Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Keeping Distinctions: Israel and the Church

At no point does the word "Israel" in the New Testament ever refer to anything other than ethnic Israel. To say otherwise is to superimpose personal theological presuppositions over the text of Scripture. Go ahead, check it out - Matthew 2:6, 2:20, 2:21, 8:10, 9:33, 10:6, 10:23, 15:24, 15:31, 27:9, 27:42; Mark 12:29, 15:32,; Luke 1:16, 1:54, 1:68, 1:80, 2:25, 2:32, 2:34, 4:25, 4:27, 7:9, 22:30, 24:21; John 1:31, 1:49, 3:10, 12:13; Acts 1:6, 2:22, 2:36, 3:12, 4:10, 4:27, 5:21, 5:31, 5:35, 7:23, 7:37, 7:42, 9:15, 10:36, 13:16, 13:17, 13:23, 13:24, 21:28, 28:20; Romans 9:4, 9:6, 9:27, 9:31, 10:19, 10:21, 11:1, 11:2, 11:7, 11:25, 11:26; First Corinthians 10:18; Second Corinthians 3:7, 3:13, 11:22; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:12; Philippians 3:5; Hebrews 8:8, 8:10, 11:22, Revelation 7:4, 21:12. There it is - the complete list.

Nonetheless, some want to continue to insist that the Church has replaced Israel in the program of God, making the Church into "the new Israel". This is entirely unwarranted, is dangerously biased against Israel, and harms a spiritual leader's ability to do ministry because of the cloudiness that results in interpretation of the above passages and the Old Testament promises to Israel. Proponents of this "replacement theology" can only agree that one of the above verses makes their point - Galatians 6:16. Without any exegetical warrant at all, they conclude that "the Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16 must not be believing ethnic Israel (whether in the present or the future), but rather the Church. Apparently to to them adding the phrase "of God" makes the statement mystical enough that it must not mean Israel anymore. From there an entire "replacement theology" has been developed in a way that just assumes itself to be true, but never substantiates itself by biblical exegesis (see for example the irresponsible works like O. Palmer Robertson's "The Israel of God" or Philip Mauro's "The Hope of Israel"). The idea of the replacement of Israel is then constantly superimposed by them over all other pertinent Bible passages, rather than letting these texts speak for themselves. In contrast to the replacement theologians, Alva J. Mclain in his classic "The Greatness of the Kingdom" was clear in stressing from Romans 9-11 that if God does not fulfill His promises to Israel, you cannot be sure that God will fulfill His promises to you either. That is, if the Church has "replaced" Israel, what assurance is there that God will not "replace" the Church?

If we let Israel be Israel in all its usages in Scripture we will be free to let the promises, threats, warnings, etc. of God to Israel be for Israel, and we will be free to let the promises, threats, warnings, etc. of God to the Church be for the Church. It is quite clear in Ephesians 2:11 through 3:12 that the "commonwealth of Israel" (2:12) is not the same thing as the "new man" (2:15), or "God's household" (2:19), or "the mystery" (3:4-7), or "the body" (3:6). Thus a distinction between Israel and the Church is proven by this passage. Just visit Israel and you will not need any more proof than that to see that Israel is not the Church. This superimposing of a mystical "Israel" over other passages cannot be a valid hermeneutical method. Letting each text speak for itself, letting Israel be Israel and the Church be the Church is a valid hermeneutical method. This has massive implications for our ecclesiology as well as our eschatology. In other words, if we want to get ministry right we had best get this distinction right.

For excellent further study see Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum's "Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology (pp. 680-699) and Stanley Toussaint and Charles Dyer's "Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost" (pp. 181-195). I also just waded through an outstanding new book, "Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged" by Barry E. Horner (B&H Academic, 2007). Well worth the effort. While I concur with most of Graeme Goldsworthy's "Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics", and certainly appreciate his main sentiment, I found his critique of "evangelical Zionism" (which I consider to be an ungracious slur) to be inconsistent, out of place, and actually "eclipsing the Gospel" in the Old Testament and in eschatology ( pp.169-171).


  1. Having done but a meager fraction of the reading on the topic you appear to have done, I nevertheless offer my humble perspective.

    I agree that the "replacement" approach to the relationship between church and Israel is biblically problematic. However, I think the Scriptures do support a principle of "inclusion" of believing gentiles in Israel.

    Paul tells us gentile believers that we were at one time alienated from citizenship in Israel but that we are so no longer (Eph 2:11-22). If we are no longer what we were, then we are no longer alienated from citizenship in Israel. If we are no longer so alienated, how can we be other than citizens of Israel?

    Paul tells us gentile believers that though by nature we are wild olive branches, we have have been grafted into a cultivated olive tree and have even replaced some of the cultivated branches. (Rom 11:17-24) If this tree represents Israel (which I firmly believe it does) then this means we have now been grafted into Israel. And though it would be impossible for us to replace Israel, certainly we have replaced some Israelites in Israel (v 19-20).

    It has been a great comfort to me over the years to think of myself as a citizen of the commonwealth of Israel, a partaker in the covenants of promise, and a branch grafted into Israel. I have yet to see good scriptural reason to think otherwise. But I'm all ears.

  2. Dr. Shearer,

    Praise the Lord for your powerful post. We have been doing a series on Rom. 9-11 culminating in teaching about the folly and danger of replacement theology, running rampant in many circles today. Thank you for this much needed post and the endoresement of Arnold Fruchtenbaum's Israelology. I recommend this book wholeheartedly even to the point that i belive it would be a great standard issue work to put into the hands of pastors everywhere. i taught from it and distributed a few copies in india during my mission work there.
    Love the blog...

  3. Hi Brad . . .

    I think you have said the key words, "it would be impossible for us to replace Israel, (but) certainly we have replaced some Israelites". This is a further distinction with which I would agree. Yes, Gentile believers of the Church age are "grafted in" to the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the "root" of Rom.11:17). Church-age believers are spiritual "sons of Abraham" (Galatians 3:6), but not physical sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, yes we are grafted in as "Jews of the heart" (Romans 2:28-29), but that does not make us "Israel". The word "Jew" and the word "Israel" are not synonymous.

    If we go much further than this, we destroy the program that the Church (the "mystery" of Romans 11:25) exists to make Israel jealous (Romans 11:11) - an obvious distinction between the two. Thus, in the future "all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:26), which would clearly be the elect of ethnic Israel (Romans 9:6).

    I hope more of this kind of discussion occurs. Thanks.

  4. That is a hope I would be loath to disappoint...

    You have said, At no point does the word "Israel" in the New Testament ever refer to anything other than ethnic Israel. I take issue with this statement because I think that it poses a serious problem with respect to Romans 9:6.

    Paul says in this verse, They are not all Israel that are of Israel. According to your take on the word "Israel", Paul must be understood to mean, Not all are ethnic Israel that are of ethnic Israel. Or perhaps, Not all are ethnic Israel that are descendants of (the man) Israel." Either one of these interpretations strikes me as genuinely contradictory.

    If a man is an ethnic Israelite, he is an ethnic Israelite. If a man is a biological descendant of Israel, he is an ethnic Israelite. One cannot both be an ethnic Israelite and not be an ethnic Israelite.

    The only way, in my small mind, that the contradiction can be resolved is if the first of these uses of the word "Israel" refers to something other than ethnic Israel.

    What say you?

  5. In context, I would say the issue in Romans 9:6 is election. Romans 8:38-39 makes the incredible promise that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God. Romans 9 picks up with "what about Israel?". Has not God broken His promises to Israel (9:1-5) since Israel has not embraced Messiah Jesus? I see the context continuing from ch.8 to ch.9 as opposed to the view that ch.9 is a "parenthesis", i.e. that the flow of Romans could do just fine without chs.9-11. Chs. 9-11 are critical to the understanding of ch.8.

    So, how is it that Israelites are separated from Christ, when God has promised that His people would never be separated from Him? This is the question Romans 9:6ff. is answering. So, here is what Romans 9:6 is saying - "The word of God has not failed" (the promises are intact) because (for) "they are not all elect ethnic Israel who are descended from ethnic Israel". In other words, all of the elect of Israel are in the promises, and those of Israel who are not elect do not contradict the promises (cause the word of God to "fail") because the promises were never actually theirs.

    So, no contradiction.

  6. So just to clarify, then, you would not say that every occurrence of the word "Israel" refers to the entire class of ethnic Israelites?

  7. Hi again Brad . . .

    That's correct - not the entire class, but not something "other".

  8. Thank you very much, Dr. Shearer, for your patient participation.

    Back to Ephesians 2 for a moment, and then I’ll give you a little peace...but only a little.

    In verse 12, Paul says that before the death of Christ gentiles were, inter alia, alienated from the commonwealth (politeias) of Israel. He says in verse 19, however, that now, after the death of Christ, gentile believers are no longer aliens, but rather fellow-citizens (sumpolitai) of the saints.

    Please pardon the bland syllogism; I just want to be sure my reasoning is clear (all the easier for you to pick it apart). I argue:

    1. That from which we previously were alienated, and that in which we previously were not citizens, was the commonwealth of Israel.

    2. That from which we were previously alienated, we are alienated no longer; and that in which we were previously not citizens, we are now citizens.

    3. Therefore, we are no longer alienated from, but are now rather citizens in the commonwealth of Israel.

    Can you show me a way in which this conclusion can be avoided?

  9. Greetings Brad . . .

    I will try to give a straightforward answer to your syllogism: The conclusion is wrong (or at least unproven) because the minor premise (your #2) is invalid. There are two reasons the minor premise is invalid: (a) the text never says that we are now citizens of Israel, it says we are citizens of "God's household" (2:19) which was built on the "foundation of apostles, etc." which Israel was not; i.e. we are citizens of the Church, a people of like Israel. with Jewish roots - the similarity of the Greek words does not prove these are both Israel, but they are both "polis" groups; and (b) the conclusion is already contained in the minor premise; when you assume we must be part of Israel now because that is the polis from which we were previously alienated, you are begging the answer to your question - you have already assumed the conclusion in your minor premise.

  10. Wow. Nice job.

    All right; I'll let 2(a) drop for now, but I have still to quibble with 2(b)- this time Socratic style:

    Are gentiles still alienated from the commonwealth of Israel?

  11. OK, Brad . . .

    But before Socrates takes over the discussion, I need to point out that you have actually changed the question - yes, to a very related question- but, nonetheless, to a different question.

    "Are Gentiles still alienated from the commonwealth of Israel?" (in light of Ephesians 2) has to do with the issue of continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the Church. I have tried to be clear that in this series on "distinctions" I am not implying that there is no continuity between the parts of the distinction. And actually the existence of the distinction makes the continuity even more effective and striking. For example, in my article on doxology and soteriology I am arguing for a distinction of doxological priority that actually strengthens soteriology to a level that would be higher than if it were the priority. I see the same thing happening here. By keeping the distinction between Israel and the Church, the prominence of Israel is heightened above the level Israel would have if the distinction was not made. So, in these days of peace talks, we have a "WE SUPPORT ISRAEL" sign on the front lawn of our church building. I consider that much more powerful than saying "we are the new Israel".

    Now, my answer to your new question would be "no" and "yes". In terms of continuity, "no". In terms of discontinuity, "yes". Both Jews and Gentiles are one in the Body of Christ. In the language of Ephesians 2:14 Christ has "made both groups into one". The "one" is a "new man" (2:15), the Church, which brings into it all of the elements of Ephesians 2:12, including the "commonwealth of Israel". In this sense, Gentiles are no longer alienated from the commonwealth of Israel because that commonwealth (people/"polis") is brought into the Church. This in no way blurs the distinction, and it acknowledges continuity.

    In terms of discontinuity, Gentiles are still alienated from Israel to the extent that Israel is outside of Christ (or that Gentiles are outside of Christ). Since Israel cannot rightly and fully be defined apart from her land, Gentile believers and Jewish believers both are still alienated from Israel. At a future point (I would say at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb at the beginning of the future millenial Kingdom - but that's one for another day) Israel and the Church will be brought together as one in the land. Together they will be one "wife" of the Lord. But, even then will they be without distinction? But then there will physically, geographically, politically be no alienation. That certainly cannot be said to be the case presently.

  12. Oh, and one more thing; "Are gentiles still alienated from the commonwealth of Israel?" Ask an Israeli!!