Having a correct understanding of what the Bible teaches us about Israel and the Church has a huge impact on how we interpret the Bible as a whole. Unfortunately, I believe the Gentile church has a long history of misunderstanding in this area of theology which continues up to the present day.
Jesus, the Apostles, and the first disciples of Jesus were all Jewish. At the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples of Jesus who were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast. Thousands of Jews including Priests and Levites heard the gospel, believed, and were baptized. The first disciples met in the temple and in private homes. There was no concept among the early disciples of Jesus that to become a follower of Jesus as Messiah meant that you would have to abandon your Jewishness. In fact the first controversy among Jesus followers was whether Gentiles could be “saved” without first becoming Jews–by being circumcised and becoming Torah observant. This issue was resolved in the first church council recorded in Acts chapter 15. The council decreed, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, that Gentiles would be allowed to become part of the people of God as Gentiles–without being circumcised and becoming Torah observant–through their faith in Jesus.
With the success of the Apostle Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, the number of Gentiles in the church grew to vastly outnumber the Jews; Jewish influence in the churches all but disappeared. The Gentile church grew to see itself as a separate entity from Israel, and Gentile believers in Jesus as replacing Israel as the people of God. As early as the 2nd century, church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-120), Justin Martyr (c. 160), and Melito of Sardis (c. 170), wrote that the Christian church had replaced the Jews as the people of God. This view is called “replacement theology” or “supersessionism” and has been the dominant view of the church for most of its history. However, there is a growing number of scholars who are challenging the supersessionist view.
What do we find in the Bible on this subject?
We need to understand what the church is; but in order to understand what the church is, we must first understand how the Bible defines Israel. Israel–the Jews–are the physical descendants of Abraham. God made a covenant with Abraham, and gave him circumcision as a sign of that covenant. God told Abraham:
“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7
After the rebellion at the Tower of Babel, where what would become the nations of the world rebelled against God, God decided to create a nation for Himself, through which He would redeem the straying nations of the world. He created this nation from the descendants of Abraham. After His covenant with Abraham, God entered into a covenant with Abraham’s descendants, the entire nation of Israel, at Mt. Sinai, where He gave them the Torah, the priesthood, the tabernacle, and His divine presence came to live among them in the Tabernacle.
This did not mean that every Israelite who was ever born had a relationship with God by faith the way Abraham did. Some Israelite’s did not. Many fell into idolatry. The unbelieving Israelite’s were not “true” sons of Abraham, because they did not follow in the footsteps of Abraham by faith. Both Jesus and Paul addressed what it meant to be a true son of Abraham. When Jesus was speaking to Jews who opposed Him, He said this:
“‘I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.’ They answered and said to Him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.’ They said to Him…’we have one Father: God.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God…You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.'” John 8:37-44a
The Apostle Paul wrote that not everyone who was born of Jewish descent is a true son of Abraham, but those who have a relationship with God by faith:
“For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: ‘THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED.’ That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.'” Romans 9:6b-8
“Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” Galatians 3:7
The Apostle Paul wrote of the faithful remnant of Jews who lived during the time of Israel’s apostasy during the days of Elijah. Elijah thought he was the only one faithful to the Lord left alive. Elijah prayed to God:
“‘ Lord, THEY HAVE KILLED YOUR PROPHETS, THEY HAVE TORN DOWN YOUR ALTARS, AND I ALONE AM LEFT, AND THEY ARE SEEKING MY LIFE.’ But what was the diving response to him? ‘I HAVE KEPT for Myself SEVEN THOUSAND MEN WHO HAVE NOT BOWED THE KNEE TO BAAL.’ In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.” Romans 11:3-4
There has always been a faithful remnant. The New Testament gives us examples of Torah observant Jews who were faithful sons and daughters of Abraham, living at the time of Jesus: the parents of John the Baptist–Zacharias and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Simeon, and Anna the prophetess, who met Joseph and Mary in the temple when Jesus was presented before the Lord. They all had one thing in common: they were living by faith under the Torah before Jesus came, and they recognized Jesus as Messiah when He came into the world. Those Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and followed Him are the faithful remnant who constitute the Israel of God.
Jesus is the true vine, the true Israel
There is a connection between Israel is pictured as a vine/vineyard in the Bible, and Jesus as the true vine. Israel is pictured as a vine in Psalm 80:8-11, and Is. 5:1-7.
“You removed a vine from Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it.” Ps. 80:8
“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah His delightful plant.” Is. 5:7
Jesus told His disciples in John 15:1 that He is the “true vine.“ Many see some of the events in Jesus’ life and ministry as reliving Israel’s history. He went down into Egypt as an infant and came out again as Jacob and the twelve patriarchs went to Egypt and came out at the Exodus. He was tempted by the adversary in the wilderness for 40 days; Israel was tempted in the wilderness for 40 years. He led the people into the wilderness and fed the 5000; the Israelite’s were led into the wilderness and fed manna to eat. But in every way that Israel failed, Jesus succeeded. Jesus is the consummate Israelite. He told His twelve Apostles:
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it will bear more fruit…If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” John 15:1-2, 6
Jesus’ teaching about Himself as the true vine is in an entirely Jewish context. He is not talking about whether Christians can lose their salvation. This language of branches connected to the vine and branches broken off is very similar to the language the Apostle Paul uses in his analogy of Israel as an olive tree in Roman’s chapter 11. Paul pictured the Jews who believed in Jesus as branches who remained connected to the olive tree (Israel), and Jews who rejected Jesus as branches who were broken off because of their unbelief. Paul pictured the Gentiles who believed in Jesus as wild branches who are grafted in to the olive tree. The believing Gentiles are not a newly created entity replacing Israel as the people of God, they are joined to the Israel of God! As Messianic scholar Mark Kinzer put it, Gentile followers of Jesus are a “multinational extension of the people of Israel.”
What is the church?
If you were to go around and ask people how they would define what the church is, you would probably get a variety of answers. Many think of the church as a building where Christians meet. Others realize the church is not a building, it is the people, which is a step in the right direction.
One thing we need to realize is that the word church does not appear in the Bible. Of course the word appears in our English translations of the Bible. But “church” is the word that translators have chosen to translate the Greek word ekklesia, which means “called out ones,” “congregation,” or “assembly.” What we need to remember when it comes to understanding words used in the Bible, is how the Biblical writers understood them, which may be different from the way we use and understand the same words today.
When Stephen was giving his defense before the Sanhedrin in Acts chapter 7, he referred to the Jewish people who had come out of Egypt recorded in the book of Exodus as the “church (ekklesia) in the wilderness” Acts 7:38. The church was not created at Pentecost, which is the common view of most Gentile Christians. There is not one verse of Scripture which states that the church was created at Pentecost. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Jewish followers of Jesus. The New Covenant was never made with the Gentile church, but with the nation of Israel. This is clearly stated in the book of Jeremiah:
“‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD. ‘but this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will put My law (Torah) within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'” Jeremiah 31:31-33
When Jesus told His disciples, “Upon this rock I will build My church…” (Matthew 16:18) I do not think He was saying that He was going to create something entirely new; I think His intended meaning was closer to the prophecy of Amos that James the brother of the Lord quoted in Acts 15:16-18 regarding the Gentiles:
“‘AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME, SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO.'” Acts 15:16-18
The work of Jesus building His ekklesia, is one of restoration! His presence and teaching among the Jews was a gigantic “course correct.” The religious leaders had corrupted the service in the temple, and mis-represented to the people what true worship of YHVH and Torah observance looked like. Jesus, the Light of the world, shone light on all these things.
The prevalence of replacement theology in the church over the centuries has done tremendous damage to the relationship between the Jewish people and the church. Some claiming to be Christians have done violence to Jews believing that the Jews were forsaken by God and accursed. Jews who wanted to follow Jesus in Gentile churches would have to leave behind their Jewish heritage and “convert” to Christianity. That is one reason why so many Jews believe that you cannot be a Jew and believe in Jesus as Messiah; you cannot be a Jew and a Christian.
Thankfully, this is changing. There is a rising number of Jews who are believing in Jesus as their Messiah, and fully retaining their Jewish lifestyle and heritage! This is what the Apostles did, as well as the thousands of Jews who were the first disciples of Jesus.
The New Covenant is with the house of Israel and the house of Judah where God removes the guilt of sin through the sacrifice of His Son, puts His Spirit within His people enabling them to walk in His statutes, writes His word upon their hearts, and allows the Gentiles of the world the same spiritual benefit; to freely join His people, as Gentiles, no longer as “strangers and aliens” but as equal members, “fellow citizens with the saints” and members “of God’s household…” Eph. 2:19. This is Israel and the church (ekklesia). This is the gospel!