B·I·B·L·E & L·I·F·E
Bible Teaching Newsletter
of Biblical Doctrine & New Testament Assembly Life
|Volume 11, No 3||May 1, 2004|
Distinguishing between Israel and the Church
by David Dunlap
Distinguishing things that differ is
essential in the interpretation of Scripture and failure to do so results in
doctrinal and practical consequences. This is true in all of Scripture. Church
history will show that those who were cavilier concerning subtle and important
theological differences have brought great harm to the Church. The failure to
distinguish between justification and sanctification damages the doctrine of
grace. The failure to distinguish between law and grace muddies our
understanding of salvation by grace through faith alone. So too, the failure to
distinguish Israel from the Church will lead to grave consequences. Reluctance
to distinguish Israel from the Church has caused some to return to barren
liturgical ritual, the unbiblical separation of the clergy and the laity, and
the use of military might to accomplish the will of God. Oliver
Cromwell(1599-1658) serves as an illustration of the necessity of right
thinking in this area.
Oliver Cromwell acted as he did because he failed to see vital distinctions between Israel and the Church. He was the Church's King David, vanquishing the kingdom of its enemies. He was England's Joshua fighting the adversaries of God. There are enormous practical consequences at stake when we fail to distinguish the differences between Israel of old and the New Testament Church.
The Reformed View of Israel and the Church
There are Christians today who resist broad distinctions between Israel and the Church. Today, as with its Puritan forefathers, Reformed theology teaches that Israel and the Church are not to be distinguished. Rather Israel and the Church, the two peoples of God, are both an organic, unified body under the headship of Christ. According to this view, to separate them is to do great theological harm to the teaching of the covenants, the unity of the Church and Israel, and the importance of the law. Reformed theology argues that the term Israel does not represent a national people, but the spiritual people of God. Therefore, the members of the Church are considered to be New Israel. Spiritual Israel of the Old Testament has now entered a new phase of her history and lives on as the Church. The prophecies concerning the nation of Israel are, for the most part, now applied to the Church.
How do Reformed teachers justify their position from the Scriptures? Reformed writers will indeed agree that there are some differences between Israel and the Church, but they would counter that there are many unifying links between these two peoples of God. Scriptures such as "But he is a Jew which is one inwardly" (Rom. 2:29); and "For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel" (Rom. 9:6) are used as support of this position. Reformed writers teach that natural, national Israel has been set aside by God and does not receive the promises of God. However, believing Israel, the faithful remnant of the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham, was the initial phase of what would eventually be called the "Church". It is spiritual, or true Israel, and not National Israel, that is to be identified with the Church.
Reformed author Keith Mathison explains,
An Examination of the Reformed View
Is it, indeed, true that Scripture considers only believing Israel to be true Israel? Does Scripture teach that only believing Israel is the true possessor of the covenant promises? Is this true Israel of the Old Testament the beginning of what is now the New Testament Church? Let us examine this Reformed view in light of the Word of God. All sincere students of Scripture will admit that there are similarities between Israel and the Church. But at the same time, they will also agree that there are great differences. The careful study of Scripture reveals that God has a plan for Israel, and this plan involves both the believing and unbelieving parts of the nation. Yes, God has always had a remnant of believers in Israel throughout history, but it must also be said that He has not cast away the unbelieving in Israel.
How does Scripture define the composition of what is called Israel? Notice what Peter states while preaching to the Jews near Solomon's porch in Jerusalem in Acts chapter three. "I know that ye through ignorance did it...Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, ‘And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed'" (Acts 3:17,25). Peter's begins by saying you—the unbelieving Jewish people— although through ignorance, are responsible for the death of Christ. He then turns to the subject of who are the possessors of the promises of the covenant. Who are the "seed" through which all the nations would be blessed? Peter unequivocally states that it is those who crucified Christ, the unbelieving Israel, who are possessors of the covenant, who are "Israel".
This leads us to another consideration: who among the Jewish people are "elect Israel", national Israel or believing Israel? Paul writes and explains to the Romans that it is unbelieving Israel, the "enemies of the gospel" who are elect. Paul writes, "As concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sakes; but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers' sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Rom.11:28-29). God has not cast off the unbelieving in Israel. They are an integral part God's divine plan for Israel. So it again is both the believing and unbelieving who are considered elect Israel.
Finally, to whom does the term "Israel" apply? Is it the unbelieving Israel, national Israel, or "New Israel" — the Church? Paul answers this very question in Romans nine: "My brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises,..." (Rom. 9:3-5). In these verses Paul answers two questions: firstly, who is Israel, and secondly to whom belong the promises of God? Although the book of Romans was written many years after the formation of the church, yet Paul states that the adoption, the covenants, the promise still are the possession of Israel. Paul uses the present tense throughout this verse to first define an "Israelite", and later to show who possesses the promises of God. He writes, "Who are Israelites....adoption, service to God... whose are the fathers...". If the promises of God to Israel are now applied to the Church, one would expect that after 60 years New Testament writers would clearly set forth this fact in the Word of God. It seems, however, that the promises to Israel still apply to Israel and the definiton of "Israel" has not changed. Let none misunderstand. Scripture does not teach that literal, national Israel comes into rich blessing from God simply because they are Jews. Jesus said to the Jews, "Think not to say within yourselves we have Abraham to our father: For I say unto you God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham"..."If you were Abraham's children you would do the works of Abraham" (Matt. 3:9, John 8:39). God has never given His promises to Israel merely because they were Israelites after the flesh. The fulfillment of the promises of God in the coming Kingdom are only for those who, through faith, have come to Christ. When and how will this take place? National Israel and believing Israel will both enter into the millennial promises of God at the appearing of Christ, when in the words of Paul, "So all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, there shall come a Deliverer and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob" (Rom. 11:26).
German theologian Erich Sauer explains,
This is God's divine program for Israel. As it was set forth in prophecy so will it be fulfilled in history. This plan is distinct from His program with the Church. Both programs find an important place in biblical history. May we never confuse Israel's program with that of the Church, but instead lift our hearts in praise to God for them both.
"It may safely be said that the Judaizing of the Church has done more to hinder
her progress, pervert her mission, and destroy her spirituality, than all other
causes combined. Instead of pursuing her appointed path of separation from the
world and following the Lord in her heavenly calling, she has used Jewish
Scriptures to justify herself in lowering her purpose to the civilization of
the world, the acquisition of wealth, the use of imposing ritual, the erection
of magnificent churches, the invocation of God's blessing upon the conflicts of
armies, and the division of the equal brotherhood into ‘clergy' and ‘laity'."
"While there is a connection between the saved of all ages, Christianity is new
wine poured into new wine-skins. What mischief has been done by the Roman
Catholic church through it s attempt to continue the Levitical system of the
Old Testament! Tertullian was the first to call ministers priests; and Cyprian
the first to introduce the idea that the mass was a sacrifice. Thus great
sanctuaries and an elaborate ritual were introduced into the church, to replace
the simple meeting places of earlier times, and the unadorned preaching of the
gospel in primative Christianity."
"Although the church was an essential part of God's plan for history, which He
determined in eternity past, God did not put that part of his plan into effect
until ten days after His Son ascended from earth to heaven."
BIBLE & LIFE