The Church and Israel – Part 1

How does the Church relate to Israel? The question has been a perennial one ever since Jewish Christians believers began sharing their faith with fellow Jews (Acts 1–5). It became more of an issue when Jewish Christians were persecuted, denounced, expelled from synagogues, and even cursed as “heretics” by Jewish leaders (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2; 2 Cor 11:24; Acts 8:1-3; 11:19; 12:1; Rev 2:9; Justin, Dial. Tryph.  16, 93, 95, 96, 123, 133). Christians who had been treated so might naturally ask, “Are we really one of them?” and “Are they really one of us?” It was the degree of continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the Church, between Law and Gospel, and between Christ and Moses, that provided the catalyst for the theological and sociological chemistry of the early Christian movement. The debates that the Jewish Christian apostle Paul had with other Jewish Christians in Antioch and Galatia was stimulated by this very question: Is Jesus merely an add on to the Mosaic covenant? What is precisely new in the new covenant?[1] Historically speaking, the church began as a renewal movement within Judaism prior to 70 AD, but after 70 AD it became a religious institution that had “parted ways” with common Judaism with a distinguishable set of beliefs and structures. What is more, Marcion’s program of trying to de-judaize Christianity led many of the Church Father’s to think through the Israelite ancestry of their faith and to ponder how to relate to the Jewish people as members of the Roman Empire. Much later, Reformed theology, with its penchant for “covenant” as the organic unity across the Bible, placed emphasis on the single and continuos plan for salvation that God had for his people. The problem was that it led to a view of supersession whereby the church had effectively replaced Israel as God’s people. A supersessionist theology combined with European anti-semitism, were intellectual forces that contributed to the Holocaust in the mid-20th century.

Christians have traditionally regarded the church as the “true Israel,” “spiritual Israel,” or “new Israel”. For example, Justin Martyr informed a Jew named Trypho that Christians “are the true Israelite race, the spiritual one, that of Judah and Jacob and Abraham” (Dial. Tryph. 11.5). Martin Luther declared that: “[T]he Jews are no longer Israel, for all things are to be new, and Israel must become new. Those alone are the true Israel who have accepted the new covenant, which was established and begun in Jerusalem.”[2] Karl Barth wrote that, “The Church is the historical successor to Israel.”[3] This perspective, whereby the church assumes the role, position, and blessings of Israel, has been questioned on two fronts. First, dispensational theology has traditionally made a distinction between the church and Israel. Ryrie went so far as to say that such a distinction was one of the essential elements of dispensational theology.[4] In progressive dispensationalism, however, the distinction is less prominent. In progressive dispensationalism, the Israel-church distinction is primarily a distinction between: (1) the dispensation of Israel, in which divine blessings were poured upon the nation, while the the Gentiles were alienated or subordinated; and (2) the present dispensation of the the church, where divine blessings are given to Jews and Gentiles, while national blessings are in abeyance. Accordingly: “Israel and the nations on the one hand and the church on the other are neither replacement peoples nor parallel, dual-track peoples but different redemptive dimensions of the same humanity.”[5] Yet Bock and Blaising still maintain that: “It is crucial to understand that promises made to Irsael are to be fulfilled by Israel and not in something reconstituted to take its place,”[6] and therein remains the point of contention. These contentions remains because Reformed theology has affirmed that the church inherits the promises given to Israel, be they redemptive, spiritual, or national. Second, several Pauline scholars insist that Paul regarded Jesus as Savior only for Gentiles and not for the Jews. The Jews are “saved” in their own Sonderweg (“special way”) under the terms of the Mosaic covenant. As such, Paul envisaged Israel as a continuing entity with her own set of privileges and blessing that was still available for them. The role of Jesus was to bring Gentiles into this heritage of Israel and Israel’s only problem was those who denied that Jesus was the instrument to redeem the Gentiles. [7] One scholar writes: “Paul nowhere addresses his churches as Israel. Nor does he transfer to them Israel’s distinctive attributes.”[8] In which case, the church is not “Israel” – a replacement theology that gave rise to anti-semitism – instead, the church is a religious philosophy or collegia within the Roman world, built on a hybrid of Jewish-Hellenistic beliefs and values.


[1] Cf. Michael F. Bird, “New Testament Theology Reloaded: Integrating Biblical Theology and Christian Origins,” Tyndale Bulletin 60 (2009): 161-87.

[2] Martin Luther, LW 35: 287-88.

[3] Barth, CD 2/3:290.

[4] Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 47.

[5] Darrell L. Bock and Craig A. Blaising, “Conclusion,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 383-84 (377-94).

[6] Bock and Blaising, “Conclusion,” 392.

[7] Cf. John Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford: OUP, 2000); Eung Chun Park, Either Jew or Gentile: Paul’s Unfolding Theology of Inclusivity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003).

[8] John Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism (New York: OUP, 1983), 228.

  • Pingback: Larry Vern Newman

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com/ John Thomson

    The church is not ‘Israel’ because it has no national identity; in the church there is neither Jew nor gentile. The church is the people of the Kingdom which the OT anticipated. In fulfilment there is discontinuity.

    Promises of a Kingdom were made to Israel. This Kingdom is found today in the church. As Jewish people are converted today they become part of the church and so ofthe Kingdom. Thus God fulfils his promise to redeem Israel. At the end of the age there will be a substantial conversion of the Jewish nation sufficiently so to speak of ‘all Israel being saved’. These too will be part of the church. Thus Israel’s destiny is found in believing the gospel entering by faith the Kingdom and being part of the international people of God among whom national identity no longer counts. In fulfilment there is continuity.

    I’m aware of course the story is more detailed and complex than this. Supersessionism is not the true cause of anti-semitism. It is the human heart which is able to corrupt, distort and abuse any truth.

    Good blog.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com/ John Thomson

    The church is not ‘Israel’ because it has no national identity; in the church there is neither Jew nor gentile. The church is the people of the Kingdom which the OT anticipated. In fulfilment there is discontinuity.

    Promises of a Kingdom were made to Israel. This Kingdom is found today in the church. As Jewish people are converted today they become part of the church and so ofthe Kingdom. Thus God fulfils his promise to redeem Israel. At the end of the age there will be a substantial conversion of the Jewish nation sufficiently so to speak of ‘all Israel being saved’. These too will be part of the church. Thus Israel’s destiny is found in believing the gospel entering by faith the Kingdom and being part of the international people of God among whom national identity no longer counts. In fulfilment there is continuity.

    I’m aware of course the story is more detailed and complex than this.

    Good blog.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    It seems to me that two factors in particular – namely, the Western cultural virtue of tolerance and the sad reality of historic anti-semitism – have lead some Christian theologians to misread certain essential themes in our founding documents.

    Paul calls the Christian community “the Israel of God” at a key moment in his letter to the Galatians (6:16). And the proclamation of the gospel is “for the Jews first and also to the Greeks” (Romans 1:16). That God still has plans for the people of Israel is clear in Romans 9-11 but those plans center on bringing them to faith in Jesus.

    That the Christian church historically has been made up only a small percentage of people of Jewish background is a factor of 1) simple demographics – i.e., the phenomenal success of the gospel among non-Jews, and 2) the current resistance to the gospel that Paul talks about in Romans 9-11. To be faithful to the gospel we must share the redeeming love of God in Christ with our Jewish friends.

    Thanks – Ray Pennoyer http://www.nestheology.org

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    It seems to me that two factors in particular – namely, the Western cultural virtue of tolerance and the sad reality of historic anti-semitism – have lead some Christian theologians to misread certain essential themes in our founding documents.

    Paul calls the Christian community “the Israel of God” at a key moment in his letter to the Galatians (6:16). And the proclamation of the gospel is “for the Jews first and also to the Greeks” (Romans 1:16). That God still has plans for the people of Israel is clear in Romans 9-11 but those plans center on bringing them to faith in Jesus.

    That the Christian church historically has been made up only a small percentage of people of Jewish background is a factor of 1) simple demographics – i.e., the phenomenal success of the gospel among non-Jews, and 2) the current resistance to the gospel that Paul talks about in Romans 9-11. To be faithful to the gospel we must share the redeeming love of God in Christ with our Jewish friends.

    Thanks – Ray Pennoyer http://www.nestheology.org

  • Ryan Guenther

    What I see in Scripture is that the church, which I would define as “the entity which God created through the work of Christ” (cf. Titus 2:14), is the fulfillment of Israel. The church does not replace Israel, but neither is the church a distinct entity from Israel. Rather, the church, as I’ve defined it above, is what God intended Israel to be through Christ, whom Paul calls the “culmination of the law” (Rom. 10:4, TNIV; the Greek word translated as “culmination” here is “telos,” which can mean “goal, fulfillment, purpose” or the TNIV’s “culmination”). This is also what I see to be a major thrust of the argument of Ephesians 1-3. I will admit that I’ve been influenced in this thinking by N.T. Wright’s book “Justification,” but I’ve also seen it confirmed it my own study of Scripture, and of Ephesians specifically. And I agree with John that neither this thinking nor the thinking of supersessionism naturally results in anti-semitism. Rather, it should result in a love for the people into whose family we have been adopted through Christ.

  • Ryan Guenther

    What I see in Scripture is that the church, which I would define as “the entity which God created through the work of Christ” (cf. Titus 2:14), is the fulfillment of Israel. The church does not replace Israel, but neither is the church a distinct entity from Israel. Rather, the church, as I’ve defined it above, is what God intended Israel to be through Christ, whom Paul calls the “culmination of the law” (Rom. 10:4, TNIV; the Greek word translated as “culmination” here is “telos,” which can mean “goal, fulfillment, purpose” or the TNIV’s “culmination”). This is also what I see to be a major thrust of the argument of Ephesians 1-3. I will admit that I’ve been influenced in this thinking by N.T. Wright’s book “Justification,” but I’ve also seen it confirmed it my own study of Scripture, and of Ephesians specifically. And I agree with John that neither this thinking nor the thinking of supersessionism naturally results in anti-semitism. Rather, it should result in a love for the people into whose family we have been adopted through Christ.

  • Pingback: Worth a Look 7.7.11 : Kingdom People

  • Glen

    In our midst today we have Messianic Judaism. How does one see our Messianic brothers and sisters in Christ? Do they belong to Israel or to the church or to both groups and serve as a bridge between the two? Do they have a unique covenant and responsibility before God that blesses the Church or are Messianic Jews really no different than Gentiles? It seems many scholars understand Paul as faithful to the Torah and that Jewish believers in the first century were also Torah-faithful. The decision was made! Gentiles were under no such requirement or obligation to be faithful in the same way Jews were and not Jewish believers are now seperated and distinct from the very God created identity God gave them. The only way a multi-ethnic church can exist is thru this distinction. Otherwise what right do Koreans, or Africans, etc. have to be who they are in Christ if we collapse this first century distinction and say Jewish Christians are not Jewish?

  • Glen

    In our midst today we have Messianic Judaism. How does one see our Messianic brothers and sisters in Christ? Do they belong to Israel or to the church or to both groups and serve as a bridge between the two? Do they have a unique covenant and responsibility before God that blesses the Church or are Messianic Jews really no different than Gentiles? It seems many scholars understand Paul as faithful to the Torah and that Jewish believers in the first century were also Torah-faithful. The decision was made! Gentiles were under no such requirement or obligation to be faithful in the same way Jews were and not Jewish believers are now seperated and distinct from the very God created identity God gave them. The only way a multi-ethnic church can exist is thru this distinction. Otherwise what right do Koreans, or Africans, etc. have to be who they are in Christ if we collapse this first century distinction and say Jewish Christians are not Jewish?

  • Michael

    “A supersessionist theology combined with European anti-semitism, were intellectual forces that contributed to the Holocaust in the mid-20th century.”

    I disagree Michael. It was more of liberal Protestantism building its own kingdom without Christ, and liberal Protestant theology terminating in Christ-less ethics adapted for political purposes. Far from supersessionist theology, it was simply theology without Christ (if there is such a thing). See Russell Moore’s Kingdom of Christ.

    The framing of the entire question of this book seems wrong also, “Has the Church Replaced Israel?” Jesus is Israel. Jesus is the kingdom. Again, checkout Moore. There’s one shepherd and one flock (cf. John 10:16).

    MM

  • Michael

    “A supersessionist theology combined with European anti-semitism, were intellectual forces that contributed to the Holocaust in the mid-20th century.”

    I disagree Michael. It was more of liberal Protestantism building its own kingdom without Christ, and liberal Protestant theology terminating in Christ-less ethics adapted for political purposes. Far from supersessionist theology, it was simply theology without Christ (if there is such a thing). See Russell Moore’s Kingdom of Christ.

    The framing of the entire question of this book seems wrong also, “Has the Church Replaced Israel?” Jesus is Israel. Jesus is the kingdom. Again, checkout Moore. There’s one shepherd and one flock (cf. John 10:16).

    MM


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X