The Church and Israel
Recently, I’ve entered into social circles wherein the relationship between the Church and Israel is a more prominent topic. I don’t desire to a produce a thorough recap of the origins and implications of the subject, as such information is readily available in other books. However, I do have a desire to discuss this important topic as Biblically as I can.
What one believes about the relationship between the Church and Israel reflects ones underlying hermeneutical beliefs and impacts one’s view of subjects such as ecclesiology, eschatology, and God’s sovereign hand through history. It should be noted that there are variations within the following viewpoints, and there are people who hold views similar to the following who don’t adhere to these common labels. One view of the relationship between the Church and Israel has been made popular by and associated with Dispensationalism. Although there are various forms Dispensationalism, a key common factor in nearly all Dispensationalists’ beliefs is that the Church and ethnic Israel have separate but parallel roles and destinies. God’s original plan with ethnic Israel was suspended when the Israelites rejected Jesus, and God established the Church Age in the meantime. However, once Jesus returns, God’s program with Israel will recommence. Israel is commonly viewed as God’s earthly people who will inherit earthly blessings, and the Church is viewed as God’s heavenly people who will inherit heavenly blessings. Another view, often associated with Covenant Theology is that the Church is the fulfillment of what ethnic Israel should have been and the inheritors of all Old and New Testament promises. Leaving a more extensive discussion of the preceding viewpoints to available books, let’s dive into how the Bible discusses the relationship between the Church and Israel. There are three key areas to discuss: how many peoples does God have, what relationship does the Church have to Old Covenant titles, and what relationship does the Church have to the promises throughout the Old Testament.
What does Scripture have to say about how many peoples of God there are? Ephesians provides striking clarity on the issue. In describing how God has brought gentiles into the people of God, Paul states,
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” – Ephesians 2:13-16
Herein, Paul states God has created “one new man” in place of the formerly separate Jews and gentiles. Additionally, through the cross, God has reconciled people into one body. Later in the letter, the unity of God’s people is described.
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” – Ephesians 4:4-6
In describing how gentiles were grafted into the people of God, God states through Paul in Romans,
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches.” – Romans 11:17-18a
Notice, in the inclusion of gentiles into the people of God, God doesn’t create a second olive tree or discuss the appearance of a previously unknown olive tree. Rather, Jew and gentile are together joined in one olive tree, or, as Ephesians puts it, into one body. Clearly, the testimony of Scripture makes plain, there is one people of God. Jew and gentile are together joined by the blood of Christ into one body. As the rest of Scripture describes, that one body is called the Church. What relationship then does this one body, this one people of God, the church have to the Old Covenant? To this topic we now turn.
How one views the relationship between the Church and the Old Covenant can impact how one views the fulfillment of Scripture. What insight does Scripture provide? Peter, in the letter of 1 Peter, writes to Christians dispersed in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. His audience is believed to be at least predominantly Gentile as there are references to their “former ignorance” (1:14) and “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1:18); descriptions that fit most readily with a predominately Gentile audience. In addressing these Christians, Peter states,
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” – 1 Peter 2:9.
This verse contains four Old Covenant titles for Israel that are seen in Exodus 19:5-6, Deuteronomy 7:6, Isaiah 61:6, and Malachi 3:17. Here, Peter takes these Old Covenant descriptions of Israel and applies them to the Church.
Another description of Israel applied to the church is that of God’s bride. Describing ethnic Israel, Isaiah states,
“For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God.” – Isaiah 54:5-6
Clearly, God had conceived of His relationship with ethnic Israel as that of a husband and wife. It is notable then that Paul, in describing his ministry to the church at Corinth, states,
“For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 11:2
Additionally, it is stated in Revelation,
“‘Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’ — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” – Revelation 19:7-8
Moving from implication to outright declaration, the book of Galatians describes the Church as Israel.
"But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God." - Galatians 6:14-16
Here, Paul describes how neither Jewish nor gentile background is ultimately significant, but, rather, it is new creation achieved through the cross that counts. He then states that for all who "walk by this rule" of being a new creation - all people saved through faith in Christ and subsequently composing the Church - "peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God". It wouldn't make sense for "upon the Israel of God" to only refer to ethnic Jewish Christians, since they have already been included in the prior, broader category of "all who walk by this rule". Rather, in light of the context, the better interpretation is to view the "and" in "and upon the Israel of God" as epexegetical - providing a further description of "all who walk by this rule". Consequently, a better translation may be "And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, namely upon the Israel of God." Israel of God is here used as a description of the Church itself.
As is seen in many verses throughout God’s Word. The Church is associated with and bears many of ethnic Israel’s Old Covenant titles. Clearly, there is some measure of continuity and connection between what ethnic Israel was and what the Church now is.
What then is the relationship between the Church and the many promises made in the Old Testament? Perhaps more specified at the concern of those who maintain a distinction between ethnic Israel and the Church, does the Church inherit all the Old Covenant promises? Besides the preceding discussion showing how the Church bears Old Covenant titles, another relationship that sheds light on the subject is that of the Church’s relationship to Jesus Christ.
To which Old Covenant promises is Christ heir? The Bible routinely describes Jesus as the true Israel, the fulfiller of everything ethnic Israel should have been. Hosea states,
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”. – Hosea 11:1
Clearly, God conceived of ethnic Israel as His son. Astonishingly, it is stated in the gospel of Matthew,
“And [Joseph] rose and took [Jesus] and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” – Matthew 2:14-15
Matthew takes Hosea 11:1, which was used to describe how God called ethnic Israel out of Egypt, and states that Jesus is the fulfillment of this verse. He was the true Son called out of Egypt; ethnic Israel pointed us to Jesus. Is it surprising then that we read of many parallels between ethnic Israel’s former activities and those that Jesus undertook while engaged in ministry? Whereas ethnic Israel failed temptations in the wilderness throughout their 40 years of wandering; Jesus overcomes temptations during his 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus succeeds where ethnic Israel failed. Additionally, Jesus is the last Adam who succeeds where the first Adam failed (1 Corinthians 15:45). Jesus is the promised seed of the woman who bruised the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Jesus is the means by which God fulfills his promise to Abraham to bring blessings to the nations. Jesus is the promised Davidic king. Jesus is the fulfiller and realizer of all the promises made in the Old Testament, including those made to Adam, Abraham, Israel, and David. In fact, 2 Corinthians sums it up nicely:
“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” – 2 Corinthians 1:20
If Jesus then is the heir and fulfiller of all the promises of God, including those made to Adam, Abraham, Israel, and David; to which of those promises is the Church heir to in her union with Jesus?
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” – Romans 8:16-17
“And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.” – Galatians 3:29
If Christ is heir and fulfiller to all God’s promises, including those made to Adam, Abraham, Israel, and David. To which of those promises is the Church heir as fellow heirs with Christ? The implicit answer is all of them!
We have seen that there is one people of God which is called the Church in the New Testament, the body of Christ – composed of all who come to salvation through faith in Christ. We have seen that the Church bears Old Covenant titles. We have seen that Christ is heir to all Old Covenant promises and that the Church is co-heir with Him. At this point it appears we have a solidly Biblical answer to the question of the relationship between the Church and ethnic Israel. Christ, as the true Israel, has redeemed one body of people – the Church. Through her union with Jesus, the Church itself composes the true Israel. The one body to Jesus Christ, the head. The church is subsequently the bearer of Old Covenant titles and co-heir with Christ of all God’s Old Testament promises.