The Church, Israel, and the Age to Come

The purpose of the church is to be the representation of Jesus on earth until he returns. We are to bring his kingdom authority and life everywhere we go. Empowered by the Spirit of God, we heal people, set people free, and inspire people with hope for the coming reign of the Messiah. Jesus was and is a Jew, and his role is to be the champion deliverer and King of Israel. Israel is not primarily a metaphor for all the people from the nations who love him. It is a family and a nation descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus is coming to rescue and lead the Jewish people. He will be the king of the world because political Israel will be the seat of a global empire. The Jewish people will have a privileged place in this coming earthly kingdom. But so will his church—those from among the Jewish people, and from all of the nations, who have believed in Jesus, and have enlisted in his advance company.

The church is the prototype of the coming age: a fellowship of Jewish and Gentile worshippers of God, brought to life through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, filled with and empowered by the Spirit of God to live according to the heavenly reality of that coming age, and to advance its influence into every area of life.

Bill Johnson observes that those of us who are believers in Jesus, who are filled with his Spirit, are not being transformed into the image of Jesus during his first coming, before his death and resurrection; we are being transformed into his image as he exists now in glory. Johnson emphasizes that this is why the Holy Spirit was not sent before Jesus ascended to the Father. “Without Jesus in His glorified state there was no heavenly model of what we were to become!”[1] The work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, the nature of the church, and God’s purposes for the ages to come are inseparable topics. The Holy Spirit is transforming us into a representation of Jesus as an advance party, modeling and implementing his kingdom until he comes. Christians often have a vague conception of the kingdom. They think it is an abstract, heavenly thing. They think that we need to get as many people as possible born again so that heaven will be populated, and that a heaven full of saints is the fullness of God’s kingdom. N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope, provides a much needed correction on this point. The hope of the believer is not an eternal, timeless, disembodied state, but instead is the physical resurrection and eternal life on earth that Jesus inaugurated, and became the first fruits of, when he overcame death. Unfortunately, Wright makes a related error in his failure to recognize that the coming earthly kingdom is thoroughly Jewish in character. Jesus’ followers during his ministry, including after his death and resurrection, understood his role to be that of the Jewish Messiah who would overcome the oppressive political powers that held the Jewish people back and would lead a recovery of the glory and the scope of David and Solomon’s rule. Jesus never corrected them on the nature of the coming kingdom, but instead indicated that there would be a period of time during which they, like the servants in the parable of the minas, would need to faithfully steward what had been entrusted to them, in preparation for his return.[2] Christians like Wright have deemphasized and diminished the significance of Israel in the age to come, and in doing so have blurred the distinction between Jew and Gentile which is intrinsic to the church.

Modern people like to think that we are all the same. The biblical truth that God doesn’t show favoritism is taken to mean that God doesn’t create people—or certainly a whole group of people—with distinct and unique callings and purposes. In fact, God chose a particular family, a particular place, and a particular, appointed time to establish his kingdom and accomplish his purposes. What, then, are his purposes? R. Kendall Soulen challenges the traditional Christian view that God’s basic purpose for humanity is redemption, or restoration to a lost Eden. In his book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, Soulen argues that the redemption narrative is a subplot within the primary story of the blessing and consummation of all of creation. He defines consummation as “fullness of mutual blessing as the outcome of God’s economy with Israel, the nations, and all creation.”[3] When God chose Abraham, he did not tell him that all of the nations would be saved through him, but that all of the nations would be blessed through him (Gen 12:3). Surely, redemption is a part of that blessing, but it is not enough. God’s purposes move beyond freedom from oppression, sin, and death, to fullness of life lived with one another. For Soulen, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is fundamental to the way in which God intends to bless the world. The church, then, as the advance party of the coming kingdom is “a provisional form of the fellowship of Jew and Gentile.”[4]

In the world of Jewish–Christian relations, thinkers from both sides have wrestled with the following conundrum: Two groups exist, both of which claim an exclusive relationship with God as his covenant people, both of which envision God’s purposes for the earth being fulfilled through their group, and both of which have truly experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in their midst and supernatural revelation from God. Some of these thinkers on both sides have proposed that both the Jewish and the Christian communities have their own authentic, non-overlapping relationships with God. In other words, they have sidestepped the central conflict between our two traditions in order both to recognize the truth and significance of each tradition, and to foster a healthy working relationship with one another. Irving Greenberg, an American Orthodox rabbi, holds a version of this view, and sees Christianity as a true revelation for Gentiles, but not a valid option for Jews, who must continue in their own heritage apart from any type of Christian faith.[5] However, other Jewish theologians, such as Michael Wyschogrod, see God’s covenant with Israel as exclusive to the point that, as Soulen summarizes Wyschogrod’s view, “apart from a relationship to the people Israel, no relationship to the God of Israel is possible.”[6]

On the Christian side, the problem is even more serious. Veli–Matti Kärkkäinen’s book, An Introduction to Ecclesiology, reveals a common view across Christian denominations and argued by most Christian theologians that it is precisely the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that defines the church.[7] Jürgen Moltmann’s book, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, demonstrates his consonance with this view, but he is unusual in that he also emphasizes the Spirit’s activity in the rest of the world, and even in all of creation. This focus is consistent with Soulen’s vision (drawn from Paul) of the consummation of all things. But Moltmann does not seem to see Israel and the church as partaking in the same covenant. Instead, he groups Israel with other earthly institutions among whom the church “spread[s] the kingdom,” but “who are not the church and will never become the church.”[8]

The church is the community of those who have been born of the Spirit, and in whom the Spirit of God dwells. John the Baptist described Jesus as the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). Jesus told Nicodemus that only those who were born of the Spirit could see the kingdom (John 3:3,5). Prior to his ascension, he instructed the disciples to wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit, from which event the explosion of the early church began (Luke 24:49). In this sense it is right to speak of the church as beginning on that Shavuot, or Pentecost day. But the new covenant that Jesus inaugurated had been promised not to humanity in general, but particularly to the Jewish people. God promised to write the law on his Jewish people’s hearts specifically to enable them to keep the Torah (Jer 31:31–34). Jesus connected observance of the commandments with the coming of the Spirit, teaching his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth, and that He would bring to their remembrance all that he had said. This was right after he had taught them that the way to show their love for him was by doing his commandments (John 14:15–26). So the Holy Spirit came upon a group of Jews in fulfillment of the promise to Israel that God would write his law on their hearts. This is the new covenant.

The great mystery in the New Testament is not that Israel forms the core identity of the church, but that Gentiles could be brought into the church without becoming Jews. Wyschogrod and Soulen are right to insist that we Gentiles have no standing in the new covenant apart from a relationship with the Jewish people. This relationship is mediated through Jesus, but the test of its legitimacy, as Mark Kinzer writes, is how we treat the Jewish people.[9] Furthermore, the church itself is incomplete, even mortally ill, when the church of the circumcision, as a distinctive core, is not found in fellowship with it. For centuries, this vital portion of the church was theologized, legislated, and persecuted out of existence. But in our day, it is being restored.

The Messianic Jewish movement is not just another culturally contextualized expression of the church. It is a restoration of the primary branch of the church upon which the church of the nations is dependent. Mark Kinzer makes the case persuasively in Postmissionary Messianic Judaism that this view of the church is supported throughout the gospels and epistles. Furthermore, he argues that a dual ecclesial model is both biblical and necessary. The people of Israel were set apart for all time as a distinctive people, meant to be a city on a hill, and a sacramental demonstration of God’s holiness on the earth. The miracle of people from every tribe and tongue being brought into covenantal relationship with God does not diminish this distinctive calling of the Jewish people. God’s covenant with the Jewish people is in their flesh, and is everlasting (Gen 17:13). The participation of the nations in the blessing and calling of God through Jesus is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that the nations would be blessed through his offspring. The traditional Christian view that after Jesus came, there was no longer a distinctive role for the Jewish people is both perverse and unbiblical. The kingdom that Christians look forward to was promised to Israel, and is foundationally the restoration and enhancement of political, national Israel, as all the prophets foresaw. In our time we are witnessing a miracle equal to the restoration of Israel to the land: The restoration of the Jewish people as a distinctive part of the church.

In a marriage, the man and the woman are truly equal partners, yet the man is first, and is the head. Both are equally the image of God, yet the woman is more glorious. An outsider cannot say that one is more important than the other, or is to be favored above the other. But for the man, his wife is more important than he is, and for the woman, her husband is more important than she is. In the same way, the Jewish people are first, and Jesus, the king of Israel is the head. But the church of the nations, in its diversity and splendor, though no more a reflection of Jesus than the Jewish branch, exceeds it in glory. Objectively, one cannot say one is more important than the other. This is the sense in which God is not a respecter of persons. But from inside either group, we can and should make the other more important than ourselves. Gentile believers should celebrate and exalt the Jewish people. Jewish believers should honor and serve the nations. This is how we will truly become both the first fruits of the age to come, and the image of Jesus in his glory.

There is much to be said about the nature of the church, and the different Christian traditions, especially when taken together, express it well. The Orthodox church sees itself as a sacramental expression of the nature of the trinity. Roman Catholics speak of the church as a continuation of Jesus’ incarnation. Free church traditions have seen the church as the fellowship of true believers, and Pentecostals and Charismatics have emphasized the church as the context for the transformative presence of the Holy Spirit.[10]

The neglect of the essential role of the Jewish people in the church, though, is a gross error, and has crippled the church, while contributing to and undergirding the persecution of the Jewish people. The restoration of the Messianic movement as an essential part of what we call the church—the ecclessia, the community of believers—will bring life from the dead. This is what Paul foresaw (Rom 11:15), and it is already beginning. In many ways the church will be restored and strengthened as it embraces its Jewish brothers and sisters. Not least, both groups will be delivered from racism and an elitist, inward focus. We will become the true reflection of Jesus’ glory, and will more effectively prepare the way for his coming kingdom.

 

[1] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, 2003), 145.

[2] Luke 19:11–27, Acts 1:6–8.

[3] R. Kendall Soulen,The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 157.

[4] Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 171.

[5] Irving Greenberg, “Judaism and Christianity: Covenants of Redemption,” in Christianity in Jewish Terms, ed. Tikva Frymer-Kensky et al. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000).

[6] Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 8.

[7] Veli–Matti Kärkkäinen,An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press: 2002), cf. Orthodox: Iranaeus, 23; Roman Catholic: Karl Rahner, 33; Wolfhart Pannenberg, 121; Lesslie Newbigin, 156.

[8] Kärkkäinen, Introduction to Ecclesiology, 130.

[9] Mark Kinzer, Searching Her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 15.

[10] Kärkkäinen, Introduction to Ecclesiology, 19, 27, 63, 75.