Monday, August 22, 2011

What Kind of People Are We Anyway?

Images of the Church

Pilgrims, Wanderers, Aliens

In the 08/18 blog on Israel and the Church I laid a foundation for what I want to say this time.My main point was that the church is the new Israel. As Israel was the kingdom of God until the coming of Christ, so the church is the kingdom of God after his coming. It is this underlying truth that leads to New Testament writers picking Old Testament language about Israel and applying it to the church and their seeing the fulfillment of promises made to Israel in the present and future of the church.

At the same time we must not forget the differences. The kingdom of God was manifested in the Old Testament in a particular ethnic group (the Jews) and a particular nation (Israel). The kingdom in the New Testament has no ethnic boundaries. It includes Jews and Gentiles alike. Its citizens are gathered into a real, but spiritual body (the church). The church transcends all ethnic and national distinction and its weapons are the word, sacraments, and prayers. Its sole King is Jesus who rules his kingdom by his Word and Spirit through men chosen for leadership.

The continuity between Israel and the church allows us to relate the experiences of Old Testament Israel to the New Testament church. I want to describe three images of the church drawn from the experience of Israel.

First, the church is a pilgrim people. Peter calls us to live “as sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), and Paul tells us that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). But, it is the writer of Hebrews who most fully develops this picture of the church as a pilgrim people.

When God called Abraham to go to the Promised Land, Abraham went as a pilgrim, who moved about in the land, never actually owning any more than a burial place for his family. God had promised to give him the land, and one day his descendants did possess it, but Abraham looked beyond the land itself to something more substantial and permanent, which meant that, even if he and/or his descendants possessed the land of Palestine, he and they would remain pilgrims.

The writer of Hebrews urges us to adopt the outlook of Abraham and the other patriarchs:

By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called out to a place that he was to receive as an
inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking to the city that has foundations whose designer and builder is God (11:8-10).

These all died in faith, not having possessed the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged they were strangers and exiles on earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland…they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (11:13-16).

As the gospel song says: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; if heaven’s not my home, then, Lord, what shall I do? The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” We are pilgrims in this world, whose true and eternal home is heaven. (When I say “heaven”, I do not mean primarily our experience between death and the resurrection with Christ, but our future, when Christ comes, to live as resurrected embodied souls in a world where heaven and earth have become one.)

Second, the church is a wilderness people. The New Testament uses the experience of Israel in the wilderness to exhort the church. Paul refers to several incidents during the wilderness time (led by Moses and the cloud, crossing the Red Sea, eating manna, drinking water from the rock, practicing idolatry at Peor, grumbling against God and Moses, the first generation dying in the wilderness) to tell us:

Now these things took place as an examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did….Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction…(1 Corinthians 10:11).

What is the significance for us?

Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. So no temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He also will provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (10:12,13).

The writer of Hebrews also takes us back to the wilderness experience of Israel, and the failure of the generation that left Egypt to enter the Promised Land, to warn us of the dangers of those who profess faith to fall into unbelief and the disobedience that results from it:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin…to whom did he swear they would not enter his rest, but those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For the good news came to us just as it came to them, but the message did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith to those who listened (Hebrews 3:12,13,18;4;1,2).

There are many points of contact between Israel in the wilderness and the church in the present age. We have been delivered from bondage to sin, baptized into Christ, bound to God by covenant, and are making our way to the promised heaven. But, now we are in the wilderness. And the wilderness is a “mixed” experience: God leads, provides, and defends us in the wilderness. But, there are also many trials, temptations, and dangers to face.

The wilderness teaches us that so long as we are in the world, we are between house of bondage and the rest of the Promised Land. We are headed home, but we are not home yet.

Third, the church is an exiled people. When Peter wrote to predominantly Gentile congregations in Asia Minor he addressed them: “To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion…” (1 Peter 1:1). (See also the texts quoted about our being a pilgrim people to make the point that we are also exiles.)

We know that Israel went into exile when they finally exhausted God’s patience and experienced his judgment. But it was not just the unfaithful who went into exile; many of God’s people who had faith and were faithful were also in exile. They were living in a foreign land, not there own. They felt the strangeness of their new situation: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4) They also had the promise that eventually they would return to their homeland.

But, for now and future years until God did restore them, what were they to do living as exiles in a foreign land? Despite the contrary words of false prophets, God’s true spokesman, Jeremiah, told them:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters, that they may bear sons and daughters and multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Jeremiah’s message for the present is: “No, you are not home; your ultimate hope and future are to go home, but for now you are here. Go on with life. Ask God to bless the country where you live, because, for the time being, your welfare and your country's welfare are intertwined.”

Almost everyone is concerned about the difficult economic and uncertain political future our country faces. Many also worry about the decline of the influence of western Christian civilization on our country. But how shall we, as God’s people, respond?

Remember we are pilgrims who do not have our permanent home here. Remember we are in the wilderness where there are going to be many hardships, but we must trust and obey God, confident that he will lead us safely to the land he has promised. For now, we are exiles, who live in the foreign land of this world, waiting on God to restore us to where we belong, once Eden, and now the new heavens and new earth. Your fortunes in this world are bound up with those of your country and its government, so pray for both.


Rhonda said...


Thank you so much for this post.

Don Frank said...

Luther treated this same subject extensively. While he clearly recognized the two kingdoms in which we live, he put a very positive spin on our role while living in this temporal kingdom as follows:

"Therefore there is a second question, whether a Christian may also be a temporal man and exercise the office and work of government or the law, so that the two persons or two kinds of office are united in one man and he is at the same time a Christian and a prince, judge, lord, man-servant
or maid-servant, which are called purely temporal persons since they
belong to the temporal regiment. To this we say yes: for God himself has ordained and instituted this temporal regiment and distinction of persons,
and moreover he has confirmed and praised it through his Word. For
without it this life could not exist, and we are all included in it together—yea, we are born into it before we become Christians. Therefore we must remain in it so long as we exist on earth, although only in respect of our
external bodily life and nature."