King Jesus Gospel: Part Three

King Jesus Gospel: Part Three November 30, 2011

Part of a week-long discussion of The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight

Scot says it repeatedly and clearly: the gospel is “the Story of Israel completing itself in the Story of Jesus.”

There is, for Scot, no gospel without Israel.  It is the hinge on which the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus swing.  Of course, there is ample scriptural support for this view, and Scot relies on it heavily.  As do most evangelicals.

I didn’t grow up in a church or a version of Christianity that talked much about Israel, particularly modern Israel.  As I recall, we learned just enough about ancient Israel — more accurately, about the Ancient Near East — to understand what was in our pew Bibles.  That is to say, ancient Israel was the context in which our sacred text was written. But it was not seen as somehow imperative to the salvific work of God.

Sure, it was Israel that had a unique relationship with Yahweh, and it was into that people group that the Savior was born, but that seemed like a relatively arbitrary decision, historically speaking.  It could have just as easily been another ancient tribe through which God saved the world.

It wasn’t until I got to college and entered an evangelical campus ministry that I came in contact with evangelicals’ near obsession with Israel.  Much has been made of that of late, and I think most of us are aware how that obsession has steered U.S. foreign policy.  There’s a rift today in American Protestantism between evangelicals who tend to myopically support Israel and mainline liberals who support the Palestinians and are quite disparaging of Israel.

Of course, Scot’s book isn’t about present-day politics.  It’s about (re-)claiming the entirety of the gospel.  But I mention all of this because it’s struck me in his telling how absolutely essential are Paul and Jesus’s Israelite identity to Scot.  Not their Judaism so much, but their identity as Israelites.

To be sure, Jesus was both an Israelite and a Jew.  But one can wonder that, apart from that being the context in which he was born and reared, how much did it matter to him?

For Paul, that question is settled.  He was a Jew, an Israelite, and a Roman citizen, and each of these was extremely important to him.  Although, one can argue that his Jewishness became less important during his missions to the Gentiles and his arguments with the Apostles in Jerusalem.

All that to say, Scot’s interpretation of the gospel leaves each of us to answer an important question: How important is it to your understanding of the gospel that the gospel came through Israel? Or, to put it another way, Could God have saved us through any people group?

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  • I’d argue Israel is only important as they are “the people of God”, not as a political state. If the Caananites had been the moral followers of YHWH then Israel may well have wound up “Jericho-ed”. As the Church are now the people of God through the new covenant Israel (the nation state) is only important as they follow Jesus, just like the rest of us. I could try to proof text my way into oblivion over this but I think it’s a fair and defensible understanding of the biblical narrative.

  • Dan Hauge

    It seems to me like asking ‘could God have saved us through another people group’ is sort of like asking ‘could I have been born to different parents, in another country?’ Well yes, but I wasn’t. Of course God ‘could have’ started with another people group to reveal himself to, and a savior could then have come from that group. But part of the Biblical perspective is that God did choose one people in particular to begin a story of revealing Godself to the world and redeeming that world.

    Now here’s where I enter shaky ground, cause I’m not reading the book. But it sounds like Scot’s concern is that the whole story matters–Jesus did not just come on the scene in some country without a history and a context. Israel had a history of being called to be God’s people, to be a light to the nations, and they had a history of succeeding and failing at this, and a national experience of feeling abandoned and rejected by God in the Exile. That narrative sets the context that Jesus came into, and his way of teaching and acting makes particular sense in that particular context.

    So, while I do believe God could have worked with any people group in that way (calling them to a similar narrative), I don’t think it makes sense to say God could have brought a savior into any nation, that didn’t have that context and narrative. Redemption is an outgrowth of Israel’s particular story, and their experiences as a nation (not that Israelites were somehow more worthy or important–the Scripture is pretty clear on that.)

    And it’s worth adding that all these concerns don’t really have anything to do with what you think of modern political Israel, or whether you support justice for Palestinians in today’s context. They are separate issues, in my view.

    • I think that pretty much hits it on the head. God did choose to work through the people of Abraham which as a nation were called Israel. They were God’s people because of the covenant with Abraham, not because they were the nation of Israel. Jesus then came into humanity through Israel as a Jew and brought the story of redemption/reconciliation to it’s climax as we read about in the gospels. Israel as a nation state is no more important now than any other nation as the people of God are no longer tied to a given nation other than the Kingdom. Issues of middle east politics should be subjected to the ethics of Christ, not supporting a given country.

      • ben w.

        In total agreement with Dan & Benjamin above. The biblical Gospel is necessarily tied to the people of ancient Israel. Yes, God’s selection of Abraham was rather arbitrary (and consequently His selection of Israel as a nation), but having selected this particular tribe meant that God’s plan had to be fulfilled in this line. Jesus is the promised fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Isaiah, etc. Jesus is the fulfillment to so many of Israel’s “shadows”: Israel’s sacrificial system, the Temple, the Levitical priests, and the Law. These were all type and shadow pointing to the Incarnate King who would be the true fulfillment to all of God’s promises to Abraham and his children (Israel).

        One point that should be noted is that Jesus did often oppose the Israelites. While He was the “King of the Jews”, He also condemned them many times and in various ways for their disobedience and faithlessness to God. This doesn’t mean Jesus was anti-Israel per-se, just anti Israeli-imposters. Or as Paul says it, “not all Israel is Israel.” Jesus opposed them because they never kept their covenant with God, and instead spurned His reign over them as a nation (sometimes by legalism, other times by empty religiosity). The Good News of the coming of Jesus was a condemnation for the failure of Israel to keep their end of the bargain with God, while also being a gracious call to re-enter the loving reign of YHWH through Christ.

        (and yes, I also agree that this biblical storyline of OT promise and NT fulfillment in Jesus indicates that God’s plan is not mediated through any modern nation (Israel, USA, etc.))

    • Chris

      I don’t want to get out of my ken here, but just from a layperson’s observation.

      “It seems to me like asking ‘could God have saved us through another people group’ is sort of like asking ‘could I have been born to different parents, in another country?’ Well yes, but I wasn’t.”

      Ummm, well no you couldn’t have. Different parents in another country equals different DNA from a different sperm and a different egg, equals a totally different person. For that matter the same parents at a different time of conception would also mean a different egg and a different sperm resulting in a different person.

      Extending the analogy, it would seem to provoke the question, was there something in Jesus’ DNA, tying him to Israel, that would support Scot’s conclusions?

      • Dan Hauge


        Fair enough point. I think what I was getting at is that we are who we are, that hypotheticals of ‘what would have happened’ are kind of a moot point, since who we are is thoroughly tied to what DNA we have and what culture we are born into.

        So I guess, to answer the last question–definitely Jesus’ DNA tied him to Israel. He was born an Israelite, to Israelite parents (or at least to an Israelite mother, depending on how you understand the whole virgin birth thing), and he was raised in Israel, in that culture and religion. So everything about how Jesus conceived of God and salvation and his own saving work was expressed through his Israelite-ness. Jesus was fully human, and our particularity in a time and place is part of what being fully human means.

  • Tony,

    I found Scot’s somewhat cloying drumbeat of “the story of Israel, the story of Israel, the story of Israel” a little bothersome at times, but only because it seemed to be a no-brainer (as a Pentecostal, we’re big on Bible content). Of course the gospel isn’t simply some transactional thing, but part of a larger story. I suppose I couldn’t entirely see why it is so important to him.

    As you say, he wasn’t talking about modern Israel, so I won’t comment too much on that (except to say that I my own serious issues with the bizarre way Pentecostals and conservative Christians tend to get on that love train so uncritically).

    In some ways I think that Scot is trying too hard to make this “story of Israel” fit. Sure, the story of Israel is really important in the gospels. Sure, it is important to the early sermons of Peter. But when Paul gets to the Areopagus? Not so much backstory of Israel. So I agree that the more Gentiles are encountered, the less the specifics of this backstory might appear. As a Church historian and not a NT scholar, I’ll of course defer to others who can evaluate this more, but that’s my two cents.

  • In critiquing Barth’s stance on war, Yoder wrote that “The doctrine of revelation affirms, especially in the thought of Barth, that in Jesus Christ God who is free has tied himself down. His liberty is not a state of ahistorical indefinability; it is rather manifested in that it has pleased Him to speak, once for all, in His Son.”

    I think that looking at Israel through this lens helps make sense of Scot’s position. In Israel God has tied himself down. He has so chosen, as indicated by the covenants with Israel, to act decisively through Israel. If it is God who actually made those covenants with Israel, then it is through Israel, and in conjunction with the symbolic world of Israel, that God has made himself known and made his gospel known to us.

    To be sure, Paul employs other symbols to make this work known to other cultures, but it is only through the symbols of Israel that the work of God in Jesus is first known to Paul.

    This is a lazy, 5am response, but hopefully it makes sense.

  • Alan K

    Tony, your questions sound like those of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Are you trying to suggest that Jesus may be better understood by History of Religions criticism instead of Salvation History?

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