose to condescend to fallen man and have a relationship with them, and in doing so, has given us his name that we might know him by that name for all generations (Exodus 3:15).  He is a God that is knowable, and is ultimately knowable in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who is answering the scribe in this case.

Jesus continues his quote of the Shema with the words “our God.”  In the Hebrew, this is one word, Wnyheloa/ (Elohinu), which is the Hebrew word, “Elohim” with the first person plural pronoun as an ending, thus, it does not read, “the Lord God,” but it reads, “the Lord, our God.”  This is important on a number of levels.  First of all, we must remember that these words were recited by the Hebrew people at least twice daily.  Thus, every day men and women were professing that this Yahweh was their God, personally and individually.  To call Yahweh, “our God” is also a reminder that we are bound as part of a covenantal community and not isolated, “Lone Ranger,” believers.  We are in a covenantal relationship as the church with one another and with God himself, and these words form a concise reminder of that fact.

In addition, the name, “Elohim” carries with it a variety of connotations.  We must remember that there are many names for God used in the Old Testament, and these names all are designed to reflect different aspects of his character.  The name Elohim reflects two ideas: God as creator and God as lawgiver.  To speak of God in this way, then, reflects the idea that the people are confessing God to be their creator and their lawgiver.  A creator has ownership over that which he has created and a lawgiver has the right to establish the rules and guidelines that his creations must live by.  These are words that remind God’s people of our submission to his authority and to his laws.  It is God who defines who we are and sets up the parameters as to how we go about doing what we do.

Finally, the Shema ends with the language, “The Lord is one.”  This reflects not only that God is one, monotheistic, God, but that he is alone in his Godhead.  God has no rivals, he is unique and infinitely wonderful.  Nothing in creation even comes close to his perfection.  This reflects the immutability of God’s perfections, and as the great and wonderful God, he is the source of all true wisdom and knowledge.  This language also reflects the language of the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.”  God is God alone in our lives; he will not share his authority or place with any other.  There is no room for idols of any kind (even modern ones like our careers, wealth, status, etc…) in the lives of God’s people.  God is God alone.

And this is how the Shema closes, although the language of the larger passage explicates how the believer is to go about living this out.  Jesus will touch on this as he continues, but let us not overlook the importance of this first statement.  It is the credo, if you will, of God’s people; it establishes our identity and reminds us of our proper relationship with God.  In fact, in most traditional editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, the last letter of the first and last words are written in bold case and a larger font.  These two letters spell the Hebrew word d[e (ed), which means testimony or witness.  How often we are guilty of seeking to distort that relationship.  How often we are guilty of trying to set ourselves up as lawgiver in our own lives.  Oh, beloved, we are men and women in submission, but we are in submission to a good and wonderful God; let us live happily in submission to God’s laws and God’s providence in our lives, and let these words always remind us that we are God’s people and he is our covenantal God.

The Fig Tree (Judges 9:10)

“Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come, you reign over us.’” (Judges 9:10)

 

Do you see how the trees are trying to take the initiative over God?  They first asked the one who would have been the rightful king and he turned down the job.  Rather than turning back to God to bring them a king in His time, they start going to others—others who do not belong on the throne.  And this is just what the people were doing.  Gideon had turned down the kingship, so as soon as he died, they sought out another.  And, oh what a mess they ended up with.

The fig tree is another staple fruit of Israel.  In good years, it will bear fruit twice in a season—once early and once late.  Its fruit is sweet and highly nutritious and their presence and imagery is a sign of abundance for the people.  The promised land is a land described as a land of fig trees (Deuteronomy 8:8) and times of peace, both in this world and in the new creation, are described as a place where each person can rest under his own fig tree (1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4). 

Yet, peace does not come to us when we seek to run ahead of God.  The people were not happy with the fact that other nations had human kings and they did not have one, though how much more wonderful it is to have God as king.  Through Gideon’s rejection of kingship, God was telling the people to wait for the appropriate time.  They found that entirely unacceptable and went to another.

How often it is in our lives that we try and run ahead in our own time rather than stopping and waiting?  How often do we receive a “no” from God and we proceed anyhow?  Friends, trying to run ahead of God is never profitable behavior.  God will work in his own time.  That time is perfect and proper and we need to learn to be patient, waiting upon the Lord to open doors when he is ready.

The Olive Tree (Judges 9:8)

“The trees surely went to anoint a king over them.  And they said to the olive tree, “You must surely reign over us!” 

(Judges 9:8)

 

As we see what is going on in the land of Israel at this time, and as we reflect back at the history of Israel as it moves out of the book of Judges and into the books of Samuel and Kings, we get a taste for the heart of the people.  They want an earthly king over them.  Why is this?  Certainly, they had a king in God.  He sent his prophets and judges to lead his people when necessary and he provided Levites to provide for the people’s religious needs.  Why would they want a king?

As we spoke earlier, though, the Israelites had not driven the Canaanites from the land and the Israelites had adopted much of the Canaanite culture into their own.  They looked at the other nations and said to themselves, we must have a king so that we can be known in the land.  They were not interested in God’s protection and leadership; they were interested in their own honor and greatness.  Thus we see the people longing to make Gideon their king and when he refused, they made Abimelech their king against his wishes (as he had said that no son of his should be king).  So here we see the eagerness of the trees, who need no king, but want one to satisfy their own ego.  And they begin by going to the olive tree.

It is absolutely appropriate that they look to the olive tree first.  The Olive tree is a symbol of Israel in both the Old and the New Testaments (Jeremiah 11:16, Romans 11:17) and also is used in Messianic imagery as well (Zechariah 4:11-14).  Of course, olives were a staple fruit throughout the history of Israel.  Not only were they used as food but they provided oil for cooking and for lamps. 

The trees have gone to the rightful leader first, God’s anointed tree, if you will.  In the context of this story, they went to Gideon, the judge first.  The problem that came out of this is that in their zeal to have a king, when he refused, they did not stop there.  They were determined to make their own king rather than waiting for God to raise someone up to fulfill their needs.

How often do we do we behave this way in our own lives.  We look at the world around us and get jealous of the things that they have and we perceive ourselves as lacking because we do not have them.  We know from scripture and experience that God blesses us when it is appropriate and in his time, but we aren’t always satisfied with that.  We want God to act on our own timetable and according to our own parameters.  And when God says “no” to us, we go about trying to make things happen for ourselves.

What trouble we usually make for ourselves when we do this.  Indeed, that is where this parable is going, and of course, that is where the history of the people of Israel takes them.  Friends, as we reflect on this parable, let us reflect also on our own lives and learn from the mistakes of those who have failed before us.  Let us learn to wait as the psalmist calls us to do, when he says:

“My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” (Psalm 130:6)

Let us learn now to wait upon the Lord and not rush headlong into trouble and sin.