Israel, the Church, and the End Times

Posted: June 19, 2011 in End-times and other Theological musings

What does the Bible teach about the relationship between Israel and the Church in the purposes of God?  How will this relationship play out in the end times? 

            Throughout church history there have been different extremes in how Gentile Christians look at the Jewish people.  Anti-Semitism has often plagued the Church, with one example being the nominal Christianity of Germany before and during the rise of Hitler.  The opposite extreme is found among many modern-day evangelical Christians who give full support to the nation of Israel regardless of its actions. 

            When it comes to how Christians see the relationship between Israel and the Church in God’s purposes, there are usually two main views.  One group of believers sees the largely Gentile Church as a replacement of God’s purposes for ethnic Israel.  Another group of Christians views Israel and the Church as two separate peoples of God with separate purposes (though the ultimate goal is that both Jew and Gentile must come to faith in Jesus).  I believe there is a middle ground between these two views.  The Scriptures teach that God has a plan to save both Jews and Gentiles and bring them together in Christ as one people of God (Zech. 2:10-13, Zech. 12:10—13:1, Isa. 11:10-12, Isa. 49:5-6, Eph. 2:11-22). 

            Replacement theology (which maintains that the Gentile Church replaces God’s purposes for ethnic Israel) rightly emphasizes that there is only one people of God.  But this position wrongly asserts that the prophecies concerning Israel in the Old Testament have been mostly fulfilled in the largely Gentile Church.  Though this view would not deny that God saved Jews in the early church, it would generally see the now largely Gentile Church as the fulfillment of God’s plan for salvation and see no further specific purposes for ethnic Israel.  Though it is true that Gentile Christians have now been grafted into Israel (Rom. 11:13-14, 17-18), are a part of the true people of God, and can claim the Old Testament promises as applying to them, the Old Testament many times differentiates between the Jews and the nations (Zech. 2:10-13, 12:10—13:1; Isa. 11:10-12, 49:5-6), though they would both be saved only by the Messiah. 

            Yet the opposite extreme, the dispensationalist view, sees Israel and the Gentile Church as two separate peoples of God with two separate purposes.  However, Paul argues that through faith in Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles are a part of one people of God in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22, 3:6).  Paul writes in Romans 11:

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them….But if some of the branches [Jews] were broken off, and you [Gentiles], although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches…For if you [Gentiles] were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree (Rom. 11:13-14, 17-18, 24). 

In other words, two distinct ethnic categories of people (Jews and Gentiles) are brought together as one people of God through faith in Christ.  George Ladd writes:

In the Old Testament era, the olive tree—the people of God—consisted of the children of Israel.  Gentiles entered into the blessings of God’s people only as they shared the terms of the covenant with Israel.  In the New Testament dispensation, the natural branches, Israel, have been largely broken off the tree because of unbelief and wild branches from the Gentiles have been grafted in, through faith.  But there is but one tree, one people of God, which consisted first of Israelites and then of believing Gentiles and Jews.  It is impossible to think of two peoples of God through whom God is carrying out two different redemptive purposes without doing violence to Romans 11.[1] 

            Whereas replacement theology rightly emphasizes the oneness of God’s people, yet wrongly asserts that God’s purposes for the nation of Israel are largely finished, dispensationalism wrongly emphasizes the separateness of Israel and the Church, yet rightly asserts that God’s purposes for Israel are not finished.  The problem for dispensationalism (with its emphasis on the separateness of Israel and the Church) becomes most evident with the way it sees those end-times purposes for Israel fulfilled.  Its understanding of Israel, the Church and the end times is problematic because it is influenced by an unbiblical worldview that we addressed earlier in this book—the physical and spiritual dichotomy of Greek philosophy.  Craig Blaising writes:

Classical dispensationalism sought to resolve the tensions between new creation and spiritual vision eschatologies by affirming two coexisting eternal realms of salvation, one heavenly and one earthly….one eternal in heaven for the church and one everlasting on the new earth for Israel. It appears that dispensationalists developed the earthly side of this dual eschatology as a polar opposite to the spiritual side…Of course, dispensationalists are also known for their emphasis on a pretribulational Rapture. In this doctrine, they adapted certain seventeenth-century experimental distinctions between the appearing and the coming of Christ in a new way, that is, to distinguish between two tribulational visitations of Christ. The pretribulational Rapture became, for classical dispensationalism, the spiritual coming of Christ in the spiritual eschatology of the church, whereas the posttribulational descent of Christ to the earth became the glorious coming of Messiah to fulfill the earthly eschatology of Israel. The separation of the two in time—the pretribulational Rapture and posttribulational descent to the earth—allowed the two eschatologies to separate without conflict prior to their respective millennial fulfillments.[2] 

            In other words, the Greek philosophic emphasis on a strong dichotomy between the spiritual and physical world that had long affected the Church continued on in a partial way in dispensationalism.  Dispensationalism rightly saw in the Scriptures an emphasis on the physicality of eternal life, yet maintained that the future earthly existence on the new earth with God would be for Jewish believers in Jesus while wrongly viewing Gentile believers as dwelling with God in a separate spiritual existence in heaven.[3]  This view helped support the unbiblical teaching of a pretribulational rapture. 

            As we have begun to see, one’s view of the relationship between Israel and the Church in the purposes of God affects one’s understanding of the end times and how this relationship will play out.  While avoiding the extremes of replacement theology and dispensationalism’s radical separateness of Israel and the Church, Paul and the other writers of Scripture make it clear that in the end times God will save a people for Himself from all nations and there will be a massive conversion of Jews back into the covenant through faith in the Messiah[4] (Matt. 24:14, Rev. 7:4-10, Zech. 12:10—13:1, Matt. 23:37-39, Rom. 11:25-27, Rev. 11:1-13).  There will be one unified people of God comprised of both Jews and Gentiles from all nations of the earth.  Concerning the future fullness of salvation to Gentiles and Jews, Paul writes:

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.  And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob’; ‘and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins’ (Rom. 11:25-27).

[1] George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), 118. 

[2] Craig Blaising, “Premillennialism,” Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, 182-183, 185.

[3] Later dispensationalists changed the dichotomy of the physical and spiritual yet still segregated Israel and the Church. 

[4]“The final stages of the reign of God in Christ by which He will put all enemies under His feet (1 Cor. 15:25) will include the salvation of Israel after the flesh.  The people of God through whom the Kingdom of God is working in This Age is the Church which consists largely of Gentiles; but the people of God in whom the Kingdom will come to its consummation will include Israel (Rom. 11:12).  But there is one Kingdom and there is one people.” – George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, 120-121. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s