Israel and the Church

F. B. Hole

A knowledge of "dispensational truth," as it is often termed, is indispensable for the intelligent reading of the Bible. Yet many Christians seem to have hardly given it a thought.

God has been pleased to deal with men at different times in various ways. Fresh revelations of Himself and of His will have ushered in new modes of dealing with men, new dispensations.

"Dispensational truth" teaches us to rightly distinguish these changes, and to discern their nature, so that the salient features of each may not be obscured. The importance of this for us Christians is that we thereby learn the true character of the calling wherewith we are called from on high, and of the age in which our lot is cast.

Up to the time of Christ a dispensation ran its course in which the prominent feature was Israel, the chosen nation of the stock of Abraham. The period in which we live, from Pentecost to the coming of the Lord, is marked by altogether different features. Not Israel, but the Church is prominent in God's thoughts to-day.

Before dwelling on the important distinctions between the two, let us be quite sure that we understand exactly what we are speaking about.

By ISRAEL we do not mean the Jews, the scattered nation as they are to-day, nor as they were in the time of our Lord, a remnant still clinging to their ancient capital, Jerusalem. We do not allude to them as they actually existed at any time, but rather to what that nation was according to God's original plan for them.

When we speak of THE CHURCH we do not refer to any ecclesiastical building nor to any denomination, nor to any number of professed Christians banded together into what is called nowadays "a church." We use the term in its scriptural sense. The Greek word rendered "church" simply means "called-out ones." Those, who are called out of the world by God during this period of Christ's rejection, are by this means, and by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, banded together into God's assembly, the church.

It may be helpful to notice that in Scripture the term "church" is used in three ways: —

1. As denoting the aggregate number of the Christians in any given place (1 Cor. 1:2; Col. 4:15, etc.).

2. As the aggregate number of all Christians upon earth at any given time (1 Cor. 10:32; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 1:22, etc.). In this aspect the church is like a regiment which abides the same, though the units which compose it are constantly changing.

3. As the aggregate number of all Christians, called out and sealed with the Spirit between Pentecost and the coming of the Lord (Eph. 3:21; Eph. 5:25, etc.).

Of these the last is the sense in which we use the word in this Bible Talk; though, if we speak of the church as it exists on earth to-day, we obviously allude to it in its second aspect.

Be it remembered, however, that we refer, as in the case of Israel, not to what the church actually is, or has at any time been, but to what it is according to the original design and thought of God.

Having defined our terms, let us observe a few necessary distinctions.

1. John, the forerunner of the Lord, was the last of the long line of the prophets of the past dispensation. With him, God's utterances under the old covenant reached their full stop. With Christ, the new utterances began. "The law and the prophets were until John; since that time the kingdom of God is preached" (Luke 16:16).

The advent of Christ into the world was described by Zacharias as the coming of the dayspring (or, as the margin reads, "sun-rising") from on high. His appearance on earth heralded the dawn of a new day. Not that this new day was there and then inaugurated. The Lord Jesus had a mission to fulfil in the midst of Israel, and He must needs present Himself to that nation as their long-promised Messiah. Moreover, the broad foundations of purposed blessing must be laid amid the sufferings of Calvary. But when all this was past, when the Son of God had died and risen again, when He had ascended to heaven and sent down the Holy Ghost, then was inaugurated a dispensation that was new indeed, utterly different from all that had gone before.

2. The characteristic feature of the old dispensation was law, that of the new is grace. The giving of the law at Sinai ushered in the former. God formulated His demands upon men. He was to receive, and they were to give, that which was His due. The fact that failure came in immediately, failure so great as to amount to a total collapse, did not relieve men of their newly incurred responsibilities in the smallest degree. God, however, announced to Moses that He would have mercy (Ex. 33:19), and withhold the threatened destruction in view of the coming of Christ. The law still held sway as "schoolmaster," and continued so to do until Christ came (Gal. 3:24).

In Christ a power mightier than the law was present. The case of the sinful woman in John 8 beautifully illustrates it. Under the potent influence of grace, the hypocrites were convicted far more effectually than under law, and the sinner was forgiven, a thing which the law never professed to do. Now God gives and man receives. The new dispensation is marked by grace reigning through righteousness, to eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 5:21).

3. The old dispensation centred round Israel, the new is connected with the church.

The law was given not to everybody, but to one nation, Israel. Upon that nation, therefore, God's attention was focussed. The privileges of the children of Israel belonged to them nationally rather than individually. God always had His own secret dealings with the souls of individuals, and these dealings came into greater prominence in the days of national apostasy. But at the beginning God took them up nationally without reference to the spiritual state of individuals, and their standing before Him was on a national basis.

On the other hand, there is nothing national about the church. Peter declared, corroborated by James, that the divine programme for this dispensation is the visiting of the nations by God, "to take out of them a people for His name" (Acts 15:13-14). God is now making an election from all nations, and those thus gathered out for His name compose "the church."

The church, then, is not national, nor is it international, it is rather extra-national, i.e., altogether outside of all national distinctions, and totally independent of them. Instead of being constructed on a national basis, it is represented in Scripture as "one flock" (John 10:16, R.V.), as "one body" (1 Cor. 12:13), as "a spiritual house, an holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5), as a family composed of the children of God (1 John 2:12; 1 John 3:1, etc.).

Moreover, in connection with the church God begins with the individual. It is composed of those who have personally been set in right relations with God. Only as forgiven, and as having received the Spirit to indwell them, do they become members of the one body, and "living stones" in the spiritual house.

4. Connected with Israel was a ritualistic worship, the value of which lay in its typical significance. The church's privileges are connected with the eternal realities themselves, with the substance rather than with the shadows. Her worship does not consist of sacrificial offerings, symbolic ceremonies, and the like, but is "worship in spirit and in truth."

The law had only "a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things" (Heb. 10:1). The good things have come, and are realized by Christians to-day. Christ has established them (Heb. 9:24; Heb. 10:12), the Spirit has revealed them (1 Cor. 2:9-10), and the believer may gaze upon them with the eye of faith (2 Cor. 4:18).

5. Israel's blessings and privileges were largely of an earthly and material order, the church's are heavenly and spiritual.

In the Old Testament instructions were given as to the way in which the children of Israel should return thanks to God when they were actually in possession of the promised land. They were to take the first of all their fruits and set them in a basket before the Lord their God, with an acknowledgment of His goodness on their lips (Deut. 26:1-11).

Is the Christian to approach God in this way? On the contrary, when Paul wrote to the Ephesians as to the heavenly inheritance of Christians, far from speaking of material things, he said, "Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3).

How complete the contrast

6. While Israel's destiny is to be the channel of blessing to all nations, during the golden years of the millennial age, the church's destiny is association with Christ in heaven. Isaiah 60 well describes the future of Israel. Revelation 19 and 21, under various figures, presents to us the destiny of the church as "the Lamb's wife."

Was there a definite time when God's ways with Israel ended and when the church period began?

It has already been pointed out that the death of Christ marked the close of God's dealings with Israel as a nation; and that His resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost inaugurated the present dispensation. Compare Acts 2:41-47 with 1 Corinthians 12:13.

Two qualifying remarks must, however, be made.

Firstly, that though God's ways with Israel reached their great climax in the cross, He, nevertheless, continued certain supplementary dealings with them until the death of Stephen, and perhaps even until the destruction of Jerusalem. Nor were the full designs of God as to the church made known in their entirety at the very outset of the present age. They were gradually revealed through the apostles, particularly through Paul, though the church itself began its corporate existence as stated.

Secondly, that God's ways with Israel have only ended for a time. Later on, in a day still future, they will be resumed, and the glorious promises made to that favoured nation be literally fulfilled. Israel has been side-tracked, as it were, while the church occupies the rails. When the church has been transferred to heaven, Israel will again be brought out upon the main line of God's dealings.

In Acts 7:38 Stephen speaks of "the church in the wilderness." And the headings to many Old Testament chapters refer to the church. Does it not appear from this that the church was in existence before Christ came?

Israel was undoubtedly "the assembly in the wilderness." Is there anything in this which would warrant our identifying Israel with the church of the New Testament? No more than the use of the same word in Acts 19:41 warrants our confounding the church in that city with the unruly mob of Diana's worshippers.

The application to the church of prophetic utterances in Old Testament headings of chapters (which are no part of the original text) is due to the mistaken views of well-meaning men.

But the mistake is a serious one, because it is by the confusion of Israel with the church that men have sought to justify the introduction into Christianity of Jewish elements and principles.

Were not such men as Abraham, Moses, and Elijah in the church? Does it not put a slight upon these honoured men to deny them a place therein?

By no means. Their lot was cast in the dispensation that is past. Viewed morally, these men tower as giants, while many of us Christians are but pygmies. Yet even John the Baptist, than whom none was greater, was, when viewed dispensationally, less then the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 11:11). He belonged to the age of servitude, we to the age of sonship (see Gal. 4:1-7).

The Lord's words in Matthew 11 concerning John were followed by those of Matthew 16:13-18 concerning Himself. He was not a mere prophet like Elijah, Jeremiah, or John, but the Son of the living God, and on that rock, said He, "I will build My church." Mark those two words: "will build." It was a future work of which the Lord spoke, and one in which these great men of old had no part.

What was God's object in calling out Israel into the special place they occupied?

They were called to take possession of the promised land for God, as a kind of pledge that the whole earth belonged to Him, in spite of the fact that Satan had usurped dominion over it. When they entered they crossed the Jordan as the people of "the Lord of all the earth" (Joshua 3:11-13).

Further, they were to preserve in the world the stock "of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came" (Rom. 9:5).

Incidentally also, in that nation as a sample separated from the corruptions of the surrounding peoples, and privileged beyond all others, was made God's last trial of the human race. The records of their own law as cited in Romans 3:9-18 testified to their irremediable failure, and proved in this way the hopelessly fallen conditions of all. If, as Romans 3:19 puts it, the law utterly condemns the sample nation of the Jews, who were under it, then every mouth is stopped, and all the world is "guilty before God."

What is God's object and purpose in connection with the church?

The church is Christ's body (Eph. 1:23). Therefore in it He is to be expressed; just as your body is that in which you live and express yourself.

It represents Him here during the time of His rejection and personal absence in heaven. Satan has got rid of Christ personally from the earth, but He is here as represented in His people. To touch the church, or any who belong to it, is to touch Him. Do not His own words to Saul imply this: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" (Acts 9:4).

It is God's house, the only house He has upon earth at the present time. God will not be turned out of His own world! He dwells, therefore, to-day in a house which no Nebuchadnezzar, no Titus can burn to the ground, and which no Nero, no Torquemada has been able to destroy.

God's ultimate purpose is to have a bride for Christ (Eph. 5:25-27), a people who, sharing now as heavenly strangers His rejection, find their eternal portion as sharers of His heavenly glory.

Can you enumerate some of the blessings we Christians have, which even the best in Israel had not before Christ came?

The knowledge of God as Father, fully revealed in Christ, is one of the greatest of these blessings. "No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him" (John 1:18).

Another blessing is, instead of promises, we have the fact of accomplished redemption. The promissory bank-note has been exchanged for the fine gold of the finished work of Christ.

Further, the Holy Spirit now indwells believers (see John 14:16; Acts 2:1-4). Though He had always exerted His influence upon earth, His abiding presence here is a new thing.

Lastly, our relationships with God are on an entirely new footing in Christ. We are no more servants, but sons (Gal. 4:4-6).

Much more might be added, but these four facts will serve to show the wealth of blessing that belongs to the Christian.

Shall we not thank God that our lot is cast on this side of the cross of Christ?