It’s a cumbersome title, but necessary. My intent in this post is to show that while there is unity within the body of Christ between Israelites and Gentiles, God still views Israelites and Gentiles as being distinct according to their nationality. How do the church and Israel interact? If we could understand this truth, we could abolish many denominations and all fellowship together as Christians. To preface this post, I want to quote from the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans. In summing up the entire earthly ministry of Jesus, Paul writes in Romans 15:8-9, “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” So the ministry of Jesus is stated to have been to the circumcised, or the physical nation of Israel. This is to demonstrate his covenant faithfulness (promises given to the patriarchs) and that Gentiles might glorify God alongside the physical nation of Israel. Now let’s go through the life of Jesus to see how He ministered to the physical nation of Israel.
The first thing we need to notice is how Jesus only ministers within the nation of Israel. Matthew 4:12-16 begins the ministry of Jesus with a fulfilled prophecy from Isaiah showing that the Messiah would shine forth His light in the area of Galilee. The phrase “Galilee of the Gentiles” should not throw us if we understand the original context of that prophecy. When Isaiah spoke this, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria had just carried the northernmost portion of Israel (Samaria) into captivity, II Kings 15:29. So this portion was known at that time as Galilee of the nations since it was no longer under the jurisdiction of the nation of Israel. Even in the midst of darkness for that northernmost portion, Messiah’s light would shine there to the nation of Israel, being named the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.
As Jesus ministered, He preached in the Israelite synagogues, Matthew 4:23, 9:35, Mark 1:39, Luke 4:15, 44, 13:10. Instead of forming another group, His ministry was to preach that the kingdom of God had drawn near to the nation of Israel using the religious format already in place. He appointed twelve Israelite men as His apostles, Matthew 10:1-4, telling them that they would sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, Matthew 19:28. This shows continuity between the nation of Israel and the ministry of Jesus extending even into the age to come (make sure and read the fine print in that passage). Jesus instructed these twelve to only minister to the lost sheep of Israel, Matthew 10:5-6. Jesus here is claiming the Israelite remnant, through whom God had been working throughout the entire OT, as His own sheep.
In Matthew 15:21-31, we have a story that makes Jesus seem like a racist. A woman named a Canaanite here (in Mark 7:26 she is named a Gentile and Syrophoenician by birth) comes to Jesus for healing for her daughter. He refuses to speak to her. Then when she won’t leave He states, not even directly to her but more to His disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now if Jesus had wanted to teach in His ministry an equality of Gentiles and Israelites with no Israelite preference, here would have been the opportunity; but instead, Jesus affirmed that His ministry was to the nation of Israel. It’s only after the woman kneels in front of Him that He even dignifies her with a response. He continues with His stance likening His ministry to the nation of Israel as to children while she was like a household pet (the Greek word there means little dogs which referred to their pets). This statement shows that while the first portion of the ministry of the Messiah was to be to the children (the nation of Israel), there would eventually be a place for ministry to Gentiles, just not yet. The children are fed first; the pets are fed second. The woman senses this in Jesus’ words and her faith shines through. “Even as a household pet I should get some crumbs.” Jesus sees her faith and commends her for taking her rightful place as second to the nation of Israel. Immediately after this, miracles bring glory to God, Matthew naming Him as the God of Israel. Let me be clear, Jesus is not being racist here. He is operating according to the covenant plan of God. That plan (especially revealed through Abraham, Genesis 12:3, 17:4-5, 18:17-18, 22:17-18) was to bless Israel first, and then all nations would be blessed through Israel. He is simply fulfilling the will of the God of Israel in serving the children (physical nation of Israel) first, and pets (Gentiles) second. It is a somewhat demeaning illustration if you are a Gentile like myself, but God’s plan is for all to be ministered to eventually. It’s a question of order that is contained in the gospels.
Jesus still taught Gentile separation. Instead of welcoming Gentiles into the fold, Jesus commanded the disciples to ostracize unbelieving Israelites out to where Gentiles are, Matthew 18:17. He commanded His disciples to not be like the Gentiles in their ways, Matthew 20:25-28. Let me be clear though, being an Israelite did not and does not save. John the Baptist made this point when he began preaching, Matthew 3:8-11. He told them not to say to themselves that they had Abraham for a father, but instead to repent and be baptized (baptism was a ritual devised for unclean Gentiles.) The nation itself needed to repent in order to enter the kingdom of God, but the initial invitation was to the nation of Israel and not to Gentiles. Only later would the nation of Israel be commissioned by God to open up the doors with the keys they had been given. This leads us to the book of Acts.
Did you know that the word “Israel” appears 21 times in the book of Acts? That is opposed to the words church/churches which are used 22 times in the same book. The Holy Spirit did not descend until after the 12th apostle had been chosen. Without Matthias, the number that the Messiah had appointed remained incomplete. The 12th apostle is appointed fulfilling Psalm 69:25, 109:8, the Holy Spirit is poured out, and the mission of the true Israel continues. This Israelite continuity is carried over even after the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of the Messiah and after the birth of the church. The church originally was a completely Israelite assembly. As they preached to the nation of Israel, Acts 2:14, 22, 36, 3:12, 4:10, Peter gave the clear order of Israel first, Gentiles second, in Acts 3:25-26, and this is well before the door to the Gentiles was opened. This Israelite assembly worshipped at the temple which became sort of a battle ground to see which faction would prevail and gain charge of the temple worship, Acts 2:46, 3:1-3, 5:12, 20-21.
When Peter preached to Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles, he spoke of the good news that was given to Israel, Acts 10:36. In essence Peter was explaining God’s faithfulness to the nation of Israel and asking Gentiles to believe in what He did for them. Paul’s preaching echoes this similarity. In Acts 13:23 he stated that God has brought to Israel a Savior. Notice that the unbelieving Jews have no problem with proselytes (circumcised Gentiles who have joined the nation of Israel) following the Israelite Messiah, Acts 13:43; it’s only when Gentiles who have not joined the nation of Israel become believers that the Jews become angry, Acts 13:45, 50. When we arrive at Acts 15 with the question of whether Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved, we see the Jewish question clearly defined. If the church is the new Israel, why didn’t Gentiles have to be circumcised in order to join the nation of Israel? The answer is quite simple, Gentiles are still Gentiles even after receiving the Holy Spirit by faith. The same James who spoke of a future for the rebuilt tabernacle of David also wrote an epistle to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”, James 1:1. Here even in the epistles we see the continuation of the nation of Israel existing in twelve tribes.
During the next missionary journey that Paul embarks upon, he comes across Timothy. In Acts 16:1-3, Paul has Timothy circumcised immediately after it has been determined that Gentiles are not required to be circumcised. The issue here is not salvation, but one of identity and testimony. How would Timothy be identified among his countrymen? Luke writes that Paul had this done because of the Jews that were in that region, since they all knew Timothy’s background. Timothy would become an Israelite because of his mother’s Jewish identity in order that he might be a good testimony. If the physical nation of Israel had been altered in some way, here would be the perfect opportunity to support a teaching like that. Timothy could continue as a Gentile in his ministry, Paul would state that Jews were not required to circumcise their children (which he never did in spite of the lies which stated he did so, Acts 21:21), then Luke would corroborate and record in his letter to Theophilus that neither Jews nor Gentiles should be circumcised any longer because there is no physical nation of Israel. Instead of this occurring, Paul had Timothy circumcised because the nation of Israel continues as The Circumcision, Romans 2:29, Philippians 3:3, Colossians 2:11. On the other hand, at the council of Acts 15, Titus was present, Galatians 2:1. While there, Titus had no compellation to be circumcised being completely satisfied with his identity as a Gentile, Galatians 2:3. Here stand two of Paul’s finest apprentices, Timothy and Titus, one Israelite and one Gentile, both young pastors carrying on the work of the kingdom. The circumcision of Timothy stands in the book of Acts as proof of the continuation of the nation of Israel.
As we bound ahead to the end portion of Acts, well after Gentile inclusion within the assembly, we see the same peculiarities. Israelite believers are still worshipping at the temple, Acts 21:17-26. In Paul’s defense before Agrippa, he states that the twelve tribes hope to attain the promise made by God to their forefathers, Acts 26:7. The order of Israel first and Gentiles second is mentioned as well, Acts 26:23. As Paul arrived in Rome, he continued with his practice of presenting the gospel of the kingdom to Israelites first, then to Gentiles second, Acts 28:23-28. If the nation of Israel had been transformed at the cross into something else, why here in Rome is Paul continuing to present the gospel of the kingdom to Israelites first then Gentiles second?
The epistles proclaim this same order, that Jews are given the opportunity first, then Gentiles, Romans 2:9-11. Notice I include verse 11 because God is no respecter of persons. It’s a matter of God’s sovereign election. Also notice that due to evil works that tribulation and anguish come upon the Jew first as well. So Jews get the blessings first if they believe, but they also get the curses first if they do not believe. After Paul proclaims judgment upon Jew and Gentile alike in Romans 1-2, he then asks the question. “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” Now if Paul wanted to say in his epistles that there are absolutely no Israelite distinctions left because of Christ’s work on the cross, here would be the opportunity. But he does not affirm that. Instead he states that “much in every way” is there an advantage to being circumcised and goes on to list ways in which Jews have an advantage. It’s not that Jews are any better off, Romans 3:9, since both Jew and Gentile are under sin. It is merely a question of God’s sovereign choice to entrust His oracles to the nation of Israel, Romans 3:2.
As we work through the book of Romans, chapters 9-11 become the focal point for the relationship, not necessarily between the church and Israel, but between Israelite and Gentile believers within the assembly which could be called both Israel or the church depending on your frame of reference. Everyone uses this passage to prove their point stressing different verses throughout these three chapters. I’ll try not to be biased. Paul starts out by naming Israelites in the following way, as a people to whom belongs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises, Romans 9:1-5. He defines Israel as the believing remnant within the physical nation, Romans 9:6-8. Since the cross, this has not changed. There is still a believing remnant within the physical nation of Israel, Romans 11:5. What has happened is that believing Gentiles are now being grafted into the tree partaking of the life of that tree just as any believing Israelite would, Romans 11:16-17. This also is according to God’s sovereign election in order to one day provoke the nation of Israel to jealousy, Romans 10:19, 11:11. When this occurs, the nation of Israel will spiritually awaken, Romans 11:8, have her blindness spiritually healed, Romans 11:7, 10, and recover from spiritually stumbling at the Messiah, Romans 11:9, 11. Once the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, the partial hardening of Israel will be at an end, Romans 11:25. At that time all Israel will be saved according to the terms of Isaiah 59:20-21. This will not result in Gentiles being cast away, but will result in the riches of the Gentiles and in life from the dead, Romans 11:11-15. If there was no longer any Israelite distinction, why does Paul say in Romans 9:1-5 that to his kinsmen after the flesh belong all these wonderful blessings? And why does Paul state that when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, that it will mean that all Israel is saved at that time? It’s not that unbelieving Israelites are a part of the true people of God, but a part of His covenant plan to bring salvation to the entire earth, to Israel first and then to the Gentiles.
When we arrive at Romans 15, we should understand that Jews and Gentiles are both under sin. Both Jews and Gentiles can be saved by faith. Both Jews and Gentiles can receive the same blessings. And yet in spite of this, there is still a distinction that Paul makes even though they are both experiencing the same blessings. Here in Romans 15:8-12, as I mentioned earlier, Paul explains how Jesus came as a minister to the circumcision. This occurred that the Gentiles might glorify God alongside the nation of Israel. Paul then quotes four Old Testament passages to show how all of scripture is alive with the theme of the salvation of the Gentiles as they rejoice alongside the nation of Israel. Remember from Acts 15 that Gentiles do not become Israelites when they are saved. They are Gentiles who are saved by faith because of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. Without God’s faithfulness to Israel first, there is no blessing for Gentiles.
Well into the age to come the nation of Israel will continue to exist in its arrangement of twelve tribes. When the sixth seal is opened, 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel will be saved to be the first fruits, Revelation 14:4, and to be preserved through God’s wrath, Revelation 7:1-8. The earth, sea, and trees cannot be harmed until these 144,000 are sealed. Later during the fifth trumpet, those creatures released from the bottomless pit are not permitted to harm those with the seal of God in their foreheads, Revelation 9:4. They sing the new song, Revelation 14:3, which no other man can sing reminding us of Psalm 96 and 98 which are a part of The Apocalypse of the Sabbath. Later the book of Revelation closes with the New Jerusalem having the names of the twelve tribes of Israel inscribed on her very gates, Revelation 21:12. The nations are still in existence here on the earth walking in the light of the New Jerusalem, Revelation 21:24-26, in need of the healing that the leaves of the tree of life bring, Revelation 22:2. If the church is an abrogating fulfillment of the nation of Israel, why are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel included in the New Jerusalem and not merely the names of the twelve apostles?
Some A-Millennialists or Covenant Theologians may read this and be shouting at their computer screens saying, “He’s missing the truth that the church is the new Israel.” Where does it say that in scripture? Others may be saying, “I think he’s carrying this too far. After all, the scriptures affirm that Jew and Gentile are one in the body of Christ because of His death on the cross.” I intend to look at those very passages in a future post to try to strike a balance between a position that allows for the continuation of the nation of Israel after the second advent and facilitates current unity in the body of Christ between all classes of people. Lord willing, future posts will be:
The continuation of God’s covenant plan with the nation of Israel here on earth.
The unity of all believers including Israelites and Gentiles.
The spiritualizing of key NT passages.
What about the book of Hebrews?
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman