Transformation of Israel into the Church

How did the nation of Israel transform into the Church of Jesus Christ?

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Transformation of Structure

The foundation of the structure of Israel can be found deep in its history. The story of Jacob and his sons in Genesis is the basis for the division of Israel into twelve tribes. Later we find the priestly class coming from the tribe of Levi and the royal line originating in the tribe of Judah. But the advent of Jesus into Israel's history radically transforms this structure: the new Israel will be founded on the twelve apostles, who rule in Christ's name as priests of the new covenant, and are chosen by Jesus himself, while headed by the apostle Peter (3).

Matthew's Gospel progressively reveals this new structure. In Matthew 9:36-38, Jesus looks upon the crowds, which were primarily, if not exclusively, Jewish, and he "has compassion for them, because they sheep without a shepherd," and he proclaims, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." Then immediately following this statement, Matthew tells us that Jesus "called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority" (Matt. 10:1); they will be the shepherds for the sheep of Israel.

Initially, this authority given by Jesus is simply used in their pre-Resurrection missionary journeys, but Jesus explains later that this authority will be more far-reaching: "[he] said to them, "Truly, I say to you, in the new world (palingevesia), when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt. 19:28). Kittel explains that the Greek word "palingevesia," which is translated in the RSV as "new world," "derives from palin and genesis, and thus means 'new genesis' either in the sense of (a.) 'return to existence,' 'coming back from death to life,' or of (b.) 'renewal to a higher existence,' 'regeneration' in the usual sense" (Kittel I 686). Thus, the 12 apostles will sit as rulers of a "regenerated" Israel, instituting a new structure of authority for the people of God. "The apostles are given unique roles in the kingdom as Jesus' cabinet of royal ministers" (Hahn 14), ruling over the Church. Note carefully the apostles' role: they are not heirs to the Davidic kingdom, only Jesus is that figure. Instead, they represent him to the Church, and bear his authority, not their own. Furthermore, it is clear that by choosing twelve apostles to be laborers of the harvest, Jesus is modeling his new Israel on the old Israel; however, now qualification for leadership is not based on ancestry, but on election by Jesus (he "called to him"). He, and he alone, will choose who leads his new Israel.

But the Twelve are not simply "prime ministers," ruling politically over the new Israel. They also form the priestly class of the Church, being given the authority to bring heaven's power to earth. This authority is first given to Peter, when Jesus reveals to him the foundation of the Church (Matt. 16:18). He then tells Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19) Later, Christ extends this authority to all twelve of the apostles (Matt. 18:18). As priestly rulers, the apostles are not simply leaders over the earthly affairs of the Church. They also are the chosen mediators to heaven for the new People of God.

This priestly status of the apostles is also a reality founded in the Last Supper. In the presence of the Twelve, Jesus establishes his new covenant by the institution of the Eucharist (cf. Matt. 26:26-29). By receiving his body and blood, they enter into this mystery, but this event also establishes the model for the new, Christian liturgy. No longer will there be a hereditary priestly class which is responsible for offering sacrifice at the temple. Now the People of God will commemorate the sacrifice in which Jesus pours out his blood "for the forgiveness of sins" by celebrating the Eucharist. Furthermore, it is the Twelve that will be the ministers of this commemoration.

Although Christ gives his apostles true priestly authority in the Church, he wants to establish clearly that it is his person that is the ultimate foundation for the new Israel. Knowing his identity is absolutely essential for membership in this new people, especially for those he has appointed over it: the Twelve. We see this principle clearly in Matthew 16:13-19:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare'a Philip'pi, he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli'jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

In this intimate scene, Jesus asks the disciples the transformative question for this new Israel he is establishing: "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" (Matt. 16:13). "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," (Matt. 16:16) answers Simon, providing the basis of the New Israel's structure. It is the presence of Jesus, the Son of the living God, that is the foundation for the transformation of Israel into the Church, and Peter's confession of that reality transforms him into the rock on which the new Israel will be built. In the old Israel, one was qualified to rule by hereditary right. Peter's "qualifications" as leader of the new Israel are precisely one: he was open to the divine revelation of the Father regarding the identity of the one who came to transform Israel.

But a further reality for this new People is that its establishment will only be possible due to the obedience of the Son to the Father, an obedience that will lead to his death. This is made clear directly after Peter's confession. Matthew tells us that "From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matt. 16:21, emphasis added). It is only after Jesus is revealed to the Twelve as the Christ and the Son of God that he then reveals to them his mission of complete obedience to the Father, even unto death. This is because, like the new Law, the new structure of Israel is based on obedience to the Father. As priestly rulers of the new Israel, they are called to be obedient to the Father in imitation of Jesus, in service of God's People. Jesus illuminates this principle when correcting Zebedee's sons' mistaken idea of leadership in his kingdom (cf. Matt. 20:20-22). He states, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28). It is Jesus' perfect obedience, specifically in his passion and death, which is to be the model for all generations of Church leaders.

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