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The Church and Israel

Is it theologically correct to refer to the New Testament church as Spiritual Israel?  Did the church exist in the Old Testament?  Is the Mosaic Covenant still in effect or has the Messianic Covenant abrogated it?  As Christians, how should we relate to Old Testament history, a history that is the story of a particular ethnic group?  Is the establishment of the modern state of Israel theologically significant?  If so, how so?  If not, how do we explain such a miraculous restoration after almost two millennia?

The way we choose to answer the Israel/church issue has a much more pervasive effect on our entire theology than it seems at first.  It affects ecclesiology and our understanding of the covenants.  It affects eschatology, especially in regard to pre-, post-, and mid-tribulation positions.  It affects biblical hermeneutics, especially the interpretation and application of the Old Testament, which comprises three fourths of the Bible.  If pushed to the limits of continuity or discontinuity, it can even affect our Christology and theory of the atonement.

There have traditionally been two primary positions one may hold in regard to the relationship between the nation of Israel and the church.  The reformed (or Calvinist) view sees a seamless transition from Israel in the Old Testament to the church in the New.  The dispensational view sees a sharp distinction between Israel and the church.  The most recent generation of scholarship has rejected both radical continuity and radical discontinuity, with scholars on both sides recognizing that there is some of each.  The question now has become one of balance – deciding which side has more biblical weight.

Martin Woudstra represents the Moderate Reformed view.[1]  Israel is primarily a spiritual identity, and only secondarily an ethnic identity.  The name Israel itself, looking back to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of the Lord, points to a conversion experience.  The book of Genesis demonstrates that God is God of the whole world, but through His choice of a series of particular individuals (Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) He demonstrates that He is God of this people in a particular way.  God’s dealings with Israel at Sinai show that Israel is more than an ethnic group, but a religious assembly.  The prophets do not judge Israel by the standard of a civil code, but by the demands of complete holiness, highlighting the spiritual nature of Israel.  Several images which describe Israel are spiritual, and are later applied to the New Testament church.  Among these images are God’s sheep (Pss 77.20, 78.52, 80.1; Is 40.11; Jer 13.17, 23.2-3, 31.10; Ezekiel 34; Luke 12.32; Matt 26.31; Acts 20.28-29; 1 Peter 5.2; John 10); the “people of God” (Is 1.3; 3.12; Jer 2.11,13; Hos 2.23, 4.6; Rom 9.25); sojourners or strangers (Ex 19.6; Deut 28.9; Is 43.10,20, 44.1-2; 1 Pet 1.1, 2.9-10); and God’s bride (Is 1.21; Jer 2.20; Ez 16.15; Eph 5.25; Rev 21.2).

Woudstra then points to Galatians 6.16, “and those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”  He argues that since the entire focus of the book of Galatians is on the abrogation of circumcision as a requirement for new believers, Paul would be backpeddling if he used the phrase “Israel of God” at the end of the letter to refer only to ethnic Israel.  For this reason, the phrase is best understood as a reference to the unified church, composed of Jewish and gentile believers.

Finally, Woudstra turns to Romans 11.26, “so all Israel will be saved.”  Set in the context of chapters 9-11, Paul has been rehearsing the theology of the remnant – God has always chosen some to remain faithful even when the majority of His covenant people fall away.  Through the remnant, the people of Israel have been continually redefined, and have been redefined once more to include the fullness of the Gentiles (v.25).  The statement “all Israel will be saved” is not the prediction of an end-time revival among the Jewish people, but a statement of fact that there are gentiles who belong in the covenant people of God.  They too are part of Israel, so as they become believers all Israel really is being saved.

In contrast to Woudstra, Robert Saucy sees substantially more discontinuity between Israel and the church.  He has termed this approach the Progressive Dispensational position.[2]  He notes that the Old Testament uniformly refers to Israel is a national entity, not just a spiritual entity.  It is misleading to emphasize the religious element without observing that it was a national religion.  Outside of Paul’s writings, the New Testament clearly continues the Old Testament usage of Israel as a nation.  Within the Pauline corpus, at least one usage (Rom 9.3-4) refers unambiguously to national Israel.  Verse 6 is sometimes taken to refer to spiritual Israel (“Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,”) but this verse limits rather than broadens the scope of national Israel.  The only verse left to support continuity is Gal 6.16.  Saucy finds it unlikely that “Israel of God” refers to the church because of Paul’s wording (kai usually means ‘and’ rather than ‘even’), his theology (nowhere else does he refer to the church as Israel), and his intent (“in view of his strong condemnation of a Judaizing tendency which sought to enslave the Gentile converts… Paul sought to recognize also the validity of a true Israel.”[3])

Saucy gives two reasons why relying on imagery alone to build a case for continuity between Israel and the church is not sufficient.  First, there are examples in scripture where imagery draws out parallels between two things but does not identify them with one another.  Second, if the church were intended to be identified with Israel, we would expect to find several references to the church as Israel throughout scripture.  The fact that there is only one ambiguous verse that can be used to support direct continuity should give us pause.

Saucy distances himself from earlier forms of dispensationalism, where the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was seen as the beginning of the church-age dispensation, further confirming the discontinuity between Israel and the church.  Instead, Saucy follows Vos, Ladd, and others in the affirmation that Pentecost presents us with inaugurated eschatology that will continue beyond this dispensation.

Finally, it is worthwhile to take notice of George Ladd’s position, which is somewhere between Woudstra and Saucy.[4]  In contrast to Progressive Dispensationalism, Ladd argues that the church and Israel cannot be totally distinct, since the New Testament reinterprets prophecies which were originally given specifically to Israel.  Specifically, the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 53, which seems to refer to Israel, is applied instead to Jesus (Matt 8.17; Acts 8.30-35).  Similarly, Hosea’s prophetic oracle given to Israel (“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’”, Hos 2.12) is applied by Paul to Gentile converts (Rom 9.25-6).  Finally, the promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 31 was given to Israel, yet Hebrews 8.8-12 makes it clear that this is a prophecy of the church.  Nevertheless, argues Ladd, Israel remains a corporate body in some sense.  Romans 11.16 and 26 affirm that Israel is still holy to God, and will one day experience a great ingathering.  Israel still has a role to play in God’s plan of salvation, though it is not totally clear what that role will be.

In evaluation of the various positions, it would it is helpful to bring further clarification to what we mean specifically by continuity and discontinuity.  Three issues in particular stand out.  First, we must determine the specific relation of Israel to the church – whether they are separate, synonymous, or one is a subset of the other.  The second issue is the status of the Mosaic covenant – whether it has been abrogated by the Messianic covenant, become a part of the Messianic covenant itself, or continues to exist as a separate and distinct covenant.  Third, from our perspective as Christian theologians, we must decide what is the relationship between Christians and the Jewish people, especially as comprising the modern state of Israel.

Jesus declares in Matthew 16.18, “upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”  Because the church is built by Jesus Himself, an appropriate starting place in our analysis is in Christology.  The church takes her identity from Christ, and our relationship to Him is clear from the first gospel proclamations: Jesus is Lord.  We stand as servants before Him.  Once we determine His position vis-à-vis the nation of Israel, we will be well on our way to determining the Israel/church relationship.

Messiah in the Old Testament is a term for the king of Israel from the Davidic dynasty (Ps 2, 72, 110), and comes to represent the ideal king who is yet to come.  Yet the Messiah does not merely rule over His people, but he represents and personifies Israel.  By way of example, in 2 Sam 24, David sins by numbering the people, but all Israel is punished for it.  In Jesus, the effect is reversed, so that the punishment which was due to Israel is instead poured out on Jesus at the cross.  This, I believe, is the heart of New Testament Christology.  Jesus represents and embodies Israel.  Ladd is close to the mark in looking at how the New Testament uses the passage of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.  What he misses is that Matthew and Luke were not reinterpreting Isaiah but rather reinterpreting the meaning of Israel through the lens of incorporative Messiahship.  This concept also sheds light on Matthew’s strange quotation of Hosea 11.1, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” a passage which clearly applies to historical Israel in its original context.  Wright argues convincingly that “Christos in Paul should regularly be read as ‘Messiah’; and that one of the chief significances which this word then carries is incorporative, that is, that it refers to the Messiah as the one in whom the people of God are summed up, so that they can be referred to as being ‘in’ him, as coming or growing ‘into’ him, and so forth.”[5]  From this perspective, it seems that ‘the church in Christ’ is necessarily synonymous with ‘the church in Israel.’  It does not seem theologically incorrect to refer to the church as ‘the Israel of God,’ and this is likely the most appropriate reading of Gal 6.16.

Yet Saucy makes a strong argument that we would expect Paul (and the rest of the New Testament authors) to apply the term Israel to the church more frequently.  If the church is in continuity with Israel, why isn’t it more obvious?  Though we must always be careful with an argument from silence, there is certainly merit to the observation.  I suggest tentatively that for pragmatic reasons it was inconvenient to refer to the church as Israel for the simple fact that the majority of the Jewish people were not followers of Christ and would continue to identify themselves as Israel.  In the Old Testament, God always has a remnant of faithful people within the largely-unbelieving nation of Israel, and in God’s eyes, only the remnant was the true Israel.  Similarly, the church is now the remnant, the true Israel.[6]  But in most dialogue it would continue to be simpler to refer to the unbelieving majority as ‘Israel’ and the remnant or true Israel as ‘the church.’

In light of the continuity which seems apparent between Israel and the church, it would seem natural to view a similar continuity with the Mosaic covenant.  Yet here there appears to be discontinuity rather than continuity.[7]  In Ladd’s discussion of the prophecy in Jeremiah 31 he demonstrates that the promise of a new covenant was given to Israel.  If the thesis that Israel and the church are synonymous is correct, then it is perfectly natural to apply this passage to the church, the true Israel, comprised both of Jewish and Gentile believers.

The Old Testament contains numerous predictions of an eschatological ingathering of the gentile nations to Israel.  Israel was called as a light to the nations (Isaiah 49.6, 60.1-3), and at the end of time the peoples would come to Israel and praise the true God (Pss 46.10, 67.3-7; Is 2.2-4; Zech 8.22).  With the resurrection of Jesus came the time of fulfillment of these prophecies.  At Jesus’ resurrection His followers were shocked to find out that “the one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what [they] had thought He was going to do for Israel at the end of time.”[8]

The conversion of the gentiles and their assimilation in the true people Israel functioned independently of the Mosaic covenant (Acts 10-11[9]; Galatians 2.1-10).  Gentiles were required to follow the Holy Spirit who wrote the law on their hearts, but were not required to follow the precepts established by the Mosaic covenant.  In fact, it would soon become impossible to follow the Mosaic code once the temple was destroyed in AD70 and sacrifices could no longer be offered.  The theological proposition that the Mosaic covenant has been abrogated appears to be confirmed by events of history.  The Mosaic covenant continues to be indispensable for our understanding of the history presented in the Bible, and to give insight into the character of the covenant God who made it, but it is no longer in effect or binding on anyone, whether Jew or Gentile.

Finally, our relation as believers to contemporary Jews and the modern state of Israel presents us with perhaps the most practical challenge related to our topic.  Building on a theology of the church as the remnant of Israel, the conclusion is that modern Israel continues to stand in opposition to the remnant as the remainder of unbelieving Israel.  Such a position requires grace and humility on the part of Christians, for such a position is easily perceived as arrogant and anti-Semitic.  In fact there is a real danger for the church to use theology as a license to oppress the Jewish people, as history has borne out time and again.  Paul’s warning is as timely as ever: “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.” (Rom 11.17-18)

Yet there is a merit to the dispensational observation that God continues to care for and bless the Jewish people.  Paul goes on to say that “from the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies… but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.”  The formation of the modern state of Israel after 1900 years, though greatly influenced by dispensational theology itself, is nevertheless a historical wonder.  When we add to this the disproportionate influence Jewish thinkers have had in the areas of science, philosophy, music, drama, art, etc., it is not hard to imagine that God is continuing to bless them as an ethnic group.  This blessing, however, is not to be misunderstood as a legitimate covenantal standing before God.[10]

All evangelicals are agreed about the necessity for evangelistic efforts geared towards Jewish people (as to all peoples).  The notion that there are two separate but equal covenants is simply not Biblical.  Evangelical Christians all affirm that adherence to the Mosaic covenant is not enough for salvation, and modern Jews must respond to the gospel just as anyone else.  Though many modern Jews take offense at the particularism of the Christian message, we must note that particularism is not anti-Semitic.  In contrast, Paul argues in Romans 11 that it would be anti-Semitic to exclude the Jewish people from the salvation offered through Jesus Christ.


[1] What follows is a summary of Martin H. Woudstra, “Israel and the Church: a Case for Continuity” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1988), 221-238.

[2] Saucy has given full treatment of the issue in The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993).  I have taken my summary of his position, however, from “Israel and the Church: a Case for Discontinuity,” which is the opposing essay to Woudstra’s in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1988), 239-259.

[3] Ibid, 247.

[4] Summarized from his chapter “Historic Premillennialism” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove: InterVarsityPress, 1977), 17-40.

[5] N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 41, emphasis original.  Wright makes a strong case for this understanding of Christology through detailed exegesis of several key passages in Paul’s letters.

[6] Not ‘spiritual Israel,’ which implies only typological continuity.

[7] This is closely related to the question of the relation between Old and New Testaments, an issue which cannot be addressed here.  Discussions of the relation of the Old Testament to the New can be found in Wayne G. Strickland, ed., Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), and John S. Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1988).

[8] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 36.

[9] It is noteworthy that some disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene figured this out before Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean animals (Acts 11.20).

[10] If my thesis is incorrect, and the Jews as a people still do have covenantal standing with God, then it is difficult to understand the Holocaust as anything other than a direct judgment from God according to the covenantal curses of Deut 28.  The song of Moses in Deut 32 was given for the purpose of making such a statement: “Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness.” (31.21)

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