Israel, the Church, and the Spiritual Battle of Faith

We Bible readers often like to make fun of Israel because they are so pathetic. They’re easy to make fun of. But sometimes it hits a little too close to home. Preachers will tell a story of their blind disobedience and say “you can either say Oh my or Oh me”, because although Israel’s failures are extreme, they aren’t foreign to our own. We share in their foolish rebellion. And yet, because of Christ’s work, there is a fundamental difference between them and us that is often overlooked.

The Climax of Israel’s Foolish Sin

The darkest day in national Israel’s history (after the crucifixion of their Messiah) is the day they bowed down to a golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Just weeks after Yahweh God decimated the greatest nation on earth to rescue them, they went shopping for another god. And we readers sit back and wonder How could you be so stupid?

But that wasn't the end. Their unbelief carried through their wilderness journey to the day they were to enter the promised land. There they doubted God’s power to give them victory over the giants of the land, seemingly forgetting the greatest thing God ever did for them in the Exodus. The spies spent 40 days in the land, scoping out their enemy, and because of their unbelief God banished the entire generation to 40 years in the desert.

This kind of foolishness is beyond explanation. No amount of psychology or human intuition can uncover this dark disposition toward God. It’s as if a dark magic darkened their minds and shrouded their judgment. This foolishness is beyond irrational. It’s spiritual.

Israel’s failure as Spiritual “Dark Magic”

Consider this: Israel’s God was their King, and He delivered them from the greatest nation on the planet after over 400 years of slavery and provided for them as they trekked across the desert to the land He promised their forefathers. And yet at every turn they act like He’s not even there.

What could explain this blindness but a spiritual darkness, a pervading magical spell that turns them away from God? If they had a human king, a flesh and blood hero to follow—if he were the one to deliver them from Egypt by real military strength, would they doubt him to do it again in Canaan? When David slew Goliath, Israel charged at the enemy with no worries. And after David became King, they followed him into dark situations, defeating powerful nations and extending the borders of the kingdom of Israel to its greatest size. They fought for David because they trusted him and they expected his victory.

If God were a man, and he did all those things for them, would they have doubted him? What is doubt that it seems to grow into irrational foolishness when God is the object of faith? It’s as if their incredible doubt darkens their minds precisely because God isn’t a human king. They can't see God—they can't touch him. They forget that He’s there and that He’s the Almighty. Yes and amen. But there’s more.

The physical barrier is simply the means for the spiritual one. Israel is under a curse that blinds them to God. They aren't just facing run-of-the-mill doubt, they are facing Satan and the dark blackness of the curse that surrounds and fills their hearts. Because trusting a human is not a spiritual battle, but trusting God is.

Trusting God is a Uniquely Spiritual Battle

Since God is invisible, and since we are under a curse, and since Satan is fighting against him, we are continually running from God and everything He stands for (i.e., goodness, truth, and beauty). We are on an escalator downward, forced to fight against the falling motion with courageous battles of spiritual endurance and renewal. And this affects us in every way.

For example, if Methuselah himself sat me down at 924 years old and said, “Boy, you don't know anything”, I think I'd believe him. Those 900 years he has on me would not allow me to turn away or bow up in pride. But when God tells me not to trust myself or live by my own understanding (Prov 3:5-6), I don't listen to him because I think I know better. Hmm.

See, this is the irony. Is, that I’ll trust what I think I can put my trust in, but I won’t trust what I can’t judge to be trustworthy, even if He is the only one in the world actually capable of earning my trust. I’ll trust in money or fame or power or relationships for happiness, but I won’t trust the one who made me to make me happy. And I’ll get burned—my idols will turn on me—and I’ll still go back to them. Because there’s some kind of dark magic within me that is hell-bent on my destruction.

The Redemption in the New Covenant

Now all this is true, but where we usually fall apart is trying to make the connection between Israel and ourselves. We often jeer at Israel and see ourselves as so much “better” at being godly. The irony is that we are better, but it’s not our doing.

The nation of Israel were beneficiaries of the Old Covenant, which stated that God would bring redemption and set the world to rights through their influence, if only they would listen and obey Him. The New Covenant came in Jesus Christ, who no longer preached a prophetic message of future-renewal, but who preached a message of present-redemption. “Repent and believe” now, He said (Matt 4:17). Because for the first time in human history, God was giving humans the spiritual wherewithal to turn to Him (Mal 3:7).

The New Covenant replaced hearts of stone with circumcised hearts of flesh (Ezek 36:26). It took the Law from the stone tablets and etched it into those hearts so that everyone born of God knows God (1 John 4:7) because we would have the mind of God within us (1 Cor 2:16).

These are blessings we have because of our place in history, because of God’s unfolding plan of redemption, not because of anything we’ve done. Israel didn’t have any of that. They were humanity, raw and unaided by the indwelling presence of God. They had to kill animals and approach God’s presence through priests at a temple; we can speak to Him at any time, because we have a Mediator greater than any priest who shares His life with us—who commingles His consciousness with our own.

So when we look at Israel, we shouldn’t jeer and poke fun; nor should we weep as if we were like them, without hope. We should see them as ourselves, were it not for the New Covenant and the blessings of the Lord. We too are under that same curse, and the only thing keeping us from following their foolishness is the grace of God, given to us freely in Christ, and mediated to us in ever-increasing amounts through the means of grace He has provided (the Word, church, and sacraments).

We still doubt—we still fail Him constantly—but we are not Israel. Their story of failure is not ours. We are The Church, part of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom that swallowed David’s kingdom and all the other kingdoms of the world. We are citizens there, brothers and sisters with our King. And while the dark magic remains, a deeper magic is on the move. There is a power to heal every wound, to calm every fear, to quench every doubt, to break every chain. And that power is only a breath away.

One day the dark magic will run out and God will indeed set all to rights. Until that time, we fight. We fight spiritual battles to fix our eyes on Christ (Heb 12:3), to believe He exists and that He is not silent, and we grow into the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18), knowing that as we grow, He triumphs.

“Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget none of His benefits.” (Ps 103:2)