Conversion and the Story of Israel
Virtually everyone today emphasizes that what we have in the Bible is a story, and rightly so. It has often been characterized as the story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. It’s moving from creation to new creation.
Where does conversion fit into the story? It belongs to the part involving redemption.
Certainly, conversion is not the central theme in the story—what’s central is the purpose for which people are converted, which is also the purpose for which we were created. As the Westminster Confession says, we were created “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” There is a new world coming, and there we will reign with Christ forever, and we will see his face (Rev. 22:4).
At the same time, conversion is fundamental to the story, since we will not be part of God’s new creation without it. And it is quite clear from the Bible’s storyline that we will praise God forever in the heavenly city for redeeming us, for rescuing us from the dominion of darkness and including us in the kingdom of his beloved Son. We will never forget God’s decisive, saving work in our lives through Christ’s cross and resurrection. It will always be central to our praises.
Since Israel’s history occupies the vast majority of the Bible’s storyline, I’d like to offer a brief sketch that demonstrates why conversion is fundamental to the story.
CONVERSION AND THE STORY OF ISRAEL
Israel’s history really begins with Adam. Adam and Eve were created to bring glory to God by ruling the world for God (Gen. 1:26-28). They were to be his vice-regents in the world he had made. They were to exercise their rule under God’s lordship by trusting in and obeying his instructions. But they rebelled against God’s lordship, worshiping themselves as creatures instead of giving praise and thanks to the Creator. As a result of their disobedience they died (Gen. 2:17). They were separated from God from the moment of their sin and were guaranteed eternal death if they did not repent.
Subsequent to their sin, Adam and Eve’s fundamental need was to be converted. They could hardly rule the world for God and extend his blessing to the earth when they were not in a right relationship with him.
God promised, however, that the offspring of the woman would triumph over the serpent and the serpent’s offspring (Gen. 3:15). The early history of humanity demonstrates the radical evil of human beings. All human beings enter into the world as the sons and daughters of Adam (Rom. 5:12-19) and offspring of the serpent (Matt. 13:37-38; John 8:44; 1 John 5:19). Only those who experience the saving grace of God would be delivered from Satan’s dominion. Cain, for example, showed which side he was on by slaying righteous Abel (Gen. 4:1-16).
How strong were the forces of evil? By the time of Noah there were only eight righteous left in the world! Human beings were radically evil, and Genesis 6:5 attests to the pervasiveness of sin. The offspring of the serpent held sway over the earth, but God showed his holiness and lordship by destroying sinners with a flood. So there is a new beginning, but it’s hardly an improvement since human hearts had not been changed (Gen. 8:21). The state of affairs at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) shows that the new creation was not around the corner. The world was not being ruled by human beings who loved the Lord. The new creation could not come without a new heart.
The scattering and judgment of human beings at Babel was countered by the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Once more there was one man in an evil world. But this one man was called by God and promised blessing. Canaan would be, so to speak, the new Eden, and Abraham was in some respects a new Adam. Abraham’s children would be the children of God, and the blessing given to Abraham would eventually spread to the whole world. Human beings would rule the world under God’s lordship, just as Adam and Eve were called upon to do.
What is remarkable is how long it takes the story to unfold. The promises were not fulfilled for almost two thousand years! The book of Genesis focuses on the granting of the children promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These men did not inherit the land of Canaan, and they certainly did not see blessing spread to the whole world.
Exodus through Deuteronomy advances the narrative, recounting Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery (Ex. 1-15). God was now fulfilling his promise of many children—Israel’s population was exploding. The Lord freed them from Egypt to bring them to a kind of new Eden, the land of Canaan. In this land God’s kingly rule over his people would be expressed, and the nations were supposed to see the righteousness, peace, and prosperity of a people who lived under God’s lordship. But the generation which left Egypt never got to the land (Num. 14:20-38). They refused to trust God’s promise, even after seeing the great deliverance from Egypt and all God’s signs and wonders. Most of the people of Israel who were rescued from Egypt were stubborn and rebellious, and did not truly know the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-12; Heb. 3:7-4:11). Their hearts needed to be circumcised—converted—so that they would love the Lord and fear him (Deut. 30:6), clinging to him as their God and walking in all his ways.
The children who arose after the wilderness generation succeeded where the previous generation failed. Joshua and Israel trusted in and obeyed the Lord, inheriting the land of Canaan promised to Abraham (Josh. 21:45; 23:14). Now Israel was poised to live in their new Eden and to show the beauty and glory of living under the lordship of Yahweh. But there was still a worm at the core of the apple. Israel’s obedience to the Lord was short lived. According to the book of Judges, Israel did not become a blessing to the nations, but instead imitated them. They relapsed into pagan ways. The Lord kept delivering the people when they repented, and yet their hearts remained unchanged, for they kept reverting to their sin.
What was Israel to do? Nearly 1000 years had passed since the promise was made to Abraham. Israel had an ample population and lived in the land, but the promises of worldwide blessing were not even close to being realized. Israel desired a king, convinced that he would deliver them from their enemies just as kings did from other nations (1 Sam. 8:5). When Saul was appointed as king, he was, like Abraham, a new Adam in some ways, appointed by God to rule Israel for the glory of God. But Saul, like Adam, rebelled against the Lord, and hence was removed as king (1 Sam. 13:13, 15:22-23). The rule of the Lord over Israel was not realized in Saul’s reign. God then anointed David as king, and, unlike Saul, he was a man after God’s heart, ruling the nation for God’s glory (1 Sam. 13:14). Still, David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah demonstrated that he would not be the agent by which God’s blessings would reach the entire world (2 Sam. 11).
When Solomon took the throne, the paradise of the new creation seemed to be around the corner (1 Kgs. 2:13-46). Peace characterized his reign, and he built a magnificent temple for the Lord (2 Kgs. 3-10). Solomon ruled the people wisely and in the fear of God at the beginning, but he departed from the Lord and turned towards idolatry (1 Kgs. 11). As a result, the nation was divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and the Judah in the south (1 Kgs. 12). What commenced was a long slide into sin, which concluded with Israel being exiled by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and Judah being exiled by the Babylonians in 586 B.C (2 Kgs. 17:6-23, 24:10-25:26). Nearly 1500 years since the calling of Abraham had passed. The promises of land, offspring, and blessing given to Abraham weren’t even close to coming to pass. Israel was no longer in the land but in exile. Instead of blessing the whole world, Israel had become like the world.
Why was Israel in exile? What was the problem? The prophets teach repeatedly that Israel was in exile because of its sin (e.g., Isa. 42:24-25; 50:1; 58:1; 59:2, 12; 64:5). In Isaiah the Lord promises a new exodus and a new creation. But the new exodus and new creation would only come through the forgiveness of sins (Isa. 43:25; 44:22), and this forgiveness would become a reality through the death of the Servant of the Lord (Isa. 52:13-53:12).
Jeremiah teaches the same truths. What Israel needed was a circumcised heart (Jer. 4:4; 9:25). In other words, they needed to be regenerated and converted. Jeremiah prophesies that a new covenant is coming in which the Lord will write his law on the hearts of his people, enabling them to obey him (Jer. 31:31-34). Similarly, the book of Ezekiel looks forward to the day when the Lord would cleanse his people from sin, removing their hearts of stone and giving them a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:25-27). Their changed hearts would be a result of the work of the Holy Spirit, and as a consequence Israel would walk in God’s ways and keep his commands.
Israel did return from exile in 536 B.C., but the great promises found in the prophets were not completely realized. Israel struggled in the days of Haggai and Zechariah, Ezra and Nehemiah and Malachi. The promised work of the Spirit had not yet come to pass. They were waiting for a king. They were waiting for the arrival of the new creation.
NO BLESSING FOR ISRAEL OR THE WORLD WITHOUT CONVERSION
The history of Israel reveals that the new creation and the new exodus would not be enjoyed apart from the forgiveness of sins and a circumcised heart. The promises given to Abraham were not realized due to Israel’s sin and rebellion. The history of the nation is marked by repeated disobedience and a refusal to do the will of the Lord. Israel desperately needed its sins to be forgiven, and Isaiah teaches that such forgiveness would be realized through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. But Israel also needed the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in order to be saved; it needed to be converted. Conversion is fundamental to the story of Israel, since the blessings promised to Israel and to the world would never be theirs apart from conversion.