The Israel of God
The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2000), 204 pp.
Author O. Palmer Robertson
I first read this book in 2000 when it was originally published and decided to give it another look. I'm glad I did. Robertson's treatment of the current identity and future of Israel in God's redemptive purposes will stir significant debate. That's assuming, of course, that people in the mainstream of evangelicalism take the time to read it.
The book is divided into six chapters with a seventh devoted to 12 concluding propositions that Robertson believes are warranted by his study of the Scriptures.
I have always enjoyed Palmer Robertson's works, even when I haven't agreed with them. I have heard him speak on numerous occasions, particularly at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, and have been profoundly impressed with his gentle spirit, his kindness towards those with whom he disagrees, and his obvious love for God. His book, The Final Word, is one of the more articulate, but still unconvincing, defenses of cessationism (the doctrine that spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues, interpretation of tongues, etc. have ceased and are no longer valid in the church today). This book addresses an entirely different topic, but one that is no less controversial: the identity and future of Israel in God's plan.
Chapter One addresses the issue of the land in God's redemptive plan and the claim by many today that, based on the terms of the Abrahamic covenant, Israel has an exclusive and God-given right to it. Robertson traces the theme of the land throughout the Old Testament and comes to a number of important conclusions. For example,
'The possession of the land under the old covenant was not an end in itself, but fit instead among the shadows, types, and prophecies that were characteristic of the old covenant in its presentation of redemptive truth. Just as the tabernacle was never intended to be a settled item in the plan of redemption but was to point to Christ's tabernacling among his people . . ., and just as the sacrificial system could never atone for sins but could only foreshadow the offering of the Son of God . . ., so in a similar manner Abraham received the promise of the land but never experienced the blessing of its full possession. In this way, the patriarch learned to look forward to 'the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God' (Heb. 11:10) (13).
Contrary to what some may suspect, Robertson does not 'spiritualize the land but sees it rather as foreshadowing a more substantial, more consummate inheritance for the people of God, namely, the 'Jerusalem above which is the 'mother of us all (Gal. 4:26). Since Abraham is described as heir 'of the world (Rom. 4:13), we can no longer conceive of the promised land as only one small portion in the Middle East, for now 'the whole of the cosmos partakes of the consummation of God's redemptive work in our fallen world (26). Again, 'the concept of the land has expanded in its new covenant fulfillment to include the entire Gentile world. It now extends, as does the Great Commission, to the uttermost parts of the earth (28-9).
In Chapter Two Robertson addresses the question of who constitutes the 'people of God and thus heirs of the covenant promises. He contends that both believing Jew and believing Gentile together constitute the one new man (Eph. 2:13ff.), the one people of God who share equally all the covenant promises irrespective of ethnic origin. Robertson provides an excellent exegesis of Galatians 6:15 and concludes, rightly I believe, that the 'Israel of God refers to the Church, the one elect people of God in whom are believing Jews and Gentiles, together co-heirs of the covenant. He writes,
'Recognizing the validity of a claim to the redemptive 'land promise' . . . by a group of people who are identified in some way other than by faith in Jesus as the Christ inevitably involves a return to the shadowy realm of the old covenant provisions of redemption (49).
Chapter Three focuses on the worship of the true people of God and consists in large measure of an exposition of Hebrews 7 and the significance of Christ's eternal and superior priesthood. Robertson concludes:
'The most drastic conclusion to be drawn from this perpetual priesthood of Christ is that it sets aside the former priesthood, temple, and sacrifices. The weakness and uselessness of the old way is exposed by the perfections of the new priesthood. The significance of this point for today needs to be fully appreciated. No return to the old form of temple, priesthood, and ritual is possible. The perfections of Christ's priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary of the new covenant can never be replaced or augmented by the weaknesses of the shadowy, temporally and spatially limited service of the old covenant. If a third temple were ever erected in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, it would not open a way of access to God. The priesthood of Jesus Christ in the heavenly temple of the new covenant is perpetual and eternal, and none of the earthly forms of the old covenant can replace or supplement it (72-3).
Needless to say, such conclusions will not set well with those who believe God will endorse the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem. Robertson does not speculate on whether a temple will be constructed. That is certainly a possibility. But his point is that God will never acknowledge it as having any spiritual or theological significance. Such a 'temple would serve only as a visible reminder of the repudiation of Jesus Christ and his identity as the true temple of God in and through whom God takes up his residence among his people on this earth. To pray for or recommend or encourage the building of a literal structure is the worst form of redemptive retrograde.
I will skip commenting on Chapter Four which addresses the issue of lifestyle, and move directly to Robertson's treatment of the coming of the kingdom in Chapter Five. One may be tempted to think that Robertson is advocating a radical form of so-called 'Replacement theology, but his own words speak otherwise. In describing the coming of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus and his calling out of twelve disciples, he explains:
'The designation of exactly twelve disciples shows that Jesus intends to reconstitute the Israel of God through his ministry. He is not, as some suppose, replacing Israel with the church. But he is reconstituting Israel in a way that makes it suitable for the ministry of the new covenant. From this point on, it is not that the church takes the place of Israel, but that a renewed Israel of God is being formed by the shaping of the church (118).
Robertson's discussion of Acts 1:6-8 is alone worth the price of the book. Contrary to what many have believed, Jesus did not fail to answer the disciples' question about when God would 'restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6). Acts 1:8 is his answer! 'The power of the kingdom would come down on the apostles in the form of the promised Holy Spirit, thereby manifesting the current reality of the kingdom. Jesus' indication that the Spirit would come 'not many days from now' may even be understood as a partial answer to the disciples' question concerning the timing of the kingdom's coming (132). I cannot now go into detail about Robertson's interpretation, other than to say that the progressive exercise and manifestation through the Holy Spirit of Christ's heavenly dominion, first in Jerusalem, then all Judea, then Samaria, and eventually all the earth (Acts 1:8) is the coming of the promised kingdom. Says Robertson,
'The kingdom of God would be restored to Israel in the rule of the Messiah, which would be realized by the working of the Holy Spirit through the disciples of Christ as they extended their witness to the ends of the earth (134).
Chapter Six is Robertson's treatment of Romans 11, an updated and slightly revised version of an earlier article he wrote in 1979, entitled 'Is There a Distinctive Future for Ethnic Israel in Romans 11? Instead of going into detail in this review, I recommend you read my two part treatment of Romans 11 found elsewhere on this web site. Essentially, Robertson believes Paul is describing, not some future mass salvation of the final generation of Jewish people, but the progressive salvation and 'grafting in of Jewish believers throughout the course of the inter-advent age, extending from Paul's ministry in the first century until the second coming of Christ at the end of the age.
The only significant change Robertson makes from his earlier article concerns the identity of the 'all Israel who are saved. He no longer believes this refers to all elect Jews, but rather takes the view that 'all Israel consists of 'all the elect of God, whether of Jewish or Gentile origin (187). On this point I think Robertson should have stayed with his earlier conviction!
All this leads Robertson to conclude that,
'the present state of Israel is not a concrete realization of the messianic kingdom of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, a day should not be anticipated in which Christ's kingdom will manifest Jewish distinctives either by its location in 'the land,' or by its constituency, or by its distinctively Jewish practices (195).
As stated earlier, these conclusions will not be warmly received by the majority in evangelicalism who believe the current state of Israel is in some sense a fulfillment of biblical prophecy or at least a prelude to a mass ingathering of Jewish people in accordance with the promises made to the patriarchs. I don't expect Robertson to be read by many outside his own theological boundaries, but he should be. If we are ever to progress as the people of God in understanding the identity of the people of God, we must be willing to dialogue with charity and godliness. So, get this book and read it, regardless of what view you embrace!