Thursday, December 30, 2010

Israel, Son of God

Several places in the Old Testament the nation of Israel is referred to as God's "son": "Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, "Let my son go, so he may worship me." But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son'" (Exod. 4:22; cf. Deut. 8:5; Jer. 31:9, 20; Hos. 11:1). But what implication does this have for how we are to understand Jesus as the Son of God?

The gospel at its core says that Jesus has come to fulfill all that was pointed toward in Israel's history and Scriptures, namely, the promise of blessing to Abraham's descendants and to all the world through them. (See Scot McKnight's explanation of this here.) In what is perhaps the most succinct description of the apostolic gospel, Paul writes to the Corinthians that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve" (1 Cor. 15:1-8). Paul and the apostles before him saw all this happening "according to the Scriptures," that is, the "Christ-event" (Barth) was something anticipated in the Old Testament and in the history of Israel (see Rom. 1:1-4). Even Jesus had this view of himself (see, e.g., Matt. 5:17 and Luke 24:25-27).

While there are many ways this can be seen in the NT, it is perhaps most evident in the Gospel of Matthew. When Herod hears of a rival king's birth, the holy family flees to Egypt and seeks refuge until Herod's death. Matthew elucidates the meaning of this event: "And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son'" (2:15; quoting Hosea 11:1). In Hosea it is Israel who is God's son, and the reference is to their rescue and calling in the exodus (cf. Deut. 8:5). But here the title is applied to Jesus. Stepping back, we can see numerous other parallels to Israel's history in the life of Jesus. For example, the flight to Egypt parallels not only Pharaoh's murder of Hebrew babies and Moses' rescue to become Israel's leader (Exod. 1-2); echoes can also be seen of the incipient family of Israel (Jacob) fleeing for their lives to Egypt (Gen. 42-43).

Additionally, just as Israel was "baptized" in their exodus-passage through the Red Sea (Exod. 14; 1 Cor. 10:4), so Jesus also underwent baptism (Matt. 3:13-17). After the exodus, Israel wandered in the wilderness, undergoing temptation and grumbling against the Lord for forty years. After his baptism, Jesus likewise spent forty days in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1-11). Israel was tempted by hunger and thirst in order to humble them, to expose their hearts, and to teach them that "man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:2-5). But ultimately their discontented hearts were set on idols, and they failed the test (1 Cor. 10:5-10). Yet where Israel failed, Jesus held fast, even wielding Deuteronomy 8:3 against the devil's devices. Whereas God was not pleased with Israel (1 Cor. 10:5), in his baptism and temptation Jesus is marked out as the beloved Son well-pleasing to God his Father (Matt. 3:17).

There are many other places as well in which Jesus is portrayed as fulfilling (that is, filling up, bringing to a climax, or displaying the true meaning of) Israel's history and hopes. (If you want to know more, e-mail me or read Peter Leithart's essay, Jesus as Israel: The Typological Structure of Matthew's Gospel.) Not least among these is that Jesus is the true seed of Abraham who serves as the representative head of God's people and bears upon himself the curse due to Israel for their disobedience to the Law, releasing to God's people (now both Jew and Gentile) the fullness of God's eschatological blessings, received by faith (Gal. 3:10-14, 21-29).

So in calling Jesus the Son of God, Matthew and other NT writers are really saying that Jesus is the true Israel, the one whose story culminates and transforms Israel's. He re-enacts and undergoes all that Israel went through in her travails to bring God's glory and blessing to a fallen world. Only where she failed, he succeeded. He is the true obedient servant of God, who truly understands and lives out the law's demands for trusting love to her Creator-King (Matt. 5:17; Heb. 10:5-10). The implications of this are that all of God's blessings are now no longer seated upon the Jews' obedience to the Law, but upon Jesus the Son's obedience and curse-bearing. As was always promised even to Abraham, covenant righteousness before God--and therefore the covenant promises of abundant life, an eternal home, and dwelling with God--now comes through faith in his Son Jesus.

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