Response to "The Israel of God" by O.P. Robertson


Written for Dr. Richard Pratt, Prophets, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, April 2004.

Chapter 1: The Land

This chapter was helpful in summarizing a number of things I’ve heard in various classes about “the land,” and especially helpful in understanding the current controversy among Evangelicals regarding the promise of land to the Jews. Robertson points out that the promise of land to Abraham and his spiritual inheritance is the promise of a restored paradise after its loss in the fall under Adam. Abraham understood, even in his day, that since he did not inherit the physical land that the covenant promised him, that he was to look forward to a heavenly city and a heavenly land that he and those who followed him by faith would one day inherit in the restoration of the entire cosmos. The land he was promised, with identifiable borders between the Euphrates River and Egypt, then, was merely a shadow of the restored heavens and earth he and other believers would inherit when Christ comes in judgment and glory as full Messianic ruler of the restored cosmos. Abraham’s descendants were not wrong to inhabit the land that had been promised them, though they never did so to perfection, but they too, should have looked forward, as Abraham did, by faith to the possession of the restored cosmos under the rulership of the Messiah. The modern-day controversy over the restoration of the physical land of Israel to the Jews is put into perspective by this. Those who believe that one day the Jews will receive the land of Israel as their inheritance are misinformed.

The land of Israel is only a shadow of what is to come. Moreover, the promise is not to the people of national Israel but to the “Israel of God,” spiritual Israel, that is, true believers from every tongue, tribe and nation. Therefore, the promise of land is not the real estate between the Euphrates and Egypt to national Israel, but the whole restored heavens and earth to all those who have professed faith in the coming Messiah throughout the ages and from every nation on earth. One question that remains in my mind is whether there will be a geographically central location in the new heavens and new earth where Christ will dwell and God’s throne will be located.

Chapter 2: The People

“The Israel of God” is identified as all those people who place their faith in the God of Abraham who are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile regarding their inclusion into the family of God. In fact, it has always been the case since Abraham’s calling while he was still a pagan “Gentile” All who would one day embrace his God were welcomed into the body of believers, whether they were part of his family or outside of it. Today, only those who deny that there is a distinction between Jew and Gentile are part of the body of Christ. Jews still have the advantage of being descendants of those who inherited the law and the promises, yet must enter the family of God by means of faith.

The question of to whom the historical “promised land” belongs is addressed. This is tricky because those Jews who are not part of spiritual Israel claim the land on the basis of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. They cannot understand that this is typological language for the whole cosmos that will be inherited by all true believers in the new heavens and new earth under Jesus as Messiah. Therefore, those who administer and negotiate the occupation of the land must be at once sensitive to the historic claim by the Jews and the claim by those who have occupied the land for centuries. Those whom the Jews would move out without just compensation or by force of arms, it seems, should be protected. However, this is contrary to what many Evangelicals have said in the past and would be difficult to defend.

Chapter 3: Its Worship

This helps me understand the controversy among some Jews and even Evangelicals today who promote the reestablishment of the temple on Mt. Zion and of its ritual sacrifices. It’s an example of something that would be “nice” for traditional Jews who are not Christians, so that they would be able to return to their traditional form of worship. However, it would not serve any true function in the spiritual realm and may even bring a further curse from God since in the new covenant He has superseded the typological temple and sacrifices by the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christ’s body has taken the place of the temple. True worship is now in spirit and truth and its focus is the heavenly Jerusalem where Christ dwells at the right hand of the Father ever making intercession for us as our high priest. The place of Christ’s dwelling, the New Jerusalem, takes the place of the temple as the location of worship. Therefore, true worship can take place at any location on earth, because Christ, the high priest, has both offered the sacrifice and served himself as the sacrificial lamb in our place and thus has opened the way for us to eternally worship the living God.

Chapter 4: Its Lifestyle

Robertson’s proposal for the lifestyle of the new covenant community as similar to the wilderness experience of Israel is compelling. It certainly lends itself to an understanding of the “already/not yet” of our experience between the two comings of Christ. We are essentially freed from bondage to sin as Israel was free from bondage to servitude in Egypt. Yet we are still faced with the daily choices between obedience and rebellion, just as Israel was. Finally, we look forward to a “better place” in our heavenly home just as Israel looked forward to better conditions in the land of promise.

Robertson notes that this premise flies in the face of modern-day triumphalism that tells us we have already, or should expect to receive in this present age, all the promises of God. Instead, we should, like Israel in the desert, live in obedience and patience in the day to day world in which God has placed us, looking forward to that day when all the promises will be fulfilled at the second coming of Christ.

Chapter 5: The Coming of the Kingdom

This chapter addresses the question of the role of Israel in the coming kingdom. The long and the short of his conclusion in this chapter is that Israel’s role consists primarily of being the seedbed from which the kingdom was birthed through its Messiah, Jesus, and his twelve disciples, all sons of Israel. From them and from their base in Jerusalem, the gospel has been extended to all nations. Moreover, all those who become true believers are identified as the “true Israel.” This is consistent with the covenant with Abraham, that through him, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Robertson emphasizes that the church does not “replace” Israel, rather, that a renewed, restored Israel of God is constituted as the church takes shape. I had always thought that the church’s role was to replace Israel, but I see his point here. The concept of a renewed, restored Israel in the church, that contains both Jews and Gentiles, maintains a sense of continuity between the old and new covenants that is reflected in Scripture. So, it is the church, but it is also still Israel in a renewed form.

Some have said that Jesus did not respond to the disciples when they asked about the restoring of the kingdom to Israel “at this time.” Robertson shows that Christ did in fact address all three issues by indicating that the Holy Spirit would bring in the kingdom, the domain was the whole world, and the timing would begin when the Holy Spirit’s power would be released, which turned out to be in just a few days at Pentecost.

Second, Robertson shows that, according to the book of Revelation, Israel does not seem to play a privileged role in the consummation except that all the subjects of the kingdom, whether originally Jews or Gentiles, are said to belong to the “twelve tribes of Israel,” the full manifestation of what God intended in the first place, a people with a new heart who are loyal to him in every respect. Robertson argues that Revelation 20 contains no reference to Israel playing a special role during the millennial kingdom, nor does it give evidence of a third stage of the kingdom, but only two, consisting of “this age” and “the age to come.” His argument for this contains the same elements we learned in Dr. Hill’s class last year.

Chapter 6: Israel of God in Romans 11

Romans 11 has been used by some to demonstrate that ethnic Israel will play a distinct role at the end of the church age. Some have contended that, among other things, there will be a massive turning of the Jews to Christ in a relatively short period of time close to the return of Christ, and that in some form, “all Israel” will be saved. There are at least four views as to what “all Israel” means, and Robertson argues that two are relatively viable according to Scripture. He supports the arguments that it refers to the salvation of either, 1) all elect Jews and Gentiles, or 2) all elect Jews; but rejects 3) the salvation of all ethnic Jews of all times, and 4) the salvation of all ethnic Jews living at that time. His argument seems plausible and likely according to Scripture. What seems sure from Scripture and history is that God has been using the interplay of Jewish unbelief leading to Gentile belief leading in turn to Jewish belief out of envy over and over through the generations at least since Pentecost.

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