And just like that, here’s Part 2. Last week I started a series about the relationship between Israel and the Church. It’s a question on which, broadly speaking, you can fall into one of two camps: Dispensationalism or Covenantalism. In general terms, dispensationalists believe that now and forever Israel and the Church maintain distinct identities and have eternally separate roles to play in the unfolding of God’s purposes. Covenantalists hold that Israel and the Church are different names given to the one people of God, the “covenant people”, of which the New Testament Church represents the more mature, fulfilled state. Moving past introduction, let’s look at that article I mentioned last week Michael Riccardi on Galatians 3.
The issues which in good Dementor fashion hover about this question are more’n’a’few. Riccardi’s article though focuses mainly on Galatians 3, an important passage with which you should familiarize yourself. Before getting to this exegetical flashpoint specifically, Riccardi defines the two views, but does so in a way which seems to me to show a common misconception. He says (emphasis mine):
“On the one hand, covenantalists . . . contend that the church replaces or fulfills Israel in such a way that various promises made to the nation of Israel should not be expected to be fulfilled to the nation, but can be fulfilled in the church. On the other hand, dispensationalists argue that while Israel and the church share many commonalities as the people(s) of God in their respective ages, they maintain distinct identities in God’s program. As a result, it is not biblically feasible that the covenant blessings promised to Israel should find a spiritualized fulfillment in the church. Rather, since they have not been fulfilled in history, they will be fulfilled as promised to Israel in the eschaton, per Romans 11.”
The problem here is with the word rather, and I think the careless language of some Covenantalists hasn’t helped. Dispensationalists often seem to assume, as Riccardi appears to do here, that “spiritual” fulfillment is somehow equivalent to “non-historical” fulfillment, or pretend fulfillment. But history is where we live, and it’s the only place in which any promises at all can be fulfilled. So if spiritual fulfillment is contrasted in any way with a historical fulfillment, and so is assumed to be some kind of make-believe fulfillment, we all should disown it quick. So here again, Riccardi summarizes the covenantalist position like this:
“…because the church is identified as the seed of Abraham, which [covenantalists] interpret to mean “spiritual Israel,” the church now inherits in a spiritualized manner the blessings promised to Israel, particularly the Abrahamic Covenant blessings of a nation of descendants, the land of Canaan in which those descendants would settle, and a universal blessing of the nations.”
And he talks about how the doofus Covenatalists think of…
“…the present Gentile church as spiritual Israel who receives a spiritualized version of the Abrahamic Covenant promises made to the nation…”
Maybe I’m wrong, but it looks like “spiritualized” here is thinly disguised language for “pretend.” So here is something to get clear first: saying that promises made to Israel are fulfilled “spiritually” in the Church is not to say that those promises have been altered such that they are now only fulfilled in a make-believe or non-historical way. It’s to say that the realities of the Church’s experience are precisely the true and real fulfillment of the promises made to Israel – with more fullness to come in the New Creation, for sure, but the real fulfillment still. I should be specific. Isaiah 2:2-4 says that in the latter days, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and all the nations will flow to it to hear the instruction of the Lord. Are we really to think that this promise is not “really” fulfilled until the nations start hopping on camels or airplanes to take pilgrimages to the old Temple Mount? Because if memory serves, the author of Hebrews tells his readers that in their assembled worship they have come to Mount Zion, to the City of the Living God (Hebrews 12:18-24). And up to that point, Hebrews has been urging the case that things like the wilderness tabernacle and the Aaronic priesthood and all the rest of it were themselves the shadows and types, and what believers in Christ now possess, or on the road to possessing if they hold fast their confidence, is the reality. The “Mount Zion” to which Gentile (and Jewish) believers in Christ stream to Lord’s Day-by-Lord’s Day is more real than Mount Zion in the Middle East. It’s participation with the heavenly Jerusalem, the company of angels and the rest of the saints, and it’s the heavenly things that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:25-29).
Granted, when the old heavens and old earth pass away and the New Creation is here and we are walking around in our resurrected bodies, the geography for all we know may be such that the place we now know as Jerusalem will be a kind of capital, and we will go there to learn things. Maybe that will be the ultimate resolution of our “literal vs. spiritual” arguments. The point though is that the heavenly Zion which the Church presently has access to by the blood of Christ is progress from the Zion of the Old Covenant. It’s more real, not less. The temple that is the Church in which the Spirit of Christ dwells is progress from the temple in Jerusalem where the Shekinah Glory hovered between the cherubim. To see the temple rebuilt in Jerusalem tomorrow might appear more “literal” (and that’s a sticky term anyway), but it would be backtracking. It would not somehow be more real or historical than the Church’s present-day worship in Spirit and Truth. In fact, in would be a denial of the reality of the Church’s present day worship, and a denial that Christ is really among us. It would be unbelief. Why would we care about gold and marble when we already have Christ dwelling with us by the Spirit? That was the whole point of the temple in the first place.
But with that said, back to Riccardi. He proposes that Galatians “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” (emphasis mine). Covenantalists claim Galatians teaches that Christ is the true seed of Abraham and those in Christ are the true Israel. Therefore the Church (those in Christ) must be understood as the true heirs of the promises to Abraham. Riccardi tries to counter that claim. He says: “There is no warrant to conclude that applying “seed of Abraham” language to the church means that the church is Israel.” Moreover, “There is no reason why the union of Jews and Gentiles in one body, the church, should be equated with teaching that Israel and the church are the same entity.” – This way of putting it seems to me to obscure Paul’s real concern in Galatians, which is not so much to equate Israel and the Church, but to define who the true heirs of the covenant are. That is, who is it who can lay claim to the promises to Abraham, and perhaps more importantly, on what basis can that claim be made? Paul’s answer is that it can only – and sufficiently – be made by those who are in Christ by faith. When Covenantalists claim (or when I claim, anyway), that Israel and the Church are the same, what we are claiming is that God has always had one covenant people – bounded by circumcision in the Old Covenant, and baptism into Christ in the new – but one covenant people who can be defined as the carriers of the Abrahamic blessing
Perhaps a more important argument that Riccardi makes is this: “[There is no warrant to say] that the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant must be fulfilled as a unit, flattening out what is a multifaceted promise” (emphasis mine).
Now, Riccardi points out that the promise to Abraham consisted of three categories: Land, seed, and the mediation of blessing to the nations. And so Riccardi says, “Rather than identifying the present Gentile church as spiritual Israel who receives a spiritualized version of the Abrahamic Covenant promises made to the nation, Paul is simply announcing that Yahweh’s promise to Abraham of universal blessing to the nations has come in the gospel of Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine). So according to Riccardi, Covenantalists “flatten” land/seed/blessing so that believers, who are admittedly in some sense “the seed of Abraham,” simply inherit all these blessings in a “spiritualized” manner, and Riccardi wants none of that. He argues that contrary to this, what has happened with Gentile believers is only that God’s promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” is fulfilled. But this doesn’t mean the Church gets Israel’s land, or worse, that national Israel itself does not get it. True, in Christ the nations have been blessed with eternal salvation, but all the geographical promises, visions of restored sacrifice and Levites and temple, etc, all await future “literal” fulfillment for the “nation of Israel”—for Israel “according to the flesh.”
I don’t think this line of reasoning holds. We will look at other passages in coming weeks, but for now I’ll just stick with Galatians.
Remember that in Galatians, the whole question at issue is whether Gentile believers need to adopt the Mosaic Covenant (cf. Acts 15:5). The mark of such acceptance would be circumcision. When Paul refers to “the flesh” it is this, not DNA or genetic descent (or really even a “sin nature”) that he’s talking about. That’s why he says “flesh” rather than “genealogy” or “birth”: he’s talking about actual flesh.
Flesh is a covenantal term. Flesh speaks of physical descent only incidentally because those born into a covenantal household are always included in the covenant. But, and this is vital, physical descent was never the only way to be a Jew. Presumably, if the Galatians had gone along with the Judaizers and accepted circumcision, they would have become Jews [cf. Exodus 12:43-49]. That was the whole point. The covenantal boundaries were never exclusively genealogical. There was always the possibility of entering into the covenant from the outside. Plenty of modern Jews are not even Semitic. So “Israel according to the flesh” does not mean “All those traceable by direct genealogical line to Abraham”. It means “those who are circumcised and exist under the rule of the Old Covenant.” By extension, “flesh” refers to the whole world outside the new creation in Christ. In Galatians 4:1-11, Paul seems to lump Israel’s existence under the Law with the former pagan life of the Gentile Galatians. “Flesh” is the condition of the world prior to and outside of Christ. It’s a world of wickedness, it’s under judgment, and for the Galatians to try and define themselves by it or cling to it would be suicidal.
So in 2:2-3, Paul asks, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?“ When the Galatians believed and were sealed with the Holy Spirit, they had simply heard the gospel announcement and entrusted themselves to it. They hadn’t been circumcised and adopted the complex of the Mosaic Law. So now, Paul asks rhetorically, do you think that already having received the Spirit you can move on to perfection by accepting circumcision and so coming under obligation to fulfill the whole Law, as the Judaizers would have you do? The expected answer is “no.” And so, says Paul, “Know then that those of [literally, “from”] faith are the sons of Abraham” (v.7).
Now, Riccardi is right that the blessing singled out for these Galatian believers is specifically the promise that in Abraham “all the nations will be blessed.” But does that mean that the Galatian believers are excluded from the other promises? Granted, Galatians says nothing about the land, but it does say that those of faith are blessed “with” (not just in or through) Abraham. There is no hint that there are any Abrahamic promises denied to Gentile believers. The whole thrust of the chapter seems to urge the opposite, particularly in its conclusion: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (v.29). My point in the previous couple paragraphs, which I take to be foundational to this discussion, is that what we are dealing with in Israel and the Church in any case is God’s covenant people, and the question is how these people since the coming of Christ are to be defined. By circumcision, or by baptism into Christ (Galatians 3:27)? Paul’s point is that if you want to be a son of Abraham, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Period. The old Jew/Gentile polarity is one that cannot continue in the New Covenant era.
The apostle’s burden in Galatians is to say that those who are of the Works of the Law (that is, “the present Jerusalem” [4:25]) are under a curse. The Law did not work as a means for them to inherit the blessings because Israel had not continued in all things written in the book of the Law. They failed like they did in the centuries leading up to Jeremiah and the Babylonian exile, and as at that time Habakkuk was told that “the righteous will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, when it was also the case that the Law had proved ineffective, cf. 1:3-4), so now the righteous, the true sons of Abraham are those who have believed in Christ. The whole point of Galatians is that such faith is enough. Those who would regress into the “flesh” and entrust themselves to “Israel according to the flesh”—Israel as defined by circumcision and the Mosaic institutions—will find themselves reaping the judgment that “Israel according to the flesh” would face only a few decades after Paul’s writing. It’s an interesting fact that Galatians puts Gentile believers in Christ in the position of Isaac and unbelieving Jews in the position of Ishmael (Galatians 4:28-30). And Ishmael, Paul reminds us, “will not inherit with the son of the free woman.”
So I think we can take it as a principle that believing Gentiles are in at least as good a position with regard to the Abrahamic blessings as Isaac was, and are as truly “Israel” as Isaac was. Conversely, unbelieving Jews, whatever their physical descent may be, can’t presume on being any more than Ishmaels who “will not inherit with the son of the free woman.” And let me just say regarding the land, I do think the land promise will be “literally” fulfilled. But the land was promised to Abraham himself, not just his seed (Genesis 13:15), so it will be “literally” fulfilled after Abraham is resurrected, and he will share Canaan and the rest of the New World with all his seed: those in Christ, with the children of promise, the Isaacs.
I don’t know what the future of the modern state of Israel will look like. It is definitely eyebrow-raising to see that it exists at all after all this time. Why are there no more Hittites or Jebusites running around? God in his sovereignty may still do things with them that look like a “literal” fufillment of Old Testament promises. Maybe they will rebuild a temple and start offering sacrifices again. But to think that such events would be somehow more real than the blessings now enjoyed by the Church, or that God has not yet shown himself sufficiently faithful to his word by what he has done in Christ, or that anyone in Christ is not as true a son of Abraham and heir to the promises as Isaac or David or Jesus himself, seems to me dangerously close to a flat denial of the gospel.