Sunday, July 24, 2011
What lessons can we learn from Israel?
Often I believe we tend to hurry through the Old Testament to get to the parts of the Bible that we think speak more directly to our lives today. But should we disregard the ancient Scriptures and the history of Israel? Which is to ask, “How does Israel in the Old Testament have any relevance to us today?” Or, “How do the old laws apply to us now?”
The Old Testament teaches us much not only in regards to the people of Israel, but points us to the coming Savior of the New Testament. Jesus’ fingerprints are evident all throughout Scripture. This can be shown where Israel was delivered by Egypt for example. There’s also the scapegoat as described in Leviticus and the Passover Lamb in Exodus. Then there are the prophesies. The Old Testament is rich in prophecies that would all be fulfilled in Jesus. Much more regarding these topics is discussed in length by Matthew McGee at his website, “Wielding the Sword of the Spirit.”
The point is that we should regard all Scripture as profitable for learning and understanding for life today. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
So as I was going through Romans, I came across this section where Paul was in deep sorrow for Israel. I paused for a moment and wondered what had happened with them. What did the people of Israel do exactly that caused Paul to be so deeply distressed? Seriously. Paul is so distraught that he’s willing to be “cursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of his people.
Paul’s Anguish Over Israel
1 I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
So it seems that Israel did something that caused them to be cut off from Christ. And now Paul is so moved by this that he is willing to take their place. But why? What did Israel do? Well, we know about their disobedience and exile into Babylon. But is that really what is going on here? As bad as those events were that led to their exile several hundred years before, that isn’t their problem. No, it’s much worse. The problem, the real issue, was that the Israelites rejected Jesus Christ as their Messiah. Years before Paul wrote those verses in Romans, Jesus said in Matthew 23:37-39: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
There’s a serious undertone in these passages. Israel had miscalculated something about God and why He chose them, of all races, to display His glory. Paul listed some of their advantages: adoption, divine glory, covenants, the law, temple worship and the promises. Maybe it was because of these advantages the Israelites began to believe there was something unique about who they were. They were special, they thought. They were the descendants of Abraham. They were of the circumcision. Whatever the reason, the people of Israel were boastful and saw themselves as being set apart by God because of who they were.
It’s probably inaccurate to say that all of Israel was guilty. But as a whole, the people of Israel and their leadership took a perverted view of their circumstances and attributed their advantages to something other than God’s sovereignty. God chose Israel for His purposes and plans, not because they were deserving. It is true that within Israel’s lineage there were great men of faith. God made covenants with them that would extend throughout the generations because of their faith and because they believed. But ultimately, it was still all about God.
Romans 9:21 speaks to the idea that the potter can create a vessel for whatever purposes He desires. “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” Israel was created to display His glory. He chose them for this reason. So in a twist of irony, Israel somehow missed this concept and instead of fulfilling their purpose, they become prideful and arrogant and thought too highly of themselves. It was from this inaccurate viewpoint that Israel missed the single most important and significant event of all mankind: the incarnation of the Christ.
Israel was too busy with religion. They even began to intertwine their own laws with God’s. The leaders were making life difficult for everyone and burdening people with laws and regulations that they couldn’t follow themselves. And in the process of doing religion, they missed something of far greater worth. Maybe out of pride, a lust for power and authority, or for some other reason Israel refused to accept Jesus’ claims about being the Son of God and the One who was the fulfillment of all the prophecies. In fact, because they were so busy organizing and doing religion, they inadvertently used their “golden calf” as the means to crucify the One that should have been their true object of worship.
The question then is, “How is this relevant to us today?” For one, people in our time shouldn’t take salvation offered through Jesus Christ any more lightly than the Israelites did back then. In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”
So there are several warnings for us, even for today. And here’s another.
With Israel, God gave His commandments, His ordinances, that they should follow. Those commandments didn’t mean much for a people who chose to disregard them. Of even greater significance, they were given a new opportunity. God sent His Son, who by the way is the Word, and the Israelites were told that this time He would write His Word on their hearts if they would follow Him this time. It’s part of a New Covenant that God made. Read what the writer of Hebrews says:
But God found fault with the people and said:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
So because Israel rejected Jesus, it opened up the door to where the Gentiles (the rest of us) could have this same opportunity: to have God’s Word written on our hearts! In Romans 4, Paul explains how this New Covenant would apply to all who believe and are justified by faith.
So here we are, faced with a choice. We are given all these examples. We are given plenty of warnings. Much like the people of Israel were. If you remember, Paul talked about all the advantages that Israel had. They failed to grasp the gift that God was offering: Himself! We are given a significant advantage too. Hebrews 10:29 gives us this poignant point: “How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” An understanding of this passage is that God is extending His Son out to all who would believe. If instead, there are some people who choose to ignore Jesus and what He did for us through the cross by shedding His blood, they risk a punishment that will also be severe.
The problem, I feel, is that people today are getting caught in the same traps. The same allures of religion, pride, power and authority, or whatever. Some are having a difficult time separating their thoughts and ways from those of God’s. In the process, instead of searching and prodding for answers, they scoff and ridicule that which they do not understand. In Jude 18, Jude says, “They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.’ These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.” Before he penned those words, however, Jude said, “These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.”
Does any of this sound familiar? My hope and prayer is that if there are those who would read these words, if they haven’t yet made a decision to follow Jesus, that today they would consider all that God has done. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It’s perhaps the most recognizable verse in all of Scripture, but its familiarity has perhaps escaped our attention. Consider what this verse says. God gave His Son. The giving itself is a big deal, it’s a sacrifice. God gave Jesus up to be crucified on the cross for our sins. Don’t minimize the significance of this event. By having the wrath of God poured out onto His own Son for our sins, God demonstrated the greatest act of love humankind has ever seen. If it wasn’t for this one single, most important event, we all would be destined for hell. And we would all incur the full wrath of God’s justice for our sins.
My prayer for you, as Paul’s prayer and concern was for his own nation, is that you would believe in Jesus. If you sense God prodding your heart trying to get your attention, please do not ignore Him. Let today be the day when you can say, “Lord! I believe!” All it takes is a simple prayer of faith. Talk to Him. Ask Him questions. But more than anything else, don’t ignore Him! The Bible says that if you were to draw near to Him, that He will draw near to you. Take that step of faith. Believe!...and be saved!