Thursday, July 12, 2007

Is the Church Israel?

Continuity vs. Discontinuity
In the past two sessions, we have looked at the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament. There are two general approaches to understanding this complex relationship:

· Continuity – there is a basic unity between the OT and the NT. The NT continues what the OT began.

· Discontinuity – there is a basic distinction between the OT and the NT. The NT begins a new project that is not a continuation of the OT.

Important Disclaimer
No one argues for strict continuity or strict discontinuity. That is, everyone believes in some continuity (e.g., we believe in one God) and some discontinuity (e.g., we no longer offer animal sacrifices). The difficulty is determining how much stays the same (continuity) and how much is different (discontinuity).

Rightly Dividing?
In discussing continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, many who argue for discontinuity appeal to 2 Timothy 2:15:

2Tim 2:15 (NKJV) Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

According to this view, “rightly dividing the word of truth” means that the task of the interpreter is to distinguish OT truth from NT truth.

However, “rightly dividing” is an archaic expression that actually means “handling accurately” or “using correctly.” The NASB renders this in contemporary language.

2Tim 2:15 (NASB) Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.

Was Israel a Church?
Last week, we considered the question, “Was Israel a church?” This question is somewhat complicated by a translation problem. The word that is most often translated as “church” is the Greek word, ekklesia. Yet, “church” and ekklesia are actually completely different words. So, this question “Was Israel a church?” needs to be answered in two parts:

Was Israel the Ekklesia?
Ekklesia simply means a group of people, a congregation of people, an assembly of people, a gathering of people. It refers to some kind of corporate group of people. This is not an exclusively religious word, as it was commonly used in the secular sense of referring to civil assemblies.

If we take the literal meaning of ekklesia, was Israel the ekklesia? Absolutely! Israel was a group of people.

Moreover, this is supported by the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint, which uses ekklesia approximately forty-five times to refer to Israel. For example:

Amos 7:8 (NKJV) And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said: “Behold, I am setting a plumb line In the midst of My people {ekklesia} Israel; I will not pass by them anymore.

Furthermore, the NT teaches that Israel was the ekklesia. In his speech before the Jewish leaders, Stephen calls Israel the ekklesia.

Acts 7:38 (NKJV) “This is he who was in the congregation {ekklesia} in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us."

Since both the OT and the NT refer to Israel as the ekklesia, we should have no problem saying that Israel was the ekklesia.

Was Israel the “church?”
Our English word “church” comes from the Greek word for Lord, which is kurios. The possessive form of kurios is kuriakos (“belonging to the Lord”). In the time shortly after the NT was written, the word kuriakos was used by itself to refer to Christians, which made perfect sense because Christians belonged to the Lord. Later, kuriakos evolved into the Scottish kirk and was eventually Anglicized as “church.” Thus, our word “church” simply means “belonging to the Lord.”

Unfortunately, kurkiakos/kirk/”church” began to be used as a translation for ekklesia. This is problematic because kuriakos and ekklesia are completely different words that ought to be distinguished.

The failure to distinguish these words has contributed to the confusion surrounding the identity of Israel and the church.

If we take the literal meaning of “church,” was Israel the church? Absolutely! Israel belonged to the Lord. They were his people.

We should have no problem saying that Israel was the church. Israel was a group of people (ekklesia), and Israel belonged to the Lord (“church”). This issue should not be controversial.

Is the Church Israel?
The more controversial issue is whether the NT church is OT Israel, or is the NT Church the continuation of OT Israel. Continuity Theologians would say yes. Discontinuity Theologians would say no, the NT church is completely separate from OT Israel.

We must recognize that this is a complex issue that many good Christians disagree on. Nevertheless, this is an issue that we must study carefully because our conclusions will determine how we deal with the Old Testament, how we view Israel, and how we view the church. This issue can be answered by determining who the descendents of Abraham are.

Who are the Descendents of Abraham?
Throughout Genesis 12-17, God makes promises to Abraham’s descendents. A question that divides theologians is this: Who are the descendents of Abraham, that is, who will inherit the promises to Abraham?

Discontinuity Theologians argue that the descendents of Abraham are his physical offspring, those who are related to Abraham by blood. Because the promises are made to Abraham’s physical children, only Jews can inherit the promises to Abraham. Therefore, the church cannot inherit the promises to Abraham.

Continuity Theologians argue that the descendents of Abraham are his spiritual offspring, those who are related to Abraham by faith. Because the promises are made to Abraham’s spiritual children, ethnicity is not the determinative factor. Therefore, the church can inherit the promises to Abraham.

The Promise Narrows
In examining this issue, we must recognize that not all of Abraham’s physical descendents will inherit the promises. God uses universal language, such as:

Gene 12:7 (NKJV) Then Yahweh appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” And there he built an altar to Yahweh, who had appeared to him.

Yet, God never intended this to mean every single one of Abraham’s children.

Abraham asked God to include Ishmael.

Gene 17:20 (NKJV) “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.
21 “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.”

So, the descendents of Abraham through Ishmael are not included in the promises; only the descendents of Abraham through Isaac are included in the promises.

Keturah’s Sons
Also, Abraham had six sons with his second wife, Keturah, yet none of these are included in the promises. Thus, out of Abraham’s eight sons, only Isaac is included in the promises. In fact, Isaac is Abraham’s “only son” according to God.

Gene 22:2 (NKJV) Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

From God’s perspective, Isaac was Abraham’s only son, or only “descendent.” The others were not included in the covenant.

Esau and the Edomites
Additionally, God again narrowed the promise to the line of Jacob. Esau and his descendents (Edomites) are not included in the promises. Though the Edomites are ethnic descendents of Abraham, they are not considered “descendents” with respect to the promises.

The Uncircumcised
God allowed for the further contraction of Abraham’s “descendents.”

Gene 17:14 (NKJV) “And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

An ethnic descendent of Abraham who was not circumcised was not considered a descendent of the promises. Thus, physical descent alone does not make someone a “descendent” of Abraham.

The Promise Expands
Furthermore, God allowed for the expansion of Abraham’s “descendents” to include those not related to Abraham by blood.

Gene 17:12 (NKJV) “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.

When God instituted circumcision, Abraham was to circumcise not only his physical children, but also male children who were physical descendents of Abraham. That is, a foreigner who was circumcised became a descendent of Abraham.

Thus, the picture that we get from the Genesis is that the descendents of Abraham, those who would inherit the promises, were initially comprised of Jacob’s physical descendents, minus those who were not circumcised, plus those foreigners who were circumcised.

More OT Evidence

Spiritual Circumcision
We later learn that although physical circumcision was important and was required for entrance into the covenant, what God really wanted was spiritual circumcision.

Jere 4:4 (NKJV) Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
And take away the foreskins of your hearts,
You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Lest My fury come forth like fire,
And burn so that no one can quench it,
Because of the evil of your doings.”

In fact, those who were physically circumcised but not spiritually circumcised were cut off. Thus, God’s promises were not necessarily to those who shared Abraham’s bloodline, but to those who shared Abraham’s faith. God’s promises were to the spiritual descendents of Abraham.

Mixed Multitude
As Israel departs from Egypt, a “mixed multitude” went with them.

Exod 12:38 (NKJV) A mixed multitude went up with them also, and flocks and herds--a great deal of livestock.

This mixed multitude included Egyptians and possibly even other nationalities. These foreigners became Israelites, “descendents” of Abraham.

Canaanites and Moabites
We also have several examples of foreigners becoming Jews. Prominently, two foreign women not only become Jews but married into the line of David.

· Rahab was a Canaanite harlot, who became the mother of Boaz.

· Ruth was a Moabite, who married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of David. So, David was one-eighth Moabite and one-sixteenth Canaanite.

So, according to the OT, the heirs of the promises to Abraham are his spiritual descendents. This is spelled out even more clearly in the NT, which we will look at next.

NT Evidence

Romans 2
Paul explains who a true Jew is in Romans 2.

Roma 2:28 (NKJV) For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;
29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

Notice that this occurs after Pentecost, and that Paul is speaking in the present tense. A Jew is not defined by ethnicity, but by the Spirit.

Romans 9
In Romans 9, Paul is dealing with the objection: Because God does not save Israel, God has failed to keep his covenant. Because God does not save every ethnic descendant of Jacob, God is unfaithful.

Is this true? Did God ever promise to save all of Israel or every single one of Abraham’s ethnic descendants? No. Paul explains in verse 6.

Roma 9:6 (NASB) But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;

He makes the cryptic statement, “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” What does this mean? Paul is arguing that not all of Israel is included in God’s covenant with Abraham.

Paul actually goes back to Abraham to prove his point.

Roma 9:7 (NKJV) nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.”

Not all of Abraham’s offspring are included in the covenant. Paul quotes Genesis 17, “in Isaac your seed shall be called.”

Paul then makes a critical statement.

Roma 9:8 (NKJV) That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.

Not all of Abraham’s physical descendants are included in the promise. Only the children of the promise are counted as the seed/offspring/descendant.

Roma 9:9 (NKJV) For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”

Only the descendants of Abraham and Sarah receive the promises.

Furthermore, this distinction continues with Isaac’s children.

Roma 9:10 (NKJV) And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),
12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.”
13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”

Esau was a “descendant” of Abraham ethnically, but he was not a descendant of the faith of Abraham.

The same is true of all unbelievers who are ethnically descended from Jacob: they are not God’s people. They are not in covenant with God. They are not heirs of the promise. They are not “true” Israel.

Galatians 3:7-15
The NT explicitly teaches that the spiritual descendents of Abraham are the heirs to the promises to Abraham. For instance, Paul states this very thing in Galatians 3:7:

Gala 3:7 (NKJV) Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.

Paul is making a distinction among the children of Abraham. Not all of Abraham’s physical descendents will inherit the promises of Abraham. Specifically, only those who share Abraham’s faith are considered sons of Abraham.

Only those physical descendents who also have faith will receive the blessings of the covenant that God made with Abraham, as Paul states in Galatians 3:9,

Gala 3:9 (NKJV) So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.

Thus, God’s covenant with Abraham is not an “unconditional” covenant with all of Abraham’s physical descendents. Rather, faith is the condition of inheriting the blessings. The unfaithful are cut off.

Furthermore, faithful non-physical descendents of Abraham can be grafted into the promises, as Paul states in Galatians 3:14,

Gala 3:14 (NKJV) that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Gentiles, who are not physically related to Abraham, can be grafted into the promises of Abraham if they are spiritually related to Abraham, that is, if they possess faith.

Therefore, in order to inherit the promises to Abraham, you don’t have to look like Abraham (i.e., be a physical descendent). You must believe like Abraham (i.e., be a spiritual descendent).

Galatians 3:16-29
As we are studying the issue of who are the descendents of Abraham, we need to understand a technical issue. The Hebrew word for “descendants” is zerah. The literal translation of zerah is “seed” or “offspring” or “descendant.” This is a collective noun, which means that even though it is singular, it could be referring to a group.

Paul picks up this concept in Galatians 3 in his discussion of the “seed” of Abraham. Paul makes this startling statement in Galatians 3:16:

Gala 3:16 (NKJV) Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.

Paul argues that because zerah is singular, it should be interpreted as such and not collectively. Jesus Christ is the true zerah of Abraham.

Thus, what is important is not physical descent from Abraham. What is important is spiritual descent from Abraham and ultimately, Abraham’s seed, Jesus Christ.

This is Paul’s point in Galatians 3:29:

Gala 3:29 (NKJV) And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Gentiles who have no physical relationship with Abraham can become a descendent of Abraham if they are spiritually related to Jesus Christ.

Is the NT church a continuation of OT Israel? Based upon the few passages that we looked at, I would say that the evidence points in this direction. Again, we lack a clear statement from Scripture, so we must be cautious. There are many other passages and many related issues that we will deal with in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless, passages like Romans 2, Romans 9, and Galatians 3 indicate we should think of continuity regarding Israel and the Church.

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