A Response To Some Questions About Israel and the Church

I have lately had the pleasure of doing some theological fencing with a good Christian man named Andrew Suttles.  Andrew has raised a number of pertinent questions about Dispensational interpretations of Israel and the Church which I would like to address in this (and another post).

Once again I want to state that I think “Dispensationalist” is a lousy and inaccurate name for this type of theology.  Firstly because dispensations are largely theologically mute.  Secondly, because the real crux of the matter are the Biblical Covenants!

I hope this response will be of help in clarifying my understanding of this issue.  We shall begin with Paul’s use of “Israel” and “Jacob” in Romans 9-11 and go from there.  This is not meant to be comprehensive, but it is quite detailed and should suit its purpose.

Paul’s Understanding of Jacob/Israel

Paul, as a Benjamite Jew (Rom. 11:1), who still looked upon Israel as the twelve Tribes (Acts 26:7), though in unbelief (Rom. 10:1-3; 11:20), and who believed that to Israelites were given “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4), still believed that these blessings would be fulfilled to Israel.  But when?  The answer comes back, after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25).

Paul then quotes from the important passage in Isaiah 59:20-21.  This is important because that passage (starting about v.16) refers most definitely to the New Covenant (even though that term is not used till Jeremiah’s time).  We know this because the transgressions of “Jacob” which have been spoken of in the first half of the chapter, are to be redeemed (v.20), and the Spirit is to be given them (v.21).  And this is amplified by the Apostle in Rom. 11:27 when he speaks of God’s covenant “with them when I take away their sins.”  Who is the “them” of verse 27?  Clearly it is “Jacob” viz. Israel (cf. v. 26).

(I would ask the reader to consider whether it is even necessary, thus far, not to take Jacob/Israel as literal Israelites, Paul’s “brethren according to the flesh” ((Rom. 9:3-4), who are yet in unbelief (Rom. 10:3)?).

Who then is the “Jacob” of Romans 11?  Indeed, I might ask inquire as to the identity of “Jacob” in the rest of the NT.  Twenty-four times the term “Jacob” is used in the NT.  Three uses are of particular eschatological importance (Lk. 1:33; 13:28; Rom. 11:26).  None of these twenty-four references can be interpreted to refer to the Church.  Nor is there any need that they be so interpreted as they make good sense as a synonym for Israel.  Even many Reformed writers agree that “Jacob” in Romans 11:26 is Israel (e.g. Mark Seifrid in Commentary of the NT Use of the OT, eds. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, 675).

By tracing the way the Apostle refers to Israel in Romans 9-11 it is also easy to see that when he states, “they are not all Israel that are of Israel” (Rom 9:6), he is speaking about unbelieving as against believing Israelites (he is most certainly not saying that most of Israel are, in fact, Gentiles!).  Israel as a people group has stumbled through unbelief (Rom. 9:31-33; 10:1-3, 21; 11:7-11, 20), but it is clear as day that there is always a Remnant within Israel that God reserves for Himself (11:1-5, 7, 28-32).  In the eschaton God will indeed save “all Israel” (11:26), once they have been whittled down to those who will believe (cf. Zech. 12:9-14; 13:8-14:11; Matt. 23:39).

My questioner asks why only part of the covenanted promises within the Abrahamic Covenant belong to the church.  After all, we are Abraham’s seed too (e.g. Gal. 3:29).  The questions are fine, but they harbor a hidden assumption (that being that since we are Abraham’s seed in Christ ALL the covenanted promises given to the Israelites are now ours).  In other words, the questions are not merely exegetical in nature.  How do I know?

Well, think of what Israel has been promised:

God’s Promises to Israel

1. Earthly Land – (Gen. 12:7, 15:7-21; 28:13; Deut. 30:1-9; Isa. 62:1-5; 63:15-17; Jer. 3:18; Joel 2:21-24; Zeph. 3:15-20; Zech. 14:8-21)

2. Peace and Prosperity – (Isa. 2:1-5; 11:1-10; 26:1-4, 12; 30:15-26; 32:15-17; 35:1-10; 55:1-14; Mic. 4:1-7; Ezek. 36:33-36; Hos. 2:14-23; Joel 3:16-21; Amos 9:11-15)

3. Israel to be the Head Nation and Jerusalem the Top City – (Deut. 26:19; 28:13; Joel 3:17; Jer. 23:5-8; Isa. 62:1-5;  Zech. 8:20-23; 14:16-21)

4. A King on David’s Throne (Psa. 89:1-4, 28-37; Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 3:14-18; Jer. 23:5; 30:8-9; 33:14-26; Ezek. 37:15-28; Zech. 12:6-9; 13:1)

5. Perpetual Priesthood – (Num. 25:11-11-13; Psa. 106:30-31; Jer. 33:20-22; Ezek. 37:25-28; 40-48; Zech. 8:12-13; 14:16-21; Mal. 3:3-4)

It needs to be said in passing that these selected references must be read in their OT contexts if their meaning is to be ascertained.

The New Covenant

These things will come to pass because God’s covenants with Israel are unconditional as to their eventual fulfillment (e.g. Gen. 15; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; Isa. 43:25; 46:13; 48:9-11; Ezek. 36:22-23), because God prizes Israel (Isa. 43:1; 49:16, 26).  It is true that there are conditions within the covenants (e.g. Gen. 17:9-14; Lev.26), but these conditions will finally be fulfilled by God Himself, “the Portion of Jacob” (Jer. 10:16), via the New Covenant (see Deut. 4:30-31; Isa. 27:9; 32:15-17; 44:1-6, 21-23; 45:17, 25; 46:13; 54:8-10, 1762:11-12; Jer. 31:31-37; Ezek. 36:22-28).

This New Covenant is absolutely essential to Israel’s election and destiny.  In just the same way as Christians are included within this New Covenant in Christ so as to gain the promise of Gen. 12:3, so Israel must be redeemed through this covenant so as to enter into the promises above.  The New Covenant takes care of all the conditional elements within the unconditional covenants!

This is crucial to understand.  God accomplishes the fulfillment of all His work through the Blood of Jesus Christ and His glorious Resurrection!  The New Covenant places the second Adam front and center of all redemptive covenantal consummation (cf. Zech. 6:12-13)!

What Kind of Fulfillment?

But now we come to the crucial question.  So far we have shown from both the prophets and the Apostle Paul that there is every encouragement to take God at His word.  God has made human language to communicate to man and for man to communicate to Him.   God made a covenant with Noah and it is plain to all to see that He meant exactly what He said.  This assures us that God is not equivocating when covenant language is employed (the very idea of equivocation in God when making a covenant – saying one thing while meaning something else – ought to be unthinkable for a believer).  The fact of the matter is, once the New Covenant is fulfilled upon Israel there is nothing to bar that future regenerated people from claiming God’s Covenant promises in the most literal terms.   Unless the Church is to be given the land described in Gen 15, and to be participants in the above promises I don’t see how a literal fulfillment of these promises to the Church is possible.  In which case one would have to go back and re-interpret these and many other passages to make them “fit” some other scheme.

When one considers what was said above about Israel meaning literal Israelites (and never meaning Gentiles.  Cf. how Paul keeps the two apart in Rom. 11), and when one notices NT references which support these OT texts (see e.g., Lk. 1:30-33, 46-55; Matt. 19:28; Acts 1:3-7), one begins to get more than a little suspicious that something other than the text of Scripture is dictating the theology of those who want to insist that Israel = the Church.  This suspicion becomes overpowering once it is fully appreciated that there is no need to alter or expand these covenant promises beyond the nation of Israel.  The Covenant promises to Israel in the OT are in no way incongruent with any statement in the NT.

Then the burden of proof upon the non-literalist (if I may use that rather clumsy term) becomes very great.  So great, in fact, that for those who call themselves Dispensationalists (not “Progressives”!), all attempts at explanation via the recently contrived “Already/Not Yet Hermeneutics” or older “Covenant of Grace” look like evasions of the obvious!

It has never been better stated: “When the plain sense makes sense, then seek no other sense.”

This position will not make you academically respectable today.  It is certainly not cool!  But there is every reason to think it is Biblical.

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11 comments

  1. Despite the common belief today that the Church has taken over the role of Israel in God’s plan for mankind, the Bible shows that the Church and Israel occupy two different roles in God’s plan for mankind.

    In order to get a clear understanding of the subject, it is necessary to summarize what the Bible is about. The book called “Has the Church replaced Israel” shows the Biblical account of the roles of the Church and the nation of Israel. It is available for free download from SCRIBD at:

    Hopefully it will clarify the issues for many of the correspondents and maybe stimulate some debate

  2. Thank you for your comment Dennis. I don’t normally look favorably on those who recommend their own wares. And I dislike dogmatism in these matters. But as it’s free I may take a gander. On the other hand, I may not.

  3. In what sense is Israel elect as a nation, yet israelites not saved? Is the national election referring to the entity of Israel only physically, or is there a spiritual element there as well?

    What does the election of Israel as a nation (even the unsaved part) mean as far as blessings? IOW, how can Paul talk about not all who are of Israel are Israel? If they are OF ISRAEL (ethnic Jews) how can they be NOT ISRAEL?

    Is Paul meaning Israel in the believing sense? Is Paul saying that within UNBELIEVING JEWS there is an unknown REMNANT that God keeps for salvation, and then that portion becomes the true Israel?

    If that is so, what does that make of Jews in the Church. Are they not the true Israel? Are they not the commonwealth of Israel that Gentiles are joined to?

    Or is Paul saying that Israel as a nation distinct from the church will be the all Israel that will be saved? i.e. The unbelieing portion who are “not Israel” (but are ethnically Israel) will be saved in the last generation when Jesus returns, and they will constitute the true Israel?

    Thanks, Paul.

    Zaphon

    thanks

  4. Thank you for your questions:

    1. Israel’s election is not to salvation first of all but to special relationship with the Father. This is why they can be “enemies concerning the gospel, but concerning the election they are beloved…” (Rom. 11:28). This will lead to the final salvation of the eschatological remnant of national Israel (Rom. 11:25-27). Thus, the election refers to both physical and spiritual aspects. Every Jew is part of the elect people (nation) even if they are not part of those among Israel who will be saved.

    2. The election of Israel means that Romans 9:4-5 and 3:2 applies to them. Moreover, if they were obedient to the law, even externally and formally, they would have never been ousted from the land.

    3. All Israel is not Israel once the answer to your first question is grasped. Not all Jews are part of “the remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the final remnant (Jer. 31:31f.; Ezek. 36). A true Jew, e.g., ought today to trust the Messiah.

    4. On your third paragraph: basically Yes!

    5. Every Jew who trusts Christ is incorporated into the Church. They remain Christian Jews (e.g. Rom. 11:1) and they represent in this age Jews who are saved, and thus are part of the remnant (11:5). Hence Jews in the church will not comprise the eschatological Israel as they are are within the Body of Christ and partake of the blessings of the Church.

    6. On your final paragraph: Yes! But there is no either/or here. As Paul is dealing with salvation in the context he first declares there are Israelites (like him) who are saved and part of the Church. But then he sees a fulfillment of the OT covenants upon Israel as a nation (n.b. “Jacob” in v.26) separate from the Church after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” (Rom. 11:25)

    I have not gone into much detail in my answers here. If you need more please let me know.

    God bless.

    P.

    1. I would greatly appreciate more clarification on this one! I have been searching and searching for reputable sources that discuss this question, but there is so much dross out there I am so glad that you have touched on it and discussed it somewhat, which shows you have put thought into it, and that leaves me hope haha.

      specifically my question is this: if during the Church age True Israel are those Jewish individuals who believe in Christ, and this makes them part of the Church, where does that leave the distinction between Israel and the Church? Are we to say that the Church (again during the age of grace only) subsumes True Israel? Or can True Israel be part of both groups somehow simultaneously? Thank you!

      1. This is a good question. Here is my view:

        I see the continuity problem (as we might call it) as determined by the status of national Israel, not Jews as individuals. Hence I see no difficulty in the incorporation of saved Jews within the predominantly Gentile Church. I have said somewhere that the Church is intentionally mainly Gentile in constitution (cf. Rom. 11). But it grows out of Jewish soil and the exclusion of Jews from the Body of Christ would be an odd thing. How would Paul’s argument in Ephesians 2 work for instance?

        I hold that God is not dealing formally with the nation of Israel now. He is dealing with the Church. (This is why some dispys don’t care for me much because I say that their focus – on Israel – is wrong). Anyway, I think the collection of saints in the church is a different economy in God’s inclusive program to produce a three-in-one humanity in the eschaton. Feel free to disagree with me.

        One who does disagree is Arnold Fruchtenbaum, who says that saved Jews in the Church will be replanted in national Israel in the Kingdom. I think this is problematical for theological and logical reasons. I believe, for example, that Christians have been given a particular role and inheritance “in Christ.” I cannot see any members of Christ not being members of Christ in the future. No temporary members of His Body!

        Do I believe that Jews within the Church retain Jewish identity. Yes, which is why Paul can speak of a “remnant according to the election of grace.” But I am against Messianic congregations which emphasize the Jewishness of all things. That seems like a denial of Galatians and Ephesians.

        So “true Israel” is a nation with its covenantal promises. In this age where national considerations are not in view “true Israel” constitutes saved individual Jews in the broader Church.

        Hope that helps a bit.

        God bless you and yours,

        Paul H

  5. Hello Paul. Thanks ideed for this. I have a question relating to this. I’m sorry the text I’ve copied below is long. Perhaps when you get a chance you might like to write a separate post on it though.

    Grover Gunn http://grovergunn.net/andrew/disp10.htm says dispensationalists say the spiritual seed of Abraham (defined in Gal 3) have no claim to the national land promise of the Abrahamic covenant. But he rejects this. He writes:

    “Paul’s point is that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham and to his seed (verse 16), that the seed of Abraham is Christ (verse 16) and all who are in Christ (verse 29), and that therefore the promise given to Abraham belongs to all who are in Christ (verse 29).

    “In his argumentation, Paul specifically quotes from the Old Testament the phrase “and to thy seed,” the “thy” referring to Abraham (Galatians 3:16; see also Romans 4:13). The Greek phrase in Galatians 3:16 translated “and to thy seed” could have come from only two passages in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek: Genesis 13:15-17 and Genesis 17:8.10 And in both of these Old Testament passages, that which is promised to Abraham’s seed is the land promise.

    “Beyond this, every time in the book of Genesis where the phrase “to your seed” is used in the context of a divine promise to give something to somebody, the reference is to the Abrahamic land promise. [Gen 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8; 24:7; 26:3,4; 28:4,13; 35:12; 48:4]. When Paul was talking about the Old Testament promise that belongs to the Christian, he was referring specifically to the land promise, the one promise that dispensationalists argue that Paul could not have been referring to.”

    So Gunn’s point is that the dispensationalist argues that the statement “In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8), has reference to the spiritual blessings that are now enjoyed by Christians, ie. that the Christian as a seed of Abraham is related only to the unniversal statement that in Abraham all the nations would be blessed. But he says there is no basis for limiting the Christian application to this part of the promise. He says Paul in Gal 3:16 and 29 relates the language of the land promise to the Christian (which Gunn interprets as the Christian’s spiritual rest and heavenly position).

    How do we respond to his claim that the land promise aspect includes Christians and not just the idea that all nations will be blessed?

    God bless
    Justin

    1. Thanks Alf for drawing my attention to Dr Vlach’s article. It makes a number of points that suggest that Gunn cannot be correct but the specific point that Gunn makes and whch concerns me is not addressed by him. Thanks again for the article though. Much appreciated.

  6. That’s great. Thanks. Incidentally I should have said that I really appreciated the series you did on “Disingenuousness and the Problem of the Obvious” and “Disingenuousness and ‘Expansion’ Language.” They really hit home in identifying the manner in which God’s veracity becomes challenged.

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