The Church and Israel (2)
In the previous issue of the News, focusing on Acts 7:38, we showed that Old Testament Israel and the church of the New Testament are one people, one body. Israel, according to Acts 7:38, was “the church in the wilderness” and the New Testament church is the true Israel of God (Gal. 6:15-16). Coming in the New Testament to the general assembly and church of the Firstborn is the same as coming to Mount Sion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22-23). When the angel shows John “the bride, the Lamb’s wife,” he has a vision of the new Jerusalem “descending out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:9-10).
We should remember, as we consider the biblical identity of the two, that not all who were of Old Testament Israel were the true Israel of God (Rom. 9:6). There were those who were Jews only outwardly. Really, they were not Jews at all, “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (2:28-29).
The same is true of the New Testament church. There are those who are members of the church in name, who receive the sacraments and hear the preaching, but who are merely tares among the wheat, as those sown by Satan, the arch-enemy of the church (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (I John 2:19). All of which is to say that the identity of the elect, redeemed and regenerated people of God in both testaments is that of the true Israel of God and “the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).
This is of immense importance as far as the promises of the Word are concerned. If Old Testament Israel is not the church, then the promises God made to Israel are not for the church. Then, though the Old Testament may be a matter of curiosity to me, it has no application to me as a New Testament Gentile member of the church. Then the Psalms, those precious melodies, may be sweet music to my ears but the words are of no real value to me. Then my singing them or reciting them is little different from the poetry of John Keats or William Wordsworth. The rhythms may tickle my ears but they speak a different spiritual language.
It is this truth, that Israel and the church are one, that makes the promise of God concerning children applicable to New Testament Christians. Then, and only then, are the words of God to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7), the promise not of an Old Testament covenant that does not include New Testament believers, but the promise of one everlasting covenant sealed by the circumcision of infants in the Old Testament and the baptism of infants in the New Testament.
“But,” someone will say, “these two signs are so different in appearance that they cannot be the same.” Nevertheless, they are fundamentally the same. Both signify the removal of sin by the shedding of blood, though in the New Testament that blood must be symbolized, for no actual blood may ever be shed again, since the Lamb of God has died. Colossians 2:11-12 identifies the two for the reality of circumcision, the circumcision made without hands (from which no female is excluded), is the same as being buried and raised with Him in baptism through the faith of the operation of God.
The identity of Israel and the church means that I, a Gentile, am a true child and a descendant of Abraham, not by fleshly generation but by spiritual descent, by the same faith in Christ that Abraham had: “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). As a child of Abraham, all God promised him is mine also, not those earthly things, for they were only shadows, but the true spiritual realities: Canaan, really Messiah’s land (Rom. 4:13); a city (Heb. 11:16); a seed (Gal 3:16) and all the rest. The identity of Israel and the church means that I am justified, as Abraham was, by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law (Rom. 4). There is only one way of salvation, and that is the way of free and sovereign grace.
The identity of Israel and the church means, too, that there is but one future home for both. As we have seen, to come to the true and heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God, is to come to the general assembly and church of the Firstborn (Heb. 12:22-23). Abraham, who never received the inheritance of the earthly land of Canaan, “not so much as to set his foot on” (Acts 7:5), though God had said, “to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever” (Gen. 13:15), was content for he “desire[d] a better country, that is, an heavenly” (Heb. 11:16). All those who go to that heavenly country will rest in the bosom of Abraham as Lazarus did (Luke 16:22).
The Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching on the unity of the church is both true and comforting: “What believest thou concerning the ‘holy catholic church’ of Christ? That the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a [or one] church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am, and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof” (Q. & A. 54). Rev. Ron Hanko