The Church and Israel in the New Testament

There is only one good olive tree, and the same olive tree exists across the covenantal divide.

God does not cut the old tree down and plant a new one (replacement theology). Neither does God plant a second new tree alongside the old tree and then graft branches from the old tree into the new tree (traditional dispensationalism). Instead, the same tree exists across the divide between Old and New Testaments. That which remains after the dead branches are removed is the true Israel. 

 

One of the most common questions asked by students of the Bible concerns the relationship between Israel and the church. We read the Old Testament, and it is evident that most of it concerns the story of Israel. From Jacob to the exile, the people of God is Israel, and Israel is the people of God. Despite the constant sin of king and people leading to the judgment of exile, the prophets look beyond this judgment with hope to a time of restoration for Israel. When we turn to the New Testament, the same story continues, and Israel is still in the picture. Jesus is described as the one who will be given “the throne of his father David” and the one who “will reign over the house of Jacob [Israel] forever” (Luke 1:32–33). He is presented as the One the prophets foresaw.

The first to believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah are Israelites—Andrew, Peter, James, John. But in the Gospels, we also hear Jesus speak of building His church, and we see growing hostility between the leaders of Israel and Jesus. We hear Jesus speak of destroying the tenants of the vineyard and giving it to others (Luke 20:9–18). In the book of Acts, the spread of the gospel to the Samaritans and gentiles leads to even more conflict with the religious leaders of Israel. So, is Israel cast aside and replaced by this new entity known as the “church”?

There are those who would say yes, but the answer is not that simple, for we also run across hints that God is not finished with the nation of Israel. At the end of His declaration of woes on the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, “You will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matt. 23:39). In the Olivet Discourse, He speaks of Jerusalem being trampled underfoot “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). In Acts, Peter says to a Jewish audience: “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:19–21). Finally, Paul says things about Israel that seem to preclude total rejection. Speaking of Israel, he writes, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Rom. 11:1a).

In order to understand the relationship between Israel and the church as described in the New Testament, we will need to look at the question in the context of the different answers Christians have given over the years. The traditional dispensationalist view maintains that God has not replaced Israel with the church but that God has two programs in history, one for the church and one for Israel. Traditional dispensationalism also maintains that the church consists only of believers saved between Pentecost and the rapture. The church as the body of Christ does not include Old Testament believers. Progressive dispensationalism has modified some of these views, but the traditional dispensationalist view remains very popular. Some covenant theologians have adopted a view that many dispensationalists describe as “replacement theology.” This is the idea that the church has completely replaced Israel. Jews may still be saved on an individual basis by coming to Christ, but the nation of Israel and the Jews as a people no longer have any part to play in redemptive history.

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