Eschatology 101 – Israel

This first article on the subject of Israel is Dispensationalism’s critique of “the Israel of God” as a simple term descibing the believing church of the present age.

“In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there remains persistent support for the contention that the term Israel may refer properly to Gentile believers in the present age . . . .the primary support is found in Galatians 6:16 . . .

I cannot help but think that dogmatic considerations loom large in the interpretation of Galatians 6:16. The tenacity with which this application of ‘the Israel of God’ to the church is held in spite of a mass of evidence to the contrary leads one to think that the supporters of the view believe their eschatological system, usually an amillennial scheme, hangs on the reference of the term to the people of God, composed of both believing Jews and Gentiles. Amillennialism does not hang on this interpretation, but the view does appear to have a treasured place in amillennial exegesis.

In speaking of the view that the term refers to ethnic Israel, a sense that the term Israel has in every other of its more than sixty-five uses in the New Testament and in its fifteen uses in Paul, in tones almost emotional William Hendriksen, the respected Reformed commentator, writes, ‘I refuse to accept that explanation.’

What I am leading up to is expressed neatly by D. W. B. Robinson in an article written about twenty years ago: ‘The glib citing of Galatains 6:16 to support the view that ‘the church is the new Israel’ should be vigorously challenged. There is weighty support for a limited interpretation.’ We can say more than this, in my opinion. There is more than weighty support for a more limited interpretation. There is overwhelming support for such. In fact, the least likely view among several alternatives is the view that ‘the Israel of God’ is the church.” [Toussaint and Dyer, Pentecost Essays, “Paul and ‘The Israel of God’: An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study” by S.Lewis Johnson, pp. 181-182. Quoted in William Hendriksen, Exposition of Galatians, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1868), p. 247, and D. W. B. Robinson, “The Distinction Between Jewish and Gentile Believers in Galatians,” Australian Biblical Review 13 (1965): 29-48.]

Johnson rejects the claim that “‘the Israel of God’ is simply a term descriptive of the believing church of the present age . . . . The Israel of God is the body who shall walk by the rule of the new creation, and they include believing people from the two ethnic bodies of Jews and Gentiles [Ibid., p. 183].

the claim that the kai . . . before the term ‘the Israel of God’ is an explicative or appositional kai; . . .and the claim that if one sees the term ‘the Israel of God’ a believing ethnic Israel, they would be included in the preceding clause, ‘And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them'” [Ibid., p. 184].

Rejection on Three Grounds: Grammatical and Syntactical

The first is for grammatical and syntactical reasons for which there are two [Ibid., pp. 187-188]. The first is that this view must resort to a secondary or lesser meaning of kai:

“It is necessary to begin this part of the discussion with a reminder of a basic, but often neglected, hermeneutical principle. It is this: “in the absence of compelling exegetical and theological considerations, we should avoid the rarer grammatical usages when the common ones make good sense” [Ibid., p. 187].

“Because the latter usage serves well the view that the term ‘the Israel of God’ is the church, the dogmatic concern overcame grammatical usage. An extremely rare usage has been made to replace the common usage, even in spite of the fact that the common and frequent usage of ‘and’ (kai) makes perfectly good sense in Galatians 6:16” [Ibid., p. 188].

Second, Johnson points out that if Paul’s intention was to identify the ‘them’ as being the ‘Israel of God,’ then the best way of showing this was to eliminate the kai altogether. As shown earlier, this was exactly what Hendriksen wanted to do by leaving kai untranslated. The very presence of the kai argues against the ‘them’ being ‘the Israel of God.’ As Johnson notes, “Paul, however, did not eliminate the kai” [Ibid., p. 188].

Rejection on Three Grounds: Exegetical

Concerning usage, Johnson states:

“From the standpoint of biblical usage this view stands condemned. There is no instance in biblical literature of the term Israel being used in the sense of the church, or the people of God as composed of both believing ethnic Jews and Gentiles. Nor, on the other hand, as one might expect if there were such usage, does the phrase to ethne (KJV, “the Gentiles”) ever mean the non-Christian world specifically, but only the non-Jewish peoples, although such are generally non-Christians. Thus, the usage of the term Israel stands overwhelmingly opposed to the first view.

The usage of the terms Israel and the church in the early chapters of the book of Acts is in complete harmony, for Israel exists there alongside the newly formed church, and the two entities are kept separate in terminology” [Ibid., p. 189].

For those who would cite Romans 9:6 as evidence, Johnson shows that this verse is no support for such a view for the distinction is between Jews who believe and Jews who do not:

“Paul is here speaking only of a division within ethnic Israel. Some of them are believers and thus truly Israel, whereas others, though ethnically Israelites, are not truly Israel, since they are not elect and believing . . . No Gentiles are found in the statement at all” [Ibid., p. 189].

Even many Covenant Theologians have agreed with this view of Romans 9:6 and do not use it to support their view of Galatians 6:16. As for context, Johnson observes:

“On the contrary, the apostle is concerned with correcting the gospel preached to the Galatians by the Judaizers, particularly their false contention that it was necessary to be circumcised to be saved and to observe as Christians certain requirements of the law of Moses in order to remain in divine favor . . . The apostle makes no attempt whatsoever to deny that there is a legitimate distinction of race between Gentile and Jewish believers in the church . . . . There is a remnant of Jewish believers in the church according to the election of grace . . . . This approach fails to see that Paul does not say there is neither Jew nor Greek within the church. He speaks of those who are ‘in Christ.’ . . . But Paul also says there is neither male nor female, nor slave nor free man in Christ. Would he then deny sexual differences within the church? Or the social differences in Paul’s day? Is it not plain that Paul is not speaking of national or ethnic differences in Christ, but of spiritual status? In that sense there is no difference in Christ” [Ibid., p. 190].

Rejection on Three Grounds: Theological

“…[T]here is no historical evidence that the term Israel was identified with the church before A.D. 160. Further, at that date there was no characterization of the church as ‘the Israel of God.’ In other words, for more than a century after Paul there was no evidence of the identification” [Ibid., p. 191].

Johnson’s summary concerning the rejection of this view is:

“To conclude the discussion of the first interpretation, it seems clear that there is little evidence—grammatical, exegetical, or theological—that supports it. On the other hand, there is sound historical evidence against the identification of Israel with believing or unbelieving Gentiles. The grammatical usage of kai is not favorable to the view, nor is the Pauline or New Testament usage of Israel. Finally, . . .the Pauline teaching in Galatians contains a recognition of national distinctions in the one people of God” [Ibid., p. 191].

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