I don’t know whether anybody remembers the phrase from maths exams. We were told to show our working: to show how we got to an answer so that if our final answer was wrong (and to be honest I lost the plot with maths when we stopped using numbers and started using letters…) we might get some credit for having made some right initial steps.
I’m just coming to the end of preaching a series on Isaiah. There is a fair amount of work to do in order to get the right application for people today- after all we are not inhabitants of Jerusalem living in the anticipation and aftermath of exile. But it is a moot point as to how much working to show. I was conscious of that particularly in my sermon on Isaiah 62. It is a glorious passage describing God’s attitude towards His city Jerusalem- with glorious images of His people as a crown and a bride. I wanted to capture a sense of that glory- and so decided not to spend a lot of time showing how I got to my conclusions as to how it applies to us. I think that was probably right- but one or two mentioned having question marks in their heads. Were not these promises for Israel? How could they legitimately be applied to us? How did I get to my conclusion?
The whole of the Old Testament points forward to Christ. I’m sort of assuming that in what follows. The question is this- who or what are the recipients of the glorious promises outlined to Old Testament Israel that come to fruition in Christ? I want to say that these passages apply in four main ways:
1. They apply first and foremost to the Jewish remnant. It is impossible to read the latter chapters of Isaiah without noticing the huge sense of division that runs through them. It comes across clearly in 59:20- these glorious promises are for those in Israel who repent. The split that runs through the people of God was particularly apparent in the passage I preached on Sunday from Isaiah 65. Whilst there are warnings of judgement for the people of God there is, nevertheless, a remnant whom God will save and who will receive these glorious promises.
2. They are also promises to the church- mostly made up of Gentiles- today. As I mentioned in my posts on the Sabbath, the New Testament is our inspired guide on how to understand and apply the Old Testament. What is clear throughout is that the New Testament regards the promises to Israel as fulfilled in the church. That’s how James applies Amos 9 at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. It’s how Paul applies Hosea 1 in Romans 9:25. The children of Abraham who receive the blessing promised to him are not his physical descendants but those who share his faith. The church which is a new creation is the Israel of God (Gal 6:16). And in 1 Peter 2:4ff we see Peter use the language used to describe Old Testament Israel and applies it to the church. True Israel was never defined by geography and race but by faith in the promises of God. And the group that applies to today is the church.
3. The point above seems to me the main way in which the promises to Old Testament Israel are fulfilled. I make this third point tentatively- and I may have changed my mind by the time I get round to preaching Romans 9-11. But it does seem to me that Romans 11 indicates a widespread conversion of the Jews before the Lord returns. And interestingly Paul cites the Old Testament to prove that- possibly picking up the language of Isaiah 59 on Romans 11:26-27. It seems to me that within some of the promises to Israel there is the hope of a widespread return of God’s Old Testament people to the Lord.
4. There are promises regarding a new Jerusalem. If I have to be honest, I am not convinced that the New Testament (which if you recall is our inspired guide to applying the Old Testament) regards physical Jerusalem as being particularly important. Repeatedly (see Acts 1 as an example) Jesus turns the attention of his disciples away from a focus on a physical restoration of Jewish rule in Jerusalem. It is completely absent as a concern of the Early Church. So whilst it is right to have concern and compassion for those suffering in the Middle East (certainly given the history of the 20th century) I don’t regard the physical land of Israel as central to God’s purposes- whilst recognizing that I think Scripture points to a spiritual return of Jews to the Lord. Rather the New Testament applies the promises given to Jerusalem to the heavenly city. That’s the burden you see in the second half of Hebrews 12 and Revelation 21.
Those seem to me to be the main trajectories that Scripture takes. I probably won’t trace them all out every time I preach from the Old Testament- but I hope that helps you to understand my working.