God’s relationship with the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant had its beginning in Genesis Chapter 12 where God promised that through Abraham and his seed all the world would be ultimately blessed. The rest of the so called Old Testament scriptures are the story of how the history of Israel unfolded and how God dealt with that people through a series of spiritual declines and revivals, judgments and restorations. Sprinkled throughout these same scriptures are many prophetic references to a great future judgment and an even greater redemption.
In the opening of the so called New Testament scriptures Jesus announces the advent of something new, in fulfillment of all prophesy. As one born under the auspices of the Old Covenant with Israel, Jesus honored that arrangement and elaborated on its principles. He denied a mission to the Gentiles during His earthly ministry even though He was foretold as a light to that group. After Jesus’ ascension, His Apostles recognized no responsibility to the Gentiles for a long period, until God intervened miraculously with Peter in Acts 10. Throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts we see a continued reverence for and submission to the Law of Moses, even after the death of Christ. Clearly, the nation of Israel and their continued observance of the Old Covenant Law were still playing an important part in God’s plan even years after Jesus’ ascension. In Romans, Paul deals at length with the continuing role of Israel in what God was doing through the Apostles and the dissemination of their message. God was not yet finished with Israel.
All of this leads to these questions: What was the role of the nation of Israel? Why did God choose Israel and set them apart for His purpose. What was that purpose? When was that purpose realized?
I believe Genesis 12 answers question one: Israel was the seedbed through which universal spiritual blessing was to come. There is no role for Israel to the exclusion of all others.
The answer to question two is a little more challenging in my mind. The Bible is clear that Israel was not chosen because they were better than the others. I suspect that Abraham and his descendents through Isaac and Jacob were an arbitrary choice on God’s part. He could have chosen someone else, but Abraham was simply sufficient for His purpose. In my opinion, the underlying reason for having a chosen people of any kind was to demonstrate a contrast between exclusion under a legal system and inclusion under a system of God’s grace. The former showed how things might be, and the latter demonstrated how things really are.
Galatians Chapter 3 is the clearest answer to third question. Israel, their history, and their experience, served as an object lesson to all mankind. Whatever that lesson was supposed to be, it was designed to bring us unto Christ. Therefore one can conclude that Israel and their Old Covenant arrangement were all preparatory. These things were designed to prepare mankind for something new, different, and dramatically better. As preparatory agents, both the nation of Israel and the Old Covenant arrangement were not intended to remain as part of God’s long-range purpose. In fact the New Testament scriptures are quite clear that both the nation and their Law/Covenant were soon to pass in the 1st Century.
Many interpret the scriptures to include a present day role for Israel, which may or may not be a part of God’s plan for the rest of humanity. This recognizes correctly that the Bible clearly shows a post-cross work of God in and through Israel as a nation. What is not so clearly seen is that this post-cross role had an imminent culmination in the 1st Century. Every New Testament book points to a soon end to the Old Covenant arrangement and the old chosen nation. Israel’s use as a role model ceased when God’s exclusive arrangement was finally replaced by His far grander covenant of inclusion.
A more careful consideration of the distinction between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant helps to avoid a number of biblical interpretive problems. First, maintaining a clear distinction eliminates the tendency to bring Old Testament Law forward and bind it in the New Covenant (tithing, Sabbath Day observance, Holy convocations, the role of women, etc.).
A failure to honor the distinctive inclusiveness of the New Covenant has historically led the church to preach a message of continuing exclusion and to call it The Gospel. The covenant promise to Abraham was to bless all, but the traditional understanding of the New Covenant simply defines a new chosen people, so called Christians. Instead of being physically born into this covenant, we are taught a process or series of rituals which lead to a “spiritual birth” into the ranks of the chosen people. Instead of moving from exclusion to inclusion as promised, this interpretation perpetuates exclusion and in fact the New is even more restrictive and therefore more exclusive.
Finally, the New Covenant of Christ’s completed work was to be astoundingly different and better than the Old. It was to be unbelievable in its magnificence. There is no room for the New to remotely resemble the Old, but in many ways the traditional version of the New Covenant is decidedly similar to the Old Covenant. New rituals replace the old Jewish ones. A new church building replaces the Temple as God’s House, and the Christian minister becomes a contemporary version of the Levitical priesthood, presiding over the prescribed rituals, expounding the sacred revelation, and drawing their livelihood from the congregants. All this is not nearly different enough to cause the Apostle Paul to wax as poetic as he did in Romans 11: 29-36 over the marvel that God had revealed in Christ:
29: For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.
30: For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief:
31: Even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy.
32: For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.
33: O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
34: For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counseller?
35: Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
36: For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.
The traditional distinctions drawn between the two covenants are not nearly pronounced enough to honor all that the Bible reveals about the newness of the New Covenant. Until we leave the Old in the past and embrace the all encompassing change fulfilled in Christ, we forsake the very spirit and essence of Christ.