How Is Israel Related to the Church?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 2:54pm
HOW IS ISRAEL RELATED TO THE CHURCH?
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.