Israel and the Church: Are They Distinct?

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Is it right that we should distinguish between the nation of Israel and the Church? And is not the Church just a spiritual continuation of Israel? These questions are often posed and the suggestion is made that the many Old Testament promises to Israel are now being enjoyed by the Church in the present day. This article will consider such questions.

A very important phase of Old Testament history began in Genesis chapter 11 with the introduction of Abram who in chapter 17 was renamed Abraham. The significance of the former is that a man who lived in ancient Babylon was called out from it by the personal revelation of the God of Glory (Acts 7:2). The change of name is important in that on the ground of covenant relationship “Abram” was expanded to include “ah,” part of the divine title Jehovah (Gen 17:3-8). This was the origin of the unique nation of Israel, the root of the olive tree of Roman 11:16-18. The practical beginning of the nation began with the birth of the twelve sons of Jacob who developed into tribes during the later years of the Genesis record. Israel became “national” during the years in Egypt and, although chosen and called by God to be His special people, soon there was evidence of failure and sin. The power and grace of God in redemption from Egypt were soon forgotten and the many aspects of failure during the kingdom years in Canaan led to the Captivity. God’s final remedy for failure in both man and the nation of Israel is in the redeeming work of Christ at Calvary and although, following His resurrection, He has ascended into heaven, He will return to earth in power and glory to defeat all who oppose God and to set up His millennial kingdom on earth. Preparatory to this there will be the recovery, redemption, and regeneration of the nation of Israel to bring her into eternal blessing. All of these truths are taught in the Old Testament.

But what made Israel unique and different to the surrounding nations, and what was the essential character of the promises which were made to her? Her promises were in relation to the earth

Before Abram ever left Ur of the Chaldees, Jehovah had promised him a land and that in him would “all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). Abraham erected his first altar at Shechem and God confirmed to him that he was now in the land which God would give to his seed. Three specific times when God made similar promises regarding his seed follow: “as the dust of the earth” (13:14-17), then innumerable as heaven’s stars (15:5), and finally “as the stars…and as the sand which is upon the sea shore” (22:15-18).

The national blessings to Israel confirm this. Paul, in speaking of his “kinsmen according to the flesh; who are Israelites,” lists the unique features which belonged to the nation of Israel. The “adoption” refers to the national sonship conferred on the nation (see Exodus 4:22, Hosea 11:1), and to the “glory,” the Shekinah cloud of God’s presence which guided and protected them through the wilderness days. The “covenants” of promise were all made by Jehovah to Israel. “The giving of the law” was in particular a feature of Israel’s history. The “service of God” refers to the tabernacle and temple service which set them apart from all other nations. We have already briefly considered the “promises” which had been uniquely vouchsafed to this one nation. The final blessing is of course the greatest! From Israel came the Messiah, the “Sent One” from God into a world of sin. How precisely does Paul speak of Christ! “Of Whom as concerning the flesh,” His humanity! “Who is over all,” His sovereign supremacy! “God blessed forever,” His eternal deity!

The covenant of God with Abraham was unconditional. It should be noted here that the promises made by God in covenant to Abraham were without condition. In each of the Genesis passages we have previously considered, he was promised blessings which God will not revoke. The first covenant made by God to Abraham was prefaced by the words “I will,” indicating that divine fulfilment and certainty concerning the land was in view and in Genesis 17 the covenant is said to be everlasting. Other aspects are emphasized elsewhere.

The covenantal blessings were varied. Not only was a landpromised, but also a throne and a king to occupy the throne. A kingdom would have universal dominion with the nation which God had chosen at its head. Various parts of the Old and New Testaments describe all this in detail.

But what about the Church? Is it the successor to Israel and merely an amplification of what we have considered with the addition of Gentiles who have been saved in this Day of Grace? No. There are many points of difference revealed which show important and remarkable distinctions between Israel and the Church. Let us begin by thinking of the present period, which commenced at Pentecost, when God began calling out a people from among both the Jews and the Gentiles to be a unique company; everyone born again in the present period is a member of this body. This great company, the Church, is never forecast or described in the Old Testament Scriptures. In the New Testament it is variously spoken of as “The Church which is His body” or “the Bride of Christ.” Our consideration has compared and contrasted Israel and the Church and we should remember that each is clearly distinct from the other, is extremely precious to God, and is at the center of His eternal purpose. The calling out of the Church will conclude at the Rapture and at that time God will begin to deal with Israel as His chosen people again. All Jews and Gentiles who are saved in the present day do not claim such “chosen” identity again; they are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:22-28).