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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

Are Israel and the Church Two Distinct Peoples of God?

Covenant Theology on Israel and the Church

Israel is often on people’s minds. Unrest ebbs and flows in the Middle East, with Israel front and center, giving rise to practical and theological questions. Are Israelites a people of God distinct from the church? Is God with them, whether or not they believe in Christ? What is their destiny? How should Christians relate to Jews? The list goes on and, frankly, I hesitate to enter the fray.

When the most recent conflict in Israel broke out, someone at a church fellowship said to me, “You are the doctor of theology here. What should we think and do about Israel?” I stand by my reply: “I am neither competent nor able to speak to politics, but I can point people to Christ through Scripture.” The Bible’s covenant theology has something to say about the relationship between Israel and the church. Rather than politics, biblical answers tell us more about the breathtaking unity of Scripture and how Jews and Gentiles relate to Christ than other questions we might have. Ultimately, there is one people of God, including the salvation of the nations from the beginning, and Israel has a special place in God’s plan for the church.


Is There One People of God?

Moving the elephant in the room out of the way, Scripture does not teach that Israel and the church are two peoples of God with two destinies, one earthly (Israel) and one heavenly (the church). “Covenant” highlights the breathtaking unity of Scripture, making Jews and Gentiles one people of God in Christ (Eph. 2:15).

From the “first promise” of the “seed of the woman” who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15) to one of the last promises of God’s heavenly dwelling with his people as their God (Rev. 21:3), covenant theology pulls together everything in between. The result is that we view the Bible more like a grand, epic narrative than like a collection of short stories. Seeing God’s promise to undo the ruin Satan brought through sin ties together all the pages of Scripture like a seamless thread. In this light, the promise to Abraham, that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 22:18), fits both Genesis 3:15 and Galatians 3:14, in which “the blessing of Abraham” applies to believers now. The “seed of the woman’s” suffering in the place of his people resurfaces in important passages like Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and Romans 16:20.

Moses’s leading the people out of Egypt, and everything else he did, flowed from God’s remembering his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 2:24–25). David looked to God to forgive sins and change hearts (Ps. 51), and he pleaded that the deliverer would come through one of his descendants (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89; Ps. 132). Solomon celebrated God’s faithfulness in establishing his seed (of the woman) over the ends of the earth, bringing blessings to all nations (Ps. 72). Peter urged believers to look to Christ’s return, teaching them that God preserves the world now for the sake of the elect, just as he did in Noah’s covenant in Genesis 6–9 (2 Pet. 3:8–9).

Covenant theology is a blessing because whatever book of Scripture we find ourselves in, every part reminds us of other parts. The entire book is about God’s covenant with his people, always pointing them to Christ (Lk. 24:44–46). Not only does the Old Testament fit with the New but the New starts to look like an inevitable result of the Old, without which the story would be incomplete.

A single covenant of grace envelops both Jews and Gentiles in eternal life in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28–29). Whether we consider God’s covenant with Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, or with believers today under the new covenant in Christ, the “blessing of Abraham” (Gal. 3:14) comes on all believers, Jew and Gentile, who are “baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Teaching that believing Israel and the faithful church are two peoples of God with two separate destinies (so-called Dispensationalism) fractures Scripture, blurring our vision of the single-minded plan of salvation from the Triune God.


Is There Any Place Left for Israel?

Thankfully, the apostle Paul asked and answered this question. Romans 9–11 more or less asks, “If the gospel is so great, then why did so many Jewish people reject Christ?” Paul gives three basic answers: God chose some Jews to believe in Christ, yet the rest did not believe in Christ when they should have, and God is not done with them yet. Picking up the last part of this three-part movement, it is important for us to grasp Paul’s reasoning. A cursory run through the text shows that even though the church consists of one believing people of God sharing a single destiny in Christ, God promises to bring large numbers of Jewish people to faith in Christ before the story ends.

First, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). As Paul belonged to an elect Jewish remnant, the Lord saved the same under Elijah’s ministry (Rom. 11:1-10), so some Israelites “according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3) are still being saved by God’s grace in Christ.

Second, “their failure” (Rom. 11:12) had a divine purpose: “riches for the Gentiles.” Using two illustrations, Paul notes that the “dough” or “firstfruits” of Israel is still, in some sense, a holy lump (Rom. 11:16), and that Israel is like a tree with roots in the Old Testament growing up into the New (Rom. 11:17-24). When the Jews fell like branches cut from their own tree, God grafted Gentile branches into the tree through faith. Jewish branches were cut off for unbelief, and so can Gentile branches if they turn from Christ (Rom. 11:20-21). Yet another divine purpose follows on the heels of God’s mercy to the Gentiles. Paul hoped to provoke unbelieving Israelites to jealousy toward their lost blessings. He not only says that “God has the power to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23), but he hints at “their full inclusion” (Rom. 11:12) and “their acceptance” (Rom. 11:15) in the future. The Lord saves an elect remnant of Israelites through Christ, while the rest fell for “the reconciliation of the world.” But God is not done with the people he cut out of the tree; their return to God through faith in Christ, within the Christian church, will be like “life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15). Gentiles came into the church through faith in Christ, and unbelieving Israelites will come back in through faith in him as well.

Third, “all Israel will be saved” in the future when “the fullness of the Gentiles” has come in (Rom. 11:26). Just as most Israelites rejected Christ in the past and few believe in him now, so most will return to him in the future. Verses 28-36 become a litmus test of whether we understand the relationship between Israel and the church. Let’s be clear; there is one people of God—Old Testament and New Testament—with Gentile salvation in view in one covenant of grace from the start. Jews, Gentiles, men, women, slaves, and free people are all Abraham’s children through faith in Christ. Yet men and women still had distinct responsibilities in marriage, Christian slaves were still in bondage, and believing free people retained distinct advantages. So Jews are still Jews and Gentiles are still Gentiles, even if they worship God through Christ by the Spirit together, without a temple, Levitical priests, festivals, and sacrifices.

Yet though most of the Christian church through most of its history has seen a future conversion of ethnic Jews to Christ, becoming one with believing Gentiles and worshiping God in one church, some seek to guard the unity of the covenant of grace and oneness of the church by taking “all Israel” as the church or the elect remnant. Yet if “all Israel” is the church or the elect remnant, how could Paul say,

As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:28–32).

Inserting anything other than ethnic Israel into this passage makes nonsense out of it. Is the church or are the elect enemies of the elect church? Are Gentile believers beloved for the sake of the fathers? Have elect believers been disobedient in order that elect believers might be obedient? Instead, we should share Paul’s hope that in the future, God will reincorporate Israel into the Christian church through faith in Jesus Christ.


Conclusion: How Should We Respond?

We should read the Bible as one story, of one covenant of grace, with one church united in Christ, with Gentile salvation in view from the beginning. Yet we should also believe that God has a future plan for ethnic Jews, not by giving them a separate destiny as a separate people of God but by bringing them back to Jesus Christ through faith. This should lead us to pray that the gospel would be “propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, [and] the fullness of the Gentiles brought in.” Maybe it will lead some of us to consider missions to Jewish people, lovingly calling them to become jealous of the blessings we have in Christ by the Spirit. Above all, the Triune God’s unified covenant of grace and his wise methods of bringing Jews and Gentiles as one people of God into one church should lead to doxology:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Rom. 11:33–36).

Not only does the Old Testament fit with the New but the New starts to look like an inevitable result of the Old, without which the story would be incomplete.

 




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