The Relationship between Israel and the Church
Israel and the church are two of the main characters in the Bible’s unfolding story. One plays a huge role in the Old Testament and the other in the New Testament. And how these characters relate has been one of the biggest questions Christians have been trying to answer since the first century.
To answer this question, we’ll begin with a more modest question: Who fulfills the Old Testament promises about Israel’s salvation? Are these promises fulfilled by Israel or by the church? And to answer this question, we’ll look at the one place in the New Testament specifically written to answer it: Romans 9–11. What we’ll see is that the Old Testament promises about Israel’s salvation are, by and large, fulfilled by Israel and that all this happens inside of the church.
What’s the relationship between Israel and the church? It’s like the million-dollar (or pound or yen or…) question in biblical theology. Clearly, they’re both main characters in the Bible’s story. But how do they relate? Are they the same character only with a name-change halfway through the plot—like Cephas turning into Peter midway through Matthew’s gospel? Or is one character meant to prepare for the other? Is Israel’s role like the law’s role—preparatory for something that happens later in the book? Or should we understand the relationship between Israel and the church in some other way? Of course, how we understand the relationship between the two goes a really long way toward how we understand an even bigger question: How do the Old Testament and New Testament relate? And, for that matter, it also goes a long way toward determining one’s biblical-theological tribe, whether Covenant or Dispensational or some variation in between.
The answer to the question turns on the interpretation of lots of biblical passages—far too many to address here in any satisfying way. What we’ll do instead, therefore, is tackle a more modest question, one that has the potential of shedding quite a bit of light on the larger one. We’ll ask and answer the question: Who fulfills the Old Testament promises about Israel’s salvation? Is it Israel? Or is it the church? And we’ll do this by looking at a place in the New Testament specifically written to address this very question: Romans 9–11. What we’ll see is that the Old Testament promises of Israel’s salvation are, by and large, fulfilled by Israel, and the Israel that fulfills these promises is part of, not distinct from, the church.
Old Testament Promises of Israel’s Salvation are Fulfilled by Israel
To see this, we’ll begin with Paul’s larger argument in Romans 9–11, before turning to three specific places where he draws a straight line between Old Testament referents and their New Testament fulfillment. And we’ll conclude by looking at one place where, we might say, Paul “bends the rules.”
So, first, Paul’s argument. In Romans 9–11 God is “in the dock”—his character is under review. After all, he’d made big promises to the largely-Gentile church in Rome (see Rom. 8), which naturally raised questions about the equally-big promises he’d made to Israel in the Old Testament—promises that Israel’s status as “enemies” of the gospel (11:32) put to the test. If Israel couldn’t count on God’s faithfulness, who’s to say the Romans should? (Would you trust a parachute that failed to open the last time it was used?) In these three chapters Paul vindicates God in three steps. He begins, insisting that if we’re going to hold God accountable to his word—his promises, let’s at least make sure we’ve understood them correctly (9:6–29). To be perfectly clear: God never promised to save every Jewish person (9:6), only those to “whom he want[ed] to show mercy” (9:18) or, paradoxically (!), only those who believed. That’s his next step (9:30–10:21). Israel’s unbelief, in this sense, wasn’t God’s problem; it was Israel’s problem! Still, while God never promised to save every Israelite, he did promise to save Israel (11:1–32), which is why, Paul goes on to insist, they will be “full[y] inclu[ded]” (11:12). They must be. Were they not, then “God’s word [will have] failed” (9:6), which, again, would be a big problem for Gentile Christians but an even bigger problem for God. (Plus, it’d make it really hard for Paul to go on claiming, at least with a straight face, that he wasn’t “ashamed of the gospel.”)
Second, Paul draws a pretty straight line between Old Testament promises and their New Testament fulfillment in at least three places in these chapters.
- Paul says that the Old Testament promises about God’s preservation (i.e., salvation) of a Jewish remnant apply to Jewish Christians. God promised to preserve a Jewish remnant (see Isa. 10:22–23 & 1:9 in Rom. 9:27–29), especially when messiah came and caused the stumbling of so many in Israel (see Isa. 8:14 & 28:16 in Rom. 9:33). And, Paul says, this is precisely what God has done: there is a “remnant chosen by grace” (11:5), one that “obtain[ed]” (11:7) the “righteousness that is by faith” (9:30). To prove this, Paul doesn’t point to Gentile Christians. (Nor does he point to Jesus as the true Israel.) Rather he points to himself, “an Israelite…, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin” (11:1) and to many more Israelites beside (see 11:2–5). In short, the referents of the Old Testament’s remnant-promises are people self-described as “Israelites” and “descendants of Abraham,” people, in fact, from specific tribes within Israel, which is to say, the referent of the Old Testament’s remnant-promises hasn’t changed.
- Paul says that Old Testament promises about Gentle salvation apply to Gentile Christians. “Salvation,” Paul says, “has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious” (11:11; see also v. 14). This is taking place, moreover, just as God had promised. God said long ago, Paul shows, that he’d “make [Israel] envious by those who are not a nation” and that he’d be found “by those who did not seek [him]” (see Rom. 10:19–20, citing Deut. 32:21 and Isa. 65:1). Paul, in fact, does something similar with Old Testament promises of Gentile salvation near the end of his letter (see Rom. 15:9–12, citing 2Sam. 22:50; Psa. 18:49; Deut. 32:43; Psa. 117:1 and Isa. 11:10). Granted, these are Old Testament promises of Gentile salvation—not Israel’s. Still, this shows that just like the Old Testament remnant-promises, Paul is once more content to draw a straight line between an Old Testament referent and its New Testament fulfillment. Promises made to Israel are fulfilled by Israel, and promises made to Gentiles are fulfilled by Gentiles. To this point, at least, Paul’s hermeneutic is rather straightforward.
- Paul says that the Old Testament promises about the salvation of all Israel apply to Jewish Christians. Paul says, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26a), just as God promised. For, “as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins’” (Rom. 11:26b–27, citing Isa. 59:20–21; 27:9; and Jer. 31:33–34).
Some have argued that “all Israel” and “Jacob” here refer to “all the elect, both Jew and Gentile.” But it’s hard to give “Israel” that meaning and make sense of Paul’s argument here in chapter 11, a conclusion, for what it’s worth, shared by the majority of interpreters. After all, Israel, throughout the chapter, is a corporate entity, made up of an “elect” remnant and a “hardened” majority (v. 7), of “natural branches” still connected to the olive tree and others that have been “broken off” (vv. 17–24). And it’s the sum of these two groups—the remnant and the hardened majority—that make up “all Israel.” (For this reading, see my “The Future of Ethnic Israel.”) Even if “all Israel” refers to the entire Jewish remnant, it’s still the entire Jewish remnant. Thus, as elsewhere, Paul is content to draw a straight line between Old Testament referents and their New Testament fulfillment.
Third, none of this prevents Paul from “bending the rules” in at least one place. And it’s only fair that we look at this one square in the face. Paul says that Old Testament promises about the reversal of Israel’s “no-people” status are fulfilled by Gentiles. That’s what Paul means when he applies Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 (in that order) to Gentiles in Romans 9:25–26. It won’t do to deny that Paul has Gentiles in view. The argument’s set up to prove something about both Jews and Gentiles (see v. 24). And the Jewish-part of the proof is clearly found right after, in vv. 27–29 (see “concerning Israel,” in v. 27). Nor will it do to deny that Hosea has Jews in view. The subject of Hosea’s promise is Israel, specifically Israel’s ten northern tribes (see, esp., Hos. 1:6–7).
How then does all this square with what we’ve seen thus far? It seems to fit uncomfortably alongside Paul’s rhetorical agenda. Again, if Romans 9–11 is meant to defend God’s integrity and, therefore, to give Roman (and, indeed, other) Christians confidence in God’s reliability, the sort of hermeneutical strategy Paul uses here wouldn’t seem to be of much help. (“Nothing can separate you from Jesus’ love, except, of course, a hermeneutic that redirects ‘you’ from ‘you, Roman Christian,’ to ‘you, somebody else’!”) And besides this, why go to the trouble of lining up Old Testament and New Testament referents, as Paul does with the remnant-preservation, Gentile-salvation and “all Israel” inclusion promises if that sort of straight line isn’t even necessary?
The simplest explanation seems to be that Paul sees an easy-overlap between two “not-my-peoples,” that is, between Israel’s unbelieving and idolatrous northern tribes and the Gentile nations. When we state it this way, Paul’s hermeneutical strategy starts to make sense. He takes a text talking about someone who isn’t God’s people, who isn’t loved, and applies it to—sees it fulfilled by—Gentiles, which is precisely what God said Israel had become (see, esp., Hos. 1:8–10). They’d become Gentiles. They’d become “not my people”; they’d become, like Esau of old, “not my loved one.” And, in God’s mercy, which is the point of Romans 9:24–29 (cf. also 15:9–12), God promised to do a status reversal. He promised, we might say, to “graft in” alongside the remnant (see 9:27–29) a “not my people,” not only from among those Jews who’d been “hardened” and, thus, “broken off” but from among Gentiles too, from among the “wild olive shoot[s]” as well. In short, Hosea’s promise to pagan Israel is a promise to other Gentiles, since all share in common the simple fact that they’re disconnected from the olive tree and in desperate need of mercy. I suspect it’s this overlap—this reference both to pagan Israel and (other) Gentiles—that explains why 9:25–26 aren’t explicitly addressed to Gentiles, at least in the same way that vv. 27–29 are explicitly addressed to Israel. It’s because they’re addressed to two types of Gentiles, one by judgment and the other by nature.
Old Testament Promises of Israel’s Salvation are Fulfilled by Israel in the Church
While Israel, by and large, fulfills God’s Old Testament promises of Israel’s salvation, that’s not all Romans 9–11 says about the relationship between Israel and the church. It also tells us that the Israel who fulfills these promises fulfills them not outside of but inside of the church. Every Jewish Christian, whether part of the remnant or among those grafted back in, is part of the Roman (or Ephesian, or Galatian, or Thessalonian…) church. They’re part of those in Rome and elsewhere “who are loved by God and called to be his holy people” (1:7). They’re Christians (see, e.g., 16:7). Romans, in fact, ends talking about a church that meets in the home of Jewish Christians (see 16:3–4 in the light of Acts 18:2).
What’s more, Paul says that this era of salvation—of Jewish and Gentile belief—concludes with the resurrection (“life from the dead,” 11:15), which is to say, with the Parousia (cf. 11:15 in the light of 1Cor. 15:23; see also, perhaps, “from Zion” in 11:26). What this means is that all the “inclusion” (11:12) and “acceptance” (11:15) and the “com[ing] in,”—all the salvation promised in the Old Testament—takes place before Jesus returns. In other words, it takes place now (see 11:30–31; also v. 14) and in the church.
So, what’s the relationship between Israel and the church? We’ve tried to shed light on that big question by looking at a slightly smaller one—Who fulfills the Old Testament promises about Israel’s salvation? And we’ve done this from the vantage point of Romans 9–11. What we’ve seen is that God’s promises about Israel’s salvation are fulfilled by Israel and in the church. Paul, in fact, draws a pretty straight line from Old Testament referents to their New Testament fulfillment. How else is he to preserve God’s integrity, much less provide any comfort to his friends in Rome? It’s true, sometimes Paul departs from this hermeneutical strategy. He’s happy, for instance, to sweep Gentiles into God’s promises to pagan Israel. Though even here, he makes this point while also noting that one of these “Gentile” peoples is grafted into the olive tree “much more readily” than the other (11:24). That is, even when emphasizing the similarity between Jews and Gentiles in the church, Paul keeps an eye firmly fixed on their unique identities in God’s family.
There’s a lot written on this question and the dozen or so related issues it touches on. Here I’ve simply noted a few of these issues and suggested one or two places to begin under each.
Old Testament in New Testament: Generally
- G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2012.
- G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
- D. A. Carson, “Mystery and Fulﬁllment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New.” In Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol. 2: A Fresh Appraisal of Paul and Second Temple Judaism, edited by D. A. Carson, P. T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, 2:395–436. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2004.
- See here for a helpful summary of Carson’s article. But don’t let this keep you from reading the piece itself!
- Moo, Douglas J., and Andrew David Naselli. “The Problem of the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament.” Pages 702–46 in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. Edited by D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.
- See, esp., their different take on Rom. 9:25–26 on pp. 743–45.
Old Testament in New Testament: Romans
- Douglas J. Moo, “Paul’s Universalizing Hermeneutic in Romans.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 11 (2007): 62–90.
- Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 2d ed. NICNew Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, The Epistle to the Romans, 2d ed. BECNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018.
Israel & the Church
- Chris Bruno, Jared Compton, and Kevin McFadden, Biblical Theology according to the Apostles: How the Earliest Christians Told the Story of Israel. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2020.
- Jared Compton and Andrew David Naselli, eds. Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9–11. Viewpoints. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2019.
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