Sunday, September 26, 2021

Does the Church Really Have to be Israel?

A recent YouTube video from Australian pastor Matt Littlefield is introduced with this statement:

“Since the middle of the 19th century there has been a large movement in the Church to make a distinction between Israel and the Church, as two separate peoples. This distinction is unbiblical. The Church has to be Israel, otherwise the New Testament makes no sense.”

Can we amend this to “makes no sense to me”? Those are two very different claims.

Disclaimer: I absolutely enjoy Matt Littlefield and find him edifying on just about any subject where his various Reformed leanings are not front and center. But calling a video “The Church Has To Be Israel” is an invitation to discussion if I have ever heard one. Matt’s rather extreme claim about the New Testament not making sense if you don’t accept his view of the church is based on three arguments he makes from Hebrews 8.

Let’s see how these hold up to biblical scrutiny.

Argument #1: Christ and Moses have the same tabernacle (Hebrews 8:1-5)

“His ministry is of a higher quality, after all, because he is the Son of God, and he is ministering at the right hand of the majesty in heaven, but he is doing the same thing that they were doing, except at a higher level; ministering on our behalf. This is what the priests were doing in the tabernacle. Jesus is doing this now in the tabernacle in heaven. Jesus is not replacing Israel with the church. What he has done is he is changing the nature of Israel. National Israel is now international Israel. A different Savior, but God’s same plan to redeem to himself a people. You are not leaving Israel if you follow Jesus instead of Moses. You are remaining in Israel, because Moses and Jesus are the same thing and leaders of the same people: God’s gathering, the church.”

Reaction: It’s not the same tabernacle at all

There are a bunch of indefensible assertions in this paragraph that I will not address yet. But as to Matt’s main point, it couldn’t be more wrong. Far from comparing the ministry of Moses and the ministry of Jesus, the writer to the Hebrews is contrasting them. He is telling us how very different the two tabernacles are from one another, and how much superior the Lord’s ministry is to that of the Old Testament priesthood. The priests of Israel served a “copy and shadow” carefully constructed by men according to a pattern given them, whereas Christ serves “in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man”. Copies and shadows are by definition mere facsimiles; not “the same thing” at all. Further, the tabernacle of Israel was “on earth”, while Christ’s is in the “holy places”.

Even Matt inadvertently argues against himself on this point, pointing out that since the death and resurrection of Christ we now have an advocate in heaven instead of an accuser, as we find in the book of Job. This is not a contrast that comes from Hebrews, but it’s yet another contrast.

So then, there are two tabernacles, the facsimile and the reality. The facsimile was designed to point to the reality, but the two are not the same tabernacle, any more than a child’s playhouse is “the same” as the home in which she lives, or a child’s drawing of Niagara Falls is “the same” as Niagara Falls. If Moses and Jesus were the “same thing”, and if Moses’ ministry on behalf of Israel had been sufficient to the job, then Christ need never have come at all.

Argument #2: A different covenant but the same people (Hebrews 8:6-9)

“Who did God do the old covenant with? Israel. And who did he promise the new covenant to? Israel. The new covenant doesn’t create a new people. What it does is it changes the nature of the people of God, and opens it up. Israel is referred to as the church. [He means in Acts 7:38, where Israel is called the “church in the wilderness”, though only in the KJV and a few older translations. All recent translations refer to “congregation” or “assembly” rather than “church”, including the NKJV.]

Who are the Israelites? All who believe. All who believe are now in Israel, and all who don’t believe were cut out (Romans 11:17-21). God was not creating a new people. The covenant just changed the nature of his people. Israel has not been replaced. Israel has been changed. It is not that the church has replaced Israel. It is that the Gentiles who believed replaced the Jews who did not believe, and now stand alongside the Jews who did believe as part of Israel.”

Reaction: A covenant may have beneficiaries who are not parties to it

Ironic to find a replacement theologian who insists no actual replacement has gone on! But I agree that the new covenant encompasses and blesses believers from every nation. However, the beneficiaries of a covenant need not themselves be the original parties to the covenant, and that is the position in which Gentile Christians find ourselves with respect to a covenant made with the fathers of Israel and fulfilled in Christ. By sheer grace we have come to experience the benefits of God’s new covenant with Israel ahead the vast majority of those with whom the covenant was actually made, just as by grace, the tax collectors and prostitutes once preceded the Pharisees into the kingdom of God. It does not follow from Israel’s current state of rejection that Israel as a nation will never experience what we enjoy currently.

Such a view allows Gentiles to be Gentiles, Israel to be Israel, and the church to be the church, a distinction made by the New Testament writers. However, Matt insists on calling this entire believing community “Israel”, and in calling Israel “the church”, when scripture does no such thing.

First, the reference to Israel as a “church in the wilderness” from Acts 7 is a total red herring. He is taking a Greek word that refers generically to assemblies, gatherings or congregations, and freighting it with theological baggage it was never intended to bear and does not bear in its NT usage. By this standard, the rioters in Ephesus in Acts 19 (v32, 39 and 41) also constituted a “church”.

Secondly, Matt is conflating Israel with the children of Abraham. It is another “apples and oranges” comparison. Beware of bait-and-switch tactics, even if they are unintentional. All Israelites are indeed children of Abraham (at least in the physical sense), but it is manifestly the case that not all descendants of Abraham are Israelites. Isaac wasn’t an Israelite, Ishmael wasn’t, and the sons of Keturah were not. In the next generation, Esau was not either. Gentile believers are no more “Israelites” than these men were. In fact, there were no Israelites before there was an Israel (the man, Jacob), and Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, not his son.

What Romans teaches us (and it’s in chapter 4, not chapter 11) is not that Gentiles become Israelites through faith, but that they show themselves to be children of Abraham. Those are two different things, and Paul even makes the distinction clearly for us in Romans 4:

“The purpose was to make [Abraham] the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well [Gentile believers], and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised [Jewish believers].”

Look at that little word “and”. The two groups are distinct. “All who believe” are children of Abraham, but that doesn’t make them Israelites, and it doesn’t make Israel the church.

Argument #3: The new covenant is for pork eaters (Hebrews 8:10-13)

“Now we need a new covenant; one that is designed to be empowered by the Spirit of God, with the law written on people’s hearts, and certain aspects of the law done away with so that God can efficiently reach the pork eaters of the world and the people who don’t want to be circumcised. God only has one people, and God only has one bride. Praise be to God, those laws are obsolete now.”

Reaction: The passage is not talking about ‘pork eaters’ at all

The section of Hebrews 8 quoted here begins with the words “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days ...” Let’s just suppose for a moment that the phrase “house of Israel” does not refer to the church (since we have been offered no compelling evidence of that to date), but rather to believing Jews in a future day. Far from the New Testament making “no sense”, this is a perfectly coherent development if we accept the teaching of Romans 11 that God will once again bless national Israel (“Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!”). “Full inclusion” stands in contrast to the present situation, in which only “some of them” believe. (Side note: believing Jews today are, of course, as free to eat pork as the rest of us, but are hardly likely to describe themselves as “pork eaters”.)

So then, Gentile Christians may draw for ourselves a secondary, spiritual application from these verses as beneficiaries, but they make more sense when understood to speak primarily of the coming spiritual revival of national Israel.

In Summary

Matt has a number of problems here, but one that creates great difficulties for him is his insistence that the olive tree of Romans 11 is Israel, where he uses that word in a way the New Testament never does. Of course the New Testament doesn’t make sense if that is the case.

It’s too long to reproduce my entire argument here, but I encourage anyone who agrees with Matt’s view to read an older post entitled “The Olive Tree in Romans”. In short, the symbol of the olive tree in both Old and New Testaments is reliably associated with two things: blessing and testimony. At any given time in history, the olive tree symbolizes the source of God’s blessing and testimony in the world. At one time, these came through the nation of Israel. Today, they come through his church, of which saved Jews are members. But the olive tree itself is neither Israel nor the church. It is something bigger.

So, no, the church doesn’t really have to be Israel at all. It is quite possible to read the New Testament coherently and consistently without believing that. The foundation for identifying Israel with the church is exceedingly flimsy. It is the sort of identification large numbers of Christians would only make if they have already accepted a pre-existing theological framework that adamantly excludes any possibility of a future for the Jewish people outside of the blessings available to them through the church in our present era.

That theological system doesn’t have to be anti-Semitic at its core. I don’t think Matt Littlefield has any particular animosity toward the nation of Israel. But I confess it is very difficult to understand what else might explain the grip this system has on so many evangelicals today when it so obviously lacks a solid biblical foundation.

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