January 14, 2009
All Christians everywhere believe in a future for Israel.
Where Christians disagree is on is exactly who Israel is.
Dispensationalists insist that Romans 9-11 reaffirms the OT covenant promises to Abraham’s genetic descendants-promises of a rebuilt temple, a restored theocracy, and reclaimed geography. For dispensational premillennialists, this is a primary purpose of the Millennium-ethnic Israel is reconstituted as a political state and serves as a mediator of God’s blessings to the rest of the nations. Some dispensationalists further argue that this future for Israel demands current support for Israeli claims to all of what once was Canaan-along with virtual carte blanche support for Israeli policies since “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Gen 12:3).
Covenant theologians argue that the future restoration of Israel will be fulfilled--but fulfilled in the church, a largely Gentile body that has “replaced” the Jewish theocracy since the nation rejected her Messiah at Jesus’ first advent. Covenant theology then (quite wrongly) sees great continuity between Old Testament Israel and the new covenant church--both are mixed bodies of regenerate and unregenerate members (believers and their children), and the sign of circumcision is replaced with the sign of baptism (and, like circumcision, applied to new converts and to covenant children).
Both covenant theology and dispensationalism, however, often discuss Israel and the church without taking into account the Christocentric nature of biblical eschatology. The future restoration of Israel has never been promised to the unfaithful, unregenerate members of the nation (John 3:3-10; Rom 2:25-29)--only to the faithful remnant.
The church is not Israel, at least not in a direct, unmediated sense. The remnant of Israel--a biological descendant of Abraham, a circumcised Jewish firstborn son who is approved of by God for his obedience to the covenant--receives all of the promises due him.
Israel is Jesus of Nazareth, who, as promised to Israel, is raised from the dead and marked out with the Spirit (Ezek 37:13-14; Rom 1:2-4). All the promises of God “find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20), as Paul puts it. And this "yes" establishes a Jew like Paul with Gentiles like the Corinthians “in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor 1:21-22). The Spirit guarantees what? It guarantees that all who share the Spirit of Christ are “joint heirs with Christ” of his promised inheritance (Rom 8:17 NKJV).
This is the radical nature of the gospel in the New Testament. Dispensationalists are right that only ethnic Jews receive the promised future restoration, but Paul makes clear that the “seed of Abraham” is singular, not plural (Gal 3:16). Only the circumcised can inherit the promised future for Israel. All believers--Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female--are forensically Jewish firstborn sons of God (Gal 3:28). They are in Christ. Circumcision is not irrelevant. Instead, both Jews and Gentiles in Christ are “the circumcision” because they have “the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11-12).
In Christ, I inherit all the promises due to Abraham’s offspring because I am “hidden” in Abraham’s promised offspring so that everything that is true of him is true of me. As Paul puts it, “Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). It is not that God changes his mind about a rebuilt Temple. He fulfills it--in the temple of Christ’s body, a temple Jesus builds with living stones.
The future of Israel then does belong to Gentile believers but only because they are in union with a Jewish Messiah. Paul speaks of a future conversion of Jewish people but he is careful to denote this salvation as the growth of a single olive vine with a Jewish root--with a grafting on now of Gentiles and a future grafting on of more Jews. The church, as Israel was promised, does now “bear fruit”--the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5)--but it does so only because Jesus is the vine of Israel. We share his inheritance because we are the branches, united to him by faith (John 15:1-11).
Is there a future for Israel? Yes. Does this future mean material and political blessings? Yes. Does this future mean the granting of all the land promised to Abraham in Canaan? Yes, along with the entire rest of the cosmos (Rom 4:13). Does this promise apply to ethnic Jews? Yes, one ethnic Jew whose name is Jesus. Do Gentile believers share in this inheritance? Yes, if they are in Christ, one-flesh with him through faith (Eph 5:22-33), they receive the inheritance that belongs to him (Eph 1:11).
Russell Moore is Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004) and the forthcoming Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009).