Thursday, March 25, 2010

Some Questions Regarding the Nature of Israel and the Church

By Ryan M. McGraw
One of the most troubling questions for many Christians is how they should regard the relationship between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. This is a question of great importance. The manner in which we answer it has tremendous implications as to how we view the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, our Ecclesiology, and our hope of what the Lord shall do in the future. In many respects, the manner in which we conceive of the relationship between Israel and the Church reflects on our understanding of the purposes of the covenant of grace and the substance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This also involves practical issues such as what we should make of the land promises and the place of so-called “Messianic Jews” in the Church. Many good works have been written exploring this question. However, sometimes there is great value in asking direct questions and letting the Scriptures themselves provide the answers. This does not deny the necessity of painstaking exegetical work and careful theological reflection, yet in order to help provide a starting point for addressing this vital question, I have provided the following short “catechism” in order to draw your attention to what the Scriptures have to say concerning some of the most vital questions connected to this topic.
Q.1. Who is a Jew?
A. “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 of the heart” (Romans 2:28-29).
Q.2. Is this a doctrine of the New Testament only or of the Old Testament also?
A. Of the Old Testament. “Break up your fallow ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your hearts, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.” “Behold the days are coming says the Lord, that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised – Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Amon, Moab, and all who are in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in their hearts” (Jer. 4:4; 9:25-26).
Q.3. How is one circumcised in the heart?
A. In Christ, for “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11).
Q.4. Was this true for Old Testament believers as well, even though Christ had not yet come?
A. Yes, for “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-4).
Q.5. How does God regard the status of ethnic Jews who have apostatized?
A. “You are not my people and I will not be you God” (Hos. 1:9), “they are not his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5), and “They are not all Israel who are of Israel nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham” (Rom. 9:6-7).
Q.6. Are ethnic Jews to be regarded as Abraham’s children?
A. “Know that only those who are of the faith are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 2:7) and “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do Abraham’s works.” “You are of your father the devil, and your father’s will you want to do” (John 8:39, 44).[1]
Q.7. Are those who are unbelieving ethnic Jews entitled to Abraham’s inheritance?
A. No, “for if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect” (Rom. 4:14).
Q.8. Is there more than one way that “Israel” is used in the New Testament?
A. Yes. There is Israel “according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3) and “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
Q.9. Which “Israel” is blessed of God?
A. “The Israel of God,” which is the New Jerusalem Church and the lamb’s wife (Rev. 21:1).
Q.10. What is the present status of Israel according to the flesh?
A. They “killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men . . . but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:15-16).
Q.11. Did Paul write these things out of prejudice or resentment towards the Jews?
A. By no means. “I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I would wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to flesh, who are Israelites” (Rom. 9:1-4).
Q.12. What should be our attitude towards Israel according to the flesh?
A. Like Paul, our “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved” (Rom. 10:1).
Q.13. Is there a future for ethnic or national Israel?
A. Yes. The Gentiles have been grafted into the church of Israel (the olive tree) by faith in Jesus Christ in order to provoke Israel according to the flesh to jealousy (Rom. 11:13, 17). But the blindness that has happened to Israel will be taken away when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in and “all Israel will be saved.”
Q.14. Is it proper to recognize a distinction within the Church between ethnic Jews who have believed in Christ and Gentile believers (so-called Messianic Jews)?
A. No. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek . . .” (Gal. 3:26-28).
Q.15. How did Abraham understand the land promises?
A. “By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise, for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:9-10).
Q.16. Did Abraham or his seed receive these promises, even though they entered into the land of Canaan?
A. No, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims in the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland” (Heb. 11:13-14).
Q.17. Did Abraham and his seed expect the final fulfillment of the promises in the land of Canaan?
A. No. “They desire a better, that is a heavenly country” because “God has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16).
Q.18. How is our situation similar to that of Abraham with respect to these promises?
A. Just as he was waiting for “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God,” so “here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:14).[2]
Q.19. What is this heavenly city that God has promised?
A. The new or heavenly Jerusalem, for the Scripture says, “but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22).[3]
Q.20. What are the geographical bounds of Abraham’s inheritance?
A. God promised that “he would be heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13).
Q.21. How does this apply to Abraham’s spiritual descendants?
A. “Those who wait on the Lord shall inherit the earth” (Ps. 37:9), “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5), and “he who overcomes shall inherit all things” (Rev. 21:7).
Q.22. In what way shall Abraham’s seed through faith inherit the earth?
A. Although “the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with a fervent heat . . . Nevertheless, we according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:12-13).

[1] Romans 4:11-12 is also important in this connection: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.” Remember in this connection that it was circumcision in particular that was a badge of identification for a Jew. This verse should be read with Romans 2:28-29.

[2] Note that “the city” here is to be understood in the same manner in which it has been used in the broader context beginning in chapter ll.

[3] Note that we already have access to this city and enjoy its blessings, but we also wait for it as “the one to come.” The New Jerusalem is the lamb’s wife or the bride of Christ, which is the church (see Rev. 21:9-10). It has already been established and we are members of it, but its final consummation and glory is stored up for the future.