Israel and Church Distinctions

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Much confusion occurs with the interpretation of biblical prophecy due to a failure (or refusal) to distinguish between Israel and the church, thereby denying any future to national Israel and equating the historical throne of David with God’s heavenly throne. 

The former rule (the throne of David) could be called the single, unified, mediatorial kingdom that existed historically under the Mosaic Covenant, and was prophesied by the Old Testament prophets to be restored in its former glory at the second coming of Jesus Christ. The latter rule (God’s heavenly throne), which is eternal, would be understood as involving aspects of God’s universal and spiritual kingdoms.

Christians who are keen to appropriate and assert the future blessings that belong to a redeemed and restored national Israel (throughout the kingdom reign of Christ from David’s throne in Jerusalem), are not willing in any manner to accept the curses and judgments that are associated with those blessings and which have been fulfilled literally. For example, throughout the book of Isaiah there are consistent references to a future King. He is depicted as the One who will fulfill the Davidic Covenant, in addition to sitting forever upon David’s throne—the existence of which has always been historical.

To assert that the numerous kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the present spiritual blessings of the church, is to abandon the literal meaning of prophecy without a basis or standard for interpretation. For instance, Isaiah 13—23 contain a series of messages that are primarily oracles or judgments against various Gentile nations. The emphasis within the prophecies is judgment, and thus the oracles should be given careful attention by all nations. One can be fairly certain it was not intended that foreign nations would read the judgments that God had decreed for them; rather, the intent of the messages was primarily to grant prophetic hope for the people of God. The expectation would be immediate for the original recipients of the divinely inspired messages (in the days of the prophet Isaiah), and would also inspire future generations as they observed the fulfillment of the prophecies.

Within the eleven burdens (oracles) upon the nations, the prophet Isaiah demonstrated what would occur throughout the ensuing several generations in the Near East as a consequence of the Assyrian invasion force, whose armies were marching westward with a yearning for conquest and vengeance. Isaiah’s contemporaries would be able to evaluate the accurateness of his message, and thereby determine whether or not God had indeed revealed the burdens against the nations and was speaking those oracles to His people through the prophet.

The only consistent hermeneutic is one that regards—with utmost literalness and solemnity—the numerous and sometimes extended Old Testament prophecies that reference Israel’s eternal possession of the land and the Davidic dynasty’s eternal occupancy of the historical throne. Indeed, the New Testament commences with the demonstration that Jesus Christ is “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” and thus the fulfiller of both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants (Matt 1:1). Consequently, when one heeds a literal interpretation that grants the recognition of dispensational distinctions, one may then achieve a reasonable deduction.

Interpretative views that confuse general terms like “elect” and “saints” (which apply to saints of all ages) with specific terms like “church” and those “in Christ” (which refer to believers in the church age only) are misinterpretations of Scripture. Ryrie also noted the importance of this distinction. “The nature of the church is a crucial point of difference between classic, or normative, dispensationalism and other doctrinal systems. Indeed, ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church, is the touchstone of dispensationalism (and also of pretribulationism).”(1)

In covenant theology,(2) however, the church and Israel are not distinguished biblically, but combined as the one people of God. Covenant theology teaches that the New Testament church is a continuation of those of faith within Old Testament Israel. In terms of God’s plan of salvation, they are both regarded as being under the benefits of the new covenant of grace. Consequently, both the church and Israel comprise the one people of God. Covenant theology, which essentially is replacement theology,(3) teaches that the promises made to the nation Israel in the Old Testament are now fulfilled spiritually in the New Testament church. Therefore, it is common for covenant theologians to refer to the church as the “new Israel.”

Dispensational theology teaches the biblical distinction between Israel and the church.(4) Both the church and Israel have special relationships with God, but they must be distinguished. The distinction between Israel and the church is the natural result of interpreting the Bible historically and grammatically (i.e. literal, plain interpretation). One must interpret the words of the Bible in their normal or plain meaning. The opposite would be a spiritualizing (allegorizing) of the biblical text. Since Israel and the church are distinct entities, the unfulfilled prophecies to Israel of both blessing and curse have not been transferred to the church. Indeed, as the cursings to Israel were fulfilled literally, so will the future restoration blessings be fulfilled literally. 

Theologically, only one church exists in regard to the body of Christ universally (1 Cor 12:12-27; Eph 4:4-6). The reason is that Christians are currently fellow citizens and saints of the household of God (Eph 2:19). The church is not the consequence of human organization; rather, it is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (v. 20). Furthermore, the church is God’s workmanship (v. 10), created in accordance with His eternal purpose in Christ (1:4), so God may demonstrate the exceeding riches of His grace (2:7).(5) The church is invisible only in regard to those of the body who are already present with the Lord. The local gathering of believers in the service of Christ, is as a part of the universal church. It is essential to distinguish the universal and localized elements for a complete understanding of the New Testament doctrine of the church. Accordingly, the plural “churches” is used in the New Testament as a description of multiple assemblies in a city or territory. Those who are Christia
ns by grace through faith in Christ alone are expected to be members of both the universal and local church.(6)

The church includes all—and only—those who have been regenerated (born again). The new birth by the Holy Spirit comes through repentance and faith in the completed redemptive work of Christ, and results in union with Him and with fellow believers (Acts 2:47; 20:28). The church is unique to this age (dispensation). The origin of the church was still future in Matthew 16:18. Members are placed in the body of Christ through the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). After His resurrection, Christ said the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit was still future (Acts 1:4-5). The church excludes believers of the Old Testament and those who trust in Christ for salvation after the church has been raptured.

The unity of believers in a local church (community) is only a part—not all—of the universal church. The local church is a voluntary assembly of Christians and is the sphere where the Holy Spirit manifests His gifting and edifying to make Christ known to a lost world. The local church should be a microcosm of the unity and purity that is the reality of the universal church. The universal church is instructed to evangelize/disciple, serve, teach, and worship, but the expression of this instruction is fulfilled by the local assembly through the empowering of the Holy Spirit. The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not the exclusive privilege of the local church, but are universal expressions of the believer’s identity with and remembrance of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41; 8:36-38; 18:8; 1 Cor 11:23-26).

The church is the regenerate of this age, both in heaven and on earth, who have been redeemed by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ. They are united with Him and each other by the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit. They assemble voluntarily in any local community for the express purpose of edification, making disciples, worship, and administration of the ordinances. The nature of the church as a new entity that originated at Pentecost—founded upon the New Testament apostles and prophets, with “Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Eph 2:20)—is a fundamental doctrine of Scripture. Christ’s headship over the church distinguishes the relationship of the church as unique (Eph 1:22-23). Therefore, the church should not be confused with Israel, the kingdom of God, or another phase in salvation history. The church is exclusive and unique to this age (dispensation). The church has a holy calling that is distinct from Israel, as evident from an understanding of the foundation and origin of the church.

(1) Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (1966; Chicago: Moody Press, 1995) 123.
(2) Covenant theology is the system of theology that teaches God instituted the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in the history of creation. The covenant of works was with Adam, as representative of all humanity, and prior to the Fall. God then established the covenant of grace through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, in response to Adam’s disobedience. The covenant of grace promises eternal life to all those who trust in Christ. Covenant theology also teaches that the true Israel, the church, is one people of God.
(3) Theonomists are also covenant theologians who not only believe the church and Israel are combined, but also argue that the Mosaic Law is still in effect. Therefore, one of the responsibilities of the church is to institute Mosaic Law in society, which will then introduce the conditions of the millennial kingdom.
(4) Progressive dispensationalism teaches erroneously that the church is less distinct than Israel; rather, this essentially non-dispensational view affirms Israel and the church as two embodiments of a single     people in salvation history.
(5) Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Church,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., 4 vols., gen. ed. idem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979-84) 1:693.
(6) Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor, 1986) 395.

Midnight Call - 11/2022

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