The Israel of God:
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
By O. Palmer Robertson
O. Palmer Robertson. The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub. 2000)
For those who have come out of Dispensationalism or want to know what covenant theologians believe about Israel, this is the book. This is a book which deals with the place and identity of Israel in the plan of God. In six chapters Dr. Robertson discusses different topics regarding Israel from its identity to its future.
Overall, I found this to be a very helpful and edifying book. The Bible and the truths of the New Covenant were the interpreting lens for everything. We do not look to outside events and force those within the Bible.
The Occasion for the Book
In the Introduction Dr. Robertson begins with a quotation from Bill Clinton when he was the president of the USA, about Israel:
“'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.” So spoke the President of the United States in a speech delivered before the Israeli Knesset assembled in Jerusalem. He was recalling with apparent approval the words of his desperately ill pastor. He concluded the speech by saying, “Your journey is our journey, and America will stand with you now and always.” (p. 1)
It seems that this and such mindset was the driving force behind writing this book. The book is not polemic, but rather, it simply presents what the Bible as a whole teaches on some topics related to the Israel of God. It is obviously against Dispensationalism by its adherence to Covenant Theology, but it does not attack Dispensationalism directly. Its purpose is to set a positive case on what the Bible says without really engaging with the other side.
The first chapter is dedicated to the Land of Israel. This is a hot issue nowadays. I will be the first to tell you that I hate politics and I don’t want to do anything with it and there is a lot of politics involved with Israel in the Middle East. I am not interested in political discussions. I am a theology nerd. I am interested in the theological claim of the land and God’s plan with the Jews.
Dr. Robertson argues that the “concept of a land that belongs to God’s people originated in Paradise” (p. 4). Adam was told to work the land and multiply. That was the original ideal plan if the Fall had not taken place. Then the whole earth would have been God’s land and God’s temple. The land being a sanctuary is another aspect. This is why the Lord God tells Israel that “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:11-12). God places His sanctuary among His people like He did with the Tabernacle and Temple. This concept of the sanctuary of God among His people had its fulfillment in Jesus Christ of Whom it is written that He “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14). But it will also have its ultimate fulfillment on the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev 21:1-5).
An important aspect which Dr. Robertson highlights is the fact that the land actually belongs to the Lord. As Leviticus 25:23 puts it, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” The land is the Lord’s and the people of Israel are merely strangers and sojourners in the land with Yahweh. He gives the land to whomever He wills and does with it as He pleases.
An important aspect which Dr. Robertson highlights and the New Testament emphasizes is that the land is typological of the New Heavens and New Earth. Hebrews 11 says that although Abraham was the one who received the promise of the land of Canaan in which he sojourned, yet he was actually looking and desiring “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16). The saints of old were “seeking a homeland” which is not of this world (Heb 11:14). Although Abraham lived in the “the land of promise”, says Hebrews 11:9-10, yet in actuality he understood the typology of the land and therefore “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (v. 11). This is clearly the New Heavens and New Earth, and not the land of Canaan.
In Romans 4:13 we have the promise of the land expanded. It is no longer the small land of Canaan, but now it is the whole cosmos—the New Heavens and New Earth. Therefore, the people of God are not promised the small portion of land in the Middle East, but the whole earth is promised to the meek (Matt 5:5). Robertson writes:
Because God is the Lord of the whole universe, he will fulfill his covenant promise of redemption by reconstituting the cosmos. In this way, paradise will be restored in all its glory. The blessing of land that humanity first experienced will finally be graciously given back to him. (p. 10)
Another thing which is often missed by our Dispensational brethren is the fact that the land promises were completely fulfilled as recorded in Scripture by the time of Joshua, David and Solomon (Josh 23:43-45; 1Chron 18:14; 1Kgs 4:1, 20-21; c.f. Gen 15:18-21). Furthermore, the Mosaic Covenant regulated the blessings and the possession of the land (see for example Deut 28; Lev 20:22-23). When the people disobeyed and broke the Lord’s covenant, He brought judgment upon them and exiled them away from their homeland. This is a point which is, in my opinion, often missed by those who contend that the land of Canaan is for the Israelites forever from a theological perspective. Seeing that the Mosaic Covenant is abrogated, the regulations which existed for the possession and blessings of the land are also done away with. Not only that, we should not forget that the New Testament teaches us that the land was typological.
Much more could be said, but simply read the chapter. It is really mind-opening.
When we speak of Israel, whom do we actually mean? How does the Bible define Israel?
In chapter 2 Dr. Robertson deals with the question of who are the heirs of the land promise. Who is Israel actually? As a covenant theologian and not a Dispensationalist, one can already expect the answer. The Israel of God are all Jewish and Gentile believers in the Messiah.
There is nothing special in the ethnicity of the Jews, which makes them more holy or more special than Gentiles. Robertson notes that ‘Abraham was originally nothing more than another pagan “Gentile” before being called by God’ (p. 34). Abraham is the root of Israel and he was a mere pagan idolater before his calling (Josh 24:2). Seeing that this is in fact so, there could be nothing special in ethnicity which sets them apart. Robertson quotes the Jewish commentator on Genesis, Benno Jacob, who says:
Indeed, differences of race have never been an obstacle to joining Israel which did not know the concept of purity of blood. . . . Circumcision turned a man of foreign origin into an Israelite. (p. 35)
I found this very interesting coming from a Jew. Circumcision is what made one an Israelite and not ethnic origin. We know that in the New Covenant that fleshly circumcision is no longer required, but a new creation is what counts (Gal 6:15-16), i.e., circumcision of the heart (2Cor 3:3; Rom 2:25-28; etc.).
The glory of the New Covenant is in the fact that the people of God are not only gathered from Israel, but from “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). The distinction between Jew and Gentile no longer applies under the New Covenant (e.g. Gal 3:28). In fact, Paul explicitly says that Jew and Gentile believers have been made one in Christ in Ephesians 2.
There was a helpful discussion and exegesis of the text from which the book gets its name, Galatians 6:16. Dr. Robertson shows how the “Israel of God” in the entire context of Galatians cannot mean anything but all believing Jews and Gentiles. I found his exegesis and discussion on the text very helpful (pp. 38-46).
Dr. Robertson argues that a return to the old land is a return to the shadows of the Old Covenant which are done away with in Christ. Moreover, Dispensationalists believe that there is distinction between Israel and the Church and in the Millennium the Jews will be the head. This is nothing more than the old distinction between Jew and Gentile, which Christ has abolished, but now it is being brought again. This is a return to the Old Covenant which has been abrogated. It is a return to the shadows. It is impossible.
Another helpful aspect which Robertson touches on is the fact that the majority of Israel is still in rebellion against Christ, they are not part of the Covenant of Grace (New Covenant), therefore, they have no theological claim upon the land, not to mention the typology of the land of Canaan. Only those who have faith in the Christ of God can claim the promises of Go...