It’s been interesting watching the reactions to President Trump’s announcement concerning acknowledgement of Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel. Many are seeing this as a fulfillment of prophecy, most notably Zech. 12:1-3. Of course, on face value it seems to make sense if in fact Scripture indicates that Israel with Jerusalem at the seat of its theocratic power, as existed in the Old Testament, that such a move would be celebrated on theological grounds (there are political reasons as well but we won’t go into that).
All this points to a telling sign to me: that so many Christians believe that God’s fulfillment of covenantal promises still involve the geographic, political state of Israel as if those promises still involved that particular piece of land.
It would be a long while in my Christian walk before I realized that references to Israel in Scripture, particularly the New Testament did not mean the political state of Israel. Romans 9-11 is particularly instructive in this regard. Paul lays out the case that though he longs for his kinsmen according to the flesh (ethnic Israel) because of all that had been given to them (9:4-5), they don’t belong to the true Israel. “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (vs. 6). Israel refers to Abraham’s children according to the Spirit (vs. 8), those who have believed in God’s promises through Christ (cf. Gal: 3:7-18). The remnant of Israel is actually the true believers, those united to Christ, including the grafting in of the Gentiles as those who inherit the same promises (11:13-24). It’s important to note here with the rejection of Israel that the distinction of ethnic Israel relates to the fact that they were first given the revelation of this glorious truth. God is not giving up on them but it doesn’t mean they are somehow a separate people of God who will be dealt with according to a specific piece of land.
But doesn’t Paul seem to be referencing such when he says, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles and come in. In this way all Israel will be saved” (11:25-26) then sites Is. 59:20 as an indication for a future for Israel. Is Paul referring to a deferred plan for the place called Israel? Not hardly. Another way of seeing this is that the time of the true Israel (Jews and Gentiles together) don’t get fulfilled until all the elect are saved, including Jews. (PS: I do recognize that scholars have debated the complexities of Rom. 9-11 and come to different conclusions.)
Over at Reformation21, Nick Bazig has written a beautiful, succinct piece, A Better Jerusalem, in which he outlines how Jesus changed the nature of Israel based on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20);
As far as the city of Jerusalem is concerned, it’s important to recognize that God set apart this city to be the place of the Temple and the king’s house. It was the capitol of the theocratic nation of Israel in the Old Testament. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise to us to see that Jesus’ ministry ended in Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been established by God to be the focal point of the whole earth during the Old Covenant era. Jesus was crucified there (i.e. he was lifted up there) because he is the great King to whom all worship is to be directed. As Robertson observes:
“The lifting up of the Son of God could occur only in Jerusalem. No other place, no other city could substitute. To the covenant people of God he must come, and by the covenant people of God he must be rejected. Only then could the purposes and plans of God as revealed through all the ages be realized” (Understanding the Land, pp. 121-122)
As the earthly ministry of Jesus came to a close in Jerusalem, so the ministry of his Apostles began in Jerusalem. From there it broke out from there into the whole world to show that the reign of God was now the reign of the resurrected Christ in the heavenly Jerusalem. From the rejection of Christ onward, the earthly Jerusalem became a symbol of fleshly, earthly, man-centered religion.
Please give the whole thing a read. Nick points to an essential component of Jesus’ earthly ministry: to show how he is the fulfillment of covenantal promises (2 Cor. 1:20). Time and time again throughout the Gospel accounts, Jesus showed both his followers and religious rejecters that they have seen God’s dealing with his people one way but that he is now changing that game in light of Old Testament promises. It’s the primary reason, he makes so many references to what his hearers would have understood.
A clear indication of the change from Jerusalem as the seat of theocratic earthly ministry is found in John 15:15. Keep in mind that John 13-16 is Jesus’ farewell meeting with his disciples before he gives himself over as a sacrifice for the final atonement of sins. It’s where he tells them of the “new commandment” (13:34-35), the Spirit’s work in their lives (14:16-17;25;7-11), and the mission to carry out his ministry (14:12). He let’s them know that he is the way, the truth and life (14:6); the locus of what reconciliation to the Father constitutes going forward. In the midst of this he says;
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)
For many years, I took this to mean some type of existential experience whereby we bask in Jesus presence, especially considering what he says in vs 7. But when looking at the OT references, we must consider how these disciples would have understood these words. As he commonly did, Jesus leverages the words of the prophets (that ultimately were speaking about him) to demonstrate his work in relation to what had done with Israel previously. Here he utilizes a commonly used metaphor for Israel as the vineyard (see Hosea 10:1; Jeremiah 2:21, 5:10; Is. 5:7 among many others). Most notably, Psalm 80:7-11 seems to have the most explicit reference.
In Kingdom Come, Sam Storms lays out a compelling case of what Jesus is actually demonstrating: whereby the Israel had been rooted in a particular piece of land, now it would be found in him. This was the big game changer. Utilizing Gary Burge’s, Jesus and the Land, Sam provides this commentary;
But as Burge points out, “the crux for John 15 is that Jesus is changing the place of rootedness for Israel. The commonplace prophetic metaphor (the land as the vineyard, the people of Israel as vines) now undergoes a dramatic shift. God’s vineyard, the land of Israel, not has only one vine: Jesus. The people of Israel cannot claim to be planted as vines in the land; they cannot be rooted in the vineyard unless first they are grafted into Jesus.” God the vinedresser “now has one vine growing in his vineyard. And the only means of attachment to the land is through this one vine, Jesus.
Just as we saw with the temple, here in the fourth gospel John is “transferring spatial, earthbound gifts from God and connecting them to a living person, Jesus Christ.” Whatever sense of identity or spiritual benefits and blessings God’s people derived from the land in the Old Testament, they now can find only through a relationship of faith in Jesus. . . In sum, here in John 15 “Jesus exploits the vineyard metaphor in order to take from it what Judaism had sought from the land. Now Jesus is the sole source of life and hope and future. The land as holy territory therefore should now recede from the concern of God’s people. The vineyard is no longer an object of religious desire as it once had been. Only Jesus is!”
Of course this has implications for how we understand Old Testament prophecy with specific references to Jerusalem. But it’s important that we read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament since the New Testament explains the Old. With that, references to Israel and Jerusalem must now be seen in light of Jesus’ earthly ministry and his fulfillment of promises. We also must consider how the use of metaphorical language pointed to the literal reality of Christ himself and who he is in relation to the true Israel.