Transformation of Israel into the Church
How did the nation of Israel transform into the Church of Jesus Christ?
One of the most divisive battles in the 1st century Christian community regarded the relationship of Israel - with all its laws, structures and membership requirements - with the new Christian church. This debate forms the background of many New Testament writings, such as the epistles of Paul. In the Acts of the Apostles, this controversy plays out, climaxing in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Under the authority of the apostles, this council determined which Jewish laws applied to Christian converts, and that circumcision was not necessary as a membership requirement for Gentile converts.
The Gospel of Matthew was written during this tumultuous century (1). It was addressed primarily to Jewish Christians, most likely residing in Syria, particularly the Antioch region - an area of frequent interaction between Jewish and Gentile Christians (Brown 212). One of the primary purposes of this Gospel is to explain to new Jewish converts to the Christian Faith the relationship between the Old Covenant with Israel and the New Covenant through Jesus. In fact, "Matt[hew] has served as the NT foundational document on the church" (Brown 171). Particularly, Matthew (2) demonstrates that the divine presence of Jesus Christ within Israel transforms it into the Church, which is now the new Israel. McKenzie writes, "[Matthew] is a Jewish Gospel, but it is also a Gospel of the Church. The reign of God is clearly identified with the community of the disciples, a community that is identified with Jesus himself" (McKenzie 64, emphasis added).
It is the presence of Jesus, and only that, which makes the transformation of Israel into the Church possible. This transformation, founded on the very person of Jesus, particularly affects three primary aspects of Israel: its law, its structure, and its membership.
The Presence of Christ within Israel
Matthew begins his Gospel with the simple, yet profound, introduction: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt. 1:1). By identifying Jesus as both David's son and Abraham's son, Matthew is inserting Christ into the very heart of Israel. "The genealogy does not prove Messiaship, but vindicates for Jesus its prerequisite condition, viz. Israelitic stock traceable to the patriarch of the whole race, and, in particular, royal Davidic descent" (Orchard 855). He is not an outsider, wishing to overthrow Israel and its laws and practices. No, he is a true son of Israel, a member of the royal house of David, as well as a descendant of the father of faith, Abraham. He will be a king, like David's son, and will offer himself as a sacrifice, like Abraham's son.
Matthew then continues by detailing Jesus' genealogy, highlighting famous members of the race of Israel, such as Isaac, Jesse, and Solomon. He also structures Christ's genealogy within the history of Israel: "from Abraham to David...and from David to the deportation to Babylon...from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ" (Matt. 1:17). Jesus is an integral part of the history of Israel. As God has worked in history with His people, He now will work through Jesus.
Finally, Matthew ends his genealogy with the words, "Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ" (Matt. 1:16, emphasis added). By identifying Jesus as the Christ, Matthew is signaling that Jesus is the fulfillment of promises made to Israel about its destiny. Jesus is not an usurper of Israel; he is the one whom Israel for centuries has been awaiting. The transformation he will cause to happen to Israel was its destiny from the very beginning. Again Matthew is reminding his readers that the changes Jesus will fashion in Israel are part of the divine plan, and according to God's purposes. As A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture remarks, "Matthew sees both Kingdom and King not as unforeseen and unprepared phenomena, but as the supernatural climax of a divine plan announced and developing in the history of Israel" (Orchard 853).
Thus, before writing one word about his life or teachings, Matthew has established that Jesus of Nazareth is a part of Israel and part of God's divine plan. His presence does not come from without, but from within. What is the effect of his presence? The very transformation of Israel.
Transformation of the Law
The realm within which Christ's transformation of Israel is most readily apparent in Matthew is that of the Law. When examining this aspect of Jesus' transformative work, it might be helpful to observe what Bouyer demonstrates: that the very structure of the Gospel begs comparison with the Jewish Torah (cf. Bouyer 92). Specifically, chapters 3-7 - which include Christ's forty days in the desert and the Sermon on the Mount - are modeled on the Exodus and the giving of the Law. The template for giving the Law can be found in Exodus 19:20, in which "the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. And the LORD said to Moses..." Here, God is the giver of the Law, and Moses is the recipient. In Matthew 5:1-2, however, Matthew states that Jesus "went up on the mountain... he opened his mouth and taught them." The difference is striking: Jesus does not receive the Law from God like Moses did, but instead he gives it. He has an authority that even the great prophet Moses did not have. Thus, it is clear that Jesus has not come simply to re-establish the old Law as it was given to Moses, but instead will be bringing something totally unique to God's people. As Kittel states, "Jesus does not merely affirm that He will maintain [the law and the prophets]...He has come in order that God's Word may be completely fulfilled, in order that the full measure appointed by God Himself may be reached in Him" (Kittel VI 294).
Yet this change will be built upon the foundation of the Old Law: Jesus himself declares that his presence in Israel is not to abolish the old order, but to fulfill it: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil[l] them" (Matt. 5:17). "Fulfillment" is the key term that must be understood to see how Jesus transforms the Law; Matthew reiterates this mission of fulfillment by asserting on twelve separate occasions that Jesus "fulfilled" the Scriptures (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54; 27:9) (cf. Orchard 853). So what does it mean that Jesus "fulfills" the old law? In verse 5:17, Jesus clearly contrasts this action of fulfillment with "abolish," so a simple removal of the Old Law is not intended. On some level, the commands of the Old Law are still in force. But Jesus is now elevating them with a new meaning, a new level of understanding. As McKenzie states, "This word cannot refer to simple literal observance...'Fulfill' means to bring the Law to perfection, to give it that finality the Pharisees believed it possessed. Jesus affirms indirectly that the Law is imperfect, unfinished; he will perfect and finish it" (McKenzie 71).
Jesus' elevation of the Law to new meaning is symbolically represented by Matthew. In the giving of the Old Law on Mt. Sinai to which Matthew is linking the Sermon on the Mount, Moses descends the mountain to give it to the people. Matthew, however, notes that Jesus' "disciples came to him" (Matt. 5:1) on the mountain. God is no longer condescending to man's weakness; instead, He is raising man up to the divine level. This is also clear from the common refrain of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard...but I say to you..." (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). In each case, Jesus does not abrogate the old law, but instead raises it to a new level of obedience: one is not only forbidden to kill, but also forbidden to be angry; adultery is not only prohibited, but also looking lustfully at a woman; no exception is given for divorce, and so forth. As Bouyer writes, "This fulfillment is so complete that it discards, like an outgrown shell, what had prepared for it" (Bouyer 95), yet its metamorphisized essence remains.
This elevation of the Law is vividly summarized in his command: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Parts of the old Law are seen as a divine condescension due to Israel's "hardness of heart" (cf. Matt. 19:8), but now, with the presence of Jesus, each member of the new Israel is to be perfected in the image of the Father. As can be seen in this command to be perfect, all of the new law is directed towards the Father, in imitation of Him. This divine paternal focus is paramount in Christ's Sermon on the Mount. When Christ addresses the three great Jewish piestic practices - alms-giving, prayer, and fasting (Matt. 6:1-18) - he re-bases each one of them on the following principle: do them in secret, because your Father in heaven sees what is in secret (Matt. 6:4; 6:6; 6:18). In the Old Israel, much of the Law was directed towards creating a just society (cf. Exod. 21-22). Each person was expected to follow the Law in order that all might be treated fairly. Furthermore, over time the emphasis became focused on external observations and appearance. Jesus, on the other hand, is calling on members of the new Israel to internalize the Law and follow it simply to please and honor the Father. This trust in the Father will be rewarded, as the Father will give his children good things when they ask him: "what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:9-11).
Christ's elevation of the Law to imitation of the Father is made possible by his own presence. He states, "All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt. 11:27). Only Christ knows the Father, thus it is only through Christ that imitation of the Father becomes possible. Before his advent, Israel's highest knowledge of God was the Law; for the new Israel, it is the person of Jesus. By imitating Christ's obedience to the Father, members of the transformed Israel are able to strive to "be perfect."
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 were...like 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.
Transformation of Membership
The divine presence of Jesus also transformed the membership of the new Israel. Previously, one was eligible for membership by birth into the Hebrew race, and circumcision actualized this membership; the new Israel, however, would be open to all members of the human family and baptism would be the means of entry. A superficial review of Matthew might lead one to believe that since Jesus primarily preached to the race of Israel, he was not interested in a universal mission. However, a deeper appraisal shows that Matthew introduces hints of the Gentiles' inclusion into the new Israel throughout his Gospel before finally recording Jesus declaring it openly at its conclusion.
The listing of Jesus' genealogy, which occurs in the very first chapter of Matthew, gives the first hint of this facet of the transformation of Israel. Matthew includes four women in Christ's lineage: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (Bathseba). The inclusion of women in the genealogy of an Israelite was unusual, but the inclusion of these four particular women is even more remarkable due to the fact that all four were Gentiles. Although Matthew's primary purpose in the genealogy is to establish Jesus' Israelite credentials, he also takes the opportunity to remind the reader of the role of Gentiles even in the old Israel and thus to introduce the ultimate universality of Jesus' mission.
We find Jesus himself intimating this coming transformation in Matthew 8:5-13. Here, a Roman centurion approaches Jesus with a request to heal his servant. Jesus offers to come to the centurion's house to heal the servant - a radical suggestion, as "[n]ormally a Jew would not enter the house of a Gentile; he would incur ritual uncleanness" (McKenzie 76). But the centurion demurs, perhaps believing himself unworthy of Jesus' visit, and confident that Jesus can heal his servant even from a distance. Jesus' response is revolutionary: "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth" (Matt. 8:10-12). What is it that Jesus praises in this Gentile? His faith. This reveals what the new requirement of membership will be: faith, particularly in Christ. This man, who is not of the race of Abraham, the father in faith, has just been declared to be more faithful than Abraham's descendants! Not only that, but there will be "sons of the kingdom," i.e. Jews, that will not be included in God's salvation promises. This is another indication that race will no longer be a determining factor for membership in the new Israel.
A similar indication of the transformed importance of faith occurs in Matthew 15:21-28 in the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman:
And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." And he answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.
The fact that Matthew describes the woman as a "Canaanite" is noteworthy; this is the only use of that term in the New Testament, and brings up Old Testament images. In the Old Testament, "the Canaanites become the sinful race that embodies all that is wicked and godless, the race that is to be exterminated" (McKenzie 90). The fact that Jesus will have such an encounter with a woman of this race indicates that his mission will be universal, and extend to all peoples, even the enemies of Israel. In the passage, it appears at first that Jesus is going to refuse this woman's request - on the basis that she is not a Jew. However, he is not refusing her, but rather testing her faith to see if she truly believes in his power over evil. Again, it is faith that is the determining factor as to whether Jesus can work in a person's life; racial ancestry is irrelevant. The woman passes the test, and Jesus proclaims, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire" (Matt. 15:28). Like the centurion, the Gentile's faith is praised, confirming the basis of membership in the new Israel.
From these initial indications, we are brought to a full declaration of the status of the Gentile in the New Israel, the Church, at the end of Matthew's Gospel. After Christ's resurrection, he gives the apostles a final command: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:18-20, emphasis added). The apostles are commanded to preach to all nations, and there is no indication of any preferential treatment for the children of Israel. From now on, membership in the People of God is transformed from a single race to all the peoples of the world. This transformation is directly due to the presence of Jesus; as he says, "[a]ll authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" - it is under his authority that the apostles' mission is to be universal. This authority is the result of his complete obedience to the Father, and it is through this authority that he opens up the gates of the kingdom to all people, regardless of their ancestry, and based on their faith in him.
The means in which this faith is actualized, and thus membership occurs, is also found in this passage: baptism. It is through the cleansing waters of baptism that a person becomes a member of the People of God, the Church. Thus, the transformation of the membership requirements from the old Israel to the new is now complete: circumcision has been replaced by baptism, and racial identity has been replaced by faith. All people, from Canaanites to Israelites, are eligible to become members of the Church, the new Israel.
The Continued Presence of Christ in the Church
It is clear that the entry of the presence of Christ in Israel fundamentally transformed it into the Church. As it is due to his presence that this transformation occurred, his continued presence is necessary for this new Israel to remain in existence. Christ promised the members of the new Israel that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20). This indicates the absolute necessity of his presence to live the transformed spirituality he brings and thus be a member of the Church. And it is his presence that then leads the members of his Church to the Father. As Jesus said, "So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32).
As Matthew began his Gospel demonstrating Christ's entry into the old Israel, so he concludes it with Christ's promise of his continual presence in the Church: "lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matt. 28:20). All of the changes that have been wrought in Israel are only due to the insertion of Christ into its history, and these changes will only continue with his perpetual presence in the Church. As Guillet wrote, "So it is that the person of our Lord, far from growing more remote or faint with the passage of time, remains for ever living and inspiring for his followers. This is the fulfillment of his promise: 'I am with you all through the days that are coming, until the consummation of the world.'...[This] meant, really and truly, an actual presence" (Guillet 202). So Matthew reminds his readers that the transformative presence of Christ, which changed Israel so radically, will always be with the Church to which it gave birth.
Matthew reveals in his Gospel the profound impact that the divine presence of Jesus has had upon Israel. Its very foundations - law, structure, and membership - have been radically transformed, resulting in a new Israel: the Church. This transformation has fundamental implications for the spirituality of the follower of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. The law which the believer must follow is now completely internalized and directed towards the Father. Rituals, while still important, are to be the result of being a follower of God, not simply the means to it. Pietistic practices have their most value when performed in secret, and thus in complete humility and obedience to the Father. The goal has become literally humanly impossible: perfection in imitation of the Father. But through being a member of the Church this perfection is now possible through Christ. Furthermore, members of the People of God are now to be led by those who are called to imitate Christ's sacrificial obedience to the Father. Leadership in the Church is not a hereditary right, as in the Old Covenant, but is based on election by Jesus. He calls the apostles and their successors and gives them authority over even the gates of hell to guide us to the Father. Most radically, now all people are eligible, and are called, to this transformed People of God. None are excluded from the gift of faith given by God. Through baptism this faith transforms the believer into a full member of the Church, the new Israel.
The Gospel of Matthew, written within the Jewish/Christian struggles of the first century, powerfully demonstrates that the Old Israel has been transformed into the Christian Church, and thus its laws, structures, and membership requirements have been permanently altered. Matthew clearly shows that this all occurs due to the divine presence of Jesus Christ, which will continue until the end of time.
(2) The authorship of Matthew is an unsettled academic debate. The traditional attribution is Matthew the apostle, although the common modern consensus is that the author was most likely a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian who was not an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry (Brown 172). In this paper I will refer to the author as "Matthew" for ease of notation, but the authorship question does not affect the results of this study. back
(3) The primacy of Peter is outside the scope of this paper, but can be found in Matthew's Gospel in two separate places: Matthew 10:2, in which Matthew lists the apostles and marks Peter as "protos", or "first"; and Matthew 16:18-19, in which Jesus builds the Church upon Peter and gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. back
(1) Proposed datings of Matthew have ranged from as early as 50AD to as late as 100AD. It is this writer's contention that it was written before 70AD and the fall of the Jerusalem temple (cf. Hahn 13 and Robinson 86-117), and thus is written during the height of the Jewish-Gentile debate within the Church. back
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