Who or what is the Church? Another way of asking this is, who or what is Israel?
During the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Jewish leaders (scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees) thought that Israel consisted of only those people who were descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was the Church, so they thought; it was defined by physical descent. The Jewish leaders trusted in their descent from Abraham in order to be saved, to achieve salvation.
And yet, they, and we, begin to get a hint in the Gospels that maybe this is not correct. Maybe the definition of Israel is not based on being physically descended from Abraham? Maybe, in fact, Israel and the Church are one and the same?
When John the Baptist saw the Jewish leaders come to him in the wilderness, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:7-9).
And Paul in his letter to the congregation in Rome says, “… not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring 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 counted as offspring” (Romans 9:6-8).
So, being physically descended from Abraham is not what defines Israel. Instead it is those who have faith in the promises of God which are fulfilled in Christ, just as Paul said to the Galatians: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:7-9).
So, faith is what defines Israel. And what faith? It is faith in the Christ, the Savior, who was promised in the Old Testament and is revealed in the incarnation in the New Testament. This Christ came in the flesh and was revealed to us as Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He is the focal point of our faith.
He is the one whom the Lord promised to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15, the Savior who would redeem and restore the world from the sin, death, and evil which infects it now. He is the one promised to Abraham, the “seed of Abraham” through whom all the nations would be blessed. For Christ is not the Savior just of the Jews, but of all nations – the Gentiles as well. He died for the sins of all people. And so all those who have faith in his person and work are part of Israel.
This then defines the Church – it is Israel. They are one and the same. We tend to call “Israel” the people of faith of the Old Testament, and the “Church” the people of faith of the New Testament. But, they all have faith in the same thing, or person rather. We, along with the Old Testament faithful, have faith in Christ, who has come for our salvation and is returning to complete what he started in his death and resurrection. It is the same faith, we just know Christ a little better because we have come after his incarnation. But, it’s the same faith that we all share.
So, the Church is all the faithful people of God who trust in Christ for their salvation. The Church consists of sinners who trust in Christ to redeem them from captivity to this sin and the death that sin brings. Therefore, the Church goes back to Adam and Eve and Seth, and forward through us to the end of the age when Christ returns. We are all united in the same faith in Christ as the Church Israel.
The Church, then, is not defined by physical descent or ethnicity; it is instead defined by faith in Christ. In fact, what we see in Revelation at the scene of the resurrection is people of all tribes, nations, and languages standing before Christ, clothed with his righteousness, and singing his praises – together! All the tapestry of God’s people of all times and places standing before the throne and entering into eternal life in a restored creation together:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).
So, this helps us better understand why people like Rahab (the prostitute of Jericho) and Ruth (the foreign widow from Moab) were part of Jesus’ earthly lineage. They were not descended from Abraham. But, they were part of the Church. They attached themselves to God’s promises which are fulfilled in Christ and therefore became part of the Church Israel.
Rahab married a man named Salmon and gave birth to Boaz. Then, Boaz married Ruth and she gave birth to Obed; Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David. David would later be king, and Jesus is descended from David according to his humanity.
So, if Rahab, a prostitute, and Ruth, a foreigner of Moab – an enemy of the state of Israel at the time – could be part of the Church, what does that mean for us?
It means that God redeems us from our past and calls us out of the nations in order to incorporate us into something greater. You are no longer defined by your past sins, or where you came from, or your color, language, or culture. The world tries to divide you along these lines, but God is uniting you together in Christ.
You are therefore defined by the Christ who died for you and rose for you. You are defined by the name God gave you at your baptisms; this was His name which He bestowed upon you when you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are defined by your faith, which is a response to what God has done for you. And this faith is focused on, and centered around, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, who himself was descended from a prostitute and foreigner and born to a poor virgin.
If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not above being born the human descendant of sinners and outcasts, how much more can you be sure that he will accept you? He is not ashamed of you. He receives you as God’s own child. For he who was without sin took your sins upon himself to atone for them and defeat them so that you could be righteous in God’s sight (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ died for your sins; he atoned for them on the cross and then rose from the dead to defeat sin and death. So, you can be sure that you are his and that he has made you sons and daughters of God, because he gives you his Word that this is true.
This is the message the Church ought to be bringing to the world. Let’s tell people that they are freely forgiven of all their sins on account of Jesus Christ, because this is the message Christ sent us to proclaim. Certainly, as part of this mission we need to gently point out what sin is and the fact that we – all of us – are sinful people who need this forgiveness. But, too often, the Church is known for its harsh condemnations rather than for the forgiveness of Christ and the fact that we are sinners too; sinners whom Christ has called into communion with him and each other, along with Adam, Eve, Seth, Noah, Rahab, Ruth, David, the apostles, and all the other faithful people of the Church. Like them, we too have been forgiven, redeemed, and set apart as God’s people.
This is the one, holy, universal Church of Christ which began with God’s promise to Adam and Eve after their fall into sin and continues forward until the angels announce the return of Christ for the resurrection. Until that day, we daily live in faith, looking forward to the day when sin, death, and evil can no longer attack us and they are cast out of God’s creation forever. We look forward to the day of the resurrection when we meet the rest of the Church in person. Amen.
(Image: Rahab hangs the scarlet cord from her window. Autotype after F.J. Shields, 1877. By Frederic Shields – http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/e8/42/0521960661fa5e3001dfaa01647b.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0034410.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36614571 )