“I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy,” He said, “And I will have compassion upon whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19).
When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon (Peter) has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things that have been known for ages.” (Acts 15:13-18)
The occasion was a conference in Jerusalem to settle a dispute over whether Gentile converts to Christianity could go straight in to the Church or whether they had to first become Jews. Peter, Paul, Barnabus and many other 1st century Christian leaders attended the conference chaired by James, brother of Jesus, who was by then the Bishop of the Church in Jerusalem.
What’s The Point?
The real point at issue was, if Gentiles don’t have to first become Jews, what’s to become of Israel? Has the Church replaced Israel as God’s people on Earth? James quoted from Amos 9:11-12 to remind them all that after the Gospel was preached to the Gentiles, God would return to rebuild “David’s fallen tent.” This reference was to the Nation Israel as well as its form of worship complete with Temple and ordinances. The phrase “after this” showed them that Israel was being put on hold while the Lord took from among the Gentiles a people for Himself, a reference to the Church, but that later He would again turn His attention toward Israel and restore both the nation and its worship system. Based on that conclusion these Messianic Jews, the Church’s first leaders, determined that it was not necessary in the words of Peter to “put on their necks a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear. We believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:10-11) From that point on any person, Jew or Gentile, could be welcomed into the Church solely upon a confession of faith and not be subject to the rituals and ordinances of Judaism.
From this conference emerged the understanding in the early church that God’s dealings with Israel and the Church are mutually exclusive. While He was focused on building the Church, Israel would fade into the background, but once His work with the church was complete Israel would again become the primary focus of His attention. So Israel was not being replaced by the Church, but would reemerge as the Church reached its predetermined number. (Rom. 11:25-27) (Note: A sign that God’s work in the church is nearly finished is the growing importance of Israel in world affairs. No other nation on Earth has commanded as much attention since its reemergence as a nation. In fact 26% of all UN Security Council meetings since 1948 have concerned Israel.)
Later Paul expanded on this theme in his letter to the Romans, clearly explaining the relationships between the Lord, Israel, and the Church in chapters 9-11. Let’s review these chapters to gain the understanding of one who attended the conference and who was known as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Speaking of the Jews, Paul said, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” (Rom. 9:4-5). Their election as God’s chosen people was an act of His sovereign choice. He looked with favor upon Abraham, a descendant of Shem from modern day Iraq, and offered to make of his descendants a great nation through whom all the peoples of the world would be blessed. 400 years later, when He brought them out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai the Nation Israel was born, and throughout the Old Testament the idea is clear that God chose Abraham and his descendants simply because it was His right to choose whomever He wanted. “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy,” He said, “And I will have compassion upon whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19).
Your Mission, If You Choose To Accept It …
In Romans 9 Paul reminds us of an interesting condition. This election was never intended solely as a birth right, automatically inherited by the children of Jewish parents. “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (Rom. 9:6-8) While they couldn’t choose their nationality, the children of Abraham had to choose to participate in the promised blessings by obeying His instructions and believing in His promise of a coming Redeemer. Remember God’s words to the recently released captives from Egypt: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
Isaiah explained that God chose Israel to accomplish a special fourfold mission on Earth:
to be a witness for Him (Isa 43:10),
to show forth His blessings (49:3)
to transmit the Scriptures (42:9)
to be a channel for the Messiah(49:5)
Though chosen for this mission, they had to accept it, obey His covenants, and keep the faith. Obedience would bring great blessings but disobedience would bring consequences (Deut. 30:11-20). Eventually they disobeyed and suffered the consequences, but just how permanent would those consequences be? More next time.