Israel and the Church: Understanding the Relationship

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Scripture is the story of God and his people. The relationship between Israel and the church, then, is one of the most important questions in ecclesiology (the study of the church). There are two popular notions that I frequently encounter. Scripture teaches a third way (see here for a PDF that visually illustrates the main points of this article).

Two Popular Notions

First, there is the notion that the church has replaced Israel (replacement theology). In this view, Israel rejected their Messiah, so God just forgot about his business with the Jews and founded a completely new people, the church. This can lead to a disdain for ethnic Jews, or even blatant anti-Semitism (as in the case of Martin Luther).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the notion that the church is added as a second people of God alongside Israel. The church is important, of course, but ethnic Jews as a whole are still viewed as God’s people and the objects of his special blessing and protection. In this view, those who give political support to the state of Israel will be blessed by God. This notion is popular in American politics. For example, Lindsey Graham claims, “Here’s a message for America: Don’t ever turn your back on Israel, because God will turn his back on us.”

Scripture, however, teaches neither that the church has replaced Israel nor that the church has been added as a second people of God alongside Israel. Rather, the Bible teaches that the church is Israel—the Israel of God.

Reconstitution, Not Replacement or Addition

1. Before Christ, there was a wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Paul reminds Gentile Christians, “​​at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, … were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:11–12). Of course, no one was lost merely for being a Gentile. From Rahab to the Ninevites, many trusted in Israel’s God and were justified. Likewise, no one was saved merely for being an ethnic Jew. The entire nation of Israel was saved out of Egypt, but “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:5). Even in the Old Testament, there was a distinction between those who were physically circumcised (national Israel) and those who were circumcised in the heart (spiritual Israel): “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts” (Jer. 4:4; cf. Rom. 2:28–29; Jn. 8:37–39). Still, God’s people were marked off by ethnic boundaries throughout the Old Testament, and “the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) stood between Jews and Gentiles.

2. Jesus the Messiah came to his people Israel, but most rejected him. Some received Christ when he came, such as Anna and Simeon, who “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25). God always has a remnant. However, most rejected their Messiah: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn. 1:11). Jesus warned that any Jews who persisted in unbelief would be cut off: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit …  If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers” (Jn. 15:1–2, 6).

3. The disobedient branches were cut off from the tree of Israel, leaving only a faithful remnant in Christ. When they persisted in their unbelief, Jesus told the disobedient Jews, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” (Mt. 21:43). He kept his word. Paul later explains, “some of the branches were broken off … They were broken off because of their unbelief” (Rom. 11:17, 20). But this did not mean that God had utterly rejected his people, replacing them with a separate people. Paul asks, “has God rejected his people?” and insists, “By no means! … at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:1, 5). Paul uses himself as Exhibit A of this believing remnant who was never cut off from Israel: “For I myself am an Israelite” (Rom. 11:1).

4. Since it was always God’s plan for Israel’s Messiah to be a Savior for the whole world, many Gentiles believed in Christ and were united with him by the Spirit. Paul writes to Gentiles, “you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:13–14).

5. Since Christ is the seed of Abraham, a branch on the tree of Israel, Gentiles who are joined with Christ are also grafted into the tree of Israel and united with the natural branches (the believing remnant). Paul explains, “you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree” (Rom. 11:17). Galatians 3:28–29 is unambiguous: “There is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (cf. Mt. 3:9).

6. Jews and Gentiles in Christ make up the Israel of God, also called the church (i.e., Israel is not replaced, it is reconstituted to include believing Gentiles and exclude unbelieving ethnic Jews). Paul concludes Galatians by referring to the church as “the Israel of God”: “as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (see my article “Who is ‘the Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16?”). The Israel of God cannot be merely ethnic Israel, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom. 2:28–29).

7. The natural branches that have been cut off (unbelieving Jews) can be grafted back into the tree, but only through faith in Christ—the same way as the Gentiles. God wants the branches that he cut off to be grafted back in: “even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. … how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (Rom. 11:23–24).

In my view, Scripture anticipates a future ingathering of ethnic Jews. God intends for ethnic Jews to look on at the church, the believing remnant of Israel united with Gentiles in Christ, see them enjoying all the blessings of Abraham, and come to their senses. Paul writes, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved” (Ro. 11:25–26). The last phrase is best understood as a large number of ethnic Jews at last receiving their Messiah. Through union with Christ, they will be grafted back into the Israel of God, the church.

Four Key Implications

Those who are accustomed to thinking of Israel as being cast aside and replaced by the church should rethink their attitude.

1. As Gentiles, we should not disdain ethnic Israel, since we have been grafted into the tree of Israel, and we too can be cut off if we are arrogant and unbelieving. This is precisely Paul’s point in Romans 11:17–24: “So do not become proud, but fear.” Anti-Semitism has no place in the church.

2. We should be sad that so many natural branches have been cut off, and eager to see them acknowledge their Messiah and join the church. Paul wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:2–3).

Those who are accustomed to thinking of ethnic Israel as though it is a second people of God should also rethink their attitude.

3. There may be good reasons to support the state of Israel from an American foreign policy perspective, but it is not required of us as Christians and we should not be expected to do so. God’s words to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3), are frequently misinterpreted. They do not mean, “God blesses those who give political support to national Israel.” Even in the Old Testament, uncritical political support of Israel was not prescribed. The prophets frequently criticized Israel’s unjust and ungodly policies, and Jeremiah called Israel to commit political treason by defecting to the Babylonians (Jer. 38:17; 37:13ff). Today, Genesis 12:3 means that “God blesses those who bless Christ and the church, the Israel of God.” The church is the offspring of Abraham (Gal. 3:29); ethnic Israelites who have rejected the Messiah are “accursed and cut off from Christ” (Rom. 9:3). God is drawing ethnic Jews to his Son and inviting them into the church, but the state of Israel is not under God’s special protection or blessing. That is the unique privilege of the Israel of God, the church. The American church’s preoccupation with national Israel is influenced more by folk theology and partisan politics than by Scripture or the Great Tradition. The idea that God will turn his back on a person or country for criticizing or ceasing to give political support to national Israel is simply nonsense.

4. God’s promises to Israel (including the land promise) will be fulfilled in the church, not merely ethnic Israel. This has already begun. God promised Israel at Mt. Sinai, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6); Peter told the church, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). The one and only “holy nation” is not the nation-state of Israel in the Middle East; it is the church, whose boundaries are defined not by geography, but by faith in Christ.

Consider the great land promise which saturates the Old Testament. God called Abraham to go “to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1), then swore, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gen. 12:7). The offspring of Abraham is the church, the Israel of God, so the church are heirs of this promise (Gal. 3:29); it will be fulfilled to us, not to merely ethnic Israelites. Compare the land promise in Psalm 37 to the words of Jesus: “the meek shall inherit the land” (Ps. 37:11); “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5). God will fulfill the land promise when Abraham’s descendents, the church, inherit the land—and the entire new earth! The promise has not been revoked or transferred to a different people; it has been expanded and will soon be fulfilled.

The church neither replaces Israel nor stands alongside Israel as a second people of God. The church is Israel—the Israel of God, the offspring of Abraham, and heirs of the promises. The Lord our God is one, and he only has one people, one bride, one holy nation.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.