What is the Relationship Between Israel and the Church?

What is the relationship between the nation of Israel and the Church? On the surface it seems like it should be a pretty straight forward answer. But the more time I have spent with this question the more challenging I have found it to be. There are several schools of thought in regards to this relationship, but I have personally found all of them to be somewhat lacking and unsatisfying.

The intent of this post is twofold. First of all it is an attempt to focus my own thoughts. I find that writing them down, especially for public consumption, forces me to think more clearly. And, secondly, I suspect that I am not the only person who finds this discussion somewhat confusing. Hopefully I will be able to add some clarity to the debate, although that may be asking too much.

Definitions

It will likely be helpful to start with a brief description of these entities. Knowing clearly who they are cannot but help in our understanding.

Israel

In the Old Testament Jacob is given the name Israel after wrestling with God. This name is later used to refer to his descendants and the united kingdom formed under Saul, David and Solomon. The name Israel is then used for the northern tribes during the period of the divided monarchy. The southern tribes took on the name of the dominant tribe, Judah.

But more generally the name Israel is used to reference God’s chosen people, at least in the Old Testament. God makes a covenant with Abraham concerning his descendents. God later establishes a covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai. In this covenant God promises that Israel would be his elect people, if they would obey the terms of the covenant. Later, God establishes a covenant with David, that he would always have a descendant on the throne of Israel. 

Israel is generally considered to be made up of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But there were many other peoples that joined themselves to Israel and were assimilated into the nation. Ruth, the great-grandmother of David is but one example of this assimilation. Even in the Old Testament, Israel is much more than just the descendants of Jacob. Israel is the covenant people of God, regardless their physical ancestry.

The Church

The church is a term used to describe the New Testament covenant people. The church is composed of all those who through faith have come into relationship with Jesus. Membership in the church crosses all ethnic lines.

The church started as a Jewish sect, as a part of Israel. But by the time the New Testament closes, the church had reached out well beyond the confines of Israel. The inclusion of Gentiles into the church was not without controversy. There were those Jewish believers within the church who advocated that the church remain Jewish. That the Gentiles coming into the church must also be active participants in Jewish ritual and practice. 

While the church started under the umbrella of Israel, at some point that ceased to be true. It seems not to have happened in an instance. But over a period of time the Jewish part of the church declined in influence. As this happened, and the church became predominantly Gentile, Israel and the church came to be recognized as two separate entities.

Israel and the Church

So what is the relationship between Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament. Has the church replaced Israel in God’s plan? Are Israel and the church both covenant people that God has different purposes for? Or is there some other relationship between them?

The Church Replacing Israel

This appears to be a pretty common view and is called Replacement Theology or Supersessionism. Some form of supersessionism seems to have been the dominant view of the church throughout most of its history. In this view the covenant with Israel is no longer in force due to their disobedience. And instead God has established a new covenant with those who make up the church.

This new covenant was foretold by Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34). The author of Hebrews quotes this passage from Jeremiah (Heb. 8:8-12), and then says that the old covenant is obsolete and will soon disappear. This seems to be the most explicit passage that would indicate a replacement of covenant people in God’s plan. But Jesus also points to this in Matthew 8:10-12 and Matthew 21:43 when he teaches that the kingdom of God will be taken from the Jews and given to others.

But balanced against this is Paul’s discussion of the Jews in Romans 9-11. Especially in the 11th chapter he makes it clear that, although the Jews have mostly fallen, there will come a time when they will be restored (Rom. 11:25-32). While that does not seem to directly indicate a dual covenant path, it is clear that God has not permanently rejected Israel, even if at the current time they have rejected him.

The Church and Israel as Two Distinct Peoples

A second view on the relationship between Israel and the Church is that proposed by dispensationalists. As I understand it, they see Israel as the ethnic nation of Abraham’s descendents. While the church is composed of all saved individuals in the current church age. This church age is thought to have started around Pentecost and will extend to Christ’s return for his church. Some, although not all, will allow for an overlap; for ethnic Jews who have been saved and are a part of both.

In this view, all of the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning Israel will be literally and physically fulfilled. Israel will be restored to their land as an independent kingdom. And not just as a minor player on the world stage. They will be a dominant world power and will be greatly blessed by God. Numerous passages in the prophets point ahead to this time, and are considered as unbreakable promises by God to Israel.

This view has become pretty popular over the past two centuries, especially among evangelical Protestants. But I struggle with the idea that God has put Israel on hold during the church age, and will then ‘get back to them’, once the church is removed from the world. I do not see any anything in the Bible that would really support this idea of two separate covenant peoples.

Israel and the Church as One People

I do not know that the position has a formal name, but I understand the Scripture to proclaim a single covenant people. I do not believe that the Church has replaced Israel. Instead I believe that Israel has expanded from its mostly ethnic base as Abraham’s physical descendants to a broader base. And the story in Acts is one of this expansion from an ethnic people, who largely reject Jesus, to a multi-ethnic people believing in Jesus.

Acts begins with Jesus’ followers being all Jewish, and considering themselves to be a part of Israel. And not just a part of Israel, but the Israel that the prophets had looked forward to. The difference between these early believers and the rest of the Jews was that they had come to know the foretold messiah and were following him.

As time goes on you see the gospel reaching out beyond ethnic Israel. Starting with Phillip’s mission to Samaria and then to the Ethiopian. Then Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, followed by those fleeing the persecution in Jerusalem who took the gospel to Gentiles in Antioch. And then God calls Paul and Barnabas to intentionally take the gospel out into the greater Gentile world of the Roman empire.

Israel and the Church as Two Peoples

At no time is there any break between Israel and the Church. If anything the Church is initially considered simply to be a sect within Judaism. While the Gentile believers were clearly not Jews, the leadership of the church in Jerusalem embraced them as brothers (Acts 15). It seems like the understanding of who Israel was was expanding, at least among many of the believing Jews. Ultimately the Church was recognized as distinct from ethnic Israel, but that was more because of rejection by the Jews rather than a desire on the part of the believers.

Was God’s Covenant with Israel Conditional?

I frequently hear, or read from, people who declare that the covenant that God established with Israel at Mt. Sinai was unconditional; that it would always be in effect. But was it?

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ – Exodus 19:5-6a NIV

The verses above form what I understand to be the basis for the covenant. And notice that it says ‘If you will”, “then I will”. That seems very conditional to me. I am not arguing here that God has abandoned Israel. But clearly Israel did not keep their end of the agreement. And Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34) seems to look to that as he foretells the establishment of a new covenant, after Israel had broken the old one.

Scriptural Support for One Body

The focus in the Old Testament is on the ethnic nation of Israel. Most of the effort of the prophets was directed at turning the hearts of Israel back to their God. But there are hints in the prophets that God’s plans extend out beyond just Israel.

Isaiah

[God] says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
– Isaiah 49:6 NIV

Isaiah 49:6 seems more explicit than most passages. Here the servant’s (Jesus’) light goes beyond Israel to the Gentiles. His salvation is reaching out to the ends of the earth. God is interested not just in Israel, but all people, to the ends of the earth.

Hosea

I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”
– Hosea 2:23 NIV

This passage from Hosea seems to be talking about a restoration of the Jews to God’s favor. Yet in Romans 9:24-26 Paul quotes from this passage and includes the Gentiles in those who were not loved or God’s people, yet who now are.

Jesus

Jesus expresses that his mission is to the lost house of Israel (Matt. 15:24). And he seldom interacts with those outside of Israel. And yet, in Jesus’ final commission to his disciples, both in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8, the expectation is that they would go into all nations making disciples. It seems that at his death the mission of Christ spread out to the whole world. No longer just ethnic Israel. But now all the nations. John 3:16 applies to everyone, not just to some.

Paul

In Ephesians 2:11-22 Paul very explicitly declares that Christ has made one new people out of Jew and Gentile. That they now are fellow citizens and built on a single foundation to become a temple to God. This appears to be a union between the two rather than two distinct peoples. It is not that Israel has been replaced. But rather the barrier that kept the Gentiles out has been removed.

In Romans 9-11 Paul addresses the issue of Israel. What is the current place of the Jews in God’s plans. Paul starts by making it clear that just because someone is a Jew that does not make them a true Israelite (Rom. 9:6). God chooses who he will; those who respond in faith (Rom. 10:9-10). Paul uses the Old Testament prophets (Rom. 9:25-29) to demonstrate that God’s call extends to both Jew and Gentile; they are both objects of God’s mercy. Of course not all Jews or all Gentiles experience God’s mercy. Only those who have attained God’s righteousness by faith.

Paul concludes this passage by comparing the Jew and Gentile in God’s plan. In Romans 11:11-24 Paul uses the metaphor of an olive tree. A tree whose root was holy making its branches also holy. Currently some of the Jewish branches have been broken off and Gentile branches grafted in. But Paul’s expectation is that God will ultimately graft unbelieving Jews back into the tree.

Much like the one body example in Ephesians, this passage looks to Jew and Gentile together being branches in a single tree. We are not two distinct trees. Neither were the Jewish branches irrevocably broken off. Some have always remained. And others will be added back. There is a single tree representing the single covenant people of God. A people that includes both Jew and Gentile. All who call on the name of the Lord.

Peter

In Exodus 19:5-6 God says to the Jews gathered at Mt. Sinai, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This is the distinctive role of Israel and descriptive of their unique covenant relationship with God.

Peter then mirrors that statement, but applying it to his Gentile audience. In 1 Peter 2:9-10 he says “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” I don’t believe this is a matter of the Jews losing their place. Rather their role has been expanded to include both believing Jews and Gentiles.

Hebrews

In Hebrews 8:8-12 the author quotes from Jeremiah 31:31-34. This passage is referring to a new covenant that God will make with his people, with the house of Israel and Judah. Israel had been unfaithful to the old covenant, so God was going to establish a new one with them.

The author of Hebrews follows that quote by saying “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Heb. 8:13)” He seems to be saying that the initial covenant established with Israel at Mt. Sinai is now obsolete and that the new covenant is now in effect. A covenant that Hebrews indicates is not just for ethnic Israel, but for all believers.

Summary

So just what is the relationship between Israel and the church today? Clearly they are not synonymous, at least on the surface. Over the past two millennia they have existed side by side, but as distinct peoples. But in Romans 11:25-32 Paul makes clear that the alienation that exists between the two will ultimately be healed. God has not abandoned ethnic Israel and still has a plan for them.

But what is that plan? How will they be saved? Does God have one way of salvation for Gentiles and another for the Jews? I find nothing in the Scripture that would indicate that. We all are saved by faith in the blood of the crucified Jesus.

As I understand the Scriptures, the church is the faithful remnant of Israel, expanded to include believing Gentiles. Most of ethnic Israel is in rebellion against God, like they have been throughout most of their history. But at the end that rebellion will come to an end and the Jews will accept their Messiah and be grafted back into the olive tree (Rom. 11:24). And so all Israel will be saved, both Jew and Gentile.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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