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.