ISRAEL and THE CHURCH

by William E. Cox




We come now to a study of the biblical relationsip between national Israel and the Christian church. A correct understanding of this relationship is absolutely essential to a correct understanding of the Bible. While opinions vary on many individual points, there would seem to be two main schools of thought on this subject. The first of these may be called the historical Christian view, being that view held by the great majority of the church fathers, Protestant reformers, and Bible commentaries. The second view origniated with John Nelson Darby around A.D. 1830, and is best known today as dispensationalism. I feel that the historical Christian view is biblical and sound, while the more recent view (which view I once held) is artificial and forced. Let us look at these two interpretations.

The historical Christian teaching always has been that national Israel was a type of the church, and that the church replaced Israel on the Day of Pentecost. This view holds that God made two sets of promises to Israel -- natujral promises and spiritual promises. All earthly promises to Israel have been either fulfilled or invalidated because of disobedience. All spiritual promises are being fulfilled through the church, which is made up of Jews and Gentiles alike.

Main Points of Historical Christian Teaching

1. God has always had but one spiritual people, represented by the remnant in every generation.
2. God's promises to Israel were conditional.
3. All earthly promises to Israel have been either fulfilled or invalidated through disobedience and unbelief.
4. Israel was a type of the church and was superseded by the church.
5. The church was prophesied in the Old Testament, in Old Testament language.
6. Christ was, and is, the" only Hope of Israel. And Israelites (Jews) will be saved only if they accept him during this age.
7. The first advent of Christ completed Israel's redemption, and manifested the Israel of God (the church) referred to in Galatians 6:16.
8. Christ institued a Jewish-Gentile church.
9. All unfulfilled spiritual promises to Israel are being fulfilled through the Christian church.
10. This does not represent a change in God's plan, but evidences progressive revelation.

Dispensationalists teach that God has two separate peoples -- Israel and the church -- and two separate plans for them. Israel, they say, is "an earthly people," while the church is "a heavenly people." Not only does God have two separate plans for these peoples, but two distinct destinations. They teach that Israel will spend her eternity on the earth, following an earthly millennium of one thousand years, while the church will spend eternity in heaven after the millennium. They say the Israel was indeed a type of the church, but then fo on to teach that this is the one and only type in the entire Bible which wqas never meant to have an antitype (fulfillment)! Dispensationalists teach that Jesus, at his first advent, offered to Israel an earthly millennium; that Israel rejected this offer; that God then postponed his plans for Israel; and that the church was instituted as a temporary (parenthetic) plan until after the second advent.

Main Points of Dispentationalist Teaching

  1. God has two bodies (peoples) -- Israel, and the church.
  2. God's promises to Israel were unconditional, and therefore are still binding.
  3. God's promises concerning the return to the land, rebuilding the temple, etc., were never fulfilled. They aare therefore still future.
  4. Although Israel was a type of the church, they will always remain separate.
  5. Christ instituted the church as a "parenthesis."
  6. Christ came the first time to establish an earthly millennial kingdom with Israel.
  7. Israel rejected him, then God postponed this plan until the second advent.
  8. Christ instituted a Gentile church.
  9. Israel is God's earthly people; the church is God's heavenly people.
  10. Israel's destiny is to remain on earth forever; the destiny of the churchis to spend eternjity in heaven.

Many people confuse the real issue between dispensationalists and the majority of Christian Bible exegetes. The real issue is well stated by Dr. George E. Ladd: "We must first clarify the nature of dispensational theology. The heart of the system is not seven dispensations nor a pretribulation rapture of the Church. It is the notion that God has two people, Israel and the Church, and two programs -- a theocratic program for Israel and a redemptive program for the Church. Israel is a national people with material blessings and an earthly destiny; the Church is a universal people with spiritual blessings and a heavenly destiny." (Christianity Today, October 12, 1959).

Dr. Ladd's statement is substantiated by this statement from the pen of the late Dr. L. W. Chafer, who was a leader in the dispensational movement in this country. "The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes; one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved, which is Judaism; while the other is related tol heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity" (Dispensationalism, p. 107).

Here, then, is the crux of the argument concerning Israel and the church. The paramount aim of the dispensationalist is to keep these alleged two groups separate. This accounts for their alleged postponements, gaps, and parentheses in God's program. This is why they will turn heaven and earth upside down in order to win one convert to their school of thought. And why they make this one belief a test of Christian fellowship. This is why dispensationalists are accused of taking glory which ought to go to Christ, and giving that glory to the non-believing nation of Israel. This writer believes they are guilty of this charge.

Jesus taught, in John 10:16, that there was one fold and one shepherd. Paul, the great theologian, certainly knew nothing of God's having two bodies. Let Paul speak: "For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby" (Eph. 22:14-16)

Paul says here that God took two men (peoples) and created one man (people) from these two. Nor does the apostle teach that God had two peoples even before this. Rather, he teaches that God took Israel (who were his people) and added the Gentiles to them -- grafted the Gentiles, who up to that time had not been God's people -- into the same olive tree. The prophet Hosea had predicted that those who were not God's people should be called his people. This prophecy was fulfilled when the Gentiles were grafted as a wild shoot into the original olive tree of God (Israel).

Just what difference does it make whether one believes God has two peoples rather than one? Many have asked if this is not a minute theological point. The importance of this premise grows in magnitude as one studies the dispensational ramifications growing out of it. The New Testament teaches us that the church is the very apex in Christ's redemptive work and that Calvary was its purchase price. An example of this teaching is Ephesians 1:22,23: "And he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all." Whereas the Bible calls the church the very body of Christ and the very fullness of God, the dispensationalist teaches that the church is doomed to failure, that it is a temporary instrument, and that national Israel will have a far greater ministry, following the removal of the Holy Spirit, than the church will have under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Is this a minor point?

Whereas our Lord himself taught that he carried out the complete will of God the Father, during his earthly ministry, the dispensationalist theology has it that Jesus fully expected to establish the counterpart of David's earthly kingdom (the millennium); that he thought he was going to establish just such a millennium; but that the non-believing part of national Israel frustrated his plans by refusing to accept his offer of himself as an earthly king along with an earthly kingdom. They teach that if the Jews had accepted Christ, the cross would not have been necessary. Is this point important in the light of such scriptures as the following?

"Jesus therefore perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain alone" (John 6:15).

Now is my soul troubled: and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour. But for this cause came I unto this hour" (John 12:27).

"... Christ: who was foreknown [foreordainted] indeed before the foundation of the world, but was manifested at the end of the times for your sake" (I Peter 1:19; 20)

"But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son ..."

Many more passages of Scripture could be brought to bear on this subject. These, however, should suffice to show that the events of the first advent were not accidents of chance. They show too that the cross was no afterthought in God's plan of redemption.

This teaching about Israel and the church leads much deeper into theology. However, it is not within the scope of this book to deal in further details with this point. The reader will find much helpful information in An Examination of Dispensationalism.

Oswald T. Allis (Prophecy and the Church, p. vi of the Preface) has given a concise distinction between dispensational teaching concerning the church, as opposed to the views of the great majority of Christians: "According to one view, the Church is the fulfillment of prophecy; according to the other, it interrupts that fulfillment. According to one view the Church age is the 'day of salvation'; according to the other view the Church age is only an episode, even if a very important one, in that day of salvation; and the salvation of Israel and of 'the enormous majority of mankind' will follow the removal of the Church."

Conditional Promises

One premise held by futurists and dispensationalists is that all promises to national Israel were unconditional, and that they are binding upon God regardless of the actions of the nation Israel. Here especially the student of the Bible needs to search out the spirit of the Old Testament and not to become enmeshed in the letter. Many Jews of Jesus' day had made this mistake, aned the result was their total blindness to Jesus' teachings.

Certainly John the Baptist recognized conditions to be binding upon Israel. The fact is recorded in Matthew 3:7-12 that John recognized one such condition to be fruit-bearing. John refujsed even to baptize the leaders of Israel unless they showed evidence of meeting this condition -- "Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance" (vs. 8).

Knowing that they believed themselves to be living under unconditional promises which would accrue to all the descendants of Abraham, John blasted their false hopes by saying: "And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: ... And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees [including national Israel]: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matt. 3:9,10). According to these scriptures, John did not accept the Jewish tradition that to be a natural descendant of Abraham placed one under unconditional promises. John believed and preached that the promise was only to those who "brought forth good fruit." This, then, was a condition.

The paramount condition of the law was the acceptance of that to which the law itself pointed -- the Messiah. Romans 10:4 tells us that Christ is the end of the law. We take this to mean that he was that to which the entire law pointed. Then any person who rejected Christ -- as did many of the Jews, then and now -- is "guilty of the whole law." They have broken the main condition and therefore God is not obligated to force them to be saved.

Jesus recognized that the reception of him was a condition of the covenant with Israel. We have recorded for us in John's Gospel (8:31-47) an account of a conversation between a group of Jews -- who believed in an unconditional covenant -- and Jesus. Jesus brusquely shattered their false hopes. He distinguished between national Israelites and spiritual descendants of Abraham.

When told by Jesus that they should continue in his word, the Jews immediately fell back upon their ancestry and claimed self-sufficiency because of their being descendants of Abraham. Jesus acknowledged that they were natural descendants of Abraham (vs. 37); but then went on to say that if they were genuine spiritual descendants they would have done the works of Abraham. These "works of Abraham" would have been the acceptance of Christ (compare Gen. 15:6 with John 8:39,40,42,47). Jesus concluded that these men, who were definitely natural descendants of Abraham, were the children of Satan and not true Israelites. His proof of this was the fact that they failed to meet the condition of the covenant with Abraham, that is, they failed to believe in the Messiah of God.

It is important at this point to interpreet scripture with scripture. The prooftext method of interpreting the Bible -- this is the method of taking isolated verses out of context -- always leads to confusion. A denomination (Disciples of Christ) was founded by Alexander Campbell, who read such passages as Acts 2:38 to the exclusion of all other passages on baptism. The futurist has made this same mistake in reading the Old Testament passages concerning Israel. He reads such passages as II Samuel 7 as blanket unconditional promises, while ignoring other passages such as I Kings 9:4-9, where the conditions are spelled out. In almost every Old Testament passage used by the futurist to prove unconditional promises to Israel, there are parallel passages dealing with the same account, which lay down definite conditions binding upon the recipient of the promise.

So we see that to take isolated passages from the Bible and build a doctrine on them is a dangerous thing. Whereas Acts 2:38 would appear -- if taken by itself -- to teach baptismal regeneration, there are many other passages which leave no doubt that the candidate must first become a believer in Christ if his baptism is to be valid.

Perhaps we should also remind ourselves of John's statement that the whole world would not hold the teachings of Christ. By this we mean to say that many of God's teachings are taken for granted and are not mentioned every time he deals with a particular subject. In the Old Testament God taught people both blessings and cursings (Josh. 8:34), but did not spell them out in every statement he made. That is to say, the condition was not mentioned every time the promise was given. However, it is impossible to read all the Old Testament without seeing both. When the conditions are not spelled out, they are always understood.

Jonah's prophecy to Ninevah was conditional. Although it is never mentioned in the prophecy of Jonah, the condition was repentance. Proof of this is the fact that Ninevah was not destroyed in forty days. This in spite of the fact that God had instructed Jonah to prophesy: "Yet forty days, and Nivevah shall be overthrown." No provision was mentioned. From all appearances the prophecy was unconditional. However, we know that there was a condition in the mind of God, because he did not destroy Ninevah in forty days. They had met the conditions (understood) by repenting, and thus God had withheld the destruction at that time.

If one were intellectually honest in seeking out the spirit of the Old Testament, he would see just as many definite promises to destroy Israel as to redeem her. Here the futurist, like everyone else, takes these threats to be provisional. He realizes that God meant to destroy Israel unless they repented. In view of the following scriptures, by what authority does one place a provision or condition upon the promises to destroy, while saying there are no conditions attached to the promiss to redeem?

"And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of Jehovah they God, to observe to do all his commandmlents which I command thee this day, that Jehovah thy God will set thee on high above all the nations of the earth.... But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of Jehovah thy God, to obeserve to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day, that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee" (Deut. 28:1-15).

"If ye forsake Jehovah, and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you evil, and consume you, after that he hath done you good" (Josh. 24:20).

Compare also Genesis 17:9-14; Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 30:15-19; Joshua 8:34; I Kings 2:3,4; 9:2-9; 11:11; II Kings 21:8b; I Chronicles 28:7b; II Chronicles 7:19-22.

While it is not spelled out each time, it is obvious that the conditions were laid down when God made his covenant promises to Abraham. Before he received the blessing, Abraham was given a command: "Now Jehovah said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country,... unto the land that I will show thee: and [then] I will make of thee a great nation..." (Gen 12:1,2).

In Genesis 15:6 we read that Abraham "believed God" and that it (Abraham's belief) was counted unto him for righteousness. Belief here was a condition (understood).

In Genesis 17:9 God very definitely lays down a condition before blessing: "And God said unto Abraham, And as for thee, thou shalt keep my covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations."

A very definite condition was circumcision (Gen. 17:30), with God spelling out the fact that for anyone to disobey this condition would cut him off from the covenant (vs. 14). In 17:23 we read that Abraham immediately was obedient. In Genesis 22:1-12 we have the account of God's testing Abraham's obedience by challenging him to sacrifice his only son on the altar. In verse 12 God is recorded as having said to Abraham, "... now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me." In the verses which follow the account, God specifically says he blessed Abraham "because thou has obeyed my voice."

According to Genesis 26:5, God renewed the covenant with Isaac "because Abraham obeyed my voice anbd kept my charge...." Compare this verse with Hebrews 11:8.

Many of the foundation stones of the Darbyite beliefs are ruled out completely when one discovers that the Old Testament promises to Israel were conditional and that Israel failed to observe these conditions. Thus it was necessary for God to institute a better covenant (compare Jer. 31;31,32; Heb. 8:6,7,13).

A simple chart will show that there were two parties to the contract between God and national Israel:

PROMISES CONDITIONS
Gen. 12:2  ................................................. Gen. 12:1
15:5  ................................................. 15:6
17:4  ................................................. 17:9
14:2-8  ................................................. 17:9
17:10,11  ................................................. 17:14
  Ex. 13:4,5
Deut. 28:1-14  ................................................. Deut. 28:15
30:15,16  ................................................. 30:17-19
  Josh. 8:34
  24:20
II Sam. 7  ................................................. I Kings 2:3,4
9:4-9
11:11
21:8
I Chron. 28:7
II Chron. 7:16-18  ................................................. II Chron. 7:19-23

These are but a few of the conditional passages. The interested reader will find many such passages throughout the Old Testament, where the promises have parallel passages, showing that conditions were attached. At least five conditions stand out clearly as we read the Old Testament covenant promises to national Israel: (1) faith, (2) obedience, (3) circumcision, (4) faithfulness, and (5) acceptance of Christ at his first appearance.

Fulfilled Prophecy Concerning Israel

The disputed promises were made to Abraham and were essentially four in number:

  1. Promise of the Messiah (first advent). Compare Genesis 22:18 with Galatians 3:16.
  2. To make the descendants of Abraham into a great nation (Gen. 12:2).
  3. The inheritance of the land of Canaan by Abraham's descendants (Gen. 22:7; 13:14,15; 15:18f; 17:2-8).
  4. A great posterity (Gen. 13:16; 15:5,6 17:2-8).

All four of these promises having to do with national Israel have been fulfilled literally. Some of them had ramifications now being fulfilled through the church, which includes the believing remnant of national Israel. These latter ramifications include "all the nations of the earth," and were not restricted to national Israel (compare Gen. 22:18 with Rom. 4:16,17).

Paul assures us that this fulfillment will not include the entire nation of Israel, but only the believing remnant: "And Isaiah crieth concerning Israel, If the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that shall be saved.... And, as Isaiah hath said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had become as Sodom, and had been made like unto Gomorrah" (Rom. 9:27-29).

To be continued...

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Typed in from a personal copy of "Biblical Studies In Final Things" - Chapter V, page 46. Copyright 1966 by William E. Cox and placed online by the Neve family.  We'd like to hear your comments : click here