Earthy Signs of Israel’s Restoration

At the end of Hosea, God promises to restore Israel, and he declares his redemptive purposes using the earthy symbols of grain and vine:

They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:7).

The following book, Joel, reverses this earthy restoration with a promise of YHWH’s judgment:

The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes (Joel 1:10).

Notice that a third earthy element, oil, is added into the mix. We could also add here the sign of water; throughout the Old Testament, water is a sign of judgment in both its excess (e.g. Genesis 6) and its lack, as well as a sign of restoration (e.g. Ezek. 47:1-12). For Israel, then, the earthy signs that they are looking for, the signs that demonstrate that YHWH has renewed them through his Messiah and Spirit, are water, oil, grain, and vine (cf. also Deut. 7:13 for the initial promise of blessing via these elements). Israel’s redemption is pictured as a redemption of the Land, and particularly of those four elements.

When Jesus comes, he comes as Israel’s Anointed – “Messiah” just means “anointed one.” He is anointed both at the beginning of his ministry in baptism and at the end of his ministry, just before his Passion, with oil (Matt. 26:6-13). In other words, Jesus embodies these restorative signs of Israel’s salvation, water and oil, in his Messianic anointing. With respect to the grain and vine, two elements crucial to Israel’s commemorative and formative Passover meal, Jesus embodies these as well, this time in the Last Supper. As he breaks the bread and takes the cup, identifying them as his body and blood, he is taking up the rich symbolism of Israel’s redemptive hope and culminating it in himself. There is now bread to eat, and there is now the fruit of the vine to drink – in Christ. We could also point to the “I AM” statements in John; Jesus is, among other things, Israel’s Bread, Light (associated with oil lamps), Living Water, and Vine.

Jesus, in other words, takes all these earthy symbols of Israel’s redemptive hope upon himself, and fulfills them. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, including its hope of restored Land. By taking these earthy symbols on himself, Jesus is declaring that in him Israel, including the Land itself, is redeemed. All of Israel’s promises, including the Land promises, are fulfilled in the incarnate Son.

But neither Jesus nor the NT stop there with respect to these symbols. These earthy symbols are not only fulfilled in Jesus but also instituted as signs of his Kingdom. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and King, but he does not isolate the presence of the Kingdom in his person. Instead, through pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus spreads his Kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth via the proclamation of the gospel by his Church. And as his Spirit-filled Church expands, they bring with them signs of the Kingdom, namely the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These two ordinances are instituted by Christ as signs of the Kingdom because they are signs of Israel’s redemption in him and therefore also signs of Israel’s restoration as YHWH’s people in Christ’s multi-ethnic church.

Jesus’ body and blood – Israel’s redeemed grain and vine – are proclaimed to us in the Supper, and therefore the Supper is a sign of Israel’s redemption. Jesus’ death and resurrection are proclaimed to us in baptism, and therefore our identification with Christ in our submergence into and reemergence out of the waters is a sign of Israel’s redemption. And as we anoint ministers, we anoint them (historically with oil) to minister the Word – the vehicle of Christ’s authority in his Church – to his people. The congregation sits under the kingship of the anointed Christ as anointed ministers proclaim his Scriptures. The Church’s symbols are therefore Israel’s symbols, and thus as the Church worships Christ they are doing so as the renewed and restored Israel, the Israel of God, because they are united to Israel’s Messiah who redeemed Israel in his own flesh.

Private Confessions and Binding and Loosing in Christ’s Kingdom

I am convinced that the ordinances of Christ ought to take place in Christ’s church, and not simply in private or outside of the gathering of God’s people under the authority given to them by Christ. For Baptists and baptistic free churches, this means they take place particularly in the context and under the authority of the local church. This is because the ordinances are part of what Jesus means when he 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).”

Binding and loosing is particularly related to the proclamation of the gospel and to making disciples of those who respond in repentance and faith to that proclamation, namely through the means of grace – preaching and the ordinances. Baptism, while certainly a testimony of the baptizand’s profession of faith, is also an exercise of the local church’s charge to bind and loose – they affirm the baptizand’s confession and vow to edify them in their walk with Christ. Additionally, baptism is the first step in the lifelong process of church discipline. That term is not pejorative; rather, “discipline” simply refers to the continued formation of an individual through regular practices. The local church is integral in the discipline of the life of a believer; that role begins in baptism, and baptism is a continual reminder for the disciple and the church that s/he belongs to Christ and needs to be conformed to Christ.

Baptism is also part of how the local church manifests Christ’s kingdom; it is a visible sign of Christ’s death-defeating, resurrecting work in the baptizand’s life, and in that proclamation it also reminds other Christians of their own union with Christ’s death and resurrection. It is therefore a visible sign not only of and for the individual, but also for the congregation and for and to the world. This is why I continue to uphold the importance of the ordinances taking place in the context of the local church – they are instituted by Christ as part of the means by which the the local church exercises its authority and manifests Christ’s kingdom.

All this is particularly relevant to our current political climate. News dropped this weekend concerning the GOP nominee bragging about sexually assaulting women in a 2005 recording. Some evangelical leaders are dismissing this charge, and encouraging others to do so as well, on the basis that Trump has made a private confession of Christ and prayed privately to be forgiven of what he said in that tape. Voters are being encouraged to take this as a sign that he is a changed man.

I would be delighted to know that Trump, or anyone, has made a genuine conversion, and that they have turned from their sin and to Christ. The point here is that the Church has historically affirmed that conversions are part of its communal life, and, for baptistic churches, they are particularly and especially part of the local church’s communal life. Talk of Trump’s conversion, on the other hand, is being bound and loosed by a handful of televangelists who testify to his private change and private confession. This is part of a larger move in evangelicalism, rooted even further back in the revivals, that “tests” conversion through private, individual, emotional experience instead of via the binding and loosing of the local church. We do not have the ordinances as visible signs, or discipline as the long road of communal obedience, with private professions that are not bound and loosed in the context of the local church. We are instead asked to take a leap of faith and believe in private professions, rather than seeing them worked out publicly in the life of the local church.

I, for one, will stick with the Apostles and the subsequent wisdom of the Church and my Baptist forebearers. Confessions of faith take place within the communal life of the local congregation, and are part of the church’s “binding and loosing” of the gospel through the ordinances and discipline.