Jesus, the New Israel

“Jesus is not merely the new Adam, however; he is also the true son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1) and therefore the true Israel. The genealogy in Matthew 1 flags that fact for you: it plots fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen from the exile to Christ. Then, in the opening chapters of his gospel, Matthew shows Jesus personally reenacting Israel’s story. In Matthew 2:13–15, like the young Israel, the young Jesus goes down into Egypt, brought there by a man named Joseph. Like the Israel of Moses’ generation, Jesus survives the attempts of a hostile king to slaughter all the infant boys (2:16). In fact, Matthew explicitly cites Hosea 11 to illustrate the parallel: in Jesus, God is once again bringing his firstborn out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15).

After leaving Egypt, Israel next crossed the Red Sea, a deeply symbolic moment of salvation (for the Israelites) and judgment (for the Egyptians) involving passing through water. For Jesus, Matthew immediately focuses on his baptism, a symbol of salvation through figurative burial and resurrection in water (Rom. 6:4). John the Baptist was puzzled by Jesus’ desire for baptism, since he thought of baptism as an act of repentance and confession of sin (Matt. 3:6). On those terms, John the Baptist needed to be baptized by Jesus instead. Yet Jesus nonetheless submitted to baptism not for his own sins, but for ours. For him, baptism was an act of identification with us, a symbolic foreshadowing of the baptism of fire that was yet to come, when he would bear the judgment curse for all his people at the cross (Luke 12:50). This would be the means whereby Jesus would accomplish the exodus of his people (Luke 9:31).12

After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they spent the next forty years being tested in the wilderness. Likewise Jesus’ baptism was followed by forty days and nights of testing in the wilderness. Even the form of Jesus’ temptations echoed the wilderness temptations of the Israelites. They were starving and grumbled against God because there was no bread (Ex. 16:2–3). So too Satan said to Jesus, who was hungry from his fasting, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3). Instead of grumbling, Jesus replied, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). Next the Israelites were thirsty and doubted that the Lord was really with them, putting the Lord to the test at Massah (Ex. 17:1–7). Satan next took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and dared him to throw himself down, tempting Jesus to prove the Lord’s presence with him by forcing God to deliver him. In response, Jesus said, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). In the wilderness, the Israelites made for themselves a golden calf and bowed down to it in worship, just as the Devil wanted Jesus to worship him in the third temptation. Yet Jesus replied, “Worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10, quoting the substance of Deut. 6:13). Israel faced three tests in the wilderness and failed three times. Jesus faced the same three tests in the wilderness and passed all three with flying colors. Jesus was personally reenacting the history of Israel, only in reverse, succeeding where Israel had failed.

The crucial significance of this reenactment of Israel’s history lies in the covenant that God had made with the Israelites at Sinai, which depended on their obedience for blessing. From the beginning, Israel constantly failed to keep God’s law. This was no surprise to God; even in the days of Moses he had told the Israelites that they would fail to keep the law and would end up in exile (Deut. 30:1). The law was never given to the people of Israel to provide them with a means of attaining blessing through their righteousness. The goal (telos) of the law was always Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:4). As the new Israel, Jesus personally fulfilled the law for the sake of all who are in him. His perfect righteousness as one born under the law is now given to all who are his people by faith, so that our salvation might be through faith, not works (Rom. 10:9–10). Or, more precisely, our salvation comes not through our works, but rather through the works of another, credited to our account.

This is the significance of what theologians call the active obedience of Christ: as our covenant representative, he has obeyed the full scope of the demands of God’s law given at Sinai, thereby meriting the promised covenant blessing of life forever in God’s presence. Jesus Christ didn’t simply come to earth to take away our sins. If that had been his purpose he could have proceeded immediately to the cross. Instead, he came to share our human experience to the full and to do so perfectly, completely without sin, so that he could replace our defiled garments with his own pure, clean garments of righteousness (as depicted in Zech. 3).

This incarnation of the people Israel in a faithful individual is anticipated in the Old Testament in Isaiah’s servant of the Lord. Isaiah proclaimed that this servant would accomplish the things that were earlier attributed to the Messiah, bringing justice and light to the Gentiles (compare Isa. 42:1 with 11:2–4 and 49:6 with 9:2–6). But is this servant the nation of Israel, as seems to be the case in Isaiah 41:8–9 and 43:10? Or is he an individual distinct from the nation, as in Isaiah 49:5–6? The answer is that there is a crucial shift in the identity of the servant in Isaiah 49. Between chapters 40–48, the figure of the servant represents the nation of Israel. The people once rejected by the Lord because of their sins and sent into captivity in Babylon will be redeemed by the Lord and brought back to their land. Their hard service is over, and their sins have been paid for. Now they are called to bring justice to the nations (42:1–4). Yet the historical Israel that returned from exile was far from the ideal presented in this verse. The people were discouraged and disorganized, unequipped to answer the call.

In Isaiah 49, however, we meet a servant who both is himself Israel (v. 3) and yet at the same time has a mission to Israel (v. 5). Israel’s failed ministry to bring light and justice to the nations is now taken up by the servant in her place. Unlike Israel, which was disobedient and suffered for her own sins, complaining that the Lord had abandoned her, this servant would be obedient, suffering in silence for Israel’s sins, and looking forward in hope to his final vindication (Isa. 53). Who is this mysterious servant? Is the prophet speaking of himself or of someone else? The Ethiopian eunuch asked this very question of Philip in Acts 8, and Philip responded by telling him the good news about Jesus. Jesus is the personification of Israel, who takes on himself the suffering that Israel’s sins deserve and fulfills Israel’s neglected calling to be a light to the Gentiles, uniting in himself the two halves of the servant’s mission described by Isaiah.”

Duguid, Iain M. (2013-02-04). Is Jesus in the Old Testament? (Basics of the Faith) (Kindle Locations 393-447). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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