The Church and Israel in the New Testament

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One of the most common questions asked by students of the Bible concerns the relationship between Israel and the church. We read the Old Testament, and it is evident that most of it concerns the story of Israel. From Jacob to the exile, the people of God is Israel, and Israel is the people of God. Despite the constant sin of king and people leading to the judgment of exile, the prophets look beyond this judgment with hope to a time of restoration for Israel. When we turn to the New Testament, the same story continues, and Israel is still in the picture. Jesus is described as the one who will be given “the throne of his father David” and the one who “will reign over the house of Jacob [Israel] forever” (Luke 1:32–33). He is presented as the One the prophets foresaw.

The first to believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah are Israelites— Andrew, Peter, James, John. But in the Gospels, we also hear Jesus speak of building His church, and we see growing hostility between the leaders of Israel and Jesus. We hear Jesus speak of destroying the tenants of the vineyard and giving it to others (Luke 20:9–18). In the book of Acts, the spread of the gospel to the Samaritans and Gentiles leads to even more conflict with the religious leaders of Israel. So, is Israel cast aside and replaced by this new entity known as the “church”?

There are those who would say yes, but the answer is not that simple, for we also run across hints that God is not finished with the nation of Israel. At the end of His declaration of woes on the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, “You will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matt. 23:39). In the Olivet Discourse, He speaks of Jerusalem being trampled underfoot “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). In Acts, Peter says to a Jewish audience: “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:19—21). Finally, Paul says things about Israel that seem to preclude total rejection. Speaking of Israel, he writes, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Rom. 11:1a).

In order to understand the relationship between Israel and the church as described in the New Testament, we will need to look at the question in the context of the different answers Christians have given over the years. The traditional dispensationalist view maintains that God has not replaced Israel with the church but that God has two programs in history, one for the church and one for Israel. Traditional dispensationalism also maintains that the church consists only of believers saved between Pentecost and the rapture. The church as the body of Christ does not include Old Testament believers. Progressive dispensationalism has modified some of these views, but the traditional dispensationalist view remains very popular. Some covenant theologians have adopted a view that many dispensationalists describe as “replacement theology.” This is the idea that the church has completely replaced Israel. Jews may still be saved on an individual basis by coming to Christ, but the nation of Israel and the Jews as a people no longer have any part to play in redemptive history.

A careful study of the New Testament reveals that both of these interpretations of the relationship between Israel and the church are wanting. The relationship between the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God in the New Testament is better described in terms of an organic development rather than either separation or replacement. During most of the Old Testament era, there were essentially three groups of people: the Gentile nations, national Israel, and true Israel (the faithful remnant). Although the nation of Israel was often involved in idolatry, apostasy, and rebellion, God always kept for Himself a faithful remnant—those who trusted in Him and who would not bow the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). This remnant, this true Israel, included men such as David, Joash, Isaiah, and Daniel, as well as women such as Sarah, Deborah, and Hannah. There were those who were circumcised in the flesh and a smaller number who had their hearts circumcised as well. So, even in the Old Testament, not all were Israel who were descended from Israel (Rom. 9:6).

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the faithful remnant (true Israel) included believers such as Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25–38). During Jesus’ adult ministry, true Israel was most visible in those Jewish disciples who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Those who rejected Jesus were not true Israel, regardless of their race. This included many of the scribes and Pharisees. Though they were physically Jews, they were not true Israel (Rom. 2:28–29). True Israel became def ined by union with the true Israelite—Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16, 29).

On the day of Pentecost, the true Israel, Jewish believers in Jesus, was taken by the Holy Spirit and formed into the nucleus of the New Testament church (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit was poured out on the true Israel, and the same men and women who were part of this true Israel were now the true new covenant church. Soon after, Gentiles began to become a part of this small group.

This is an extremely important point to grasp because it explains why there is so much confusion regarding the relationship between the church and Israel. The answer depends on whether we are talking about national Israel or true Israel. The church is distinct from national Israel, just as the true Israel in the Old Testament was distinct from national Israel even while being part of national Israel. The remnant group was part of the whole but could also be distinguished from the whole by its faith.

However, if we are talking about true Israel, there really is no distinction. The true Israel of the Old Testament became the nucleus of the true church on the day of Pentecost. Here the analogy of the olive tree that Paul uses in Romans 11 is instructive. The tree represents the covenant people of God—Israel. Paul compares unbelieving Israel to branches that have been broken off from the olive tree (v. 17a). Believing Gentiles are compared to branches from a wild olive tree that have been grafted in to the cultivated olive tree (vv. 17b–19). The important point to notice is that God does not cut the old tree down and plant a new one (replacement theology). Neither does God plant a second new tree alongside the old tree and then graft branches from the old tree into the new tree (traditional dispensationalism). Instead, the same tree exists across the divide between Old and New Testaments. That which remains after the dead branches are removed is the true Israel. Gentile believers are now grafted into this already existing old tree (true Israel/the true church). There is only one good olive tree, and the same olive tree exists across the covenantal divide.

What does this mean for our understanding of the relationship between the church and Israel? It means that when true Israel was baptized by the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, true Israel became the New Testament church. Thus, there is continuity between true Israel and the church. This is why the Reformed confessions can speak of the church as existing from the beginning of the world (for example, Belgic Confession, Art. 27). Yet there is discontinuity between the church and national Israel as well, just as there was discontinuity between the faithful remnant and apostate Israel in the Old Testament.

Romans 11 and the Future of Israel

So, what does this mean for national Israel, the branches that have been broken off from the true Israel because of unbelief? Is God finished with this people as a covenantal entity? In order to answer this question, we must turn to Paul’s argument in Romans 9–11.

In Romans 1–8, Paul denied that Jews were guaranteed salvation on the basis of their distinctive privileges as Jews. Faith was the key, not ethnicity or any kind of works. Paul argued that all who believe in Jesus are children of Abraham. He also argued that none of God’s promises would fail. All of this would raise serious questions in the minds of his readers. What about Israel? What has become of God’s promises to her in light of her rejection of the Messiah? Has the faithlessness of Israel negated God’s promises? Has Israel been disinherited? Has the plan of God revealed throughout the Old Testament been derailed or set aside? Paul answers these questions in Romans 9–11.

Paul begins Romans 9 with a lament for Israel—his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (v. 3). He then recounts all the privileges that still belong to Israel—including the adoption, the covenants, and the promises (vv. 4–5). In verses 6–29, Paul defends the proposition he states in verse 6a, namely, that the promise of God has not failed. In verses 6–13, he explains that the corporate election of Israel never meant the salvation of every biological descendant of Abraham: “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (v. 6b). In verses 14–23, Paul expands on this, explaining that salvation was never a birthright based on biological descent. It has always been a gift based on God’s sovereign election.

In Romans 9:30–10:21, Paul elaborates on the turn that redemptive history has taken, namely, that while Israel has stumbled over Jesus, Gentiles are now streaming into the kingdom. It is important to observe that in Romans 10:1, Paul writes, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” He’s talking about Israel. The very fact that Paul can continue to pray for the salvation of unbelieving Israel indicates that he believes salvation is possible for them.

What Paul has said thus far raises the big question, which he now states: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1a). This is the basic theme of chapter 11. In verses 1–10, Paul demonstrates that God has not rejected Israel by distinguishing between the “remnant” and the “hardened.” Building on what he has already said in 9:6–13 and 9:27, Paul indicates that just as in the days of Elijah, there is also now a believing remnant (11:2–5). In contrast with the remnant, chosen by grace (v. 5), is “the rest,” the nation of Israel as a whole, which has been “hardened” (v. 7). God has dulled the spiritual senses of Israel (v. 8), and they have stumbled (vv. 9–10).

Paul then asks, “Did they stumble in order that they might fall?” (11:11a). What is his answer? “By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (v. 11b). What is the present significance of Israel’s stumbling? Paul explains that it has happened as a means to bring a multitude of Gentiles into the kingdom. The hardening of Israel is serving God’s purpose. Their trespass has served as the occasion for the granting of salvation to the Gentiles. Paul states, “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (v. 12, emphasis mine).

In verses 11–12, Paul mentions three events: the trespass (or “failure”) of Israel, the salvation of the Gentiles, and the full inclusion of Israel. The first of these leads to the second, and the second leads to the third. Israel’s trespass, in other words, started a process that will ultimately lead back to Israel’s restoration. This is the first of five places in this short passage where Paul explains the purpose and future of Israel in terms of three stages. Douglas Moo provides a helpful summary:

  • vv. 11–12: “trespass of Israel”— “salvation for the Gentiles”— “their fullness”
  • v. 15: “their rejection”— “reconciliation of the world”— “their acceptance”
  • vv. 17–23: “natural branches broken off”—“wild shoots grafted in”—“natural branches” grafted back in
  • vv. 25–26: “hardening of Israel”—“fullness of Gentiles”— “all Israel will be saved”
  • vv. 30–31: disobedience of Israel—mercy for Gentiles— mercy to Israel

The repeated occurrence of this “three-stage” process reinforces the idea that Paul is looking forward to a future restoration of Israel. Israel’s present condition is described as “failure” and as “rejection.” Paul characterizes the future condition of Israel in terms of “full inclusion” and as “acceptance.” Israel is not simultaneously in the condition of “failure” and “full inclusion,” of “rejection” and “acceptance.” The “full inclusion” will follow the “failure.” The “acceptance” will follow the “rejection.”

Paul anticipates a potential problem in verses 13–24. Gentile believers who had been taught that they were now God’s people could be easily misled into thinking that this was cause for boasting against the Jews. In these verses, Paul warns against such arrogance. In 11:16–24, Paul explains the development of redemptive history and the place of Israel within it by using the olive tree analogy that we discussed above. Here again, Paul points to three stages in redemptive history: “natural branches broken off”—“wild shoots grafted in”— “natural branches” grafted back in.

Paul’s teaching in verses 25–27 has been at the center of the debate concerning the proper interpretation of chapter 11. Paul writes in verse 25: “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Here Paul is still speaking directly to the Gentiles (see v. 13). He wants them to understand a “mystery.” In this context, the mystery involves the reversal of Jewish expectations concerning the sequence of end-time events. The “mystery” is that the restoration of Israel follows the salvation of the Gentiles.

In verse 26, Paul continues the sentence begun in verse 25: “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” The biggest debate here is the meaning of “all Israel.” Charles Cranfield lists the four main views that have been suggested: (1) all the elect, both Jews and Gentiles; (2) all the elect of the nation Israel; (3) the whole nation Israel, including every individual member; and (4) the nation Israel as a whole, but not necessarily including every individual member. Since Paul repeatedly denies the salvation of every single Israelite, we can set aside option (3).

John Calvin understood “all Israel” in verse 26 to mean all the elect, both Jews and Gentiles. Paul does use this language in other places in his writings. The problem with understanding “all Israel” in 11:26 in this sense is the context. Throughout verses 11–25, Paul has consistent ly dist inguished between Jews and Gentiles. We also have to remember that Paul’s concern in these chapters is for his kinsmen according to the flesh (9:1–5). His prayer in this context is for the salvation of unbelieving Israel (10:1). In Romans 11:26, Paul is revealing that the prayer of 10:1 will be answered once the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Other Reformed theologians, such as O. Palmer Robertson and Herman Ridderbos, have argued that “all Israel” refers to all the elect of the nation of Israel throughout the present age. As with the view that understands “all Israel” to be the church, there is truth in this interpretation. The Jews who are being saved in the present age are not any different from the Jews who are to be saved in the future. The problem with this interpretation, as with the previous one, is that it conflicts with the immediate context. As John Murray observes, “While it is true that all the elect of Israel, the true Israel, will be saved, this is so necessary and patent a truth that to assert the same here would have no particular relevance to what is the apostle’s governing interest in this section of the epistle.” Paul is not in anguish over the salvation of the remnant. They are already saved. He is in anguish over unbelieving Israel. It is this “Israel” for whose salvation he prays (10:1), and it is this Israel that he says will be saved in verse 26.

The interpretation of “all Israel” that best fits the immediate context is that which understands “all Israel” as the nation of Israel as a whole, but not necessarily including every individual member of ethnic Israel. Paul consistently contrasts Gentiles and Israel throughout this chapter, and he continues to do so in the first half of the sentence we are examining (v. 25). There is no contextual reason to assume that Paul changes the meaning of the term Israel in mid-sentence here. The “Israel” that will be saved (v. 26) is the “Israel” that has been partially hardened (v. 25). This partially hardened Israel is distinct from the Gentiles (v. 25) and is also distinct from the present remnant of believing Jews, who are not hardened (v. 7).

Conclusion

The relationship between Israel and the church in the New Testament is not always easy to discern, but it can be understood if we remember the differences between national Israel and true Israel in both the Old Testament and the New, and if we keep in mind what Paul teaches in Romans 11. Israel’s present hardening has a purpose in God’s plan, but this hardening is not permanent. The future restoration of the nation of Israel will involve their re-grafting into the olive tree, the one people of God. The restoration of Israel will mean their becoming part of the “true Israel” by faith in Jesus Christ the Messiah.

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