O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
“If you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you… It is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue for ever and ever.” This expresses the view of many Christians—witness the popularity of the Left Behind series, John Hagee’s ministry, and any number of books that explain the role of modern nations in biblical prophecy.
Is this true? Is the modern nation-state of Israel the continuation of the Israel of the Bible, so that when we read prophecies addressed to Israel we may assume they will find their fulfillment in present-day Israel or ethnic Jews? Robertson’s book asks that question: who is the Israel of God? He examines Israel in terms of its land, its people, its worship, its lifestyle, and its future, concluding that the present-day incarnation of Israel is the church of Jesus Christ: all those, Jew and Gentile, who are saved by trusting in his work and are a people set apart for him. Identifying the nation of Israel as a “people of God” distinct from the church dishonors the sufficiency of Christ’s work and seeks to step backwards in redemptive history—to return to types and shadows when the ultimate reality has been revealed.
Palmer Robertson is a master biblical theologian. He has a great eye both for the forest and the trees of the Bible; he can see the big picture as well as how all the details play their own vital role. As he traces different themes through the Old and New Testaments, he is faithful to each text in its historical context but can also see how OT themes anticipate NT ones, how the NT answers the questions of the OT. Simply put, the book is masterfully argued, and it is compelling in its entirety. I came in expecting to agree with his thesis, but understand my own position better after reading the book.
A couple of minor complaints: the chapter on Israel’s worship, which unpacks Hebrews 7 and shows that the high priesthood of Christ renders any other priesthood useless, is 32 pages long. I started to get bogged down about 2/3 of the way through and wonder when he was going to make his point. The material is excellent, but could probably be condensed (yes, it’s ironic for me to say that). I also thought there were a couple of weak spots in his exegesis of Romans 11—one or two straw-man arguments and logical leaps. I’m inclined to agree with his conclusion, though, which is that in Rom 11 Paul is describing all of God’s elect, Jews and Gentiles, being saved through history, not a future event where Israel is converted as a nation.
Robertson may be shouting into a tornado here, but he needs to be heard. His voice brings sober and responsible handling of Scripture to a hotly-debated topic, and he demonstrates its serious implications for our doctrine and practice. Read this book with Bible in hand, and you will be more grateful that Jesus is the high priest of a better covenant.