or What does the New Testament teach about Israel & the Church?
INTRODUCTION – For thousands of years Israel and Judah were God’s primary instruments for fulfilling His purposes and making Himself known on the earth. Then a little over 2,000 years ago this wonderful organism or people called the church was born.
Some say that because of Israel’s disobedience to their covenant with God, and because of the birth of the church, Israel is just like any other nation today. God has no unique plans or purposes for them that He doesn’t have for any other nation. In fact they say, the church is the “New Israel”.
Others believe, while the church is obviously God’s primary instrument for accomplishing His purposes on the earth today, He still has plans and purposes for Israel, and the two in scripture are to be seen as two separate entities, though not independent ones.
I would not be so foolish as to expect that this paper would forever solve this ongoing debate. But my hope is that at least among those who believe God has rejected Israel, there would be greater respect for the second or latter view – recognizing that the biblical grounds for it are at least as strong as the biblical grounds for the view that the church today is the New Israel.
Perhaps the best place to start would be to study every reference to the word Israel in the New Testament and see what we find. One would hope anyone who cares about this issue, would have carefully worked their way through each of these passages.
I will not comment on all of them as some shed no light on the said debate, such as Matthew 2:20, “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.”
There are 77 references to the word “church” in the N.T. ; 73 references to Israel in the N.T.. Here are my findings:
I. There is no direct or even indirect reference in any of the 77 passages where the word church appears in the New Testament that equates it with Israel or says it is the New Israel or has taken the place of Israel.
II. There is one reference that does have church and Jews in the same sentence, which is I Cor. 10:32, where Paul commands the church in Corinth, “Give no offense either to Jews, or to Greeks or to the church of God.” The context is a discussion about the danger of being a stumbling block to someone (saved or unsaved) by demanding one’s right to eat certain things, or drink certain things, etc. If anything, this verse would show both Paul’s ongoing concern for the Jews, and that he sees them separate from the church. But I do not think it is a verse that was meant to shed light on the subject at hand.
III. Of the 73 references to Israel in the New Testament – there is not one verse that directly or indirectly equates it with the church, or says the church is the New Israel.
So what does the New Testament teach us about Israel – how God looks at Israel and how we should look at or view Israel??
IV. 30 of the 73 references to Israel occur in the gospels, which of course took place before the church was born, so I didn’t see much there that directly related to our question today.
But allow me briefly to touch on two passages in the gospel of Matthew that scholars have struggled over. The first one is Matt. 19:28, “And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Somehow or another, when life on this earth is over and we are in heaven with our Lord, at least the disciples in Jesus’ day, and perhaps some since are going to judge the 12 tribes of Israel. Some say Jesus is speaking allegorically in this passage. But the type of literature we are reading here is not allegorical. How that is going to look or work – I do not know. But if you take this literally, it sounds like those who are part of the 12 tribes of Israel are going to be recognized as such – even in heaven (cf. Revelation 21:12).
The second one is in Matt. 21:43. “ Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it.” Some have said that this passage teaches that the Jews would lose their spiritual privileges, and be replaced by another people. But who is Jesus speaking to here? Basically from vs. 24 on through vs. 44 – Jesus is delivering one ripping rebuke to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who will not in any way experience or enter the kingdom of God (unless they repent). It is a stretch to say Jesus was saying “I’m through with Israel” in vs. 43.
V. As we stroll over to the book of Acts – we encounter a very interesting exchange the risen Christ has with His disciples right before He ascends to sit at the right hand of the Father. His disciples in vs. 6 ask this question, “….Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus responds in vs. 7,8, “… It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority, but you will receive power….” It seems to me this would have been a great time for Jesus to say look guys, “I just ministered to Israel for three and a half years. I poured out my life for her. And she on the most part rejected me. It ain’t about Israel anymore. You are the new Israel.” But that is not what Jesus said. Now He did communicate very clearly that He wanted them to be about His purposes for the nations, and not sitting around trying to figure out the timing of future events. And may we as a church not make this mistake either. But He did not say He was not going to restore His kingdom to Israel at some future time. In other words He did not deny that He was intending to do that at some future point in time.
Well in chapter two the church is born and quickly begins to grow. Then we come to chapter 5 vs. 17 where we find the Jewish leaders all in a lather because of the rapid growth and influence of this new church, and they arrest Peter and the apostles, put them in jail, only to later discover they somehow had escaped, they arrested them again, and Peter is addressing these same jealous and frustrated leaders and he says these words in vs. 31 regarding Jesus Christ, “… He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” Now I just find it interesting that they are still preaching that Jesus came to save the nation Israel – some weeks or months after the church was born. While the gospel increasingly is preached to the Gentiles as the early church obeys its Master, they never stop ministering to the Jews. And in the last chapter of Acts we find Paul faithfully and passionately proclaiming Christ to the Jews, and to “all who came to him.” Now in that chapter he did rebuke the Jews for their hardness of heart, and he told them that one of the consequences of their hard heartedness was that “this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles”, which I believe means that increasingly the church will be found focusing on all peoples everywhere – especially those who are responsive.
VI. Now we come to the one book in the New Testament that has probably caused more confusion and disagreement on this subject than any other – Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Scholars believe there was a small Jewish minority among the largely Gentile church in Rome. While Paul addresses the Jews here and there in his letter, his primary thrust is to the Gentile Christians. Let’s walk through this foundational epistle for the church, & see if by God’s grace I can shed some light on this thorny issue. Ch. 1 – Please note in vs. 16, Paul states with great passion, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Why did he say “to the Jew first”? Wasn’t Paul called to be an apostle to the Gentiles? Well yes he was. But if you study his ministry in the book of Acts you will find everywhere he went he first sought to minister to the Jews. Paul never wrote them off, even though they on the most part rejected his ministry. But the priority of his ministry because of God’s specific calling was to the Gentiles. Whereas the priority of Peter’s ministry for instance seemed to be to the Jews, though he obviously ministered to the Gentiles as well.
What you are going to find throughout this epistle written primarily to Gentile Christians I believe is a continual reminder of the fact that though the Jews are lost in sin and headed for hell if they do not repent and trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation, they are still close to the heart of God, and certainly close to the apostle Paul’s, and he wants these Gentile Christians to understand that and to feel about them the way God does. I believe we will also find that Paul often addresses them or speaks of them as two different entities. For instance, in chapter two as Paul continues his discussion of the judgment and wrath of God that awaits every person who does not turn from their sin and place their trust in Christ to save them from that sin, he states in vs. 9 & 10, “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Now what Paul is seeking to establish in this passage is the absolute impartiality of God in the way He deals, and will deal with the sin, rebellion and unbelief of man. He will go on to specifically deal with the thought many Jews had that being born Jewish somehow would help them on judgment day. But he is still seemingly dealing with them as a separate entity. By the way – it appears from this passage that just as the Jews were first in many ways with God and His ministry to them through His various servants, so will they be first in line on the judgment day – perhaps because as Jesus said, “to whom much is given, much is required.”
As we go on towards the end of this chapter we come to one of the controversial passages in the book of Romans. Vs. 28,29, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which if of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
Some believe what Paul is saying in this passage is that the true Jew is anyone (Jewish or Gentile) who is born again by the Spirit of God, and does not put his trust in his ethnicity, works, or any other thing other than the finished work of Christ on the cross. But who is Paul speaking to in this latter half of chapter two?? Clearly he is directing these thoughts to the Jewish believers in the church in Rome and to any other Jews in Rome that the church might be reaching out to. All he is saying here is your ethnicity, your outward circumcision, and any other outwards ceremonies or rituals or religious achievements mean nothing in the sight of a righteous holy God who demands inner righteousness and holiness on the part of anyone who approaches Him. He is not saying in the sight of God there are no longer Jews as a distinct people. He is trying to help the Jews understand what kind of Jew God extends salvation and favor to.
Paul anticipates that some might misinterpret his statements here so in chapter three he gets that tension out on the table. 3:1 “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” Or what value has the Jew today? The answer? 3:2 “Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” They were chosen to bring forth the scriptures, not to mention the Messiah Himself. But the reader might be thinking, “But they were unfaithful to God (as a whole). Paul’s response to that question is in vs. 3,4 “What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTIFIED IN YOUR WORDS, AND PREVAIL WHEN YOU ARE JUDGED.” (See Psalm 51:4, 116:11). Paul goes on in vs. 5-20 to make sure that everyone knows that when it comes to sin and our need for salvation – we are all in the same boat.
Now I want you to note again the way Paul speaks of Jews and Gentiles as two ongoing separate peoples in vs. 29, 30 “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.”
For the sake of time and space let’s move on to chapters 9-11. These are the crucial chapters where Paul writes at great length on this subject. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, begins by sharing the grief he experiences on a daily basis because of the way his people – the Israelites – have rejected their Messiah. (vs. 1-3). Then he lists seven spiritual privileges that are theirs because of the sovereign choosing of God (vs. 4,5). And please note in vs. 4 he does not say belonged, but rather “belongs”. Then anticipating that his readers might be concluding that God’s purposes and plans for Israel as stated in the Old Testament had failed, Paul states in vs. 6 that this is not the case “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.”.
Then he seeks to defend or explain that – by explaining that how God sees Israel – is not often how the Israelites see themselves. In other words, in God’s eyes – the true Israelite is an Israeli who trusts in God’s provision of righteousness (not their own works and efforts) and thus are children of God by their faith in Christ. He then goes on to give some examples of how God sovereignly chooses people in biblical history and His choosing sometimes proves to be a surprise to those involved. He also discusses how God in His wisdom and sovereign power uses those who rebel against Him as well. But what I want to make sure you understand is Paul is talking about Israelites here. They, not Gentiles are the subject of this long passage. Not until vs. 24 does he began to discuss Gentiles again.
You see one of the reasons some Christians I believe cannot accept that God still has plans and purposes for the nation of Israel is because they do not understand or accept God’s sovereignty in the way He does things. That’s why Paul reminds his readers of God’s sovereign choosing with Rebekah’s twins – Jacob and Esau; and why He discusses His choosing of Israel and rejection of Pharoah and the Egyptians. God is God – the last time Paul checked – and His ways are higher than the heavens above the earth – than our thoughts and our ways. Paul makes it clear that Israelites or Jews can only come to God through Christ by faith. But He also makes it clear that God has sovereignly chosen Israel, and is not done with them yet.
We come to chapter 10 and Paul again reveals to his readers his passion and prayers for Israel’s salvation. Israel again is the subject of his writing. He speaks again of how they continue to stumble over Jesus Christ and His offer of righteousness to them (apart from their works). He then spells out in crystal clear terms what it means to be saved or how one can be saved; and then speaking of Israel (he has never left this subject), he basically issues a call to Jewish evangelization starting in vs. 14-15 . Now right after that Paul is very straightforward about their present resistance to the gospel.
And then in chapter 11, knowing how we so often tend to over-react to a certain truth, and throw the baby out with the bathwater, He reminds us that God has not rejected His chosen people – the Israelites – even though to date they have mostly rejected Him. Please note his subject is still Israel in this chapter. You see, Paul is not stupid. He knows it is going to be very tempting for the Gentile Christians who were multiplying like crazy, and who were slowly taking on more leadership in the church, to put 2 and 2 together and come up with 5, which is – God is done with Israel – they have had their chances – now it is about us. That is why Paul gives a severe warning in vs. 11-25 to the Gentile Christians against the very real temptation to become arrogant towards the Jews. He reminds them that it is not the Gentile Christians who support the root (or Israel), rather it is the root (Israel) that supports us. We snuck in on their coattails – so to speak. And God is using our growth and blessing among the nations to make the Jews jealous and prepare them for the great move of God that will sweep many of them into the kingdom before the King returns.
God’s dealing with His church and concurrently with Israel – as Paul says in vs. 25 is a mystery. He in His great power and wisdom and sovereignty has so worked with them and with us – that everything is in place for His end time purposes and plans. Nothing has caught Him by surprise. Nothing is beyond His reach. God’s purposes are marching forward and for those of us who follow Him in humility and submission – our cry will increasingly be, (vs. 33f), “Oh, the depth….
The next passage of interest in this study is Galatians 6:16, “And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” The “rule” is that no amount of works or rituals such as circumcision means anything in the kingdom of God, but rather a new creation by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul then proclaims a blessing on anyone who walks by this rule or principle, “and upon the Israel of God.” Why does he add the phrase, “and upon the Israel of God”? Perhaps “those who will walk” refers to individuals; and “the Israel of God” refers to Israel as a people? Paul already in the book of Romans has spoken of his great burden for Israel as a people and as a nation. At the very least I hope we can agree that this passage does not in any way state that the church is the new Israel.
Finally I want to re-state that the phrase “New Israel” is not a biblical phrase – that is – it is not found in the New Testament (or in the Old for that matter).
As to references to the word “church” or “churches” in the New Testament, I did not find one passage that stated in any way that the church is the New Israel.
I realize that there are many other theological issues that must weigh in on this debate. But I felt it necessary to start here.