Thursday 29 March 2012
Is the Church Israel now?
There's an interesting discussion about Messianic Jews on Facebook. One of the contributers recommended Charles Provan's book The Church is israel Now. I, however, am not a fan of Provan's book.
When The Church is Israel Now was first published I sent a substantial critique of the book to the author and to his main distributers in the UK and the USA. I received no reply from either Provan or his US distributer, and the response I received from his UK distributer was a polite, two-sentence note that basically told me to get lost. I believe the reason I receive no answer is because my case is unanswerable. This is what I sent.
Dear Mr Provan,
I read with interest your book The Church is Israel Now and believe it needs some form of response. Obviously much thought and comparison of Scripture with Scripture went into the book, which is commendable. The format of placing Old Testament Scripture against New Testament Scripture is illuminating. However, in spite of the fact that you attempt to allow the Bible to speak for itself, I believe your thesis is basically unscriptural, fundamentally flawed and very dangerous.
In the second paragraph of your introduction (no page number) you state: ‘The only hypothesis which explains how this could be [i.e.: that the same terms used in the Old Testament to describe Israel are used in the New Testament to describe Christians] is that the Israel of the Old Testament (so called ‘Racial Israel’) had been replaced by the Israel of the New Testament, the Christian Church.’ It is a mark of humility on your part that you acknowledge your book to be a hypothesis and I would like to suggest that your hypothesis is fundamentally flawed.
You appear to be unable to think in categories other than ‘either/or’. Your method of assembling sets of verses which show, for example, that in the Old Testament Israel was beloved of God and that in the New Testament Christians are beloved of God, and that in the Old Testament the Jews are called God’s people and in the New Testament Christians are called God’s people has its strengths but it also has great weaknesses.
For example, if your system of Scriptural interpretation was applied to the biblical teaching about God one would have to conclude that Jesus has replaced Jehovah on the grounds that in the New Testament the divine titles are all accorded to Jesus. In the Old Testament, for example, Jehovah is the King of Israel, whereas in the New Testament Jesus is the King of the Jews; in the Old Testament Jehovah is the Shepherd of his people whereas in the New Testament Jesus is the good Shepherd; in the Old Testament Jehovah is the Rock but in the New Testament Jesus is the Rock. As I have pointed out to numerous ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is no title given to Jehovah which is not applied to Jesus in the New Testament. But that is not the same as a ‘transfer’ of titles. Jesus has not replaced Jehovah. Is it not at least possible, therefore, that the Church may indeed be the beloved Israel of God without having replaced the nation of Israel?
While appearing to be scriptural, I believe your method is ultimately unscriptural in that you attempt to fit the Scriptures (no doubt unwittingly) into a preconceived framework. Nowhere is this more evident than when you aver that Matthew 21:43 ‘demonstrates ... quite clearly’ the transfer of Israel’s privileges and responsibilities: ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’
At first sight the words of Christ appear to support your hypothesis. But Matthew goes on: ‘When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.’ (Matthew 21:45). Jesus was not saying the kingdom would be taken from Israel but from the rulers of Israel.
At the beginning of Matthew 21 the people of Jerusalem welcomed Christ and acknowledged him to be the Messiah, the son of David and a prophet (vv. 8-11). It was ‘the chief priests and the scribes’ alone who were displeased (vv15, 16) at the events of the day. In verse 23 the people listened avidly to Christ but the chief priests and the scribes took issue with him over his authority to teach.
In the first of the two parables recorded in the same chapter (vv. 28-33) Jesus revealed that publicans and prostitutes entered the kingdom before the religious leaders. In his second parable the Lord used the imagery of Isaiah 5 to make his point. In the days of the prophet, the corruption of the people led to the Babylonian captivity and the kingdom was taken away. Christ says in Matthew 21 that the kingdom will again be taken away, this time from the chief priests and Pharisees, and given to another nation (as at the time of the Babylonian captivity).
However, Christ does not say the kingdom will be taken from Israel: Matthew records that the chief priests and Pharisees ‘perceived that he spoke concerning them’.
The common people of the nation received Christ and hence received the kingdom. After Pentecost vast numbers of the Jewish people turned to Christ. Contrary to traditional Christian thinking, the same people who cried ‘Hosanna’ on Palm Sunday did not call, ‘Crucify’ on Good Friday. That teaching has fuelled anti-Semitism in the gentile world and continues to be a reason why so many Jewish people, out of a misinformed sense of what it means to be a Jew, continue to reject Christ.
The Sanhedrin had difficulty arresting Jesus for fear of public outrage: ‘But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitudes’ (Matt 21:46).
They arrested him at night and tried him in secret so that on the morning of the crucifixion the majority of the population of Jerusalem appear to have been astonished and dismayed to discover he had been condemned: ‘And a great multitude of the people followed him ... who mourned and lamented him’ (Luke 23:27).
Even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus was not rejected by the nation as a whole:
When he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? So the multitudes said, This is Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth (Matthew 21:10,11).
Many of the people believed in him, and said, When Christ comes, will he do more signs than these which this man has done? (John 7:3 1).
Even among the religious hierarchy, not all rejected Christ: ‘Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed on him’ (John 12.42).
The Book of Acts demonstrates that the kingdom had not been taken from ‘Racial Israel’. In Israel and the Diaspora thousands accepted Jesus as their Saviour and King.
That day about three thousand souls were added to them (Acts 2:41).
Many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand (Acts 4:4).
The number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem; and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7).
When the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews ... followed Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:43).
Many of them believed; and also not a few of the Greeks (Acts 17:12).
John, of course, records that ‘his own received him not’. Nevertheless, he modifies that statement with another: ‘but to as many as received him...’ Many verses demonstrate that the picture was not as bleak as we have become conditioned to accept. There was a substantial ‘remnant according to the election of grace’ in Jerusalem, Judea and the Diaspora.
You state on page 46 that in the Old Testament, ‘Israel Is An Olive Tree’ (Jeremiah 11:16-17; Hosea 14:5-6) and in the New Testament, ‘Christians Are An Olive Tree’ (Romans 11:17-24). Though acknowledging that in Romans 11, ‘The Olive Tree under discussion ... is clearly Israel’ your bold-type sub-headings give the wrong impression. Paul does not say in Romans 11 that Christians are ‘an olive tree’.
Gentile believers, says the apostle, are branches from a wild olive tree that have been grafted on to the olive tree of Israel. If your hypothesis is, as you believe, the only possible one, Paul’s olive tree illustration is misleading. If the Church has replaced ‘Racial Israel’ a more fitting illustration would be that one olive tree has been cut down and another planted in its place, as your own sub-headings suggest.
But God has not cut down one olive tree and planted another in its place. Nor are there two separate olive trees. Instead, God has broken off some branches from the olive tree of Israel because of their unbelief and has grafted in branches not native to the tree. This is a vital and important distinction and it is inexcusable that a book purporting to be serious biblical scholarship should fail to see that distinction.
Nowhere in the book do you take into account Romans 11:1: ‘Did God reject his people? By no means!’ Nor do you engage with Old Testament verses such as Deuteronomy 4:31: ‘For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.’ Nowhere do you take into account Jeremiah 31:35-37:
This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the LORD Almighty is his name: ‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,’ declares the LORD, ‘will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.’ This is what the LORD says: ‘Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,’ declares the LORD.
At best, the claim that ‘the Church is Israel now’ demonstrates an utter disregard for the apostle’s warning to the grafted-in branches of the Olive Tree not to boast themselves against the natural branches. At worst, your hypothesis appears a particularly arrogant example of theological anti-Semitism. If it falls into the hands of Jews it will serve only to alienate them from the Church which has supposedly replaced them because it will confirm their historical contention that the Church is anti-Jewish.
The Church is Israel Now appears to me a classic example of adding two and two together to make five. To your credit you acknowledge that your conclusion is a ‘hypothesis’ (albeit the only possible one) according to which, when ‘the Israelites obeyed God, God loved them. But when they turned from Him He hated them, stripping them of their Israelite status.’
While it is true that in certain Old Testament passages, God speaks of His hatred for disobedient Israelites those passages must be modified by other statements. If God’s love is conditional upon obedience, it is difficult to pinpoint a time when God could possibly have loved ‘Racial Israel’. Indeed, nowhere are God’s declarations of love greater than in the book of Hosea when Israel, the bride of Jehovah, is likened to a brazen whore.
If God’s love is conditional, where does that leave the Church! If God’s love is conditional there is no hope for any of us.
Followed to its logical conclusion your hypothesis would leave Christians without assurance of salvation. If God, without warning, transferred all ‘Racial Israel’s’ privileges to Christians, what confidence can Christians have that he will not at some future date transfer our benefits to others?
Apart from a reference to a select number of verses in Romans 11, one would think you were unaware of the chapter’s existence, for nowhere do you consider what Paul means when he says that Israel is the people God ‘foreknew’, that ‘the Israelites are beloved for the fathers’ sakes’ or that God’s ‘gifts and calling are without repentance’.
The book’s subtitle, ‘The Transfer of Conditional Privilege’ reveals a lack of understanding of the unconditional nature of God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.
Moreover, there is a failure to understand that the Church is not a new entity which came into being on the Day of Pentecost. Israel is God’s qahal, a Hebrew word that in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament is rendered ekklesia, the same word translated ‘church’ in English versions of the New Testament. Ekklesia means basically ‘that which is called out’ and the Christian church, or congregation, has been called out of the world and gathered to Messiah. But the Lord’s calling out of a people for his name did not begin at Pentecost. According to Stephen, in Acts 7:38, God had an ekklesia in the wilderness.
Until the time of Paul’s missionary enterprise the ekklesia consisted mainly of the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, though there were notable exceptions such as Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabitess, Uriah the Hittite and Naaman the Syrian.
In the 2,000 years since the time of Christ the majority of the ‘called out’ have been Gentiles. Paul’s illustration in Romans 11 is that Israel is an olive tree, the branches of which are individual believers. Some of the native branches have been ‘broken off through unbelief’. But whether the branches are natural or wild, both are joined to the same tree.
This renders the theory that the Church has replaced Israel a nonsense. How can Israel replace Israel? How can the Church replace the Church?
Neither is the church God’s ‘new’ Israel. On the day of Pentecost ‘the church’ entered a new phase, when the gospel would be proclaimed to all nations beginning at Jerusalem. ‘With Pentecost’, writes Kai Kjær-Hansen, ‘God’s church for the last days begins its ministry’.
Shadows have been replaced by reality; the partial has been superseded by the fullness, and the preparation by the fulfilment. At Pentecost, as at the erection of the tabernacle and the dedication of Solomon’s temple, the glory of God descended and filled his temple ‘made without hands’.
Gentile believers must eschew fruitless and arid replacement theology and return to the New Testament’s emphasis on fulfilment. We must acknowledge with gratitude that we who were once ‘without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ are now ‘no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone’.
The language of replacement is inappropriate to the discussion. It promotes that Gentile arrogance against which Paul warned in Romans 11, whereas the recognition that we Gentiles have become ‘fellow heirs [with Israel], of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel’ will promote humility, wonder and a longing for the natural heirs of the blessings to enter into the fullness of their inheritance.