Word Magazine December 2000 Page 4-5
THE ISRAEL OF GOD
By Rev. Fr. Alban West
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:16-17)
With the recent deplorable outbreak of violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, many of our faithful have questions about the position of the Orthodox Church on Middle Eastern affairs, particularly the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This is an important issue, not only because of its relevance to the current political situation, but also because of the light that it sheds upon our understanding of the nature of the Church and the promises of God.
In the verse that introduces this article we find the Apostle Paul invoking “peace and mercy … upon the Israel of God.” The central question that confronts us is who or what is the “Israel” to which St. Paul refers in this passage? Certainly it cannot be the present day political entity that goes by the name “Israel,” for this is a modern nation with a history of little more than 50 years. Neither can St. Paul’s use of “Israel” be taken as a reference to the Old Testament nation known by that name, for by the time that he wrote these words ancient Israel had not existed as a state for a number of centuries. Moreover the “Israel of God” cannot be understood as a reference to the Jewish people, for in this very passage St. Paul tells us that the distinction between Jew and Gentile (“circumcision” and “uncircumcision”) is of no significance in Christ. The “Israel of God” of which St. Paul speaks, according to the historical teaching of the Orthodox Church, is nothing other than the Church itself, the Body of Christ, which is fully and completely the “new Israel” and which is the inheritor of all God’s ancient promises of salvation.
This is a very important point for us to understand as Orthodox Christians. Here in America many of our Protestant friends and neighbors have been led astray, by a novel and false teaching (widespread only since the mid-l9th century) that the Israel of the New Testament is the same as the Israel of the Old, and that all the promises made to the Old Testament people of Israel must be fulfilled in a physical way in modern times. From such teaching evolved the idea that the Jews were destined by God to return to the Holy Land and to reestablish the nation of Israel as a political state. The early Jewish proponents of Zionism received material and political support from Protestant Christians who embraced this modern heresy. To this day much of the overwhelming American support for the state of Israel can be traced to this popular notion, held by so many American Protestants, that the Holy Land belongs forever to the Jewish people by divine right.
Historical Christianity and the Orthodox Church know no such teaching about the inalienable rights of the Jewish people to the Holy Land. Moreover the historic Church has not typically identified the name “Israel” with the Jewish people except in reference to ancient times. In the apostolic teaching of the Church, as found in the Scriptures and reflected in the writings of the Fathers, “Israel” no longer refers to the physical descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob; rather it refers to the entirety of the Church — all those who have become children of Abraham through their faith in Christ, whether Jews or Gentiles. As St. Paul states plainly in his letter to the Romans:
Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants (Romans 9:6-8).
Moreover, in referring to the Old Testament heroes of faith, who were all members of “physical Israel,” that is, the Jewish race, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says:
And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:39-40).
The teaching of the Scriptures and of the Church is very plain and has been well understood throughout Christian history: The Jewish people of the Old Testament were “physical Israel” who inherited the promises of God in a limited way, due to their limited obedience to the law of God. Whereas the Church of the New Testament, both Jewish and Gentile Christians, is a new “spiritual Israel” which has inherited the promises of God fully, based upon the righteousness of Christ. The Church as the new and final Israel is the inheritor of all the Old Testament promises of God’s blessing and salvation, including possession of Jerusalem and the Promised Land — not understood as a city and territory located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but as the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Promised Land of the Kingdom of heaven.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant (Hebrews 12:22-24). This is the ultimate promise of God to Israel, fulfilled in the Church, of which we receive a foretaste each time we gather for celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
If the Old Testament promises of God to Israel have been fulfilled in the Church through Christ, then there can be no question that, as our Metropolitan Philip has often stated, “God is no longer in the real estate business.” From the Orthodox Christian perspective (which is the perspective of the historic Church) no group of people, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, can claim exclusive “divine right” to any piece of land, whether it be the Holy Land, Jerusalem, Timbuktu or North America. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
The entirety of the physical world belongs to God alone and in his love He shares His world with all creation, every race and every species. To find favor with him all who dwell upon earth must find a means to share His gift in unity with peace and justice. “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
The present situation in the Middle East is a complicated one and presents dilemmas not easily solved. As Orthodox Christians we may, with all good will, differ in our understandings of how a political settlement there may be reached. But from this brief study of the theological principles involved a few important themes emerge. First, we must be clear that no party involved in the disputes can claim a divine right to the land of Palestine/Israel. That land, as all land, belongs ultimately to God and under the new covenant in Christ He has promised exclusive rights to it to no particular race or religious group. Secondly, any lasting solution must be based upon the fundamental requirement of God that demands justice, kindness and humility. And third, although as Orthodox Christians we can and should be deeply concerned with the establishment of a just peace in the Middle East, we must never allow that concern to distract us from our primary focus, the inheritance of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven, through union with God in Christ.
Who is the “Israel of God?” The Church of Christ. We proclaim this truth boldly each Paschal season when during the Small Entrance of the Divine Liturgy we chant: “In the churches bless ye God the Lord, from the springs of Israel.” Through our resurrected Lord we have become the new and final Israel. Through Him we have inherited all the promises of God. Through Him we learn what it means to live at peace with all men, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. We as Orthodox Christians must take these truths to heart so that our example of love and unity might serve as a beacon enlightening all the dark corners of our world torn by violence, factionalism, and strife and so that we, together with those enlightened by God through our example, might inherit the true Promised Land, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the city of our God.
Fr. Alban West is the Pastor of St. George Antiochian Church, Portland, OR.