Throughout the history of the Christian church, the question of Israel’s place within God’s redemptive purposes has been of special importance. In modern history, with the emergence of dispensationalism as a popular eschatological viewpoint and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the theological question of God’s intention for Israel has become even more pressing. After the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews throughout Europe during World War II, the issue of the relation between the church and Israel has also been affected anew by the sad reality of anti- Semitism, which some allege belongs to any Christian theology that insists upon one way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, whether for Jews or Gentiles.
In order to orient the discussion of this critical issue, we need to begin with a clear understanding of the major views on this question that are represented today within the church. These views illustrate not only the importance of the question, but the wide diversity of positions.
Premillennial Dispensationalism: God’s Special Purpose for Israel
Although premillennial dispensationalism is a relatively new viewpoint in the history of Christian theology, its position on God’s special purpose for Israel has shaped, even dominated, recent debates among evangelical Christians on the relationship between the church and Israel.
In classic dispensationalism, God has two distinct peoples: an earthly people, Israel, and a heavenly people, the church. According to dispensationalism, God administers the course of the history of redemption by means of seven successive dispensations or redemptive economies. During each dispensation, God tests human beings by a distinct revelation of His will. Among these seven dispensations, the three most important are the dispensation of law, the dispensation of the gospel, and the dispensation of the kingdom. While it is not possible in a short essay like this to describe all the distinctives of these dispensations, what is important is dispensationalism’s insistence that God has a separate purpose and a distinct manner of dealing with His earthly people, Israel. During the present era, the dispensation of the church, God has “suspended” His special purposes for Israel and turned His attention, in a manner of speaking, to the gathering of the Gentile peoples through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the nations. However, when Christ returns at any moment to “rapture” the church prior to a seven-year period of great tribulation, He will resume God’s special program for Israel. This tribulation period will be a prelude to the commencement of the future dispensation of a one thousand-year kingdom upon the earth. For dispensationalism, the millennium marks the period during which God’s promises to Israel, His earthly people, will receive a distinct, literal fulfillment. Only at the end of the dispensation of the millennial kingdom will Christ finally vanquish all of His enemies and introduce the final state.
Though dispensationalism acknowledges that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are saved by faith in the one Mediator, Jesus Christ, it maintains a clear and permanent distinction between Israel and the church within the purposes of God. The promises of the Old Testament are not fulfilled through the gathering of the church of Jesus Christ from among all the peoples of the earth. These promises are given to an earthly, ethnically distinct people, Israel, and they will be fulfilled in a literal manner only during the dispensation of the kingdom that follows the present dispensation of the gospel.
The Traditional Reformed View: One People of God
Contrary to dispensationalism’s sharp demarcation between God’s two peoples, Israel and the church, historic Reformed theology insists on the unity of God’s redemptive program throughout history. When Adam, the covenant head and representative of the human race, fell into sin, all human beings as his posterity became liable to condemnation and death (–21). By virtue of Adam’s sin and its implications for the entire human race, all people became subject to the curse of the law and heirs of a sinfully corrupt nature.
According to the traditional Reformed interpretation of Scripture, God initiated the covenant of grace after the fall in order to restore His chosen people to communion and fellowship with Himself. While the covenant of grace is administered diversely throughout the course of the history of redemption, it remains one in substance from the time of its formal ratification with Abraham until the coming of Christ in the fullness of time. In all of the various administrations of the covenant of grace, God redeems His people through faith in Jesus Christ, the one Mediator of the covenant of grace, through whom believers receive the gift of eternal life and restored communion with the living God (see Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 293–5).
In the Reformed understanding of the history of redemption, therefore, there is no ultimate separation between Israel and the church. The promise God made to Abraham in the formal ratification of the covenant of grace (), namely, that he would be the father of many nations and that in his “seed” all the families of the earth would be blessed, finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The seed promised to Abraham in the covenant of grace is Jesus Christ, the true Israel, and all who through faith are united to Him and, thus, heirs of the covenant promises (, 29). In the Reformed view, the gospel of Jesus Christ directly fulfills the promises of the covenant of grace for all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles. Israel and the church are not two distinct peoples; rather, the church is the true Israel of God, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).
In the recent history of reflection upon the issue of Israel and the church, a new and more radical position has emerged. Often linked with the name of Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish author of a work written shortly after World War I entitled The Star of Redemption, twocovenant theology teaches that there are two separate covenants, one between God and Israel and the other between God and the church of Jesus Christ. Rather than there being one way of redemption through faith in Jesus Christ for Jew and Gentile believers alike, God’s original covenant relationship with His ancestral people, Israel, remains separate from His new covenant relationship with the Gentile nations through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Within the setting of a post-World War II concern over the legacy of anti-Semitism in the Christian church, the two-covenant-theology position has become increasingly popular among many mainline Protestant churches. Even within the Roman Catholic Church, some theologians have appealed to the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio (1991), which advocate dialogue between Christians and Jews, in order to oppose continued efforts to evangelize Jews. In the twocovenant viewpoint, the Christian confession regarding the person and work of Christ as the only Mediator or Redeemer holds true within the framework of God’s covenant with the church. However, since God’s covenant with Israel is a separate covenant, which is not fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ in the fullness of time, Christians may not impose upon Israel the terms of God’s covenant with the church.
Extreme Replacement Theology
The final position on the issue of Israel and the church that requires comment is what we might term “extreme replacement theology.” While dispensationalists often insist that the traditional Reformed affirmation of one people of God comprised of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ is a form of “replacement” theology, the Reformed view does not regard the gospel as “replacing” the older covenant economy with Israel but “fulfilling” it. Extreme replacement theology is the teaching that, because many of the Jews did not acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the Messiah of promise, God replaced Israel with the Gentile church. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls all nations and peoples to faith and repentance, but it leaves no room for any particular focus upon God’s redemptive purpose for His ancestral people, Israel. Because the church is the true, spiritual Israel, any peculiar focus upon the question of God’s saving intention for Israel is no longer permitted.
Extreme replacement theology represents the opposite end of the spectrum from the two-covenant position. Rather than speaking of a distinct covenant relationship between God and Israel that continues even after the coming of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel to the nations, replacement theology maintains that God’s program for and interest in Israel has ended… more here
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— (ESV)
12:1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.
10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
15:1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him. (ESV)
16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (ESV)