This study looks at two key matters in the discussion” (1) the place of the biblical covenants in deciding the matter, and (2) the use of the term “Israel” in the Bible.
The answer to the above question is definitely not in the same category as “how many angels can dance on a pin head?” Now perhaps angels might be interested in the dancing question, but answering the question in the title is highly significant in the study of biblical prophecy. Believing that the Church of Jesus Christ is the “new Israel” will lead a person down one prophetic path. If, however, one believes that the Church and Israel are distinct entities in God’s plan and program, then a very different path will be traveled. It does make a difference what you believe on this matter.
In our last study, it was observed that there are two basic views concerning the Church and its relationship to Israel. Replacement Theology (RT) believes that God is done with national Israel and that the Church has replaced Israel in doing God’s work in the world. Israelites may be saved today (and there might even be “national salvation”) but Israel will not be restored to their former place of prominence. The second view is simply that the Church and Israel are distinct and the church has not replaced Israel. And while Israel has been temporarily set aside because of their disobedience and unbelief, God will fulfill His promises to ethnic Israel and restore them in the future. This second view is held by dispensational theologians, though this second view is not exclusively a dispensational position.
In concluding the first study, it was noted that RT must demonstrate that the New Testament writers teach: (1) that God’s many promises made to Abraham and his descendants will not be fulfilled to Abraham and his descendants; (2) that God clearly declares in the NT that the Church has replaced Israel; and (3) that after 1500 years of “Israel” meaning a specific ethnic group that the term has now been redefined by scripture.
At this point we need to begin to demonstrate why the Church is not the “new Israel”, and in the process of doing so deal with the verses presented by RT to support their position.
#1 – The Biblical Covenants God Made With Israel
The Abrahamic covenant, and the covenants which flow out of it, were made with a specific people, the nation of Israel. This is a central issue in this discussion. (Note that a much more detailed discussion can be found in Dr. Couch’s book “Messianic Systematic Theology of the OT”, and my book “Understanding End Times Prophecy”). Genesis 12-50 carefully records that this covenant was made with Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. This Abrahamic covenant was everlasting (that is, it would last at least as long as the present universe) and it was unconditional (that is, it would depend on God alone for its fulfillment). In Genesis 15, God graciously helped Abraham’s weakened faith by legally ratifying the covenant with animal sacrifices. This point is critical because once and for all God declared that He would fulfill all its provisions to Abraham and his descendants. The Apostle Paul made a powerful point in Galatians 3:15 when he observes that no one can change a ratified covenant; one that is legally binding. The provisions of the covenant cannot be changed and this includes the parties of the covenant. In other words, no one can now change the covenant parties from God and Abraham’s descendants to God and the Church. Here is Paul’s statement.
“Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations; even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises (ie. an unconditional covenant) were spoken to Abraham and to his seed.”
The three covenants which flowed out of the Abrahamic covenant, developing in greater detail the seed thoughts of the Abrahamic covenants are: the Land covenant (a specific land area given to Israel), the Davidic covenant (the rule of David’s descendant over Israel and the nations of the earth), and the New covenant (dealing with the matter of sin and spiritual deliverance). Now, most of the provisions of these covenant have not been fulfilled. But God committed Himself on oath to fulfill them. To change the parties of the covenants from Israel to the Church goes against God’s covenant promises to Abraham; against the point that ratified covenants cannot be changed; and against the testimony of Moses, the OT prophets and NT Apostles that Israel has a future.
The presence of the everlasting, unfulfilled OT covenants requires that they be fulfilled to the same people who are the party to the covenant. That party is Israel, the descendants from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel). To substitute the Church for Israel simply goes against so much of what the Bible says.
#2 – The Use of the Term “Israel”
It is the view of RT that the term “Israel” and the term “church” are used interchangeably by the New Testament writers. This, of course, is critical to their position. The following quote fairly represents the view, though others might frame it in a slightly different way.
“God’s people were known in the OT as “Israel”. The same people, in the NT, are known as “the church.” As a matter of scriptural fact, these terms are used interchangeably; the church is referred to as “Israel” (Gal. 6:16) while the OT remnant is referred to as “the church” (Acts 7:38). (Wm. Cox, Amillennialism Today, p. 46)
But we must ask if this really is a “scriptural fact” or not. This will require a look at several key NT verses. But first, we should observe the general use of the term “Israel” in the Scriptures.
“Israel” is used over 2,000 times in the OT. And there, it is always used of national Israel; a specific ethnic group descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. A Philistine is never called an Israelite. A Canaanite is never called an Israelite. An Egyptian is never called an Israelite. While it is true that Ruth the Moabite believed in Jehovah and became a part of the nation, she is never called an Israelite. She is a wonderful example of the fact that God was and is interested in bringing gentiles to Himself. But it is a “scriptural fact” that “Israel” in the OT is never used of anyone aside from those who are the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The NT use of “Israel” is built on the OT use.
In the NT, the term “Israel” is used 73 times. There is little doubt that about 70 of the 73 times the word is used of national Israel. (For example, when the ministry of John the Baptist is discussed, Luke 1:80 says that “he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel”; and there can be no real question what he meant by “Israel”). So overwhelmingly, the term “Israel” as used in the NT is consistent with its 2,000 uses in the OT. And again, we would make the point that if the meaning “Israel” has now changed (after 1500 years of consistent usage) it would be expected and required that a clear and detailed explanation would be given. But the question now focuses on the few references used by RT to establish their position that it a “scriptural fact” that the terms “Israel” and “church” are used interchangeably. So, we will take a look in our next study at their key verse Galatians 6:16, along with Romans 9:6 and Romans 11:26.
RT is paddling against a very strong current biblically and theologically. The unconditional, unfulfilled Abrahamic covenant along with the consistent use of the term “Israel” are strong forces against the view of RT. And we will argue that no amount of paddling will bring them to the place where the church is the “new Israel.”