Study of Important Biblical Distinctions - 12 - ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH

A Study of Important Biblical Distinctions
By William MacDonald


    We should probably enlarge this title to read The Gentile nations, Israel, and the Church.  The reason we say this is that the New Testament divides all mankind into these three categories.  For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32, "Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God."
    In Acts 15:14-17 these three sections of humanity are mentioned again:

The Church

    God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name (v. 14).


    After this I will return, and will build you the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up (v. 16).

The Gentile Nations

    That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things (v. 17).

    The Apostle Paul also distinguished between

        the Jews-the circumcision made with hands (Eph. 2:11).
        the Gentiles-the uncircumcision (Eph. 2:11).
        the Church-the circumcision made without hands (Col. 2:11).

    Generally speaking, Bible students do not confuse the Gentiles with either Israel or the Church; that has not been a problem.  So in this lesson we will confine ourselves to the distinction between Israel and the Church.  This is of great importance.  Unless we see that these two groups are separate and distinct, it will seriously affect our interpretation of the Bible, especially in the areas of Church truth and prophecy.
    In order to show why the subject is important, we should mention that some people teach that the Church is merely an extension or an outgrowth of Israel.  They say, "God has had a continuing Church down through the centuries.  Israel was the Church in the Old Testament, but when that people rejected the Messiah, God rejected them forever.  There is no future for Israel nationally.  The New Testament Church has now become the Israel of God, and all the promises made to Israel nationally now have a spiritual fulfillment for the Church."

    We believe that the Scriptures teach otherwise-that Israel and the Church are different in origin, character, responsibility, and destiny.
    When Israel rejected the Lord Jesus as her Messiah, God set the nation aside for a time.  Then He introduced something entirely new-the Church.  When His program with the Church is finished on earth, He will resume His dealings with Israel nationally.  So the Church has been brought in as a sort of parenthesis during the interruption of God's relations with Israel, His ancient people.
    The distinction between the Church and Israel may best be seen by the following set of contrasts.

The Church 


1. Paul speaks of the Church as a mystery "which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Eph. 3:5).  He says that this mystery was hidden in God from the beginning of the world (Eph. 3:9) and kept secret since the world began, but that it is now made manifest by the prophetic Scriptures (Rom. 16:25, 26).  (See also Col. 1:25, 26.) 1. Israel is never spoken of as a mystery.  None of the descriptions in the opposite column are true of Israel. 
2. The Church began at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given (Acts 2).  We deduce this from the following series of facts. 

a. The Church was still future when Christ was on earth, because He said, "I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). 
b. When Paul wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Church had by then come into being.  He speaks of the believers having been baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13 NASB). 
c. We know that the promised baptism of the Spirit took place at  Pentecost.  Therefore, that was the birthday of the Church. 

2. The nation of Israel began with the call of Abraham (Gen. 12). 
3. Christ is the Head of the Church.3. Abraham was the head of Israel. 
4. Membership in the Church is by spiritual birth. 4. Membership in the nation was by natural birth. 
5. The Church is God's heavenly people.  The blessings of the Church are spiritual blessings in heavenly places. 

The citizenship of Christians is heavenly. 

The hope of the Church is to be with Christ in heaven. 

5. Israel was God's chosen earthly people.  The blessings of Israel were primarily, though not exclusively, material blessings in earthly places. 
The citizenship of Israelites was earthly. 
The primary hope held before Israel was the earthly reign of Messiah in the land. (This does not deny that believing Israelites went to heaven when they died, or that they had the hope of heaven.  But that was not the emphasis that was set before them.) 
6. In the Church, believing Jews and believing Gentiles become one in Christ.  They become; fellow-heirs, fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ by the gospel.  In Christ, the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile is broken down, and both are made one (Eph. 2:13-17; Eph. 3:6). 6. None of this is true of Israel.  As far as Israel is concerned, Gentiles are "without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). 
7. In the Church, all believers are priests-holy priests and royal priests.  As such they have access to the presence of God by faith at any time (1 Pet. 2:1-9; Heb. 10:19-22). 7. In Israel, the priests were chosen from the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron.  Only the high priest could enter the presence of God, and only on one day of the year (Heb. 7:5, 11;  9:7). 
8. The Church will be taken home to heaven at the Rapture, then will return with Christ and reign with Him over the earth during the Millennium. 8. Redeemed Israel will be the earthly subjects of Christ when He reigns. 

    Many more contrasts between the Church and Israel could be listed.  In his Systematic Theology, Chafer enumerates twenty-four unmistakable distinctions.  But the ones we have given should be sufficient to show that the Church occupies a unique place in the plans and purposes of God, and that it must not be confused with Israel.
    One of the Scripture passages in which Israel and the Church are regularly confused is the Olivet Discourse, found in Matthew 23:37-25:46.  This passage concerns Israel-not the Church.  It describes conditions prior to and including the return of Christ to reign as King.  Notice that it says in 24:16, "Then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains--the locale is clearly Jewish.  And in verse 20 we read, "But pray ye that your flight be not . . . on the Sabbath day." The Sabbath was never given to the Church-only to Israel.  The elect mentioned in verse 22 are God's Jewish elect.  The coming of Christ described in verse 30 is not His coming into the air for the Church, but His coming to the earth as Israel's King.
    So the Bible student should discern whether a passage is referring to Israel or the Church.  If he is reading about the Day of the Lord, he can be sure that the passage refers primarily to Israel.  If, on the other hand, he comes to references to the Day of Christ, he can be sure the Church is in view.  Thus the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11 has to do with Israel, because that is part of the Day of the Lord.  But the "last trump" of 1 Corinthians 15:52 relates to the Church, because the subject is the Rapture, and the Rapture is connected with the Day of Christ.
    In closing, we must consider two of the arguments most commonly used to attempt to prove that the Church is not distinct from Israel.

  1. In Acts 7:38 Israel is called "the church. in the wilderness." But we must realize that the word "church" simply means an assembly or company of people.  The same word is used to describe a heathen mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:32).  The New Testament Church is identified as being related to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
  2. In Galatians 6:16 Paul says, " As many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God." The expression "the Israel of God" is used to assert that all believers today constitute "the Israel of God." But we believe this is a misunderstanding.  When Paul says, "Peace be on them" he is referring to all believers.  But in the words "the Israel of God" Paul singles out those believers of Jewish birth who walk according to the rule of the new creation (v. 15) and not according to the rule of the Law.