Monday, December 5, 2011

The Participation of Gentiles in the New Covenant

I have been asked a question about how Gentiles can be viewed as participating in the new covenant given that Jer 31:31–33, the key new covenant prophecy in the Old Testament, only mentions God making this new covenant with Israel.

It is true that the members of the new covenant in Jer 31:31–33 are God and Israel, and that the Gentiles are not mentioned in these verses. But Jer 31:31–33 is not the only place in the Hebrew Bible that talks about the new covenant. Basically any prophecy in the Old Testament that talks about events belonging to the time of the eschatological restoration of God’s people is a prophecy of the new covenant.

Jeremiah 31:31–33 needs to be read in the light of the total picture of all of the other Old Testament prophecies that speak about the new covenant; and when we do that, we can see fairly clearly that the Hebrew prophets taught that Gentiles would participate on ultimately an equal footing with Israelites in what God was going to do as part of the future restoration of God’s people.

Some examples (by no means exhaustive):

In Deut 32:21 Moses prophecies that following the covenantal rebellion of Israel, God will make unfaithful Israel jealous “with those who are no people,” that Israel would be provoked to anger by “a foolish nation.” In other words, the calling of the Gentiles to be God’s people would play a part in making disobedient Israel realize what she had forfeited. The Apostle Paul notes this verse in Rom 11:11, arguing that the conversion of the Gentiles will lead in turn to the conversion of Israel.

In Isa 2:1–4 “all the nations” and “many peoples” will come to the exalted Zion to learn and do torah. The idea of Gentiles doing torah implies a change in torah such that it is doable by Gentiles as Gentiles, and not as proselytes to Judaism.

In Isa 11 “the root of Jesse” will be “a signal for the peoples” which will result in the ingathering of “the banished of Israel” and “the dispersed of Judah.”

In Isa 49:5–7 the Messiah will not only restore Israel but bring salvation to the Gentiles, resulting in the submission of Gentile rulers to the Messiah.

In Isa 49:22 Gentiles will bring Israel back to Yahweh. Thus, Gentiles would participate in the eschatological restoration of Israel.

In Isa 51:4–5 it is prophesied that God’s torah and righteousness will go out the the Gentiles.

In Isa 55:1–5 the Messiah calls upon “everyone who thirsts”—note the similarity with Jesus’ language in John 7:37—to come, in order to enter into an everlasting covenant that will function as a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. As part of this, the Messiah will be “a witness to the peoples” and “a leader and commander for the peoples,” which involves “a nation that you did not know … run[ning] to you.”

Following on from the new covenant of the Messiah spoken of in Isa 55, Isa 56:3, 6 clearly speaks of foreigners who will “join” themselves to Yahweh. They are assured that they will not be separated from “his people,” and they are described as holding fast to God’s covenant. As Gentiles join Israel, the temple will become “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:7). For the temple to be a house of prayer for all peoples, this implies that Gentiles would not lose their status as Gentiles as they became members of Israel.

In Isa 66:18–23 “all nations and tongues” will be gathered to see the glory of Yahweh, and from the Messianic sign people will go out declaring the glory of Yahweh such that “all your brothers from all the nations” will be brought as an offering to Yahweh in Jerusalem. The expression all your brothers from all the nations seems to include Gentiles and not just Israelites within its purview. The preaching of the glory of God in the gospel of the Messiah will bring exiled Israel and the nations back to the Lord. At this time of the new heavens and the new earth, “all flesh” will come to worship Yahweh.

In Zech 8 it is prophesied that at the time of the eschatological restoration of Israel  “many peoples and strong nations will come to seek Yahweh of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of Yahweh … In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (vv. 23–24). It is evident from this that Gentiles would join together with Jews in going up to worship God in Jerusalem as part of the new covenant restoration.

Therefore, when Jer 31:31–33 is read in the light of prophecies such as those listed above, it is clear that the Hebrew prophets understood that Gentiles would participate together with Israelites in the blessings of the new covenant.

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