I have always taught that the church is not separate from Israel. It is however obviously distinct from Israel, in the same way that the prophets distinguished between the nation in its apostasy and the righteous remnant. Distinct but NOT separate!
To my mind, the church, as I see the term used in the New Testament, means a local assembly under a local government of elders under the headship of Christ, independent but in a relationship of serving and sharing between sister congregations. This cannot be said of the nation in its unbelief, hence the obvious distinction. The body has its own autonomous government, and is not ‘under’ the authority of the religious leadership of the nation, except, of course, to honor all authority, both civil and religious, as scripturally appropriate.
For my view of the relation of the church to Israel, I see the regenerate believer in Christ as necessarily “in Israel,” since it seems to me a theological axiom that one cannot be ‘in Christ’ and not also be ‘in Israel’. To be ‘in Christ’ is to be ‘in Israel’ and heirs with all the saints of the commonwealth of Israel’s unique covenant status and everlasting election. The election is with no other nation! The claim of Christ’s body to be the election of Israel is because they are in the elect One who is quintessential Israel (Isa 49:3-4). To be in Him is to be in Israel. It is to belong most particularly to that living remnant that exists within the prodigal and spiritually dead nation that is awaiting the appointed day of birth and resurrection, as best compared to the sovereign arrest of Saul on the road to Damascus (Gal 1:15-16 with Ps 102:13).
Paul says, “we are the circumcision” and he was writing to Gentiles. He speaks of the “Israel of God” in Gal 6:16, though some will insist that he is only speaking this way of regenerate Jews in distinction from those who are not (Ro 9:6). But I am of the view that Paul is applying this term to believing gentiles in Christ. In Ro 2, Paul most apparently applies the term, ‘Jew’, to faithful gentiles who show the works of the law in their hearts apart from the law as written code. But here too, some will say that Paul means only to distinguish between Jews who are true to the covenant by regeneration from those who are not. I believe he is applying the term to regenerate gentiles who show the law written in their hearts. Elsewhere, that is language for the new nature.
Though the latter two examples are disputed, no one will deny that Paul can speak in Phil 3:3 of gentile believers as the true circumcision who worship God in the Spirit and put no confidence in the flesh. This being undeniable, how can it be ruled out that Paul is not doing the same in the other two, less certain passages? Besides, Jesus had already spoken of one fold and one Shepherd and the many that would be gathered from the east and west into a new, or better, renewed nation that would bring forth the fruits of the kingdom (Mt 21:43). Who or what is this nation to whom the kingdom is given? When is the kingdom given?
Some believe Jesus is speaking of the Israel of the millennial future. I don’t think so. I believe the nation in view is the holy nation of which Peter spoke (1Pet 2:9), which he manifestly applies to the present household of God, the church, the pillar and ground of truth (1Tim 3:15). Contrary to the opinion of replacement theologians, this provisional interim, mystery form of the kingdom does nothing at all to change, let alone cancel any of the promises that remain to be fulfilled to post-tribulational Israel. Furthermore, the Philippians 3:3 passage echoes strongly Jesus’ statement to the woman of Samaria when He looks ahead to those from other nations who would worship God in spirit and in truth. It seems to me that such a ‘nation’ in this sense, could rightly be called, ‘the Israel of God’ bringing forth the fruits that fruits of the kingdom in the new way that Jesus spoke of the kingdom as present already.
I have never believed the church started at Pentecost or that this was the first time the Spirit indwelt the saints, as falsely taught by modern dispensationalism. The new birth is nothing new, as Jesus reprimands Nicodemus for not making the connection that as the nation could not enter the kingdom apart from a spiritual birth (Isa 66:8 et al), it cannot be different for the individual. Hence, Nicodemus, as a teacher in Israel, should have known that unless an individual is born of the Spirit and of the water (the metaphor for spiritual cleansing and renewal in Eze 36), that person, no less than the nation, cannot see the kingdom of God.
So while the body of Christ has been more perfectly ‘revealed’ as to its nature, as the result of the new revelation of the mystery of Christ, it is no more new than Christ is new. The body that is now revealed, as purchased by Jesus as the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, includes all the seed of the Spirit of all ages, and has a history that reaches back to righteous Abel and extends to the last person saved in the millennium.
When one is born of the Spirit, regardless of the age or dispensation, past or future, that person is indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, thus a member of His body, even if they were born of the Word and the Spirit in Old Testament times (1Pet 1:23), as Peter says the prophets (and we must infer all the living; Mt 22:32) were indwelt by none other than “the Spirit of Christ” (1Pet 1:11). To be alive by the Spirit is to be a child of God by reason of the divine nature, and this did not begin at Pentecost, and does not end at the rapture, as falsely taught by modern dispensationalism.
The idea that the saints of the tribulation, those who are born again after the tribulation has begun, do NOT belong to the body of Christ but to another, entirely separate people of God is an abominable theory that was unheard of till advanced by J.N. Darby in the mid 1800’s. It is a theory that has tranquilized the church, as you know. On the other hand, the other view that is most prominent in the modern church (which, of course, is never rightly identified as the living body of Christ) is the view that the church is the NEW Israel. The church has replaced Israel as the NEW people of God, the new spiritual nation, bringing forth the fruits of the kingdom is a favorite text (Mt 21:43). No future restoration of the literal nation of the Jews is in view. These are the two extremes that create the illusion of a choice, when there is no choice between equally false alternatives.
My concern is that reaction to these unscriptural extremes may go too far into a new extreme in which we completely jettison the word ‘church’ from our vocabulary as a legitimate referent to anything other than the false system that it presumably promotes. But I think the error derives, NOT so much from the word, but the false assumptions concerning its meaning. I think few informed scholars would question that the word has been misused but find the fault, not with the word itself, or even how it has been translated, but with the faulty theology that it has been misused to support and reinforce. Apart from the theological assumptions that I see as having little to do with the word itself, its meaning as originally intended by Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John is accessible to anyone with even the most basic use of a concordance and lexicon, or just comparing scripture with scripture, with the Spirit’s help, of course.
When we check its usage and basic meaning, we can see that the word, ‘church’ is only very rarely used to refer to the larger corporate body of Christ, as the corporate family of God in heaven and earth (e.g., Mt 16:18; Eph 3:10, 15; Col 1:18, 24; Heb 12:23). Otherwise, it is almost always used in connection with a local assembly of believers. The word itself, by itself, carries no particular religious sense at all. It just means an assembly, whether a mob is in view, as in Acts 19:32, 39, 41, or a distinctly local assembly of believers, as in the far greater instances of its use throughout the NT.
The Kahal (Hebrew transliteration), or congregation, translated ‘assembly’ in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, was by no means a completely regenerate body (Acts 7:38), just as any local assembly since the cross may not be entirely regenerate. We might call this the ‘external’ church that, even when under scriptural church government, are not always all born again. Recognition of the predictability of this mixture, as anticipated in many of Jesus’ parables, prevents us from the habit of equating the outward assembly with the living body of Christ as known only perfectly to God (2Tim 2:19; 1Jn 2:19). This is well known but it contributes to the struggle to define the church in a way that does not separate it from the yet unbelieving but no less elect nation.
But this is not the case when we use the word, ‘church’ to refer to the body of Christ as a living organism, made up strictly of those who are alive to God by the Spirit. It is this assembly of the righteous that is vitally connected to Israel, and touched in all her tribulations on the way to her covenanted future. Like a Jeremiah in travail for the nation with whom God has bound His Name and Word, the living church of God should conceive of itself as internal entity within the nation, the remnant according to the election of grace, groaning in travail for the birth of the nation that the Word might be glorified in the coming of the kingdom to earth.
This election of grace is certainly NOT true of the outward assembly or ‘congregation’ of Israel, simply because not all, not even most of the congregation of Israel was ever saved at any time throughout the nation’s history. This is why the congregation of Old Testament Israel cannot be equated with the New Testament concept of the body of Christ. Though bound in covenant destiny and identity, the righteous remnant within the nation was always distinguished from the nation, though never conceived of independently from the nation. It is the same now. The true and living body of Christ is NOT the same as Israel! There is a distinction, of course; but distinction is not the same as independence and separation. What touches Israel touches those who are alive to the Spirit’s mind and purpose for Israel, her sufferings and her destiny, as bound together by covenant, even when the natural branches are insensible that they belong to a corporate election that commends them to both double judgment and double glory. The living branches of the gentiles are grafted in to become part of the tree of Israel. To be in the tree is to be ‘in Israel’. There’s no other place for the living to be! Those who live in the tree of Israel are inextricably bound by covenant to the natural branches that are temporarily cut off from the vital life and sap to which they must return, since their return is the ‘life from the dead’ for which the whole of creation is waiting.
The great mystery is how even those natural branches who are not yet alive are nonetheless reckoned as belonging to a corporate election that while guaranteeing eventual corporate salvation does NOT guarantee personal salvation apart from repentance and faith, but God will constrain their repentance at the appointed time (Ps 102:13). Like a corporate Jeremiah or Daniel, the church should conceive of itself in solidarity with the elect and eternally beloved nation, even in its momentary apostasy. The church is mid-wife to Israel’s redemption, prophesying, interceding, and travailing in hope till the whole nation be made alive, since only then can the covenant be fulfilled and the kingdom be established on earth.
The church should see itself as born in Zion (Ps 87:3-6; Gal 4:26), waiting in hope until the full coming in of ‘all Israel’ (the elect remnant) into the ‘everlasting righteousness’ of the New Covenant. Until then, whether spiritually alive or dead, whether for weal or woe, blessing or cursing, the Jew belongs to a corporate covenant election that is irrevocable, but for this to bring blessing rather than special cursing and discipline, faith must be born in the heart by the Spirit (Jn 6:63). This is NOT the case where apostate Christendom is concerned. God is not in covenant with that assembly! The New Covenant purchased in Christ’s blood has NOT reached its promised goal until the penitent Jewish survivors of the final tribulation are born ‘in one day’ to become the holy nation of millennial promise (Jer 30:7; Isa 66:8; Eze 39:22, 28-29; Dan 12:1; Zech 12:10; Mt 23:39; Acts 3:21; Ro 11:26; Rev 1:7 to mention only a few).
In contrast, apostate Christendom is NOT in covenant with God, except in the sense of greater responsibility due to greater and more stoutly resisted light. In contrast to apostate Christendom, Israel is in covenant for weal or for woe. Jews that come to faith in Christ are blessed with all the blessings of the New Covenant. Conversely, those who fail to turn remain no less in covenant but the covenant of works that bind them to the curses of the law, the end of which is hell. Hence, God is in covenant with Israel, despite her temporary unbelief. But He is NOT in covenant with apostate Christendom, the assembly of the ungodly, the false church.
Should we avoid the word, “church” in order to avoid the false associations that the word summons in the popular mind, as reinforcing the lie that the church is a separate institution that no longer has any direct bond to the covenant nation? The error is based on a great deal more than just misperceptions associated with how translators translate a Greek word. I submit that this tendency will not be corrected simply by clearing up the translation question and exposing the historic misuse of the word. The problem is far more theological than linguistic.
I have said that the church is “the true Israel of God within Israel” in continuity with the remnant according to the election of grace, inclusive of all saints, even those living before the cross. Others take the term, ‘the Israel of God’ in Gal 6:16 as reference to Jews that have been born again in contrast to those who are not the regenerate Israel of God in this sense. Even some scholars, mostly dispensational, take this view. They would not allow that term, ‘the Israel of God’ to be applied to what we call the church. But to say that gentile believers are never identified ‘as Israel’ would seem to contribute to the separation of the church and Israel, the very thing that they are trying to help us avoid.
If Paul does apply such terms to gentile believers, there is no such application to the external church as a visible institution, but only to the truly born again people of the Spirit, the living body of Christ. On the other hand, some may reasonably argue that whereas gentile believers are “in” Israel in the sense that they are grafted in among them (the natural branches), this does not mean that they become Israel. They contend that only Jews are ever called Israel, and when Paul is interested to distinguish the living from the dead, he proceeds to qualify that only regenerate Jews count as God’s true Israel.
It is here that I tend to disagree. If Paul can so undeniably call gentile believers ‘the circumcision’ in Phil 3:3, why should it be thought impossible that he call regenerate gentiles and Jews ‘the Israel of God’ in Gal 6:16 or Ro 2:26-29? But this point is perhaps not so crucial if we can agree that it is impossible that one who is ‘in Christ’ is necessarily also ‘in Israel’, and therefore bound to God’s covenant purpose for that nation’s present affliction and future millennial destiny. The Jewish Jesus is the gentile believer’s only claim to the promises made exclusively to Israel. His circumcision counts for their uncircumcision. His Jewish credentials as the ‘seed of David according to the flesh’ is counted over to them as His seed. His Jewish inheritance is theirs because they are in Him and that qualifies them for all that is promised to Israel, as all the promises are yea and amen in Him.
I can’t see how this is a problem. It seems self-evident. It so clearly follows, that if one is washed in the blood and born of the Spirit, how are they not then part of the body of Christ? We may be sure that the Spirit that will be poured out on the penitent survivors of Israel at the end of the tribulation is the same Spirit that baptized believers into the body of Christ at Pentecost and ever since. This means that post-tribulational Israel will be no less the body of Christ on earth in that day. The promised Holy Spirit will do for them what He does for believers today. He will baptize them into the one body. There is one body. Though the mystery is newly revealed, the body of Christ is not new. It did not begin at Pentecost and it does not end its tenure on earth at the rapture. The saved of Israel in that coming day, with all who come to faith from among the nations, will be no less the body of Christ on earth, though not yet glorified.
So much to sort through, I know, but that’s my view as it now stands.
In devoted friendship, Reggie