Ask Steve: Israel and the Church

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Question: Steve, I have often heard talks about whether the church is the new Israel, or whether Israel and the church are distinct? Can you explain to me your beliefs on this issue, and why this issue matters to Christians (if at all)?

Answer: The correlation between Israel and the church has been a topic of immense debate for centuries, with opinions differing even amongst the godliest of men. There are only really two major views on this subject: 1. The church has become the new Israel in the figurative sense. God transferred all of the ancient covenant promises and benefits from ethnic Israel to the church. This view is called supercessionism, or replacement theology, and is popular amongst the Reformed branch of Christianity. 2. The church and Israel are distinct entities. The unconditional covenant promises to Israel remain intact to this day, which means there is still a future plan for the redemption of ethnic Israel in the last days. This view is called restorationism, and is prevalent amongst the dispensational and fundamentalist branches of Christianity, along with many Messianic Jews.

One’s view on this topic does not constitute a redefinition of the gospel or Christian living, which means that it is a secondary issue that Christians can agree to disagree on. However, a Christian’s belief about this issue does affect his hermeneutics (Scripture interpretation method), ecclesiology (church government) and eschatology (timing of the tribulation, millennial), which is why it is still a big enough issue for local churches to be separated by it. Depending on where you stand, it will affect your interpretation of nearly 1/3 of the Old Testament (prophetic passages), as well as key eschatological passages in the Gospels, Romans, and Revelation. That is why a Christian should have clear convictions regarding the meaning and relationship of Israel and the church, especially if they want to become teaching pastors or elders at a church.

My view is that Israel and the church are distinct. I don’t come to this conclusion because I have a particular bias toward ethnic Israel or Orthodox Judaism. I believe this because it seems to be what the Old and New Testament clearly teaches when comprehensively pieced together and understood in its plain sense of communication. I believe that when Scripture is read through grammatical-historical hermeneutics, God outlines a picture of Israel’s unique identity and future redemption. One would need to allegorize many portions of the Bible in order to equate Israel and the church as one and the same, or read New Testament theology into the Old Testament. However, we know that what God intended to communicate to the Israelites in the Old Testament cannot mean something different than what He intends to communicate to the church. This means that if God declared that He would redeem and restore national Israel (in the Old Testament), then He will redeem and restore national Israel. Now it is just a matter of timing.

The first reason to believe in the distinction between Israel and the church is the innumerable Scriptural references that teach it. For example, Jeremiah 33:6-7 prophesies, “Behold, I will bring to it health and healing, and I will heal them; and I will reveal to them an abundance of peace and truth. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel and will rebuild them as they were at first.” Concerning the future reign of the Messiah King, Zechariah 14:10 declares, “All the land will be changed into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem…People will live in it, and there will no longer be a curse, for Jerusalem will dwell in security.”

These are only a few of many prophetic passages in the Old Testament that indicate a reversal of fortune, redemption, and healing for Israel. The nation of Israel will be protected and delivered in the last day, being transformed from a waste land into an utter paradise of beauty and prosperity, where the Messiah would rule from His throne. Scripture is very specific in the details, such as when it speaks about the penalty of those nations that do not go up to Jerusalem to honor the Lord Jesus when He reigns in His millennial kingdom: “If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, then no rain will fall on them; it will be the plague with which the LORD will smite the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths” (Zech 12:18).

The perspicuity of Scripture testifies to the truth of this observation. These prophecies, including its exact details of geography or events, would be completely mysterious, if not meaningless, if God intended it to only be a symbol pointing to the church. The Apostle Paul reaffirms the truth of Israel’s redemption in the last days in the New Testament era, when he writes in Romans 11:25-26, “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery – so that you will not be wise in your own estimation – that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved…”

Israel 1The second reason that Israel and the church are distinct is God’s unconditional promises to Israel. In Genesis 12:3, we see God establish a unilateral, unconditional covenant with Abram. The terms of this covenant is that God would bless Abram with innumerable descendants (Israel), that they would inherit a land (Canaan), and that they would be a blessing to other nations (salvific plan). In 2 Samuel 7:12, we observe God’s institution of the unconditional Davidic Covenant with King David. The king would have a particular descendant who will “establish his kingdom.” As the rest of the verse reads, “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” This points to the coming of a King who would perpetual the life of David’s throne until the end of world history. Finally, Jeremiah 31:31-33 speaks about the unconditional New Covenant that God makes with Israel: “I will put My law with in them and on their heart I will write it…I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

All three of these eternal covenants have not come to its full results yet. The teachings of covenant theology are that all three of these covenants were somehow fulfilled in the church. This not only produces a number of difficulties, but contradicts the essence of a biblical covenant, especially a unilateral one where the full responsibility is on God to carry out the promises to the other party (Israel). Covenants cannot be broken, altered, or transferred (Gal 3:15). Nowhere in Scripture is there a clear, detailed explanation that the covenant promises transferred to the church, or that Israel was only a prophetic type that pointed to the antitype – the church. The only explanation as to why Israel had not benefited from these covenant promises yet is that it is an eschatological event yet to occur. This is the only reasonable position to take if one truly believes in the clarity of Scripture and the integrity of God’s faithfulness.

The third reason to believe that Israel and the church are distinct is historical. If the church is the new Israel and God pronounced His judgment on the nation during the apostolic era, why does Israel still exist today? If God wanted to make this lesson known concerning the “new Israel” that is the church, then the best way to have done this is to obliterate both the Jerusalem Temple and the Jewish people so that the mere “shadow” or “type” would no longer be necessary, since the substance came with the church. Rather, we see the ethnic people of Israel survive through the centuries, including major attempts to exterminate the race, and reconvene in Palestine to revive national Israel (in 1948) once again!

This bizarre phenomenon cannot be explained but by the intentional design of God to preserve the Jewish people, possibly for an eschatological purpose. We know this divine agenda is reasonable because God preserved and delivered the Jewish people during the 7-year famine in Egypt (Genesis 40-50), the Egyptian oppression and slavery (Exodus), the assassination attempt of Haman during Artaxerxes’ rule (Esther), and the return from exile in Babylon (Ezra, Nehemiah). Extrabiblical records also reveal God’s mercy upon the Israelites during the intertestamonial period when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to destroy the Jews, and, most recently, when Adolf Hitler pursued the same course of action. If God has a plan to preserve the Jews and bring them back to the homeland in which Jesus would return to rule on His throne, it makes reasonable sense that Satan would target the Jewish people in order to thwart God’s future plans. Yet Scripture speaks about national Israel’s rebirth (Is 11:11-12; 66:8; Ez 37:21-22) and Messiah’s reign in that land (Zech 12; Rev 20:1-10).

As I stated, the Israel and church issue at the heart of the dispensational and covenant theology debate is not significant enough that it should thwart the unity of churches that are exclusively focused on the gospel, evangelism, and holy living. However, this issue affects how one approaches and interprets Scripture, which is why it is important for ministers to assess the goal of his ministry and the extent of his expository preaching when candidating at churches. This issue is also significant because it can determine, to a large extent, whether churches support and show a high regard for the state of Israel. God promises in Genesis 12:3 that He blesses those who bless Israel and curses those who curse Israel. If this is true, then it is logical that Satan would want to discourage people from supporting Israel or from thinking that Israel is more “chosen” than other nations on earth. If the church wants to reap in God’s richest blessing, then one of its practices should be to pray for and evangelize national Israel.

 

Recommended Resource: Has the Church Replaced Israel By Michael Vlach