In his sermon on the prophecy of Zechariah, John Piper makes some excellent observations about moving from God’s promises to old covenant Israel to the new covenant church. Though dealing with the specifics of Zechariah, here is good advice on reading all of the Old Testament, and thinking about the relationship between Israel and the Church.
How Can Gentiles Benefit from Promises to Israel?
One of the problems for Gentile Christians like us is how a book full of promises to Jerusalem and Judah can be a help to us today. Let me try to sketch very briefly the principles that guide my interpretation of prophecies like this. First, I think these prophecies are aimed primarily at the ethnic people of Israel. They were the audience; and when they heard Zechariah refer to “the house of Judah and the house of Israel,” they would naturally understand the Jewish people, not the church of Christian Gentiles. These prophecies are aimed at the ethnic people Israel.
Second, I think there is a glorious future for Israel even yet, when she repents. It is too simple to say that since the time of Christ the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people, even though that is true, in a sense. The reason it is too simple is that in Romans 11 Paul teaches that God is not finished with ethnic Israel. In verse 1 he says, “Has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul insists that God has not finished with the Jews, first of all, because he is a Jew (of the tribe of Benjamin!). Paul does admit that the Jews are temporarily rejected through their unbelief, but this is for the benefit of us Gentiles; and when the full number of Gentiles is complete, the remaining Jews, too, will repent and be saved. Romans 11:12, 15, “Now if their (Jews) trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! . . . If their (Jews) rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” Here Israel is distinct from converted Gentiles and is promised a glorious future. So a few verses later, in verses 25, 26, Paul says, “A hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles comes in, and so all Israel will be saved.” In the context of Romans 11:12, 15, it is unwarranted to interpret “all Israel” here to mean anything other than corporate, ethnic Israel. So one of my guiding principles in reading Old Testament prophecy about Israel is that there is a glorious future ahead, when Israel will repent, turn to Christ, and be saved.
Third, by faith in Christ Gentile believers become full partners in the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament. The two key texts to support this principle are Galatians 3:29, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise,” and Ephesians 2:19 and 3:6, “So then you (Gentiles) are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God . . . (You are) fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” So by faith in Christ we Gentile believers are no longer “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” but are full partners in the “covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12).
Fourth, (these first three principles imply that) the prophecies of the Old Testament made to Israel are not less than literal (as though ethnic Israel were not intended), but more than literal, because they embrace not only the ethnic Israel but also the Gentile children of Abraham by faith (Romans 4:11), who will not be second-class citizens in the final kingdom.
Fifth, and finally, many of the benefits promised to the people of Israel are fulfilled in stages. This is especially true since the expected coming of the Messiah has occurred in stages. Christ came the first time (as Hebrews 9:26 says) “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And he will “appear a second time not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” For the most part, Old Testament prophecy does not distinguish these two comings. Therefore, very often some aspects of Old Testament promises are fulfilled already in Christ, but the final consummation awaits the last day.
So these are my guiding principles as I seek to apply Zechariah to our lives today: 1) it is aimed primarily at ethnic Israel; 2) there is yet a glorious future for ethnic Israel when she repents; 3) by faith in Christ we Gentile believers become full fellow-heirs of the promises made to Israel; 4) therefore, the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel are not less than literal but more than literal: they embrace not only ethnic Israel but also us Gentile believers; 5) many of the benefits promised to the people of Israel are fulfilled in stages, especially since the promised Messiah himself comes in two stages (Christmas and the second coming).
The practical implication of all this is that whenever you read a “Fear not!” in the Old Testament, you can take it for yourself as a fellow heir if you are a Christian. The reasons given in the Old Testament why you need not fear will almost always relate to Israel first, but then indirectly also to you as a spiritual Jew (Romans 2:29) and a child of Abraham (Galatians 3:29).