Only For Israel?

From the Protestant Reformation until the 19th century, the dominant form of theology was Covenant Theology, or Reformed Theology (established largely by John Calvin). This theology included the idea described in the last article, that the Old Testament prophecies were "spiritually fulfilled" and the Kingdom of God was His reign in the heart of the believer. The ultimate goal of the believer was to go to heaven at death, rather than reigning with Christ in his Kingdom on earth.

As we also discussed, in the 19th century a number of different Adventist groups brought attention once again to the idea that Christ would return physically to earth and set up his Kingdom. A literal interpretation of Scriptures demanded this. Among them were the developers of Dispensationalism. In this system, the Kingdom is recognized as a literal entity in the future, but it is said to be involving only Israel, while the Church has a different goal, and a different hope. The Gospel of the Kingdom is said to have been preached while Jesus was on earth, and then withdrawn and replaced by a new and different gospel, as revealed to Paul.

This "new gospel" concerns the Mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ, a completely separate entity from Israel. The Church Age is considered a "parenthesis" between Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom and his future return, when the Kingdom Gospel will again be preached, and the Kingdom will be finally restored to Israel. Thus the prophecies involving Israel are literally fulfilled instead of figuratively or "spiritually," but the Church is not directly involved.

The exact time that the Kingdom gospel was withdrawn and the current dispensation of the Church began is the subject of debate among the various forms of Dispensationalism, although all agree that the Church and Israel are separate and distinct bodies. "Traditional" Dispensationalism considers the Church to have begun on Pentecost (Acts 2), while various other subdivisions believe that it started either at Paul's conversion (Acts 9), the beginning of his teaching ministry (Acts 13), or even after his imprisonment (Acts 28). These other groups are often referred to as "Ultra" or "Hyper" Dispensationalists, and are considered to be too extreme by the "traditional" branch.

In the ministry with which I was formerly involved, Paul's new gospel was called the "Great Mystery" although the only place that phrase appears is Ephesians 5:32, which compares the husband-wife relationship with that of Christ and the Church. (The NASB renders it as "This mystery is great" rather than "This is a great mystery.") The Dispensationalist view we held was that The Mystery was the central issue of the Christian Church, and redefined everything for this current administration, while the Gospel of the Kingdom was postponed until the return of Christ. However, while Paul spoke of the gospel which he preached as being received "by revelation of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11-12), the details which he received by revelation did not replace what was known, but complemented and completed it.

The mystery that Paul speaks of in Ephesians, then, is not a new gospel that departs from the promises of God made to Israel, but rather the revelation that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, may partake of those promises. Paul had written about it before "in few words" (Ephesians 3:3), but elaborates more fully about it in Ephesians. God promised an inheritance first to Abraham, and later to the nation of Israel, and that is the basis of the Kingdom of God. The same promises have now been offered to Gentiles as well. Paul wrote that there is no longer a separation between Jews and Gentiles.

Galatians 3:
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if ye be Christ
s, then are ye Abrahams seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Ephesians 2:
14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;
15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;
16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:
Ephesians 3:
4 Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)
5 Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;
6 That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:
[see NASB]

Ephesians chapter 1 mentions "inheritance" three times (verses 11, 14, and 18). Chapter 2 speaks of how the Gentiles were once aliens, and "strangers from the covenants of promise." But now they are brought together with the Jews, with no more separation. This household of God is said to be "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief corner stone." I was taught that this only referred to the New Testament prophets in the Christian Church. But from the context of these chapters, you can see that it is built on the foundation of the promises made to Israel, which were elaborated on by the Old Testament prophets. Paul also refers to this in Romans.

Romans 16:
25 Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began,
26 But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:
[see NASB]

As discussed in One Gospel, the mystery that Paul wrote about was not a completely new program or plan that replaced the Kingdom Gospel which Jesus proclaimed. Paul preached the same Gospel as Jesus did, which was the same Gospel presented in the Scriptures of the Prophets. However, certain details were kept secret, and later revealed by Jesus Christ. Some were taught by Jesus directly, others were taught by revelation through the writings of Paul. But all the added details were simply aspects of the Kingdom Gospel that had not been understood or revealed before. They do not constitute a new and different Gospel, but a broadening of the scope of the same Gospel that Jesus preached.

He spoke of the "mysteries" (plural) of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:11; Luke 8:10), and Paul described the ministers of Christ as "stewards of the mysteries (plural) of God" (I Corinthians 4:1). In addition to proclaiming that the Kingdom foretold by the Prophets was at hand, and that he was the promised Messiah, Jesus taught about some aspects of the Kingdom that were not previously understood. They include:

  • The necessity of the suffering and death of the Messiah
  • The fact that there would be an intervening period of time before he took up his throne
  • The growth and influence of the gospel of the kingdom during that time
  • The foretaste of the power of the kingdom during that time
  • The fact that not only Jews but "all nations" could hear the Gospel and be saved.

Jesus also added further details about Kingdom mysteries by way of revelation to Paul, who wrote about them in his epistles. These included:

  • Details about the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ
  • That Jews and Gentiles could be members of the Church of the Body and joint heirs
  • Details about what Christ's death and resurrection had accomplished
  • The understanding that we are no longer under the Old Covenant Law

But these mysteries, whether revealed by Jesus directly or by revelation through Paul, were all additions to the normal understanding of the Kingdom of God as the worldwide reign of Messiah in the age to come.

One offshoot of the ministry to which I belonged publishes a booklet, Defending Dispensationalism: Standing Fast in the Liberty. In it, the author makes the following statement:

"Dispensationalism," as we understand and teach it, holds that the Christian Church began on the day of Pentecost, inaugurated by the giving of holy spirit. At that time, God suspended His program of salvation for Israel as instituted via the Covenants (including the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and the still future "New") and instituted a new program of salvation and sanctification for the Church of the Body of Christ. According to 1 Corinthians 12:13, the beginning of this Body was whenever the gift of holy spirit was given, which we know was on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. From this dispensational perspective, the Book of Acts is a transitional period for the Church, which at first was exclusively Jewish. However, as these Jews grew in the faith, they gradually began to realize what had actually transpired on the Day of Pentecost and "got with the program" by admitting Gentiles into the congregation (Acts 10), letting go of water baptism (Acts 18:25ff), ceasing to require circumcision, etc, etc. With a change of "administration" came a change of requirements for salvation and behavior. (Mark H. Graeser, Defending Dispensationalism, Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, 1999, p. 1-2.)

In the article on Dispensationalism as well as the article on One Gospel I dealt with the major problems with this means of interpretation. The biggest problem is that it separates Jesus from his words, which the New Testament tells us are the key to eternal life. It also fragments the Gospel, presenting a new message for the current dispensation, which is different from the Gospel which our Lord preached, and which he said would continue to be preached until the end (Matthew 24:14). We are heirs of the same promises made to Abraham, when we accept Christ and believe his Gospel (Galatians 3:29). The same message that Jesus proclaimed was preached throughout Acts by all the disciples including Paul. The "gospel of the grace of God" was not a new gospel that was different from the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus preached (Acts 20:24-25).

Many proponents of Dispensationalism believe that the only alternative to that system of interpretation is to "spiritualize" the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament. Their primary objection to Covenant Theology is the claim that the Church is "spiritual Israel" which only fulfills the Old Testament prophecies in a "spiritualized" way, rather than seeing the prophecies as literal. On the other hand, many proponents of Covenant Theology think the only alternative to their view is Dispensationalism, which contradicts what they see in the Scriptures as one gospel from beginning to end. The fact is, there is a third alternative that is midway between these two extremes.

Other forms of Adventism which developed in the 19th century rightly recognized that the Kingdom and promises are literal and future, but at the same time recognized that those promises have been offered to the whole world. The same promises originally made to Abraham have now been made available to anyone who accepts Christ. Most Dispensationalists do not believe in such a connection between Israel and the Church, stressing that they are two completely separate bodies. But while there is a distinction made in the New Testament between natural Israel and the Church, there is also a sense in which the Church is seen as a direct continuation of what was started with Israel.

The primary objection to this idea is that most of the uses of the word Israel in the New Testament are referring to national Israel. However, Romans 9:6 says, "For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel." This shows how Paul sometimes uses the term "Israel" to refer not just to the nation but to those within the nation who have a believing relationship with God. He uses the word "Jew" in a similar way.

Romans 2:
28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
[see NASB]

Paul writes here that the true "Jew" is not one who is a member of the nation of Israel, or one who has kept the Law, but one who has partaken of a "circumcision of the heart." But while he speaks of circumcision of the heart, he does not say that all the Old Testament prophecies, including those of the coming kingdom, are fulfilled "figuratively" or "in the heart." His use of "Israel" and "Jew" in this figurative sense is not to negate the reality of the coming Kingdom, but to show how the Church stands as an offshoot or continuation of Israel, being elsewhere called the Israel of God and the "true" circumcision.

Galatians 6:
15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.
16 And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
Philippians 3:
3 For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.
Colossians 2:
11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
[see NASB]

The promises of the coming Kingdom, the New Covenant, the restoration of the earth, and Messiah’s reign, were made to Israel, and they believed it was their right.  But Jesus berated them for their unbelief and their rejection of him as a nation.  He declared that the Kingdom would be taken away from the children of Israel and given to others (Matthew 8:10-1; 21:33-46; 22:1-14; Luke 13:34-35; 14:16-24; 19:41-44; 20:9-18; John 10:16).  After his resurrection, he commanded the disciples to preach to the whole world (Matthew 24:14), to every creature (Matthew 23:35-36).  And in Acts we read about not only Jews, but Gentiles becoming part of the Church.  From that point on, God’s primary dealings with man were no longer through the nation of Israel, but through the Church.  This entire period is called the Last Days.  (This is covered in more detail in a Closer Look article by that title.)

And yet, Paul does not say that the Church has completely replaced Israel. The entire context of Romans 9 - 11 describes how the believing element of Israel is still attached to the "olive tree of faith" but the natural branches which did not believe are cut off. The wild branches, i.e. believing Gentiles, are grafted in and become part of the tree, and partake of the root. Meanwhile, Paul says that any of the natural branches that were cut off, if they come to believe, can be grafted back in just as the wild branches were grafted in. The entire tree partakes of the blessings of the root, being the people of God. These blessings include the promises made to Abraham. Paul and Peter both wrote about the Gentiles becoming part of God's people.

Romans 9:
23 And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,
24 Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
25 As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.
26 And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.

I Peter 2:
9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:
10 Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
[see NASB]

The Romans 9 passage refers to Hosea 1:9-10 and 2:23; while the passage in I Peter 2 quotes from Isaiah 43:21; Exodus 19:6; Deuteronomy 7:6; and Isaiah 43:21. All refer to the Gentiles who were not a people now being part of God's people, as Israel had been before. Now the unbelieving branches of natural Israel have been cut off, but the believing ones remain. And one day in the future, a remnant of Israel will be saved (Romans 9:27; 11:26). In the meantime, the people of God fashioned from the roots of national Israel now include both former Jews and former Gentiles, all now believers in Christ. This new body is now performing the function of Israel, as a chosen generation showing God's glory to the world (also being "a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God" -I Peter 2:5). This is why it is called the Israel of God, and the new circumcision made without hands.

Many of these verses have been used in the past to prove that God was through with Israel and that the Church had replaced it. But as we saw in the Prophets God foretold of a time when a remnant of the nation of Israel will come to accept her Messiah. Many Jews had already accepted Messiah in the first century Church, but Romans 11 (especially verses 7-10 and 25-27) refers to the fact that "blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in." The passage then quotes from Isaiah 59:20-21 and Jeremiah 31:31-34 which refer to the New Covenant, which will be completely fulfilled when Christ returns (see The New Covenant).

Zechariah prophesied that at that time, when God pours out His spirit, "they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him..." (Zechariah 12:8-10, which is connected with Jesus' crucifixion in John 19:37). At that future time, a remnant of Israel will come to recognize Jesus, who was crucified, as their Messiah. At that time the prophecies about Israel's triumph under Messiah's reign will come to pass. This is why Paul says in Romans 11:1-2, "I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew."

While national Israel will not be completely cast off, they are currently cut off for rejecting their Messiah. Yet the Church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, is built on the same foundation and called the Israel of God and the true circumcision. This is the perfect balance between the extremes of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. On the one hand, we recognize one Gospel throughout the Bible, and one "olive tree of faith" onto which Gentiles have been grafted, and we don't have to divide the Scriptures unnaturally. On the other hand we don't have to "spiritualize" the prophecies of God's Kingdom, but recognize them as literal, though in many cases still to be fulfilled in the future. The whole Bible fits together when you have this understanding of the Kingdom of God.

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Mark Clarke