Your perception of history and the narrative of God’s people will be determined by how you understand the relationship between what the Old Testament calls “Israel” and what the New Testament calls “the Church.” Are these two different entities? Are they fundamentally the same entity in different phases of development? Did the latter replace the former? This is a vital question, because it touches on what the gospel announcement really is. After all, “gospel” language first appears as an announcement to Israel, to the cities of Judah (Isaiah 40:9-11); as a royal proclamation about the redemption of Jerusalem (Isaiah 52:7-10). When Mary hears the announcement of Jesus’ birth, she hears it as a word for the house of Jacob and about the throne of David (Luke 1:32-33), and so she celebrates it as a message of comfort to Israel (Luke 1:54). John’s father Zechariah regards the coming of the king in the same way—as a message of deliverance for the children of Abraham from their enemies (Luke 1:68-79). Jesus himself said that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24), and despite having “other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16; cf. 11:51-52), there is no getting around the fact that Jesus’ ministry in its immediate context was intended to and for Israel. Even after his death and resurrection, the gospel is for the first time presented to Gentiles as a message that God had sent to Israel, though now Gentiles like Cornelius can share in the forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:36ff). Paul’s preaching all through Acts continues to carry this assumption, that the gospel is a message about what God has done in Christ for Israel – and there is indeed a forgiveness of sins and eternal life that Gentiles can share in by believing this message (Acts 13:46-48). But the gospel announcement itself is first a national and political one (it’s the “gospel of the kingdom“, after all), in the sense that it is a message of what God has done for his people Israel, in fulfillment of the promises to the patriarchs. This does have implications for the nations. Now that by his death Jesus has dealt with the curse of the Law, the Gentiles can come to share in the blessings of Abraham (Galatians 3:13-14; Ephesians 2:13-15). And while Christ bore the curse of the Law for Israel, as the Lord of creation he bore the curse of creation as well. He is the propitiation for the sins of the world.
Still, the situation of “Israel” remains central to the New Testament narrative. The universal nature of the atonement doesn’t simply flatten the historical experience of God’s people as a people. So, in Acts we see lots of Gentiles believing this message about what God has done for Israel, and these Gentiles (sometimes with a few believing Jews mixed in) form congregations which live in tension with the local synagogue. Even by the end of Acts, there is a clear distinction in Paul’s mind between the Jews at the synagogue of Rome and the “Gentiles” who Paul knew would listen to his message (Acts 28:23-28). But the Jews and Gentiles together who believed and had their own assembly and their own communal practice—what are they? What do these assemblies that Paul addresses as the “saints” have to do with his “kinsmen according to the flesh”? How do they relate to the “Israel” which Mary knew that God, in remembrance of his mercy, had given her Son to help (Luke 1:54-55)? And so for us, what relationship do today’s churches have to the promises made to “Israel” in the Old Testament?
The title of this post includes “Part 1” because over the course of the next few posts I want to try to answer this question. Getting a clear answer will help us understand the biblical narrative and the course of the history of the people of God, as well as how Christians today should read and apply the Old Testament, and what we should think regarding the modern state of Israel. Today is just meant to be an introduction to the question.
Michael Riccardi of The Master’s Seminary wrote an article, which you can read here, where he discusses Galatians 3 and its argument about the “seed of Abraham” and what this argument implies for how we understand Israel and the Church. Riccardi is a Dispensationalist. That means that he believes “Israel” and “the Church” remain distinct categories even under the New Covenant, with specific future blessings for “Israel” that do not apply to “the Church.” He is seeking to counter the common Covenantalist position on Galatians 3. “Covenantalism” here is the opposite of Dispensationalism and believes that all the promises to “Israel” are already, or are to be, fulfilled in the Church. Covenantalists typically maintain that since Galatians 3 teaches that those who believe in Christ are the “seed of Abraham,” believing Gentiles (i.e., the Church) are, or can be thought of, as having replaced Israel. Opponents pick on that word “replaced,” and argue that there’s no way God abandoned Israel and his promises to them. Well, personally I think the word “replaced” is at best misleading, and no Covenantalist would say in any simplistic fashion that God abandoned Israel (Romans 11:1). But for now, and with that background, here is the thesis of Riccardi’s article: “[I]n contrast to the claims of nondispensationalists, Galatians 3 in fact does not teach that Christ or the church replaces Israel or inherits the national and political blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant in a way that excludes a future, literal fulfillment to Israel.”
The last part of that statement is important. Dispensationalists agree that the Church shares in Abrahamic blessings, but insist that there are still blessings particular to Israel as Israel in which the Church has no part. The implication is that modern Jews and the modern state of Israel have blessings particular to themselves in store for the future which the Church will be watching from the sidelines. This, obviously, is what’s behind much modern Evangelical interest in Israel and the Middle-East and America’s involvement there. The issue we are dealing with here is as practical as can be. Bombs and dead children are involved, and can be seen most week nights on Fox News.
So, consider this introduction to the issues and questions. In the next post I will interact with Riccardi’s article and Galatians 3, and then I hope to post on some other passages that bear on this question. I would like to add that I am not unbiased and I do have my opinion going into this (Covenantal, non-Dispensational) – but I am not seeking to prove or re-enforce my own view. I am open to changing my mind if need be.