(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense. Or wait until Monday, when we begin a new series!)
Today, we wrap up our sixteen-part series on Why Jesus? (don’t worry, I’m exhausted, too!), and look – very briefly – at how the next chapter of Israel’s story is to play out.
Yesterday, we saw how Jesus’ death makes sense not simply as an abstract sacrifice between God and humanity, but as the representative of Israel. Just as in his life Jesus became Israel’s representative (succeeding as God’s image-bearer, where they had failed), he did also in his death – bearing the consequences for their rebellion, dying a rebel’s death in their place at the hands of Rome. And we saw how Jesus was consciously drawing on the Old Testament image of the Suffering Servant (found in e.g. Isaiah 53), the innocent one who bears the sins of the guilty.
So far, so good. Historically speaking, a rebellion was averted, and Jerusalem was spared. For a few decades. Then they rebelled again, and Rome came and finished them off – destroying the temple in the process (AD70). Had anything changed? Was Jesus’ sacrifice for nothing?
Jesus and the defeat of death
But the battle wasn’t primarily with Rome. The battle was against sin and its consequence: death. So the real battle could not be won unless death itself was defeated. Which is one reason Jesus didn’t just need to die as Israel’s representative, but also to rise again as Israel’s representative. Just like King David was Israel’s champion against Goliath, the supreme King of the Jews is Israel’s champion against death. David’s victory was Israel’s victory; so Jesus’ victory is Israel’s victory. The people of God will be resurrected because their representative was resurrected.
Jesus and the new heart
More than that, this isn’t just a promise that God’s people will live again after they die. It also means that death – and the sin that caused it – no longer holds sway over their life now.
Remember the heart problem that Israel had? And how God promised, through Ezekiel, that he would give them a new heart, transforming them so that they could, at long last, fulfil their calling as God’s image-bearers:Ezekiel 36:24-29 “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.”
This new heart was described as a “resurrection” – miraculously giving life to “dry bones” (bodies that were long dead) – through the giving of God’s Spirit.Ezekiel 37:11-14 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
Finally, the people of God would live up to their calling of bearing God’s image in his world! How? Because God himself would dwell in them, through his Spirit – something that could only happen because they had been purified once-for-all by Jesus’ sacrifice.
The next chapter of the story is thus radically different from everything that came before – sin has been dealt with, death has been defeated, and their hard hearts have been softened by the transforming, life-giving power of God himself. Israel can now be what God intended it to be.
That’s good for Israel. But what about us?
Jesus and the scattered children of God
This is where we come into the story. Often we jump straight to us when thinking of the Gospel: Jesus died for me. But as we’ve seen, Jesus died for Israel, to make God’s people into what they were always intended to be.
But it’s never just been about Israel.
Remember right back at the start of this series, we saw God choose to bless one person, through whom all the families on earth would be blessed?Genesis 12:1-3 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Numerous other times, throughout the story of Israel, we see that this “great nation” was supposed to bear the image of God to the nations around, as a walking advertisement for life lived the way God intended, with God on your side. Mostly Israel failed. But as we saw a couple of weeks ago, they still held out hope that one day – when they truly returned from exile – Israel would be that light to the nations they were supposed to be. We gave a few examples from Isaiah and Zechariah. Here’s a couple more:Amos 9:11-12 In that day “I will restore David’s fallen shelter—I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins—and will rebuild it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” declares the Lord, who will do these things. Zechariah 8:23 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”
So, right from the start, the plan was for more than just Israel. All of Abraham’s children are included. And those in Israel who understood the Scriptures got this. Have a read of John’s commentary on the high priest’s “accidental prophecy”:John 11:49-52 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.
Jesus himself makes this point to his disciples, after his resurrection:Luke 24:45-47 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. ”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ resurrection has vindicated him as God’s anointed one. Having won that battle for Israel, “all authority” has been given to him. And it’s at that point that he gives the famous commission:Matthew 28:19-20 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
In other words: Jesus’ victory as Israel’s representative has fulfilled all of the promises God made to his people – including the promise that God would gather people from all nations, and they would come to know him too, and become a part of his people. As the Apostle Paul put it:Romans 15:8-9 For I tell you that 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 nations might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the nations; I will sing the praises of your name.”… And again, Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the nations will hope.”
The rest of the New Testament is essentially the story of this new people of God, incorporating the faithful among Israel, and people from all nations who respond to God’s message. (And looking forward to the renewal of all things in the age to come.)
But that big story is for another time.
For now, realise this is where you fit in: as one person from “the nations” who formerly did not know God. But now, Jesus has made it possible for you, too, to be part of the people of God. One of Abraham’s many children, now blessed through the nation of Israel – through the life, death, and resurrection of her representative, Jesus.