ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH
Two views about Israel
One of the much debated issues among Christians is the significance of Israel in the purposes of God.
On the one hand there are those who insist that Israel and the Church should be sharply distinguished. Old Testament passages referring to the future glory of Israel must be referred only to the nation, and similarly in the New Testament. The church is seen as a distinct provision of God, even a kind of alternative operation arising because of the unbelief of Israel in the time of Jesus. Ultimately, it is held, God will restore Israel as a people at the last minute and fulfil the ancient promises. This view, usually called dispensational, is commonly associated with the idea of a literal reign of Christ from Jerusalem during the millennium, and great interest in supposedly unfulfilled prophecies, and finds confirmation in the return of many Jews to Palestine in 1948. A variation not uncommon in liberal circles in Europe and elsewhere, perhaps contributed to by a sense of guilt for past injustice to Jewish people, is content simply to say that the Jews are God’s special people, and they will be OK in the end without need for faith in Jesus.
On the other hand, there are those who accept in one form or another the majority view that the ancient promises to Israel are fulfilled in and through the church of Jesus Christ as the Israel of God. This position understands the fulfilment of the ancient promises is not a slavish, literalistic one. Rather, the distinctive institutions of Israel (sacrificial system, organization as a kingdom etc.) provide a portrayal on an earthly level of what is to be fulfilled in a greater and more wonderful way by the Messiah. The way Old Testament texts are used in the New Testament is held to confirm this approach.
The question then arises, ‘Is there any place for ethnic Israel in the purposes of God in the age begun by Jesus’ resurrection?’
The key passage in the debate is the meaning of the expression ‘and so all Israel will be saved’ in Romans 11:26. Perhaps a majority say ‘all Israel’ is the nation although not necessarily every individual (eg. C. Hodge, J.Murray, C.E.B.Cranfield); some say it is the elect remnant from the nation (eg. R.C.H.Lenski, W.Hendriksen, H. Ridderbos), and others (eg. J.Calvin, K.Barth, N.T.Wright) say it is the church consisting of believing Jews and Gentiles. The issue is complicated by the apparent ambiguity of the words translated ‘and so’: they could be taken as meaning ‘and in this way’ or they could be taken as meaning ‘and then’. Obviously we have to look at the context.
As regards the overall Biblical context, I take it as undeniable that the OT anticipates the work of Christ by utilising the events and institutions of Israel to point forward to the true fulfilment of them in Christ. For example, Jesus is greater than Moses and greater than Cyrus. On the mount of transfiguration Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus about the coming ‘departure’ (Luke 9:30; lit. exodus) Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem, thus reminding us that that was at the heart of the OT. If Cyrus, the typical Messiah (Isaiah 45:1), set the captives in Babylon free so that they might build the city and the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus, the true Messiah, delivers his people from sin’s bondage that they might form a holy temple and the city of God, the New Jerusalem.
The New Testament sees the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church as the enlarging of David’s fallen tent (Acts 15:14-17). The true Israel of God is the believing remnant of national Israel to which the believing Gentiles are added. It is an expansion of the true Israel, not a replacement. It is an expansion already anticipated in the OT in the Abrahamic promise, and in many prophecies.
Paul regards the fact that God has appointed the Gentiles to be heirs together with Israel, members together in one body, as the ‘mystery’ of Christ (Eph 3:1-6). The word ‘mystery’ doesn’t mean a riddle we must solve, but something that is hidden from clear view until revealed by God. The mystery is that the glory of Israel promised for the last days is fulfilled in the gathering of Jew and Gentile in one body on an equality of status and privilege.
Coming now to Romans, we need to appreciate that chapters 9-11 are not a kind of appendix to ‘the gospel as the power of God for salvation’ in chapters 1-8, an appendix which we can pass over as we move to the ‘practical’ teaching in chapters 12-16. Rather chapters 9-11 build on the teaching about salvation already given to show that the result of God’s saving purposes is the building of the true Israel promised.
Jews were a very significant proportion of the population of the Roman Empire – 10% or more overall. It was only a short while before that Jews had been allowed back to Rome following their expulsion in AD 49 (Acts 18:2), and the Roman Christians didn’t seem to have a sound understanding of their true position vis-a-vis the Jews. They might be tempted to think of themselves as God’s favourites (11:19-21), so doing what most Jews had done. They might think that the Jews were now written out of God’s purposes altogether. A better theology would need to prevail for evangelism to truly demonstrate the reconciling power of the gospel among all nations.
In Chapter 9:6 Paul distinguishes believing Israelites from unbelieving: ‘not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.’ He insists that physical descent from Abraham does not make one a true member of God’s family. Ultimately, it is God’s gracious election that is at work among sinful people. Salvation is not by human achievement, but through the instrumentality of faith in Christ. God did not reject Israel but always saved a remnant chosen by grace, and that fact remained true in Paul’s day (11:1-6).
Rather, bringing salvation to Gentiles was designed to provoke Israel to seek the blessings believing Gentiles enjoyed (11:11). Paul himself hoped his Gentile ministry might arouse some Jews and save some of them. He reminds the Gentile believers that they were supported by the olive root of the patriarchs (cf. 9:5; 11:28). They had been grafted in as wild branches. This is a further reminder of the historic continuity between faithful Israel and the believing church.
Paul says a number of things concerning unbelieving Israel:
11Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.12But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fulness bring! 13I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry 14in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. 15For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 161f the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. (NIV)
1. Paul emphasises that the Jews are not completely written off. The firstfruits, the faithful patriarchs, mean God has in some sense set apart those descended from them for the fulfilment of his saving purposes.
2. The blessings which come through Israel’s transgression are salvation for the Gentiles, riches for the world, for Gentiles. The prophets speak of the wealth/people of the Gentiles entering into Zion (eg. Isa 60:10-12; Rev 21:24-26), and there seems an allusion to this.
3. The ‘fulness’ (v12) refers to Jews who come to faith. It contrasts with the ‘transgresssion’ and ‘loss’ of the majority of Israel through unbelief, and it appears to be equivalent to ‘acceptance’ in v15. The word translated ‘fulness’ may have the idea of a full recovery or a full number. However, it is not a fulness that belongs simply to the future. It is a fulness to which Paul himself aims to contribute to now, rather than merely a last days large-scale conversion of Jews. It is a fulness that is always according to God’s gracious election and in the way of faith, as Paul has explained at length from Chapter 9:1 onwards.
4. The blessings associated with Israel’s ‘fulness’ are ‘much greater riches’ (v12) or ‘life from the dead’ (v15). It is sometimes said that the first expression implies that the fulness of Israel will result in a more extensive in-gathering of Gentiles. However that is an inference not required by the context, and is seemingly contradicted by the ‘fulness’ of the Gentiles (v25) having already come in before the ‘fulness’ of Israel. It is sufficient to recognise significant spiritual blessings are indicated, blessings which impact on Gentile believers as well, when Israel’s fulness is in.
5. The expression ‘life from the dead’ might well remind us of the way in which God recovered his people from the exile, breathing life into what seemed dead by the power of his Spirit (Ezekiel 37 – the valley of dry bones). God could effect a more general conversion of ethnic Israel in the future too. But perhaps the expression really refers to the climax of God’s purposes with Jew and Gentile in the resurrection and the perfection of the New Jerusalem which follows it; ‘much greater riches’ indeed and ‘life from the dead’ quite literally.
6. The Gentile believers also needed to appreciate that Israel’s hardening in unbelief was not total but only partial and would continue ‘until’ the fulness of the Gentiles was brought in (v25). This says nothing about the proportion of Jews hardened at any particular period, only that it is not total, ‘and God can graft them in again’, nor does it imply they’ll not be hardened after that.
7. The fulness of the Gentiles (v25) ‘come in’ (that is, into the olive tree of Israel cf. Jer 11:16) through conversions in the course of history, not by some last-minute mass conversion. There is no imperative reason that we should understand the fulness of the Jews any differently. If the partial hardening of Israel ends when the fulness of the Gentiles comes in so as to allow Israel’s mass conversion, we are left with the strange idea of an historical period of largely Gentile accessions to God’s people being succeeded by one in which it is exclusively Jews (since the ‘fullness’ of the Gentiles has already come in).
8. Paul reminds the Roman believers that they are not some replacement for Israel or even a parallel separate development, but they are vitally connected to Israel and beneficiaries of the covenant God made with Abraham (cf. Rom 4). They have been grafted in to the olive tree of God’s covenant people. They are part of the true Israel of faith, but they can’t have mercy without ethnic Israel any more than Israel can have mercy apart from the Gentiles. All have been bound over to disobedience so that all may receive mercy (v32). Blindness in part has happened to Israel after the flesh, but in the course of history the fulness of Gentile and Jew will come in, and ‘in this way all Israel will be saved’ (v26).
I conclude that Israel in Romans 11:26 is a name for the expanded spiritual Israel, the church as the covenant people of God, rather than the nation. The view expressed does not exclude conversion of large numbers from the Jewish people in the course of history, and it ties in with the distinction made in Romans 9:6 that the true Israel is believers.
Earlier, to the Galatians, Paul had written, ‘If you are Christ’s you are Abraham’s children’ (Gal 3:29) and belong to ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal 6:16). To the Philippians he will soon write that believers are ‘the true circumcision’ (Phil 3:3). There is no principial reason why Paul cannot use ‘Israel’ in Rom 11:36 for the glorified church – the fulness of Christ (Eph 1:20), the expanded Zion promised by the prophets. I believe that’s exactly what he does.
Stephen Voorwinde’s article, ‘How Jewish is Israel in the New Testament?’ in Reformed Theological Review, 67.2 (August 2008) 61-90 is somewhat disappointing. Voorvinde rightly rejects a bald ‘replacement’ theology in favour of an ‘engrafting’ theology but does not draw out its implications given the teaching of both Old and New Testaments that ‘they are not all Israel who are of Israel’, that they are true Jews who worship Jesus as Lord (Phil 3:3; Rev 2:9) and that the family of God is one across the testaments. How he can consistently deal with OT prophecies concerning Israel which the NT shows as fulfilled in the church is also not clear. For a more nuanced reading on this question see George W. Knight III in Robert L. Penny (ed.), The Hope Fulfilled – Essays in Honour of O. Palmer Robertson (P & R, 208) 82-108. For the main issue of the meaning of ‘all Israel’ in Romans 11:26 note the robust argument for spiritual Israel in N.T.Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (T & T Clark, 1991) 231-257.
To the spiritual Israel of Jewish Christian beginnings is engrafted believing Gentiles who together form the expanded Israel of God, the rebuilt tent of David now welcoming the Gentiles (Acts 15:16-17) and having accessions from ethnic Israel too, for God’s ancient people are not utterly cut off (Rom 11). The Gospel is to be preached to both Jew and Gentile, and ‘in this way all Israel shall be saved’.