How Israel Became the New Testament Church
Dispensationalists want to maintain that the names, “Israel”, “Jacob”, “Judah”, and so forth are never used in a non-literal way in prophecy, and that in particular, the church of Jesus Christ is never referred to under any of these names. But what if Israel and the church are not entirely different – are somehow related? In fact, what is commonly called the New Testament church is the successor of Israel, and is as closely identified with it as a grown man is identified with the child he once was! Notice how Paul speaks in Galatians chapter 4:
“Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” (Galatians 4:1-5)
Here, the Jews are said to have been in a state of immaturity under the law, while in the kingdom of God’s dear Son, they are now in the position of adult sons. “We” refers to Paul and the Jews, who are here compared to a son under tutors and governors until his maturity, who were in bondage under the elements of that age, who were under the law — none of which things could be said of the Gentiles.
The church of the New Testament is Israel come of age. That it is at present a mainly Gentile church does not change the fact that it is a continuation of the ancient family and congregation of Israel – an Israelite institution, with an Israelite at its head, founded in Jerusalem by Israelites, extended to the Gentiles by Israelites, with a constitution written by Israelites. Furthermore, it is destined to once again embrace Israel “when it shall turn to the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:16). In the church, all the promises of God given to Israel are to be fulfilled. Accordingly, in Hebrews 12:22, we find the church called “mount Zion… the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”:
“For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire…But ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the New Covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:18-24)
Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem are set in contrast to Mount Sinai and earthly Jerusalem, just as in Galatians four:
“Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which engendereth to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Galatians 4:24-26)
Unbelieving Israel, “Jerusalem which now is”, still under the Old Covenant, is represented as “Hagar” and “mount Sinai”; but the New Covenant people of God, “Jerusalem which is above” as Sarah and mount Zion. So it should not surprise us to find the writers of the New Testament telling us that we who believe are the true seed of Abraham:
“Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7-9)
“For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”(Galatians 3:26-29)
Or that the true Jew is the man who is one inwardly, who has a circumcised heart:
“For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfill the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”(Romans 2:25-29)
Nor should it surprise us that the Christian church is called by all the precious epithets given to Israel by Moses”. Compare this:
“Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.”(Exodus 19:5-6)
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
“And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.“ (Revelation 1:5-6)
John Hagee may not believe in what he disparages as “replacement theology”, but the apostles plainly did. The church of Jesus Christ is the new Jerusalem, the New Covenant people of God, a holy nation comprised of those true Jews who have believed in Christ, and all the Gentiles who have trusted in Him. The false Jews of Old Jerusalem rejected their Messiah, and were cast out of the congregation of God, losing even the privileges they had as the natural seed of Abraham; and the New Jerusalem has taken their place.
The Greek word, “ecclesia”(which our English New Testament translates as “church”) simply means “congregation”. Tyndale so translated it in his New Testament, intending to counter the common misunderstanding that the “shorn, shaven and oiled clergy” constitutes the church. “Ecclesia” was the word in the “Septuagint” (the ancient Greek Old Testament) chosen by its translators as equivalent to the Hebrew word for congregation, and it can be applied with equal propriety to the people of God in the Old Testament or the New (see Acts 7:38).
This is why it is absurd to say that there is “no church” in the Old Testament. What if the Hebrew words translated as “congregation” were instead rendered “church” in our English Bibles? The Old Testament “congregation of God” would then be called the “church of God”. Or if the word “congregation” appeared instead of “church” in the New Testament? Then we would be reading about the “congregation of Christ”. Either change would be linguistically correct, and the English reader would be spared the false impression that the two entities are wholly diverse in kind.
A Tale of Two Israels
In discussing Israel and the church, we must distinguish “Israel after the flesh” and “spiritual Israel”. While the former is related to the New Covenant church as type to antitype, the relationship of the church of Jesus Christ to spiritual Israel is one of historical development and organic unity. Both are parts of the whole body of the redeemed in all ages, which is essentially one.
But we are often told that every single reference to Israel in the Bible refers to either Jacob personally or to the nation which he founded. But if this were so, why would Paul say “They are not all Israel who are of Israel”? It is beyond argument that there are two Israels here! One Israel includes all the literal house of Jacob, “the children of the flesh”, and no one else. The other Israel does not include all those who are in the first Israel. And as we shall see, it includes others who are not in the first Israel. Paul begins his profound discussion of Divine election in Romans 9 with these words:
“Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Romans 9:6-8)
In verse 8, the first Israel is called “the children of the flesh”, and it is said of them that “these are not the children of God”. Then we read that “the children of the promise” (the second Israel) “are counted for the seed”, meaning the true seed of Abraham, who inherit the promise.
Paul’s aim is not so much to expound the doctrine of election as it is to vindicate the gospel from the objection that it could not be from God if it left the Jews out. That would mean that the word of God had failed. (verse 6a) But neither is it accidental that he introduces election in this place. It is fundamental to his purpose. National Israel had for the most part rejected its Messiah, because their literalistic reading of the Messianic prophecies said that Messiah would establish political Israel, restore her former glories and lift her up above the nations when He came; which Jesus of Nazareth made no attempt to do.
So the objection was raised, “How can it be that God’s promise to save His people has apparently not taken effect?” Now, the Dispensationalist answer would have been simple and to the point. It would go something like this: “We must distinguish between the first and second advents of the Messiah. He came the first time to be our Savior from sin. He will come the second time to fulfill the Kingdom promises to the Jews.” Paul might have answered the objection in this way; and surely he would have, if it had been correct. But he didn’t.
Or it could have been answered in this way: “Jesus offered Israel the kingdom; but they did not accept it. So God postponed it to a future time, when Israel would accept his offer, and a political kingdom of God would be established on earth, with Jesus reigning in Jerusalem over all nations.” Simple and to the point — pure Dispensational orthodoxy. But Paul says nothing of the kind!
Paul’s answer is most un-Dispensational. He says that there is a crucial distinction to be made; but it is not a distinction between two advents. It is a distinction between two Israels. The one group has failed to inherit the promise of salvation in Christ; but the other group has not. This is because the promise is qualified by Divine election. The true Israel is identified as the elect within Israel. It is this sovereign election, and the calling that flows from it, that distinguishes and separates the children of God from the world.
This being so, the name “Israel” must be understood to have a dual reference, not only in this passage, but in the whole of the Bible. Paul has told us earlier that:
“… he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”(Romans 2:28-29). Now he is saying the same thing about the meaning of the name, “Israel”, that is, that “Israel” cannot be properly applied to any descendant of Abraham who does not manifest the character and faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel). The ideal of Israel, which means “Prince of God” is not fulfilled in such persons. This means that the promises of salvation only extend as far as the real, spiritual Israel.
But we must not stop there. Romans 11 teaches us that a day is coming in which, by the power of the spirit and the sovereign grace of Christ, Israel will turn to the Lord en masse. In that day, most of the members of national Israel will be joined to the spiritual Israel. The spiritual blessings of Messiah’s reign will be realized to their fullest extent in history during this time. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. The prophecies of Israel’s glory will likewise be fulfilled to their fullest extent.
The New Covenant church was brought forth out of Israel, in fulfillment of the promise that God would make a New Covenant with the house of Israel. It remained a predominately Jewish institution for just a little while, but it has always included some who were “of Israel”. The fact that it has included so many Gentiles that much of its Jewish character has been lost does not negate its continuity of identity with the spiritual Israelites of times past. The true church of Jesus Christ is also the true Israel. Believing Gentiles are just as truly “children of God” as their Hebrew brethren. At the conclusion of Paul’s exposition of the doctrine of election in Romans 9 we read:
“What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared [foreordained] unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? As he saith also in Hosea, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.” (Romans 9:22-26)
Paul began this discussion by saying “the children of the flesh” are not “the children of God”, and so they are “not” the true “Israel”. So, since believing Jews and Gentiles are the children of God, then they must be the true Israel.
Once again, in Galatians 6, Paul distinguishes two groups:
“As many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh. But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:12-16)
The first group is the Judaizers, who want to have the best of both worlds. These boast of their circumcision and claim to be the true Israel, the favorites of heaven. The rule of their faction is “Notwithstanding your faith in Jesus the Messiah, you must be circumcised to be saved.” The people in the second group “walk according to” a different “rule”. That rule is that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” Like Paul, they have taken up the cross of Christ, counting the loss of this world to be gain in Christ. These understand that the thing that matters to God is not whether or not one is a Jew, but whether he is a new creature in Christ. Paul closes the epistle with a benediction on this second group, composed of believing Jews and Gentiles, which he calls “the Israel of God”, contrasting them with Israel after the flesh.
Dispensationalists, in their eagerness to dispose of any text that doesn’t fit their system, insist that “the Israel of God” cannot include Gentiles. They stress the word “and” and say that the phrase means a third group, “believing Israel” only. But that is impossible. The word, “and” here means “even”, and does not indicate a third group composed of believing Jews only; for Paul has not mentioned them, nor are they a separate group from the church. They “walk”, with believing Gentiles by the same rule, and so are included in the second group.
Be it noted that we are not saying that the word “Israel” is to be normally interpreted as the New Testament church. Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not. Certainly the historical references to Israel throughout Scripture are to be taken at face value. Nor do we dispute that prophetic references to Israel are in most cases to be taken literally, even when they occur in the New Testament (Acts 1:6; Romans 11:26). It is just that we recognize the fact of the historical development of old Israel under Moses into the new Israel under Christ.
When prophets under the legal dispensation predicted events in the days of the Messiah, they usually did so using the familiar images of their own time. Their prophecies do not always reflect all the changes that would occur when Messiah came, when the Gentiles would be incorporated into Israel under the New Covenant. As a result, we find prophecies that refer to Israel, Zion, and so forth, that cannot be interpreted correctly without putting them into a New Covenant context, supplying the additional information that the New Testament gives us as to the transformation of the faithful remnant of Israel into the universal church of Jesus Christ.
To summarize, the New Testament distinguishes spiritual Israel from national Israel clearly and consistently. Spiritual Israel is not just a name for the elect Jews, but includes both believing Jews and Gentiles. The church has a biblical reason to claim that she is the heir of the promises first given to the saints of the Old Testament. The promises are not being fulfilled to Israel nationally at this time; and won’t be until the natural seed of Abraham owns its Lord and humbly accepts its place in the church of Jesus Christ, alongside Gentile Christians.