Israel and the Church: Evaluating Despensationalism (II)

In an earlier summary of the millennial view known as dispensationalism, I noted that one of the principal tenets of this view is the strict separation drawn between God’s earthly people, Israel, and His heavenly people, the church. It could even be argued that this separation between Israel and the church is the root principle of classical (as distinguished from “progressive”) dispensationalism. From this separation of an earthly and a spiritual people stems another basic feature of dispensationalism, one which I will consider further in our next article—the hermeneutic or manner of reading the Bible that insists upon literalism. This hermeneutical principle of a “literalistic” reading of the Bible actually stems from classical dispensationalism’s insistence that the promises of the Lord to His earthly people, Israel, must be interpreted in a strictly literal way rather than figuratively or “spiritualistically.” Furthermore, among the seven distinct dispensations, the most important dispensations in this view of the future are those that reflect this separation between Israel and the church. The earliest dispensations of human conscience and government, for example, are of only passing interest in the overall scheme of dispensationalism.

THE SEPARATION BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH

Before subjecting this view of the separation between Israel and the church to biblical evaluation, it will be useful to summarize the basic features of this separation as these are set forth in classic dispensationalism. The following notes from the original Scofield Reference Bible clearly express these features. Commenting onGenesis 15:18, this Bible says:

(1) “I will make of thee a great nation.” Fulfilled in a threefold way: (a) In a natural posterity — “as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16; John 8:37), viz., the Hebrew people. (b) In a spiritual posterity — “look now toward heaven...so shall thy seed be” John 8:39; Rom. 4:16, 17; 9:7, 8; Gal. 3:6, 7, 29), viz., all men of faith, whether Jew or Gentile. (c) Fulfilled also through Ishmael (Gen. 17:18–20) [sic].

Similarly, in the note on Romans 11, we read:

The Christian is of the heavenly seed of Abraham (Gen. 15:5,6; Gal. 3:29), and partakes of the spiritual blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 15:18, note); but Israel as a nation always has its own place, and is yet to have its greatest exaltation as the earthly people of God.1

As these notes indicate, classical dispensationalism regards God’s purposes in history to be twofold, corresponding to these two distinct peoples, the one earthly, the other heavenly. God's dispensational dealings with these two peoples have two quite distinct ends in view: the salvation of an earthly people that is consummated in an eternal kingdom upon the new earth, and the salvation of a heavenly people that is consummated in an eternal kingdom in the new heavens. Thus, just as God has two distinct peoples and programs of salvation in history, so He has in mind two quite distinct eternal destinies. The line of separation that keeps Israel and the church apart in history will continue into the final state in which the earthly and heavenly natures of these peoples will correspond to salvation blessings that are distinctively earthly and heavenly.This separation between Israel and the church corresponds to dispensationalism’s emphasis upon a “literal” under standing of Old Testament prophecies on the one hand, and the contrast between the present “age of the church” and the coming “age of the kingdom” or the millennium on the other. The prophecies of the Old Testament, insofar as they are directed to the earthly people of God, Israel, must be understood in their literal or earthly sense. If there is a promise of the possession of the land, for example, this must be the earthly land of Canaan. If there is a promise of a restored temple, this must be the temple in Jerusalem.

The present age of the church, because it represents God’s dealings with His heavenly people, must also be regarded as a kind of “parenthesis” period of history, a period between the times of God’s former dealings with Israel and His soon-to-be-resumed dealings with Israel in the millennial age to come. During the present age of God’s dealings with the church, His dealings with Israel have been temporarily suspended. When the time of fulfillment comes (preceded by the rapture), however, the propheticpromises will be fulfilled. Because these Old Testament promises were directed to Israel, they are silent for the most partrespecting God’s dealings with the church, dealings which comprise the “mystery” which God had kept hiddenuntil the gospel age. 

WHO IS THE “ISRAEL OF GOD”?

Though this represents only a brief sketch of the classical dispensationalist separation between Israel and the church, it will serve as background forour consideration of the question: who, according to the teaching of the Bible, is the “Israel of God?” Does the Bible actually draw this kind of a line of separation between these two peoples of God, Israel and the church? To answer this question, we will have to consider several features of the Bible's teaching about the Israel of God.

The church is no “parenthesis.” As we have indicated, in the dispensational understanding of the history of redemption, the church is a “parenthesis” in history. From the point of view of God’s dealings with His earthly people Israel, the church is a kind of interruption in history. During the dispensation of the church or the gospel age, there is a period during which God’s dealings with Israel are temporarily suspended, only to be resumed at the time of the church’s “rapture.” In order for God to resume His distinctive dealings with Israel, the church has to be removed from the earth and this present, parenthetical period in redemptive history, concluded.

The biblical understanding of the church, however, cannot be squared with this understanding. In the New Testament, the church is commonly understood to be in direct continuity with the people of God in the Old Testament. Consequently, the images used in the Old Testament to describe the people of the Lord are used in the New Testament to describe the church. The New Testament word for the church, ekklesia, is the equivalent for the common Old Testament word, qahal, meaning the “assembly” or “gathering” of the people of Israel The New Testament church is also called the "temple" of God (1 Cor. 3:16–17; Eph. 2:21–22), evoking the imagery and symbolism of the Old Testament in which the temple was regarded to be the special place of the Lord's dwelling in the midst of His people. Just as the temple was the place where fellowship between the Lord and His people was provided for (through the sacrificial rites and ordinances) and experienced, so the church is the place of the Lord’s dwelling by His Holy Spirit. Accordingly, the church can also be identified with “Jerusalem,” the city of God which is above and which is comprised of believers from every tribe and tongue and nation. In Hebrews 12:22–23, this is expressed in unmistakable terms:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect...

Rather than being regarded as a kind of interruption in God’s dealings with His people, Israel, the church of the new covenant is regarded to be thefulfillment of the Lord’s promises to the people of God of the old covenant. The great covenant promise made to Abraham was that in him and in his seed all the families and peoples would be blessed (Gen. 12:3; 22:18). Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord’s dealings with Israel are never isolated from His promises of redemption for all the nations and peoples of the earth. This theme of the salvation of the nations is interwoven throughout the fabric of the Old Testament, not only in the provisions in the law for the inclusion in the community of Israel of “strangers” and “aliens,”3 but also in the explicit language of the psalter, the song book of Israel’s worship, and in the prophets.

Throughout the Psalms of the Old Testament, there are references to the Lord’s purpose to gather the nations into the fellowship of His people. Already in Psalm 2, there is a record of the Lord’s vow to grant the nations to His beloved Son. Psalm 22 speaks of how “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before thee” (v. 27). Psalm 67 is a song which calls all the nations to join Israel in singing God’s praises. These are not isolated notes sounded in the Psalms. They are the kind of notes that echo and re-echo throughout the Psalms. Furthermore, in the prophets there are many promises that speak of the day when the Gentile nations will be joined with the people of Israel in the service and praise of the Lord (e.g. Isa. 45:22; 49:6; Mal. 1:11).

The simplest understanding of these lines of continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament people of the Lord is one that recognizes the church to be the new covenant people of the Lord, in direct communion with the old covenant people of the Lord. Though salvation may historically be “to the Jew first and second also to the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16), there is only one people whom the Lord is gathering in history to Himself, comprised of Jew and Gentile alike. However, lest this appear to be a kind of premature conclusion based upon an inadequate consideration of the biblical givens, there are other biblical considerations to which we now turn.

The kingdom is not “postponed”

Closely linked to the idea that the church is a “parenthesis” in history is the dispensationalist claim that God’s dealings with Israel have been “postponed” during the present period of history. Rather than setting up the kingdom of David with its throne in Jerusalem, Christ, because the Jews did not receive Him as their promised Messiah and King, deferred the establishment of the kingdom, the earthly manifestation of God’s salvation to the Jews, until after the dispensation of the gospel to the Gentiles. There are several problems with this idea of the kingdom’s “postponement.”

First, it suggests that the church is a kind of “afterthought” in the plan and purposes of God. Though denied by many dispensationalists, this view of history seems to teach that Christ was frustrated in His original purpose for the establishment of the Davidic kingdom for Israel and was obliged to adjust the divine program of redemption accordingly. However, such a suggestion is not consistent with the biblical presentation of God’s sovereignty over history and is not compatible with the Bible’s view of the church.

In Matthew 28:16–20, when Christ gives the Great Commission to His disciples, there is a fulfillment of Christ’s earlier declaration regarding the church that He will build in history, against which the “gates of Hades” shall not prevail (Matt. 16:18–19). Far from being a kind of afterthought or interim project, the church in these passages is described as the central accomplishment and interest of the Lord Jesus Christ in history. Indeed, this church which is being gathered from all the nations can onlybe understood as a fulfillment of the promises God made to the Son of David to whom the nations would be given as His rightful inheritance (compare Psalms 2, 22). Consequently, when the apostle Paul describes the church of Jesus Christ, he can speak of it as the “fullness of Him who fills all and all” (Eph. 1:22–23) and of how through the church the “manifold wisdom” of God is being made known, “in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:8–11). None of these descriptions of the church suggest that it is anything less than the central focus and instrument through which God’s final purpose of redemption in history is being realized.

Second, the dispensationalist idea of a postponement ofthe kingdom is based upon a misreading of the gospel accounts of Christ’s preaching of the kingdom. Though it is true that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day did reject Him as the Messiah, it must not be forgotten thatJesus Himself was born in the line of His ancestry from among the Jewish people (and He is a member, indeed the foremost member, of the church!) and that many of the Jews did respond to Him in faith and repentance. Many responded in faith to Christ’s proclamation and embodiment of the kingdom of God, though His proclamation of the nature of this kingdom did not always accord with the expectations of many of the people.

It should not be forgotten that the twelve disciples, the nucleus of the New Testament church, were all fron, among the Jewish people. Inthe account in Acts of the growth of the early church, the pattern of “to the Jew first, and then to the Gentile,” is clearly in evidence. Though there was considerable resistance among the Jewish Christian community to the inclusion of Gentile believers, it is clear that Christ’s work through His apostles was directed to the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike. Christ’s and His apostle’s preaching of the gospel was a preaching of the gospel of the kingdom (e.g. Acts 28:31), a kingdom that Christ proclaimed was “among them” (Matt. 12:28) and which would be built through the preaching of the gospel (Matt. 16:19). The idea that Christ offered the kingdom to the Jews, only to have them reject it, is contradicted by these realities and Christ’s own testimony that they had misunderstood His kingdom (compare John 18:36). Were Christ to have offered the kingdom to the Jews, only to have them reject it, one would expect that to havebeen included among the charges brought against Him at His trial. However, there is no mentioninthe gospel accounts that any such charge was brought against Him, namely, thatHe had offered to establish the kingdomamong them only to have this offer refused.

Third, the idea of a postponement of the kingdom implies that the suffering and crucifixion of Christ might have been delayed, even become unnecessary, were the Jews of His day to have received Him as their earthly king. This means that Christ's own teaching, that He mustfirst suffer and only then enter His glory, would have been invalidated (Luke 24:26). It also means that the uniform testimony of the New Testament gospels and epistles, that Christ came in order to be obedient to His Father’s will, including His death upon the cross, would be compromised. Though dispensationalists might attempt to argue that Christ’s death would have nonetheless been necessary, even were His offer of the kingdom to have been accepted by His countrymen, it seems difficult to envision how it might have occurred. Surely the establishment of His earthly kingdom would have mitigated any need to endure suffering and death on behalf of His people.

However, the mere suggestion that Christ’s death was the result of the Jewish people’s unbelief contradicts a variety of New Testament teachings. In the gospel accounts of Christ’s suffering and death, the evangelists frequently note that all of this occurred to fulfill what was written in the Scriptures (compare, for example: Matt. 16:23; 26:24, 45, 56). After His resurrection from the dead, Christ was compelled to rebuke the men on the way to Emmaus because they did not believe in “all the prophets had spoken.” They did not understand that it “was necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter His glory” (Luke 24:25–26). The gospel of John repeatedly testifies that Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh, came into the world for the express purpose of doing His Father’s will, namely, to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (compare 1:29; 2:4; 6:38; 7:6; 10:10ff.; 12:27; 13:1–3; 17).

The same emphasis upon Christ’s death as the purpose for His coming is found in the book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament. In his sermon at Pentecost, the apostle Peter notes that Jesus was “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). When the apostle Paul summarizes his gospel, he speaks of how “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures...and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” The writer of Hebrews describes at length the manner in which Christ’s coming, priesthood and sacrifice, are the fulfillment of the old covenant types and shadows. Christ came, he writes, in order “that He might become a merciful and faithful priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (2:17). In a striking passage, this writer also speaks of God bringing Jesus up from the dead “by the blood of an eternal covenant” (13:20, emphasis mine). Nothing in this is congenial to the view that Christ’s death was occasioned primarily by the Jewish people’s refusal to acknowledge Him as their earthly king.

And fourth, the idea that the kingdom has been postponed does not correspond to the New Testament’s insistence that Christ is now King and Lord over all. In the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, it is evident that Christ has now been installed as King at the Father’s right hand. He exercises as Mediator a rule over all things for the sake of the church. This kingly rule of Christ is, moreover, the fulfillment of the promises that had been made to His father, David, regarding His inlteritance of the nations. At the angel Gabriel’s announcement of Christ’s birth, it was declared that “the Lord God will give Him [the child to be born to Mary] the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:32). When Christ mandated that the disciples “go and make disciples of all nations,” He declared “all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18, emphasis mine). Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, claimed that, with God’s raising of Jesus from the dead, “all Israel” was to acknowledge that “God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:33–36). Christ is the Davidic King to whom the nations will be given as His rightful inheritance (compare Psalm 2; Acts 4:24–26). Or, as the apostle Paul describes the Lord, He has been “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection of the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Christ has now been given “all rule and author ity and power and dominion” (Eph. 1:20–23; compare Phil. 2:9–11). Therefore, He must “reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25).

In the light of these and many other passages which describe the present kingship of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, it seems quite wrong to distinguish sharply between the present age of the church and the future age of the kingdom. Though the present form and administration of the kingdom of Christ may not be “earthly” or “physical” in the dispensationalist sense of these terms, there is no escaping the biblical teaching that Christ now reigns upon the earth through His Spirit and Word and manifests His kingly rule primarily through the gathering of His church from all the tribes and peoples ofthe earth. Serious injury is done to the biblical conception of Christ’s kingship, when dispensationalism relegates it to some future period during which God’s dealings are directed narrowly to the earthly people of God, Israel.4

FOOTNOTES

1. These notes are Scofield’s as found in the original The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford, 1917). The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford, 1967) retains the second of these notes but revises the first. The revised version, however, does not fundamentally alter the basic dispensationalist insistence that these two people are to be kept distinct.
2. The Septuagint (LXX) rendering of this Hebrew term for the "assembly" of Israel is commonly the word ekklesia (compare Ex. 12:6; Num. 14:5; Deut 5:22; Josh. 8:35). It can hardly be regarded as coincidence that the inspired writers of the New Testament describe the new covenant people of the Lord with the exact term used under the old covenant to designate the people of the Lord.
3. Perhaps this is the place to note how Matthew, the evangelist, in writing his genealogy of Jesus Christ, seems deliberately to have included names of Gentiles whose incorporation into the family of David (and of God) serves as a reminder that God’s saving purpose never terminated exclusively upon Israel as a racial or national entity (compare Matthew 1:1–17). To borrow language from the apostle Paul: “For they are not all Israel who are from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants ... That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants” (Rom. 9:6–8).
4. This is not the place to develop further the implications of the biblical understanding of Christ’s kingship in the present age. We
will have occasion in a subsequent articie to return to this in more detail.

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.

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