How Is Israel Related to the Church?

How Is Israel Related to the Church?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 2:54pm


QUESTION: Does the nation of Israel still have a place in God’s plan, or has the church replaced Israel as “God’s people”? Is Bible prophecy being fulfilled by modern-day Israel? Will there be a mass conversion of all Jews sometime in the future, foreshadowing the second coming of Christ?

ANSWER: These questions can be answered by looking at what Paul says about GOD’S TREE in Romans 11:13-26. In summary, around 4,000 years ago, God planted a tree that is still growing today. That tree actually started with ONE MAN, whose physical descendants became the root system and a gigantic trunk that sprouted twelve huge branches and millions of smaller branches. After about 2,000 years this tree underwent a radical mutation, not by natural causes but by divine design and divine intervention. What changed was the population of smaller branches. It is now in effect a hybrid. Its native branches have been radically pruned, and for the last 2,000 years millions of compatible branches from wild-growing trees have been grafted onto that original tree, which is still going strong.

The one man, of course, was Abraham. The root-and-trunk system was the nation of Israel, and the original branches were individual Israelites. The mutation was sparked by the appearance of the Messiah, Jesus. The branches that were broken off were the Israelites who rejected Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The wild branches grafted in were and are Gentiles (non-Jews) who turn to Jesus for their salvation. This gigantic tree, now composed of believing Jews and Gentiles, is called the CHURCH.

A closer look at what Paul says about this tree will answer the questions presented above. First, the ROOT of this tree (vv. 16-18) is OT (physical) Israel, the Jewish nation between Abraham and Christ. Through nearly 2,000 years of OT history, God nurtured and tended this tree. But why? Remember: a tree’s root is not an end in itself, but is a MEANS to an end. The root serves a particular purpose. In the case of Israel, what was God’s one purpose for its existence? That one purpose was to prepare for the first coming of Jesus the Messiah. The reason for Israel’s election and existence as a special nation may be summed up in this one word: PREPARATION, i.e., preparation for Christ’s first coming. See Romans 9:1-5; Acts 13:32-33; Acts 28:20.

Once Christ had come, there was therefore no more reason for Israel to exist in a special role in God’s plan. Thus God brought to an end Israel’s special role. This “setting aside” of Israel was equivalent to an “honorable discharge” from military service, or to the retiring of the number of a great sports figure. It was marked dramatically by the tearing of the temple veil at the time of Christ’s death (Matt. 27:51).

In reference to God’s Tree, the first coming of Jesus (by design) changed its whole character. Jesus’ coming did not do away with the tree, but transformed it. How so? First of all, now that Christ has come, God has done away with the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, as was his plan from the beginning. This is the KEY IDEA. See Gen. 12:3 (“all the families of the earth”); Rom. 10:12-13; Eph. 2:11-16; Gal. 3:28. This was the mystery kept under wraps in OT times and revealed now in the post-Pentecost Age (see Rom. 16:25-27 [1:5]; Eph. 1:9-11; 3:1-11; Col. 1:24-27. The key to being God’s special people now is faith in Jesus Christ. Whoever puts faith in Jesus as the Messiah is a part of God’s tree, whether they be Jew or Gentile.

Paul explains in Romans 11:17-21 how this transforms the tree. Here the “natural” branches are Jews, and the “wild” branches are Gentiles (see vv. 13-14). The first stage of the transformation of the tree is the breaking off of some of the natural branches, specifically, all Jews who rejected Jesus. The second stage is the grafting in of wild branches, i.e., those Gentiles who accept Jesus through faith. Jesus Christ, and faith in Jesus Christ, have transformed the tree (which started out as the Jewish nation) into the CHURCH—in which a distinction between Jews and Gentiles no longer exists.

The PRESENT FORM of God’s Tree thus is THE CHURCH. In a real sense the Church (believing Jews plus believing Gentiles in one body) is God’s NEW Israel. Old (physical, national) Israel is but the root of this tree—though a glorious one (see again Rom. 9:4-5). The church is a NEW Israel, formed on the spiritual basis of faith in Jesus and a new (spiritual) birth—John 1:12-13. (See Gal. 3:7, 29; 6:16; Phil. 3:2-3; Rom. 2:28-29; see Rom. 9:6.) Many OT prophecies about ISRAEL (Jerusalem, Zion, the temple) have been and are being fulfilled in the new Israel, the new Jerusalem (see Gal. 4:26), the new (spiritual) temple (see 1 Peter 2:5, in light of Zech. 6:12-15).

What about ethnic Jews today? Modern-day physical Israel—individually, collectively, and/or geographically—is NOT God’s tree today. Individual converted Jews are part of the transformed tree, the Church. Unbelieving ethnic Jews are in no sense a special people of God; they are part of the broken-off branches in Romans 11.

Does God have a place and a purpose, then, for physical Israel today, or in the future? NO, not as a nation, not as a separate “tree.” Israel’s role in God’s plan was completed when Christ first came into the world. God’s covenant with Israel was thus fulfilled. YES, as individual branches. God desires all Jews to “rejoin” their original tree, to be “grafted in again” (Rom. 11:23-24; see Rom. 11:1-2). How does this happen? By their not continuing in their unbelief in Jesus (v. 23), i.e., by their acceptance of Jesus as Savior and Lord. The key word is houtōs in v. 26: “thus, so, in this way.” Here it should not be translated “so,” as if this is now just a general conclusion. The meaning here is “in this way,” i.e., THIS is the WAY all true Israelites will be saved: by becoming a part of God’s One Tree, the Church (see Rom. 9:6). There is no other way.

God does have a special interest in the Jews because of their unique role in OT times, but he has no special role for them now. He wants them to be saved, to believe in Christ, to be back in their own (transformed) tree, which is now the church. Ephesians 4:4 says there is just ONE HOPE. That one hope, whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, is to be a part of the ONE TREE, the CHURCH.

Some implications of this are as follows. First, many have believed that God’s original purpose was to make Israel his special people forever, beginning with Christ’s first coming. However (they say), he had to alter his plan when the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah at his first coming. According to this view, the church has no connection with Israel but was merely a temporary stop-gap between Christ’s first coming and his second coming, at which time God will resume and complete his eternal plan for Israel, beginning with an earthly millennium. This view, called Dispensationalism, is exposed as false by Romans 11.

Second, the related idea that there will be a mass conversion of Jews at the second coming of Jesus is also exposed as fiction by a right understanding of Romans 11. The Jews (Israel) will not have a special role in the end times. This is opposed to most premillennial views, especially dispensational premillennialism.

Third, the idea that the church today is under the same covenant that God made with Abraham is also fiction. The Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled with the first coming of Christ, and thus God’s purpose for Israel as a separate nation came to an end. This is opposed to covenant theology, which is popular within Reformed circles.

Fourth, the idea that God established the church on Pentecost simply as a replacement for Israel as his special people is true in a sense but is not totally accurate. It overlooks the continuity between OT Israel and the NT Church that is obvious from the analogy of the olive tree in Romans 11. The Church does not replace Israel, but transforms Israel. Thus instead of “replacement theology,” we should speak of “transformation theology.”

Finally, some are teaching that Christ, as a representative of Israel, fulfilled the covenant between God and Israel by coming to do what Israel herself was supposed to do in order to keep her part of that covenant, but had failed to do. This is completely false. Israel’s purpose and role were not to save the world, but to bring the Savior into the world—which it did. God’s mission and purpose for Jesus are in no sense just a continuation of Israel’s purpose, but were completely unique. This is opposed to a modernist trend in Biblical interpretation, found, e.g., in Clark Pinnock, Rob Bell, and N.T. Wright.

Be Sociable, Share!


How Is Israel Related to the Church? — 16 Comments

  1. Dr. Cottrell,

    I appreciate your teaching on this particular subject. While I believe your analysis is correct in that Israel’s role as a nation has been fulfilled, it seems to me that their continued existence serves a kind of apologetic purpose for Christianity, in general. My point is that I know of no other people group in history who have existed as a fairly cohesive group maintaining their culture through several millennia as the Jews have: The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Romans, for example, are all gone from history. As a result, I think it is imperative that the Church’s first evangelistic outreach effort should still be to the Jews first, just as it appeared to be in Acts when they went to the Synagogues throughout the Roman empire spreading the Gospel. I have lived in various parts of the country throughout the years and have been a member of many different Restoration Movement churches, but I have never seen a single one think that they should try to evangelize the Jews first. What do you think of such a notion?

    • I do not oppose this idea, but I do not believe it is a mandate that applies to the church after the first century. I believe the “to the Jews first” principle applies perhaps to the fact that Jesus, God’s prophet and servant, was sent to the Jewish nation first (Acts 3:26), then especially was preached to the Jews first in Acts 2 through Acts 9, with the Gentiles being added to the mix in Acts 10.

  2. If the church is the New Covenant Israel, and God has no future plan for ethnic Israel, then can you please explain how do you interpret Romans 11:25-32 (specifically 11:26-28)? These passages seem to clearly indicate a future awakening for ethnic Israel.

    Thank you

    • I address this in detail in my commentary on Romans (The College Press NIV Commentary: Romans, 2005 condensed version, 436ff/). I say that the “all Israel” in 11:26 has three main interpretations: all ethnic Israel, all spiritual (NT) Israel, or the remnant portion of ethnic Israel–see 9:6. I defend the third view–that Paul is not promising that all ethnic Israel will be saved, but that all Jews who by choice believe in Jesus will be saved. He has just explained how that happens, using the illustration of the olive tree. The key word in v. 26 is the word translated “thus” or “so,” meaning IN THIS WAY. Just re-read the olive tree illustration, then read 11:26. Paul is saying: in this way all of the true Israel will be saved.

    • 1. The Abrahamic covenant applied to Abraham’s physical offspring via Isaac and Jacob. 2. The Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled when Christ can and died and arose from the dead: Acts 13:32-34. It’s main purpose was to bring the Messiah into the world. The specific promises of that covenant CANNOT apply to Christians in the way they applied to physical Israel. 3. Jesus established a NEW covenant: Luke 22:20. 4. his new covenant is patterned after the Abrahamic covenant in that it is a covenant of promise (faith in a promise) rather than a covenant of law (obedience to a law code). This is the point of Galatians 3. The Old Covenant itself had a promise element, given to Abraham (Gal. 3:1-9) and a law element, given through Moses (Gal. 3:17ff.). The new covenant is NOT the Abrahamic covenant, but is of the same FORM as it was, i.e., a promise. As 3:29 says, we are heirs ACCORDING TO PROMISE. 4. In the New Covenant we are Abraham’s offspring in a SPIRITUAL sense. This has nothing to do with the Abrahamic covenant itself, but only with our relationship with Christ, who is the one offspring in which the Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled (Gal. 3:16). This oneness with Christ is the main point of Gal. 3:16ff. 5. The Abrahamic covenant was a set of promises God made to Abraham. The promises as such are not the same as the FULFILLMENT of the promises, or the things promised (Heb. 11:13). The promises are fulfilled THROUGH Abraham and his offspring, but fulfilled TO us. We have the fulfillment of the promises (in that sense we are Abraham’s HEIRS, v. 29), but the Abrahamic covenant made Abraham and his physical offspring (including Christ) the MEANS of that fulfillment. That simply does not apply to us.

  3. It’s amazing to me that the biblical world can complicate such issues with opinions. As a young Bible college student, not known as a biblical scholar but graduating with a respectable B average, I was assigned the topic of the Remnant from the book of Isaiah. All we had to do was look up our topic in a concordance and follow the cross references to the New Testament. We were not to use any commentaries. I found it very exciting to discover, easily, and on my own, that Israel became the Church and it was always God’s plan for that to happen.

  4. Dr.Cottrell,we who believe in transformation theology are seemingly becoming more of a minority. It seems to me that this theology is not sensational enough for people seeking an eschatological thrill ride. Thank you for your teaching ministry.

  5. Why is Jesus returning to Jerusalem? Why are Israels tribes mentioned as being evangelist in Revelation? Why will the nations come to worship Jesus in Jerusalem? Why did Israel become a nation and does it fuilfill prophecy?

    • God chose Israel as a special nation for the single purpose of preparing for the first coming of Jesus. When Jesus came as recorded in the gospels, God’s purpose for ethnic Israel was fulfilled. Many OT prophecies are about Israel, and most of them were fulfilled during OT history (see my book, The Faith Once for All, pp. 463ff.). There are prophecies (some from Jesus himself) about the setting up of his Kingdom in Zion/Jerusalem. These were fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost when Christ’s Kingdom, the Church, was established. It is through the Church, beginning on Pentecost, that the nations come to Jesus along with believing Israelites. On the questions about Jesus returning to Jerusalem, and the tribes of Israel being evangelists, I think you have been listening to the wrong Bible “expositors.”

    • Trisha, yes, something like that, i.e., the church is the New Covenant Israel. God never intended for Old Covenant Israel (Moses to Jesus) to remain the same. His plan all along (what Paul calls God’s “mystery” in Ephesians) was to TRANSFORM the Old Covenant Israel into a NEW KIND of Israel under a new covenant. The church does not so much replace Israel as it transforms it. (So this is not “replacement theology,” but rather “transformation theology.”)

    • The church is what Israel has been transformed into in this Christian age. By God’s eternal design (the “mystery” to which Paul often refers) OT Israel has been transformed by the addition of Gentiles to the chosen people and by the substitution of a new law code for the Mosaic code. See Ephesians 2-3 and Romans 11.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *