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Restoration of the Natural Branches to the Living Root

There is no separation between church and Israel. Distinction yes. Separation no! That is something I’d like to say just a little about to prepare you for a comparatively rare view that I believe may go some way towards resolving much of the confusion that reigns over the mystery of Israel and the church.

Though inevitable, it should never have happened that the church should conceive of itself as separate from the literal elect nation of Israel. According to Paul’s manifest interpretation of the prophets, it is the yet outstanding and incomplete promise of the everlasting covenant that alone makes sense of the necessary return of the natural branches to the full hope of millennial promise. Such imagined separation would have been avoided had Paul’s warning been heeded with the trembling he enjoins in Romans Chapter 11. In my view, the common conception of the church is part of a massive illusion that is strengthened by the progress of church history since the great ‘parting of the ways’ that took place in the first and early second centuries. Let me explain.

Due to the great size and institutional appearance of world Christendom (rightly called, “the arrogant kingdom”), it was tragically inevitable that sight be lost of the fact that the church was never to be conceived as separate from the blinded nation under judgment. Like a regenerate Jeremiah (circumcised in heart), the godly remnant was, and should have remained, a corporate prophet to both Israel and the nations, since the true people of the Spirit (regardless of how many gentiles may be added), can never, in principle, cease to belong by birthright to the larger nation that awaits the great transition that is everywhere associated with the great day, the ‘last day’, as it pertains to both personal and national resurrection.

It is like the relation between the living spirit of the believer waiting for the resurrection of the body that is yet dead because of sin. As the spirit to the body, so is the church to Israel. Both are indivisibly one; both are elect. Though the spirit is alive in advance of the resurrection of the body, it can never be conceived as ‘separate’ from the body. The church was originally, and in essence remains, the true (not new) Israel of God within the larger apostate nation. Gentiles are grafted into (“among”) a corporate elect entity. One cannot be ‘in Christ’ and not also be ‘in Israel.’ Therefore we say it is Israel that forms the context of salvation history and the eschatological framework inside which the church is defined in spiritual continuity with the righteous remnant, and certainly not Israel’s replacement. That is why when the natural branches are depicted as being grafted “back” into their own covenant root, and not into some new entity that never existed before Pentecost. That too (the Pentecostal ‘birthday’ of the church / so-called, ‘church age’) is an illusion that scripture will not support.

I think we can make the case that the early church conceived of itself, not as a new entity separate from Israel, but as the ‘maskilim’ (Dan 11:32-33, 35; 12:3, 10), the people of the Spirit who have insight into the revealed secret (i.e., the sealed vision of Isaiah, Habakkuk, and Daniel that the apostles understood as now revealed in the gospel; Ro 16:25-26; Eph 6:19; 1Pet 1:11). Not only the coming unequaled tribulation of short duration, but throughout the entire inter-advent period, the persecuted church has been distinguished as a tribulation people. Living ‘between the times,’ the church of the reveled secret (the ‘hidden wisdom’ of the cross) is not the end but the first fruits of the messianic redemption that is not complete apart from the day of the Lord when ‘all Israel shall be saved’ by the coming of the Deliverer to turn away ungodliness from Jacob (the ‘natural branches’). This re-attachment of the natural branches to the living root, which is the body of Christ in all ages, is the surviving Jewish remnant of literal Israel that will be “born at once … in one day” (Isa 59:16-21; 66:8; Eze 39:22; Zech 3:9; 14:7) into holy millennial nationhood.

I don’t think it an accident that Paul’s sudden arrest on the road to Damascus constitutes a compelling preview of Israel’s national conversion when they see Him (in remarkable analogy to the revelation of their rejected brother, Joseph) whom they pierced / strike (Isa 53:4; Mic 5:1, 3; Zech 12:10; Mt 23:39; Rev 1:7). The apostolic mind would have conceived of the church as revealing a mystery of the corporate nature of Christ’s indwelling, as the primary principle of divine life, no less in OT saints (1Pet 1:11), but a revelation is NOT a new institution. That something is newly revealed does NOT necessarily mean that it is newly existent or newly instituted, since Christ and the church was not so clearly revealed in the OT but was no less present. So far from conceiving of itself as something separate, the apostolic church would have seen itself as a kind of corporate Jeremiah with a calling to the nations that waits in prophetic travail for the salvation of ‘all Israel’ in the coming day of the Lord, knowing that ultimately it is only in the eschatological rest of Jerusalem by which the nations will be at rest. This is why Paul sees in Israel’s return, not the end of gentile salvation, but its exponential increase (Ro 11:12, 15).

This is to understand Paul’s use of the term, ‘all Israel,’ in the context of the prophets’ vision of an all saved Jewish nation as witness among the nations in open vindication of the full goal of the everlasting / new covenant. This alone makes sense of the need for a further millennium beyond this age but short of the final perfection. It is for a divine demonstration that will be visible and open in the sight of the nations. God has a point He is jealous to make in real history. It concerns the sovereignty of His election and the vindication of His Word. This is the logic of the covenantal ‘necessity’ of the return of the natural branches to holy ‘literal’ nationhood. But here is the great anomaly of that time: In contrast to the nations, Israel is depicted as having an all saved population (see Isa 4:3; 54:13; 59:21; 60:21; Jer 31:34; Eze 39:22, 28-29 etc.). Little wonder such uniformity of salvation among the Jews of that time (post-tribulation Israel; Jer 30:7; Jer 31:34; Dan 12:1) is almost invariably spiritualized in the commentaries. Truly, it does cast itself as beyond conception or imagination, but that’s just the point. Does this point us to spiritualize the promise or does it raise the more fundamental and perennial question: “Has God really said?” Truly, they are God’s own self appointed ‘mission impossible’.

If understood of a literal nation (as it must without criminally divesting the history of Jewish suffering of significant meaning), this implies a burning bush of open and miraculous testimony to the nations, who will be required to acknowledge the divine right to lavish such amazing grace on one particular people (Zech 14:16-17), remade into the image of the corporate Servant Son. Israel’s election has been called by scholars, ‘the scandal of particularity’, and so it is. The theocratic headship of millennial Israel is a consummate offense to democratic minded humanism; it is meant to be. An all saved Jewish nation at the head of the nations will test hearts in that day, as the international ‘controversy of Zion’ is soon to test all hearts at the end of the present age. It is more ultimately the controversy / quarrel of the covenant. Had the church not separated its new scriptures from its original Bible, it would have understood that the present age is not the last age before the final perfection. It would have understood that the present fulfillment in Messiah is not the final reach of His blood, but only the first fruits of what remains to be fulfilled with a blinded and disobedient Israel at His return at the day of the Lord. This means that the covenant has not reached its full goal and public vindication until ‘all Israel,’ as a distinct, actually “Jewish,” nation, will experience to the last person what has already come to the church, namely, the everlasting righteousness of the New Covenant.

Only this ‘penultimate’ millennial fulfillment of the covenant can secure abiding safety in the Land. Until then, whether in the Land or outside of it, the Jewish people will continue to endure the threat of covenant judgment that exposes each new generation to the curses pronounced by Moses in the law. Until ‘all Israel’ will be saved, and not only a small remnant, the nation, as a whole, will be exposed to renewed episodes of judgment. So long as this condition obtains, the covenant has not reached its goal to secure permanent inheritance of the Land. As long as Israel remains under covenant jeopardy outside the regeneration of the New Covenant, we must expect the perennial return of judgment on the elect nation through continued exposure to the rage of the hostile powers. This alone is sufficient to make sense of the double measure of suffering that Jews have been subjected to throughout the centuries. God help us if we spiritualize this alabaster box of unspeakable divine demonstration! That such a divine sacrifice should be lost on the church is unconscionable! It is to put the behemoth institution called, ‘the church’, at a convenient remove from the divine pathos that still travails for the consolation of Israel (yes, literal Jewish Israel, see my paper, “The Historic Impasse Between Church and Synagogue”).

So it is my thesis that the age cannot end with literal Israel in literal exile. That would be to leave the name and Word of God in shambles, according to God’s own testimony concerning what is at stake in their return. No, the covenant has not attained its full reach ‘until … all Israel’ is saved (Ro 11:25-29) in the sense that we believe Paul is using the term. Therefore, regardless of how many gentiles may be added to the Israel within Israel, the true “remnant according to the election of grace,” this ‘appearance’ of a mostly gentile church cannot alter the inward essence of a holy nation ‘born in Zion’, conceived as a first fruits within, and not outside the temporally blinded, but no less elect nation.

The church is the ‘already’ (first-fruits) of a predestined ‘not yet’ of Israel’s national salvation. The covenant is not fully realized in all of its designated provisions until an all righteous Jewish nation can dwell in the Land in permanent security. In that day, millennial Israel, though distinct with special stewardship of the Land, will be as much the “church” as any of the elect seed of faith throughout the generations. This implies no disruption of the glory of the one new man in Christ, since even now, there are distinctions of gender roles, of office, calling, and function within the church. These distinctions constitute no disruption of the common unity and equality in Christ.

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