What Is The Relationship Between Israel And The Church?
By W. A. Criswell
In Galatians 6:16, Paul writes: "And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God." What does Paul mean by "the Israel of God"? Who are the people whom Paul refers to as "the Israel of God"? In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes: "I say then, Hath God cast away His people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away His people for which He foreknew…" (11:1-2). Who are "His people"?
Again, in Romans 10:1, Paul writes: "Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer…for Israel is, that they might be saved." Who are Paul’s "brethren"? Then in Romans 9:1-4, Paul writes: "I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites…."
Who are these people whom Paul refers to by name of "Israelites"? To me the answer is simple, rudimentary, and a primary identification. However, my answer places me in an almost inconsequential minority in the theological world, since the large majority of Christians identify Israel with the New Testament Church. All of the prophecies and all of the promises of God made to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, say these Christians [i.e., the majority of Christendom], were not made to God’s ancient people but to the Church.
Can this identification of God’s ancient people with the Church be correct? Is there now no Israel in the mind of God, no continuing of Israel in the Bible? Are the Old Testament prophecies and promises pertinent only to the Church? Does Israel, God’s ancient people, as such, no longer exist in the mind and purpose of God?
At this point, let me say that the correct identification of Israel is a key to the true interpretation of the whole Bible. If Israel means God’s ancient people, the Bible becomes as clear as truth itself. If Israel means the New Testament Church, the teaching of the Bible becomes obscure.
What about the Seed of Abraham?
That the Bible clearly teaches Israel to mean the seed of Abraham and that this is the only meaning of the term Israel is my sincere conviction. As I read the Bible, I always had the perfect satisfaction in my heart as to its teaching, except for one passage – Galatians 6:16 – wherein Paul writes: "And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God." This phrase, "the Israel of God," troubled me. It troubled me for a long time. The question which kept pressing itself upon me was, "Is this an instance where the word Israel refers to the Church?"
As I studied and pondered over the matter, praying and asking God for an answer, the rule of biblical interpretation came to my mind; namely, the guide to sound biblical interpretation is always to be found in the context.
God does not speak to us in isolated texts – in words pulled out of context and considered by themselves. Reviewing in my mind the setting of Galatians 6:16, I remembered that the subject of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia was the Judaizing controversy. When Paul began preaching the message of the Son of God, he was violently opposed by the Judaizers – those who believed and taught that no man could be saved by faith alone, without works.
These false teachers said that man must superimpose upon his faith in Christ all the Mosaic institutions and the Mosaic Law. Remembering this, I came to the very definite conclusion that in the Galatian letter Paul is speaking of those Jewish converts who had accepted the Gospel by faith apart from works. In contradistinction to the Judaizers, Paul called the Jews who had accepted the Lord Jesus Christ "the Israel of God." Hebrew Christians of Paul’s day and the Hebrew Christians of today are, therefore, "the Israel of God"; that is, Israelites who have found in Christ – by faith alone – pardon for sin, life everlasting, and the fulfillment of all the messianic prophecies. They are the Jews who have found a Savior in Jesus Christ.
Paul’s Great Musterion
I cannot imagine it possible that the New Testament Church and this present Age of Grace were hidden from the eyes of the Old Testament prophets and seers. But the fact is, they never saw it. This is why Paul in the Ephesian letter (3:3) calls the Church a musterion (mystery), a secret hidden in the heart of God, not revealed until God made it known through the Apostle. And what was this musterion of Paul’s? That some time between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ, there would be this present Age of Grace, an age of the Holy Spirit, in which the Gospel would be preached and God would call out and make of Jew and Gentile one body, a new thing, to be called "the Church."
The Old Testament prophets saw the coming of Christ as the suffering servant, the Messiah, by whose stripes we are healed. Again, they saw Him as the coming pantokrator (king and ruler) of the whole creation. But they never saw the valley in between the first and second comings. This is the valley in which we now live, the Age of Grace, the age of the Holy Spirit, in which the musterion (mystery) was revealed through the Apostle Paul, to make of one body Jew and Gentile – a new thing – the Church of Jesus Christ.
Has God Cast Away His People?
In the Roman epistle, Paul asks: "…Hath God cast away His people?" (11:1). We Gentile Christians of today are in the Church; we are members of the Body of our Lord. We are living in the Age of Grace in which the Gospel of the Son of God is being preached. But what about the Israelites of today and Paul’s question, "…Hath God cast away His people?" Is this question not as pertinent today as when Paul raised it? What of those Israelites who belong to the household of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Is God done with them? Has God found Himself through with them? And what about the prophecies and promises that cover the pages of the Old Testament concerning God’s ancient people? Are these prophecies and promises to fall to the ground? Does God forget? He made these promises long ago. Are they old and worn out, is God weary of them, and will He forget them? Has God indeed cast away His people? Paul replies, "God forbid!"
How could God make a promise and not keep it? Paul argues this point: "For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery [musterion]…that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is My covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the Gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance [i.e. change]" (Rom. 11:25-29).
Or as Numbers 23:19 says: "God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent [i.e. change]: hath He said, and shall He not do it? Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?"
Has God Forgotten His Promises?
Every syllable of our Bible shall be fulfilled in God’s time and in God’s way, and every promise God has made He will faithfully keep. This is our message concerning Israel in the remembrance of God. Has God forgotten? Has He cast Israel away? Are they no longer in the mind and purpose of the Almighty? Are there no future events in history that shall include Israel, God’s elect and chosen people? Let us look in the Scriptures.
The story of the Book of Exodus begins in a remembrance of God: "And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died…" (2:23a). This king was that cruel monarch under whose surveillance Moses fled when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster (2:12,15). "…and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them" (vv. 23b-25).
God appeared unto Moses and appointed him to stand before Pharaoh, and said to Moses: "…I am the Lord: I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob…[and] established My covenant with them to give them [this land], the land of their pilgrimage [where] they were strangers…I have also heard [their groanings]…" (Ex. 6:2-5). "I am sending thee to deliver My people Israel, for I will bring into remembrance My covenant with them" (paraphrase of vv. 6-8).
God kept His word and delivered His people Israel from Egyptian bondage. Then came the wilderness journey and idolatry, the worship of the golden calf; and the Lord said to Moses: "Stand aside and let My fury turn against these people, and out thy loins will I raise up a nation that will do My will" (paraphrase of Exodus 32:10). And Moses stood before the Lord and besought the Lord for the people: "Remember Abraham, Isaac, and [Jacob], Thy servants, to whom Thou swarest by Thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever" (Ex. 32:13).
And the Lord remembered His covenant. In the 26th chapter of Leviticus, Moses assures the people by power and in the Spirit of God that in the day that they transgress and are scattered among the nations, God will not forget them. "Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land. …And yet for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them: for I am the Lord their God" (vv. 42,44).
Paul asks in Romans 11:1: "Hath God cast away His people?" How could God cast away His people and be God? How could He forget what He said to Moses: "…I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly,…But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors,…I am the Lord (Lev. 26:44b-45).
Then David in Psalm 105 sings of God’s covenant: "He hath remembered His covenant for ever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations. Which covenant He made with Abraham, and His oath unto Isaac; And confirmed the same unto Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant: Saying, Unto thee will I give the land of Canaan, the lot of your inheritance" (vv. 8-11).
Truly, God is not a man that He should lie, that He should repent (change) or forget, or that He should make a promise and fail to fulfill it. God has a purpose and a gracious one for His people Israel. Should not this fact fill our hearts with joy?
…Truly God has not forgotten or cast away His people. Although the present day sees them [Israel] in rejection and unbelief, the day is coming when we shall see them in mourning, in repentance, in contrition – which will be followed by joyful acceptance of the Messiah whom they in their ignorance had once delivered to be crucified. (See Zechariah 14:3-21.)
– Excerpt taken from Israel in Remembrance of God, by W. A. Criswell. Booklet is available from Pasche Institute of Jewish Studies, 4010 Gaston Ave., Dallas TX 75246.