How Do Israel and the Church Relate?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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When you look at the Christian church family picture, an important question arises: Is Israel in it? Your answer will depend on what you mean by “Israel.” Israel refers to the Jewish nation, God’s historic and continuing covenantal people. It includes the land and the state of Israel today. The church in the new covenant is distinct from Israel in the old covenant. The church has not replaced Israel as God’s people—that is a view known as replacement theology or supersessionism. Some theologians consider the church to have replaced ethnic Israel as God’s chosen people and have become “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) or the “new Israel” (a term the New Testament never uses).

The reference to the “tribes of Israel” in Revelation 7:4 is thought to indicate that the church has become the spiritual Israel (Rom. 9:6–7; 11:17–21). However, Romans 11:29 (NASB) asserts, “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” Paul argues in Romans 9–11 that God’s covenant relationship with Israel has not ended (Rom. 9:6; 1 Cor. 7:17–24). When the New Testament uses the term Israel,” it refers to historic, ethnic Israel and not to the church. This does not mean that the church is not closely identified with Israel; in Ephesians 2:11–12, Paul reminds in-Christ Gentiles they are part of the “commonwealth of Israel” (ESB). Their Gentile congregations are satellite communities of Israel, in a manner similar to the way member countries of the British Commonwealth were part of the United Kingdom while maintaining their unique national identity. In that way, our church-family picture would be incomplete without God’s people Israel, for our identities are interrelated (Rom. 15:10, 27).

It is best to keep the referent for “Israel” as the “children of Israel,” the physical descendants of the patriarch Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel in Genesis 32:28 (2 Kings 17:34). In Genesis 35:10–11, Jacob’s name change is narrated again, but this time it’s promised that “a nation and a company of nations shall come from you” (ESV). The phrase “children of Israel” only occurs four times (1 Kings 6:13; Isa. 17:3, 9; Rom. 9:27 KJV), but is evident in other English expressions such as “Israelites” (Ex. 1:12; Heb. 11:22), “sons of Israel” (Ex. 1:1), and “people of Israel” (Jer. 50:4; Rev. 2:14).

Israel is a key self-referential term used by the descendants of Jacob. It functions as insider language describing those who have been chosen by God. It also indicates a focus on covenantal identity for those who are part of God’s people through Jacob/Israel. Other terms for this group include “the Hebrews” (Ex. 1:22; Phil. 3:5) and “the Jews,” though the latter term develops later and connects the people of Israel to the land of Judea (Ezra 6:14; Neh. 1:2; 1 Cor. 1:22). The church is a distinct entity from Israel in God’s economy, and confusing these terms will create theological confusion and can lead to supersessionism, a crucial ethical concern in our post-Shoah—after the Holocaust—context.

Supersessionism refers to the theological position that once Christ came and established the church, the newcovenant community replaced the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people—and thus Israel’s covenantal relationship and identity as such ceased. It occurs among theologians and pastors in three ways. First, the Bible’s full story is read in such a way that Israel’s story does not continue, or is insignificant once we reach the New Testament. This gets to the heart of the problem, namely hermeneutics. Second, Israel’s rejection of Jesus in the first century results in an expression of God’s retributive justice and a turning to the church as the new Israel. Third, Israel functions as a literary foil, a salvation-historical necessity whose role in prefiguring Christ was accomplished and is now obsolete. Here typological interpretive methods are often used as, for example, baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign (Col. 2:11–12).

A post-supersessionist theological method includes the following hermeneutical presuppositions and practices: (1) God’s continuing covenantal faithfulness to Israel; (2) Jesus is the eternal second person of the Trinity and the Messiah of Israel; (3) the gospel is for all people, both Jews and non-Jews; (4) Gentiles who come to faith in Jesus are part of God’s family without needing to become Jews; and (5) Messianic Jews, as part of their membership in Israel, should continue to identify as Jews, reflecting Israel’s call to be a separate and abiding nation. This is not a two-covenant approach to salvation, one for Jews (i.e., Torah) and one for Gentiles (i.e., Jesus). But it does see the canon as an unfolding narrative, rather than assuming the earlier stories are obliterated by the later ones.

Post-supersessionism also seeks to systematize theology in a way that doesn’t imply a revocation of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. It pays close attention to the Jewish nature of the Bible and suggests an Israel-centered hermeneutic that should complement Christ-centered and gospel-centered ones. A post-supersessionist theological position, as an advancement on progressive dispensationalism, attempts to interpret the primary teachings of Christian theology and church tradition in a manner that doesn’t suggest the discontinuance of Jewish covenantal identity. This also matters because getting Israel’s identity right can help us navigate other identity-based problems in our contemporary culture, as we uncover God’s desires for human embodiment in its spiritual and physical dimensions.

For Further Reading:

50 Most Important Theological Terms

by J. Brian Tucker and David Finkbeiner

Theology can be intimidating, full of big words and lofty ideas. Yet theological terms aren’t just for professors to argue about in the...

book cover for 50 Most Important Theological Terms