A week or so a go a newly minted Calvinist entered the #prosapologian chat room and had some “questions” regarding Covenant Theology. (Just a note for those of you with well formed opinions, don’t say “I have a few questions” and then open up with a cannon volley.) After some discussion it was clear that our definition of “Israel” was quite different. My friend RazorsKiss and I decided to engage this fellow and chose to move it to an email discussion. They sent the first email (which I won’t post here) but since RK was busy, I wrote the first reply. What follows is the text of my reply.
Tony and Gary,
Thanks for stopping by #prosapologian. I appreciate folks who are willing to wrestle through these difficult issues. Firstly, I note from the way you write that you’re fairly new to Calvinism. (Don’t confuse Arminians with Armenians, I’ve attended an Armenian Reformed service!) I’d like to praise God that He was gracious to you and opened your heart and mind to the doctrines of grace. I’d like to suggest however that “Calvinism” doesn’t stop at the 5 points, but it encompasses a covenantal understanding of God’s dealings with mankind.
Secondly I’d like to suggest that no one takes eschatological writings truly, completely literally. Dispensationalists have, for years, interpreted the various imagery in Revelation and Daniel not literally, but symbolically referring to helicopters, kingdoms, men with UPC codes on their hands and the like. I was part of a Dispensational church for almost twenty years, so I’m aware of their claim to “literal” meanings.
It seems literal interpretations are only made in contrast to specific points of other millennial views. I therefore suggest that, every time you read a passage with a specific Dispensational meaning, ask yourself “is this truly literal” and also, “why would the author of a prophetic, and apocalyptic book write “literally”, and also, is it truly possible that no one until the 1800s properly exegeted the text of the Bible?
Thirdly, rather than start with the Old Testament, which was in many ways veiled until the coming of Christ, I believe should start by letting the authors of the New Testament, the God-breathed commentary on the Old Testament, define our terms. That means we should start with the New Testament and read the Apostle’s understanding backwards into it, as the author of Hebrews does time and again.
I’ll focus on the New Testament witness as to the nature of Israel and the church in this email. Maybe RK intends a different direction.
The authors of New Testament uses the term “Israel” in a few different ways, Paul himself uses it in different ways in the same section. For our purposes, however, I’d like to focus on a distinction Paul makes time and again in his writing between those of the “flesh” and those of the “Spirit”. You may have read or heard this concept preached on in regards to Romans 8:5-9, wherein Paul tells us that there are those whose minds are set on the flesh and those on the Spirit. Paul talks about this same group in Galatians 4:23-25, and elsewhere… specifically Romans 9.
You may know Romans 9 well in an apologetic sense, as far as it speaking of predestination. However the first part should not be missed, for in it Paul tells us an important point regarding Israel. I will highlight the important points.
6It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 8In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.
So to summarize Paul’s point: Paul wishes the Jews would turn to Christ. But he notes, this is not a failure on God’s part, or his plan. He states: for not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. He then explains that Israel is defined by election not human descent. Thus “it is the children of promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” From here Paul launches into his famous polemic regarding God’s election unto salvation and predestination of believers. Point of fact, you cannot have one without the other. That is, everyone who is a child in the likeness of Isaac (elected by grace), are Israel.
Remember the Spirit/flesh distinction here, for Paul is expressing that concept in relation to Isaac and Ishmael, true Israel vs those simply of Abraham’s lineage. Paul returns to this point in Galatians wherein we find the following:
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
What Paul is saying in his God-breathed commentary on the Old Testament is that true Israel is and always was those who were faithful to God. In Gal 3:8 here it is clear: foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham. Thus Israel has always included Gentiles in the promise made in Gen 12. Again Paul writes:
26You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul directly ties being a son of God to being the “seed of Abraham.” Thus the covenant in Gen 12 was never made with non-elect Jews, but was in fact intended for the elect of God. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a natural, earthly fulfillment, but as with so many concepts in Scripture there is the earthly (bread and wine) and the heavenly (body and blood). God uses earthly things to represent the heavenly. So while an imperfect, type and shadow of the temple, Jerusalem and Israel was visible on the Earth, they pointed to the ultimate fulfillment of the temple in heaven, the New Jerusalem and Christ himself (and we in Christ).
24These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
Notice Paul’s immediate declaration of the figurative nature of the covenants, Mt. Sinai and the like. Notice that in v25 Paul specifically identifies national Israel, the Jews, with Hagar and thus Ishmael. Thus, Paul is identifying the Jewish people with Arabs even. They are no different than Gentiles now in need of gracious salvation through faith in Christ.
28Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Paul identifies the Gentile believers in Galatia with Isaac as children of the promise (vs the flesh). At this point you should be reminded of Romans 2:27-29:
Thus the Israel Paul refers to here then are those in the mold of Isaac, who are children of promise, that is, those who are elect unto salvation. Ultimately Christ is the archetype of Isaac, Christ the impossible child born to a virgin, the God-Man.
To be clear, Israel are those collected people of God in any age, though more specifically, the elect. While it is simultaneously true that the New Covenant is made with Israel and the church, the church is the Israel of the New Covenant. The church hasn’t replaced Israel, it is Israel. Jewish people who come to faith do not enter into Judaism again, but into the church, the Israel of God under the New Covenant.
Thus when we look back to the prophecies of the Old Testament relating the New Covenant to the people of Israel, we must recognize, as Christ taught, that He is the center of the story. The Bible therefore is a testimony of God’s redemptive purpose in Christ throughout history. It is not primarily a story of Jewish people.
You write that MacArthur states:
“I believe that Israel is the literal seed of Abraham”
This is the hardest thing for me to understand, Paul the Apostle specifically states about the Gentile believers in Galatia: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
[ Paul makes it clear in Galatians that the “literal seed” of Abraham is Christ, and that we become the “literal seed” though faith in Him. There is no other seed! ]
“I believe that Israel is in the midst of Ezekiel 37… They have bones and sinews and flesh, but no breath in them yet… the Spirit (ruach) has not returned to them….yet.“
Remember that the prophetic books often mix concepts mid-stream, as the prophecies are often multi-layered. Also note that the chapter distinctions are man made. Thus, Ezekiel 37 follows the promise of the New Covenant in 36, and is talking not about Jews, but about the people of God. Notice that Ezekiel 37 is a perfect picture of the regeneration that every believer goes through. The Word is preached and the dead are raised unto new life in Christ. Try reading Eze 37 followed with Eph 2:1-9. (That is, take the Apostle’s understanding and read it into the Old Testament, never read the Old Testament apart from that.)
“I believe that Israel will receive their Messiah and Jesus Christ will literally sit on the Throne of HIS father David and reign over the House of Jacob forever as the Angel prophesied in Luke 1:32, 33″
We have. Christ is our Messiah, Jesus Christ literally sits on the Throne of His Father, God, and reigns over His house (as He is the archtype of Isaac, Moses, Joshua, Jacob, David, etc.) We reign with Him now, as believers through the New Covenant which is in effect now.
Remember that the book of Hebrews, where much of this is fleshed out, is written to a mixed group of Gentile and Jewish Christians. Therein we find the claims of the New Covenant fulfilled in Christ for us now, not at some later date.
The fact that a nation has taken the name “Israel” today and is made of primarily Jews really has nothing to do with Scripture. Remember, it is the God-breathed commentary on the Old Testament, the New Testament, that must define our understanding of these things
…that is until it leads to the supersession of Israel and allegorizing scripture simply because it hasn’t happened yet or it is difficult to explain in a literal sense.
It is God who states:
8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
13These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Israel’s promise was not of an earthly land, though it was the type and shadow of that to come, but of a heavenly dwelling where they would be ruled by God. Therefore the church does not replace Israel, rather, the church is the fulfillment of Israel’s type and shadow.
So here are my points:
- Israel must be defined by the New Testament authors who provide us with a God-breathed commentary on the OT. (Gal 4:24)
- Abraham had the Gospel preached to him. (Gal 3:7-8)
- Abraham’s promise was for a people made up of many nations and specifically Gentiles. (Gal 3:8)
- Abraham believed the promise of God had a specific heavenly fulfillment. (Heb 11:10)
- The OT believers were not looking specifically for land but the kingdom of heaven. (Heb 11:14-16)
- God, through Paul, defines Israel as the people of promise, who have had faith in him in all eras. (Rom 9:6-8, Gal 3:7, Gal 4:28, etc)
It is with this Biblical framework that we can now approach the Old Testament prophecies.
RK might have some to add about Romans 11 and elsewhere. I’ve got to get back to work.
I followed up later with:
One more thought I’ve been ruminating on. When you read Rom 11 wherein we find “until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in”, you gotta ask, “into what”. Our reply is: Israel.
Israel is not replaced by the church, but the church is, in a sense, a subset of Israel (though subset is a misnomer, Israel is the Hebrew name by which the people of God are so named.) Remember that Abraham was not a “Jew” until called by God, Rehab was not a Jew and the people Nineveh were not Jews, and so on.
It is possible, according to Rom 11, that at some point in the future, a majority of the elect will again be genetic Jews, but for now it is a majority of Gentiles who are of the elect as we would posit that Satan is bound (as Christ said “now is the time for the ruler of this world to be cast out”) and the nations are no longer allowed to be deceived during this period of time.
But that’s another discussion. 😉