A common (what I’m going to argue for) misunderstanding many Christians have acquired over the last century or two (with the rise of the theological system called “Dispensationalism”) is the idea that God has two peoples, Israel and the Church. I don’t believe the Bible, especially the New Testament, allows us to make that distinction. On the contrary, the New Testament authors go out of their way to assure us that those who follow the God of the Bible are all one people. The position I am writing from is the Covenant Theology position.
The primary narrative that I believe is in error is basically the idea that Gods people in the Old Testament was Israel (primarily an ethnic group) and in the new testament his people is “the church”, which is an entity that began at Pentecost.
Much of the difficulty is in the word “Israel”, it appears 73 times in the New Testament (many in the old) and is used to mean a variety of different things. Sometimes it’s used to describe the nation of Israel, other times to the ethnic group of Israelites or Jews, other times the Israelites that rejected Christ, and yet other times it refers to God’s people/those who believe in Jesus. I’m not arguing here that national Israel is the church nor that the ethnic Jews or unbelieving Jews are the church, rather my position is that the church and believing Israel or “True Israel” is the same entity.
Let’s now turn to the New Testament entity here, the church. The word “church” is translated from the Greek word ekklésia (ek-klay-see’-ah) is defined as an assembly or congregation. Ekklésia can be effectively translated “God’s assembly” or “God’s congregation”. The first reason why the church did not start at Pentecost is because God had an ekklésia or church that existed in the New Testament before Pentecost:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. And if he refuses to listen them, tell it to the ekklésia (church). If he refuses to listen even to the ekklésia (church), let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “qahal” carries a very similar definition to ekklésia, defined: “assembly, company, or congregation” which is used 123 times in the Old Testament account of redemptive history.
To bring the two together, God has always had a people and that people was by faith, and not by nation or ethnicity, as it is written:
But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. Romans 2:29
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
They [ethnic Jews] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you [believing gentiles] stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.
Romans 11:20, 23
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,
Romans 4:13, 16
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
On the contrary, Jew and Gentile alike are all in one of two categories: in Adam or in Christ (Romans 5), children of God or children of the devil (1 John 3). In the Old Testament, True Israel was composed mostly of ethnic Jews (with exceptions like Rahab) but with the completion of God’s revelation in the New Testament we see the full picture and the now revealed mystery:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Members of the same body, not different bodies. Likewise, Romans 11 uses the language of those who believe being “grafted into” the tree that is Christ. Initially God’s ekklésia of was made up of predominantly Jews, but as the church grew and particularly after Pentecost and the commissioning of the Apostle Paul, we see that growth among gentile believers, and no where in the New Testament do we see the idea of them being separate groups or God having different eschatological plans for each. In fact Pentecost is recorded in Acts 2 and it’s not until Acts 10 that the first gentile is added into the church. The church didn’t “replace” Israel as God’s chosen people (“Replacement Theology” is a slang term thrown around occasionally by those who misunderstand this theology) nor does God have two groups of chosen people, rather the church is the fulfilment, the final edition of God’s people. God’s people before the cross were saved on credit, having faith in the Messiah to come. After the cross we’re saved on debit as our (those of us who are in Christ) sin debt has been paid in full.
In my experience, objections to this view generally fall into one of three categories: typologies, implicit references, or simply presupposing a difference without being able to account for it, all of which, however, fall short of refuting or reinterpreting so many clear texts.
God made a covenant with a family in Abraham, expanded or included that covenant to a tribe with Moses, then expanded it again to a nation with David, then finally in Christ it goes from being a national to an intra-national covenant in its full glory. If you believe, you are a Jew inwardly, you are part of God’s remnant, his elect, his sheep, you are True Israel.
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be ONE flock, one shepherd. [emphasis mine]
“Covenants Made Simple”, Jonty Rhodes
“Christ of the Covenants”, O Palmer Robertson