Thoughts on the Transition: Israel to the Church

Romans 11 is a centerpiece of understanding the transition from Israel to the Church as New Israel; that of the Gentile portion of the church as the wild olive tree branches grafted into the natural olive tree, who had its branches cut off because of unbelief. Christianity has Hebraic roots with largely Gentile branches.

If the church is to follow the patterns of ancient Israel, could it be that Protestantism was a part of that pattern in the way the inhabitants of Northern Israel (later the Samaritans, whom Jesus visited) rejected the authority of the throne of David, the authority of the Levitical priesthood through Zadok, and the authority of Judah’s prophets? What about the significance of the pattern of Joseph to modern Jews, in which case his brethren did not recognize him at first encounter, but during the second he declared himself to his brethren plainly – as the de facto ruler of a Gentile nation? This appears to have much to do with the split appearances of Christ. To those who recognized him, his first appearance was as a suffering servant (as even though Joseph condemned his brethren as spies, he made sure they did not pay for the food they took back to their land), but the second was as a conquering king. To those who did not recognize him – many of the Jews of his day – his first appearance was as a condemning prophet, as Joseph’s demeanor toward them the first time was harsh and condemning.

It would follow that there are “two Israels,” symbolically, although in truth there is only one Israel – the composition of that Israel across time is what causes confusion. At the end or the consummation of each Israel era, Jesus appears personally. Jesus appeared to the Jews who rejected him, and he will appear again for the Church. The first Israel mostly failed to recognize him, as Joseph’s brethren did, whereas the second Israel – the Church – will recognize him when he comes in his glory. The second Israel will include Benjamin (who was not with his brethren the first time they met Joseph) – the other son of Israel through Rachel (the first, Joseph, being the one Israel thought dead).

This also deals with the proclivities of many modern Protestants to place natural Israel on a pedestal, even some few believing that the Jews do not have to accept Jesus or basic historically orthodox beliefs of Christianity to be saved. If the promises to Israel in the prophets and Paul’s writings are interpreted without the Church as a second Israel, natural Israel takes on a greater significance than perhaps is warranted.

In the 1800s, some American bible scholars and pastors of the day predicted that Israel would have to be a nation again before the end would come. Particularly after 1948, when Israel formally became a political nation again, Israel has taken center stage to American Evangelicals. However, a heavily atheist/Jewish nation that rejects Jesus at Messiah cannot possibly be as important to interpreting the scriptures as the Church who grew from the roots of natural Israel and assembled and validated the New Testament. At the most, they are a signpost of the coming fulfillment of some of the prophetic writings that relate to the consummation of natural Israel’s destiny.

Paul’s writings are clear that there is uniqueness to Israel and God earnestly desires that they will all accept Christ, but they are still of Hagar if they remain in their slavery:

[Gal 4:24-25 ESV] 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

Theologians that prioritize natural Israel are squaring up with a fundamental difficulty in their thought – the lack of a central context of their interpretation. If the interpretive context of the Old Testament was always Israel, then it follows that the interpretive context of the New Testament and Old Testament combined is always the Church – an olive tree who had its natural branches cut and had wild olive branches grafted in – but the tree is still one. There is no second tree, nor do the branches cut off start growing their own tree. They must through Christ alone be re-grafted in.

A common verse usually used to argue for a greater significance than is warranted to natural Israel is later in Romans, after the Olive Tree illustration:

[Rom 11:25-27 ESV] 25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; 27 “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

Paul has already laid out natural Israel’s path to restoration via re-grafting:

[Rom 11:23 ESV] 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.

So, at the end, natural Israel will come into the Church to some degree. But this does not mean all natural Israel is saved by virtue of their mother’s Jewishness; it means all who come into the “Israel of God” will be saved through Christ.

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