Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dispensationalism and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 4: The People of God, Israel and the Church

It's been over a month since my last post in this series, so I thought I'd start it back up again. Is there a single people of God like most Christians throughout history have believed or is there two as many dispensationalists believe? Dispensationalists, reacting both to an oversimplified identification between Israel and the Church that is sometimes found and to the view that Israel has been cast aside and is no longer God's people, have in general fallen all the way off the other side of the horse and imposed an oversimplified and massively wrong division between the two, sometimes even going so far as to say that the two have entirely different destinies, covenants, or even administrations of salvation. I think dispensationalists are right to make some distinction between Israel and the Church but they go wrong when they posit to peoples of God instead of one. I don't have enough time to go through this topic in enough detail to really do it justice and list all the relevant Scripture and such, but I'll outline some of my thoughts on this.

In the Old Testament, there was a single people of God, Israel. But then of course there's Israel and then there's Israel. Some within the group were considered truly part of God's people in a way others were not even if those others were supposed to be - some were the remnant or the true Israel. And not all in this group were necessarily ethnic Israelites either since Gentiles too could eventually become incorporated into this body (indeed, many non-Israelites were among those who journeyed out of Egypt and took part in the great events and covenants at the founding of Israel as a nation and people of God). So from the very beginning, Israel was God's people but this people, ethnic Israelite or not, also incorporated converted non-Israelites. At this time (or at least it had become so by NT times), it was generally expected, though, that the converted would combine religious identification and ethnic identification by, among other things, submitting to the right of circumcision and "becoming a Jew". In Jesus' time, Gentiles who wished to convert were also baptized as a right of passage into God's people.

The Old Testament spoke of a time, though, when other nations would call on God and God would acknowledge them and make them his (in fact, this was a main reason of why God chose Israel in the first place - as a beginning to something greater that was meant to sweep out even unto the Gentiles). Somehow, they would follow the Law or join with Israel and yet somehow not exactly. How all this would work out and what it would look like was yet to be revealed.

In the New Testament, we do not see the creation of a new people of God. What do we see instead? We see Jesus, the True Israel himself, taking on the role of Israel and its duties and reforming God's people, Israel, about himself. And what do we begin to see? Non-Jews and non-Israelites seem to be allowed inclusion into this people but the ethnic identification with the Jews is not required of them. As the True Israel, incorporation into Jesus means incorporation into the one people of God, so these Gentiles truly became co-citizens in God's people with their Jewish brethren who were already there for generations. This incorporation therefore means a kind of incorporation into the covenants and promises of the Old Testament. Jesus is the vine, Israel, and we, both Jew and Gentile are the branches of God's people. God's one people are a holy nation, a priesthood, elect, etc. - all terms for Israel now applied to anyone who is incorporated into Jesus by faith in him. The old uses of the Law, its ethnic particulars for the Jews at the point in history before the cross, are now past and it takes on a new role suitable for people of all ethnicities as the people of God is expanded greatly beyond its previous ethnic boundaries.

Jesus' followers, the true Israel, were at first almost entirely Jewish but soon they began actively converting Gentiles and Paul championed full inclusion of the Gentiles in God's people on the basis of faith and declared that they did not need to follow the ethnic particulars of the Law and become Jews - God accepted both Jew and Gentile on the same basis, that of faith. So now, this one people of God which previously was almost entirely roughly identified as Israel included a lot of Gentiles, thus expanding God's people beyond ethnic Israel to form one entity neither Jewish nor Gentile but rather universal and transcending the distinction (and indeed transcending all ethnic distinctions and particularities) - a new thing called the Church which included both. The old covenants, promises, etc. are thus expanded and transcended so that God is no longer simply interested in particular promises to a particular people but more grand, larger promises to all peoples. The promise of the land for the Jews, for instance, is now transcended, and God's people, Jews and non-Jews, are promised the entire earth.

So, as Paul said, Gentiles have been grafted onto the plant, Israel. But some other branches have been cut off because of unbelief - the unbelieving Jews. This, of course, does not mean God is done with them. No, they are the natural sons, the natural branches - they belong on the tree and are meant, if they are willing, to be regrafted. So as you can see, things are not nearly so simple as many dispensationalists make it. Yes, there is some discontinuity between Old Testament Israel and the Church and between how things went on with each. But that doesn't in any way mean that there are two peoples of God. Believing Israel is still the core, the natural trunk of the tree or the main branches of the vine - the others having been cut off - and "the Church" is simply the name for this new thing, this new stage of God's People which transcends all ethnic and national distinctions.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Final post in this series: "The Tribulation and Rapture"

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