Who is Israel?
Physical Israel becomes Spiritual Israel –part 1
John the Baptist begins the Last Warning
After a 400 year silence, from the time of Malachi, the first thing the Israelites heard from God was:
O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Matt. 3:7-9.
There is much to take cognizance of here. Firstly, the generation that John the Baptist and Jesus preached to, were according to inspiration, akin to vipers. They were like snakes – and we know who the snake is a symbol of.
Secondly, the reason why they were like snakes was because there was no ‘fruit’ in their lives. The notion of fruit and fruit trees and vineyards is the most commonly used illustration in the Bible for the changed heart that God has always desired. Often God likens his kingdom to a vineyard or a fruit-bearing tree, but this is all symbolism for that long desired plan stated at Sinai – the desire for a holy nation of priests. But the fruit is not being produced. John the Baptist, in this passage of Scripture, is condemning the generation about to witness the arrival of the Messiah of being devoid of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Thirdly, that generation of Israelites were confident that they had no need to change anything because, they were already saved. They believed that their salvation was assured because of their literal descent from Abraham. But John exposes the fallacy of this argument. John says that a literal connection to Abraham is no guarantee of salvation. What assures salvation is fruit – the change of heart – being born again.
Fourthly, John’s message contains a warning. He says there is ‘wrath to come.’ And he adds that the axe is already positioning itself to cut down the tree. That tree is the physical nation of Israel. Whether it will be cut down or not will depend on whether Israel responds or not to the coming of the Messiah. Either way from the time that John the Baptist began to preach, Israel only had 4 years left to decide whether it would produce the ‘fruit’ that Heaven desired.
Jesus Continues the Last Warning
Jesus often used the same symbolism as John the Baptist, to tell the same story. In the ‘Parable of the Barren Fig Tree’ Jesus said;
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. Lu. 13:6-9.
How many years of grace does the tree have? Answer: four years. Remember John started his ministry by saying the axe was ready to chop the tree down. How long was John’s ministry, before Jesus took over? Answer: six months. How long was Jesus’s ministry? Answer: three and a half years – making a total of four years.
One morning, just a few days before His crucifixion, as Jesus was entering Jerusalem, He noticed a fig tree and He searched it for figs to eat (see Matt. 21:18-20). It was the season for figs and the fig tree presented itself as a great source of delicious fruit, because it was resplendent in foliage indicating that it was fruitful. But Jesus found no fruit on the tree. The tree was advertising itself as a fruitful tree, but it was barren. In other words, it was acting falsely – it was pretending to something that it was not. It was a symbol of the spiritual state of Israel, and in the fulfilment of the parable of the barren fig tree, Jesus cursed it, and it died.
On the same day, as the fig tree was dying, Jesus told the chief priests and elders of Israel the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (see Matt. 21:33-46). A summary of the parable states the following:
God the Father established a land flowing with milk and honey and leased it out to the nation of Israel. But the nation of Israel occupied the vineyard without observing the terms and conditions of the covenant they had made with God. For example, when the time came for them to produce the fruit that God expected, they refused His reasonable requests. So God sent his representatives to remind the nation of Israel of the terms and conditions and promises that they had made. But the people refused to listen and they became so angry that they murdered God’s representatives. Eventually God sent His Son, reasoning that the people would recognise him and His authority, but they murdered Him too, thinking that by so doing, they could keep the vineyard for themselves.
At the end of the parable Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders of Israel a question. Jesus wanted to know what the Israelites themselves thought should happen to the unfaithful husbandmen. He wanted to know what the legitimate ruler should do with these usurpers. The Israelites condemned themselves when they answered:
He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out His vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render Him the fruits in their seasons. Matt.21:41.
Although many Christians fail to understand or accept what Jesus is saying here in this parable, the Israelites eventually understood, because Jesus told them plainly:
The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. Matt. 21:43.
They were so enraged, at His words, they wanted to seize Him, because, “they perceived that he spake of them” (Matt. 21:45). Jesus however was not daunted at all and He immediately proceeded to tell them another parable, containing yet again, the same message, that the kingdom would be taken away from them and given to a nation that would produce the fruits – the Parable of the Marriage of the King’s Son (see Matt.22:1-14).
The wrath that John the Baptist spoke about came in AD70 when the Romans destroyed the Temple, the City of Jerusalem and the nation of the Israelites. But the rejection of the nation as the chosen people of God took place at the crucifixion of Christ. It was in the courtyard of Pilate, the Roman governor, that all the warnings, all the parables and prophecies came to a terrible fulfilment.
The Israelites withdraw from the Covenant
The Israelites were presented with choices: Jesus or Barabbas – they chose Barabbas. When asked to choose between Jesus or Caesar – they chose Caesar – “We have no king but Caesar” (Jn. 19:14, 15). When Pilate said, “I am innocent of the blood of this just man” (Matt. 27:24). Their response was to emphatically take the full guilt for Christ’s death upon themselves with some truly fearful words: “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt.27:25).
In practice it was not God who withdrew from the covenant, it was the Israelites. Thus, in choosing an earthly, pagan king to rule over them, the Israelites withdrew themselves from the theocracy of heaven, and they ratified their choice by blood – crucifying the Lord of Heaven and earth.
This rejection of the Jews, as the chosen people of God – as the favoured nation of God, was final and eternal. Henceforth, one of the main focuses of the New Testament is to explain the rejection of physical Israel and the establishing of spiritual Israel. At this point in history Israel was in transition. It was transitioning from the law written on stone to the law written in the heart.
The Literal Kingdom transitions to the Spiritual Kingdom
We get a glimpse of this transition already when John the Baptist said, “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.” And stop trusting in your connection to Abraham for your salvation. John is stating that a change is coming, a change is required. The change is from a literal understanding of salvation to a spiritual understanding – in other words, its graduation time. For too long, God’s kingdom has been stuck at the kindergarten level – it’s time to graduate to the next level. The kingdom is going from first gear, skipping over second, gear and straight into third gear.
We get another glimpse of the changes afoot in the Sermon on the Mount. It is on this occasion that Jesus lifts the law off the tablets of stone and begins the procedure of putting it into people’s hearts. Jesus explains that the true thrust of the law is not in the literal realm but in the spiritual realm. On this occasion Jesus is explaining how as individuals we ought to relate to the law. He explains that the law is not something we ought to do because we have to – the law is something we ought to do because we want to. The difference is as different as night is different too day – it is as different as stone is to flesh. The difference is one of motivation. We keep the law on stone because of fear. We keep the law written in the heart because of love.
Jesus introduced the Spiritual Kingdom on a daily basis throughout his ministry. He very rarely ever spoke literally to the people. It is recorded that when he spoke to the people he used parables: “And he spake many things unto them in parables…” (Matt. 13:3) – “…and without a parable spake he not unto them” (Matt. 13:34). Parables are spiritual stories they are not meant to be understood literally.
But Jesus did not just speak spiritually in parables almost everything he said was spoken in spiritual terms. For example, he said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (Jn. 3:3, 7). He also said without this new birth one, “Cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus also explained in spiritual terms how this new birth occurs:
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Jn. 3:8.
In other words, the new birth is a process of being reborn by the Spirit of God. This is something that the New Testament speaks often about – the necessity of being reborn by the Spirit – the necessity of being led by the Spirit – the necessity of being changed by the Spirit – changed into the image of Christ. This is an internal process. It requires the lifting of the law off the tablets of stone and placing it in the hearts of the people. This is why Jesus almost always finished everything he said with these words, “Let him who has ears to hear let him hear.” Which means: he that is led by the Holy Spirit will understand my words.
This is why Jesus spoke spiritually. He was introducing the people to the Spirit. He was preparing the way for the transition from the physical to the spiritual. The physical presence and ministry of God on the earth, was about to transition into a spiritual presence and a spiritual ministry on earth.
Up to this point the presence of God and the ministry of God was a literal one. The presence of God was a literal one (the Shekinah glory) in a literal temple. The ministry was performed by a literal priesthood, performing literal rituals and ceremonies. All of this was encapsulated in a literal nation, with literal borders, a literal capital city and a literal king. But Jesus said it is better that I go away. In other words, the literal presence was going to leave. And Jesus said that the literal presence would be replaced with the spiritual presence. The kingdom of God is now directed on earth by the Spirit therefore, we need to connect ourselves to the Spirit.
This is why when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God should come (their concept was the establishment of a sovereign nation of Israel, without the Romans i.e. a literal nation). Jesus replied:
The kingdom of God cometh not with observation; Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. Lu. 17:20, 21,
Please note that Jesus said that the Kingdom is not something that can be seen – neither is it located somewhere. In other words it is not literal. Then he tells us where it can be found – it is within us. In other words, it is in our hearts. It is spiritual, not literal. He then goes on to further explain that in the future people would be longing to experience His literal presence, to be able to be with Him and see Him. But Jesus said that, that would not happen until his Second Coming. In other words, the Literal Kingdom would not return until He Himself literally returned. In the meantime, we need to recognise and accept that we live in a Spiritual Kingdom under the auspices of the Holy Spirit.
We have an excellent example of the transition from the literal kingdom to the spiritual kingdom, from what occurred during the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15. The apostles were discussing the implications of including the Gentiles in the early Christian Church. After Paul and Simeon (Peter) gave their reports, James the leading apostle at Jerusalem, announced that the coming in of the Gentiles was the fulfilment of the prophecy in Amos 9:11:
And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Acts 15:13-17.
Subsequently, a letter was sent to the Gentile Churches announcing the decision in Jerusalem. The letter contained the following:
For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us… Acts 15:28.
In other words, this was a decision made under the direction of the Holy Spirit. And what did the Holy Spirit announce? Answer: that the correct understanding of the re-building of the temple was the building up of the Church. What was previously understood to be literal is now properly understood to be spiritual. That the Church is now the temple, albeit a spiritual one, now becomes a recurring New Testament theme. Paul refers to it twice in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. 1 Cor. 3:16, 17.
What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? 1 Cor. 6:19.
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul writes extensively about the Gentiles coming in to join the Jews in the one true church. He summarizes by saying:
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. Eph. 2:19-22.
And Peter also uses the same analogy when he writes to the Church at large, informing all Christians that each and every one of us, is a living stone in the temple of God:
Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. 1 Pet. 2:5.
Notice how Peter calls the Church ‘a spiritual house’ where ‘spiritual sacrifices’ are made. Peter is clearly contrasting what was formerly understood to be literal with what is now understood to be spiritual. It naturally follows that if the Christian Church is now the temple of God then the Christian Church must also be the nation (or kingdom) of God. And this is indeed the conclusion that Peter also comes to:
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. 1 Pet. 2:9, 10.
Thus, what was desired in a time long passed (at Sinai) has finally come to pass. Here is that holy nation of priests that God has wanted so long to have. Physical Israel (or the first Israel) failed to achieve the goal. But God’s plans are never thwarted. What was not possible with physical Israel God has now achieved with spiritual Israel.
This transfer from physical to spiritual Israel still leaves many questions unanswered. Answering those questions is one reason why the New Testament was written.
God’s Mercy for Literal Israel
Although the Jews voluntarily withdrew themselves from God’s favour at the cross, and they were rejected as God’s chosen nation/people, the mercy of God still lingered for a period of three and a half years. In His mercy, God wanted to give every member of the literal kingdom, a chance to understand the climatic events ending in the crucifixion of Christ. For three and a half years the disciples proclaimed the gospel almost exclusively to the Jews in Judea, and in that time a remnant was called out from amongst the Jews. This remnant became the nucleus of the new Christian Church. At the end of the three and a half years, the Jews killed the first Christian martyr. Stephen, “full of faith and power” (Acts 6:8), was stoned to death, because “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (Acts 6:10).
Immediately after the stoning of Stephen, the Scripture says that: “Saul made havoc of the Church” (Acts 8:3). The disciples in Jerusalem were scattered, and the record goes on to say that Philip went down to Samaria. The focus of the book of Acts from this point on is on the calling of the Gentiles. With Paul the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13) moving rapidly to the centre of the stage.
Saul becomes Paul
Saul the persecutor of the Christians witnessed the death of Stephen, and he approved of it. Shortly afterwards, Saul was on his way to Damascus, to destroy the Christians there, when the Lord appeared to him. At this time, Saul the Pharisee, became Paul the Apostle, and from this point on the Gospel to the Gentiles went with power over the whole world. The period of mercy for literal Israel is now over, and the prophecy made by Isaiah about the Gentiles was about to be fulfilled:
I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by [calling upon] my name. Isa. 65:1, cf. Hosea 1:10; 2:23.
How are we saved?
Because the Jews had rejected Christ, they could not remain neutral towards the new faith. They became persistent persecutors towards those who accepted Christianity. And even those Jews, who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, did not understand that they were now supposed to worship spiritually and not literally.
The transition from Judaism to Christianity is the subject matter of much of the New Testament. There were not only issues arising between the Jews and Christians, there were equally serious issues between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. These issues are fundamentally all the same, at their core they are all about the question, ‘How are we saved?’ The Jews were not happy with God’s appointed method of salvation:
For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. Rom. 10:3.
We can only be saved in God’s appointed manner. We cannot make up our own way of salvation and confidently expect to be saved. The religious market place is full of ‘pick and mix’ options and everyone is free to pick the things that appeal to them and mix them together and create their own system of salvation. But Jesus said, only “he that doeth the will of my father” (Matt. 7:21.), will enter heaven. We can only be saved by discovering the will of the Father. The Jews were never able to fully discover the will of the Father because their hearts were continually hard and their necks were stiff. They therefore created their own version of righteousness that suited their hard hearted condition. For hundreds of years God endeavoured to heal their hearts and correct their false understandings. Finally, he sent his own Son to reason with them, but they misrepresented His words, calumniated His character and finally murdered them. What else could God do in his vineyard in order to bring about the fruit that he desired? He could do nothing more. All He could do is reject those who refused His authority, His mercy and His love, and let out His vineyard to new husbandmen.