A CRITICAL ISSUE IN PROPHETIC STUDIES
A realtor will tell you that the three most important factors in selling a property are (1) its location, (2) its location and (3) its location. If you have watched HGTV you know this is very true. And a theologian might tell you that the three most important factors in arriving at good theology are (1) definition of terms, (2) definition of terms and (3) definition of terms. When biblical and theological terms are not carefully defined, then one can pretty well expect that the result will be theological confusion. This holds true in any area of theological study including that of biblical prophecy. How a person defines Israel and the Church will have a profound effect on one’s understanding of biblical prophecy. This is an extremely important subject and one that needs careful analysis. Clarity here will bring clarity throughout biblical prophecy. This will be the first article in a series on this significant matter.
The Two Basic Views. We all recognize that theologians will hold many views on any given subject, and that would be true on the “Israel-Church” issue. But for the purpose of these brief discussions, the two main positions will be set forth.
#1 – ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH ARE NOT THE SAME
This view, commonly associated with dispensationalism (though not exclusive to dispensationalism), concludes that Israel is a unique nation chosen by God to be the channel of bringing about the restoration of everything that was lost in Eden. Israel is a specific ethnic group, descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob (Israel), which is united by a covenant relationship with God. This covenant is everlasting and it is unconditional (depending on God alone for final fulfillment), but it is largely unfulfilled. It will be fulfilled completely in the future with the same people (ethnic Israel) with whom it was made.
God’s choice of Israel to accomplish His great purposes in restoration and reconciliation is a major biblical and theological matter. But two points should be made. First, Israel’s election never meant that God became disinterested in the gentiles. God intended to bring the Savior into the world to save the world through Israel, and that He did. From the first giving of the covenant, God’s intention to save gentiles was seen. Second, Israel’s status as the elect nation did not mean that every individual Israelite would receive spiritual salvation. National election and individual election are two different matters. All Israelites must also place personal faith in Messiah Jesus.
The Church is distinct from national Israel. When that generation of Israelites that witnessed the coming of Jesus Messiah turned away in unbelief, God temporarily set Israel aside and raised up the Church (that body of believing Jews and believing gentiles) for an undetermined period of time to do God’s will and work in this world. This was not something revealed in the Old Testament which is why the Apostle Paul referred to the Church as a “mystery.” When God’s purposes for the Church are completed, God will restore Israel to their former place but not because of Israel’s goodness. God’s covenant with Israel was unconditional and He will do what He promised. God will restore national Israel during the “Seventieth Week of Daniel” (aka the Tribulation) which will lead to total covenant fulfillment. Evidences for making a clear distinction between the Church and Israel will be presented later on. To remove any suspense, the distinction between Israel and the Church is the position taken by the author in these articles.
#2 – THE CHURCH IS THE NEW ISRAEL
This view is commonly called “Replacement Theology.” This view holds that Israel’s sin and unbelief connected with their rejection of Jesus Messiah caused God to set aside national Israel completely and permanently and replace it with the Church. The promises given to Israel in the Old Testament have been transferred over to the Church. The view is sometimes called “supersessionism” because the Church has superseded Israel. This position is reflected by these theologians.
“What further statement could be needed in order for us to say with assurance that church has now become the true Israel of God and will receive all the blessings promised to Israel in the Old Testament.” (W. Grudem, “Systematic Theology”. 863)
“The Old Testament records two kinds of promises which God made to national Israel: national promises and spiritual promises….The spiritual promises are still being fulfilled through the church today. Israel’s national promises all have been either fulfilled or invalidated because of unbelief.”(W. Cox, Amillennialism Today, 83)
It needs to be noted that there are differing views within “Replacement Theology” on God’s present attitude towards Israel. There are two basic views.
(1) PUNITIVE REPLACEMENT THEOLOGY. This view states that because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus, God, in wrath, abrogated His covenant with them and is punishing them. For centuries, this was the position of the Roman Catholic Church as well as some of the Reformers. The harsh, punitive attitude reflected in the Jews being “Christ killers” flows from this form of Replacement Theology.
(2) ECONOMIC REPLACEMENT THEOLOGY. Two key events in the 20th century has softened the above attitude towards the Jews: first, the Holocaust, and, second, the establishment of the state of Israel. And, it is likely, that the influence of Dispensational Theology has also played a role in the evangelical church’s attitudes towards Israel. Economic Replacement Theology basically says that Israel’s role as the people of God simply expired with the coming of Jesus as God then transferred their position to the church.
Both of these two views deny a restoration of national Israel. The first view holds that there is no future of any kind for the Jews. The second view acknowledges a future salvation for Israel but denies a future restoration of Israel (that is, Israel will have no special role in the future in fulfilling God’s work and will).
For Replacement Theology (RT) to be true then there are three points that must be demonstrated from the Scriptures. First, they must show that God’s many eternal, unconditional promises made to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob will not be fulfilled to them. There needs to be clear New Testament evidence that all of those commitments made by God in the Old Testament have been set aside by God Himself. The writers of the NT must declare that this is the case. Second, there must be a clear discussion by the Apostles that the Church has now replaced Israel in God’s program. This is such an important issue that it would be necessary to have the matter discussed clearly and forcefully. There ought to be a number of passages which detail this monumental shift from Israel to the Church. And third, it must be shown that the term “Israel” which had just one meaning (an ethnic people) for some 1500 years now has a new meaning. Again, this would require clear, unmistakable declarations by the NT writers. God was so very clear about the identification of this people Israel. From the days of Moses to those of Nehemiah, “Israel” had just one meaning. It is difficult to believe that God would change the meaning of “Israel” without letting all of us know, by giving a clear and detailed discussion of the issue. On the other hand, we would expect God to reinforce His view of Israel through the pens of NT writers. And we do have such a clear, unmistakable discussion of that very thing in Romans 9-11.
As we will see in upcoming articles, RT is an exegetically weak theological position. The Scriptures commonly used by RT are inadequate to support this theological view. Clear exegesis, and not a resorting to analogies and metaphors, is what is required.
NOTE: The author has found that Michael J. Vlach’s book “Has the Church Replaced Israel?” (B & H Publishing Group) is an excellent book, and one that the reader will find valuable when dealing with this important subject. It is highly recommended.