Crucial Distinctions Regarding the “Church”

“I only see differences WITHIN Israel”.

(What follows is part of a reply to friend’s objections to misleading ideas connected to what he argues is the misused and poorly translated term, ‘church’, as typically implying an entity separate and apart from Israel)

I’ve always maintained that “this one and that one were born in her” (the heavenly Zion; Ps 87:3-7; Gal 4:16; Heb 12:22-23; Rev 12:1-2, 17; 19:7; 21:2, 9-10 with Jn 3:29). The Psalmist can’t conceive of any of the saved of the nations, regardless of geographical location, as being born (born again) outside of Zion. But which Zion? There is an heavenly and an earthly, but until the twain do meet in that coming day, they remain distinct, though never separate.

The gentiles have always been debtors to their Hebrew roots since God first separated Abraham and declared His electing love of Zion. All redemptive goals take us to the heavenly city of the saved of all nations, but on the way towards that ultimate, post-millennial goal, the line of sovereign election must pass through the Jerusalem which is now in bondage with her children. The covenant must be openly vindicated on this present earth by its ultimate realization in the salvation of “all Israel”, preserved in faithful obedience by the new heart of the New Covenant for a thousand years. Here, we take a comparatively rare view of Paul’s meaning, “and so all Israel shall be saved” (Ro 11:26).

We are intensely agreed that Paul is NOT speaking of the full ingathering of all of God’s elect, an attractive suggestion by supercessionists, if looked at only superficially. But rather, Paul is reiterating what all the prophets understood as the climax and final resolution of the covenant, as the prophets envisioned an all saved Jewish, nation empowered by the outpoured Holy Spirit, and controlled by a new heart and new spirit to abide in covenant faithfulness for a thousand years of open testimony to the nations.

As shown elsewhere, scripture is clear that this will not only the mean the salvation of every Jewish survivor of the last tribulation, but also every child born to Jewish parentage “from that day and forward” (Isa 4:2-3; 45:17, 25; 54:13; 60:21; 66:22; Jer 31:34; Eze 39:22). None shall ever again depart (Isa 59:21; Jer 32:40). But what is far too overlooked, but especially to be underscored is that this amazing promise applies ONLY to the Jews for a thousand years of open, visible demonstration of God’s faithfulness to fulfill every jot and tittle of “My covenant with THEM.” Many scriptures agree to show that such uniform salvation is NOT promised to any other nation.

This is the great and significant anomaly of the millennium that so few recognize. If taken literally and plainly in their proper contexts, a considerable collection of scriptures agree to show that to NO OTHER nation is such a promise made of the salvation and preservation of all its members without the exception. The saved of the nations will be a remnant, perhaps a very large remnant in some localities, but no other nation will be completely saved and kept for a thousand years of open, covenant demonstration. Even less considered is God’s grand point in all of this, but my point is that for God to fully make and punctuate HIs point, He deliberately imposes and preserves distinctions, in this case, even within the body of Christ itself.

So where’s the body of Christ in the millennium? In our view, the body of Christ has been translated / raptured to assume a new capacity of rule. Yet, we hold that those coming to faith ‘AT’ Jesus’ return are NOT translated at that time with those who are already in the body, but enter the millennial age as newly born, Spirit filled believers, still in their natural bodies. In contrast with dispensationalism, we hold that these who do not believe until Jesus’ return become no less the body of Christ on earth at the day of the Lord when they look upon Him whom they pierced (Isa 66:8; Eze 39:22, 29;; Zech 12:10; Mt 23:39; Acts 3:21; Ro 11:26; Rev 1:7). There has been no “reversal of Pentecost”, as in dispensationalism. Nothing has changed, or ever could change the once and for all NT revelation that all who are in union with Christ through His Spirit are members of His body.

So what is my point? It is that here are distinctions, even among the saved of Israel and the saved of the nations who, though one body, are distinct, with assignments of stewardship during the millennium. Just as now, although differences such as male and female, Jew and Gentile are done away “in Christ” / “in the Spirit”, they are nevertheless maintained in the natural creation for abiding purposes of contrast and division, which is how God has always managed His household and mediated His revelation.

Obviously, this is never a matter of advantage or superiority, simply functional stewardship in the order of the mediatorial government of God. It is, however, a matter of sovereign election, which invariably tests the proud entitlement of the natural heart that envies against the Potter’s freedom to choose as He will choose. As one so well said, “God is not an equal opportunity employer”. So God’s free prerogative in election, unbiased by anything meritorious, is part of His enforcement of His sovereign right to rule, which to challenge is to challenge His rule.

Of course, with all of the above you happily agree. The only point I most wanted to stress for the refinement of our present discussion is this issue of distinction that does not separate or divide the essential unity of the one body by the one Spirit, which I see as obtaining across the ages. I’ll return to this.

In order to clarify some things easily confused, we need to see that the language of scripture supports two distinct kinds of election, personal and corporate. Every Jew belongs to a corporate election that does not guarantee personal regeneration, but with the advent of the millennium quite the opposite will be true when Israel’s corporate election will indeed guarantee the personal regeneration of every Jew. Until that day, Isaiah will distinguish the “holy seed” (Isa 6:13), and Paul will distinguish the “remnant according to the election of grace” (Ro 11:5, 7 with Mt 24:22; 2Tim 2:10), from the larger, mostly unregenerate ‘assembly’ of Israel.

You will also agree that this ‘holy seed’, the circumcised of heart, saw themselves, as we should now see ourselves, as inextricably bound and identified with the larger nation in its apostasy and affliction, as bound with them, not only in their destiny, but in their experience. Like the prophets before him, this apostle to the nations suffered the pathos that comes from knowing that until ‘ALL’ Israel will be saved and regathered, apostasy, desolation and death must continue to plague the nations. He also knew what all the prophets understood, that Israel’s repentance and return at the day of the Lord would be as “life from the dead”, not only for themselves but for the nations.

For all its glorious gains through the revelation of the gospel and the powerful in-breaking of the power of the kingdom, the present age can hardly compare to what “their fullness” will mean for the exponential increase of blessing that will abound to the nations in the thousand year reign of Jesus. So how can a burden for the nations be separated from God’s ‘special’ burden for Israel? But the way to this hope for the nations will be the way of reverencing and loving God’s election, not only His election of His only begotten Son, but the election of His national son, all of which meet in the body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all, where His glory forever resides throughout all ages, world without end (Eph 1:23; 3:21).

In my view, the revelation of the mystery of the gospel made possible the related revelation that every child of God who is born of the Spirit is vitally connected to the Messiah in an organic union that the NT understands as belonging to the beginning (first-fruits) of the new creation of eschatological promise. I would differ with Dan Gruber that this is true only now since Pentecost. The revelation of the body of Christ is indeed new, but the reality is not. I see the body of Christ in continuity with that godly remnant, not yet revealed as the fullness of Messiah’s spiritual body in the full mystery of incarnation, of course, but always present in its essence as the living remnant of the Spirit, the “Israel within Israel”. I’ve often argued that the body of Christ, though newly revealed in conjunction with the revelation of the mystery of the gospel that came initially with the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost (see 1Pet 1:11-12), and more fully revealed to Paul, did NOT begin to exist at Pentecost. For something to be newly revealed does not necessarily imply new existence. Neglect of this principle is a great oversight that has created the ‘illusion’ of an entirely new, and ‘separate’ entity called ‘the church’. Not so! The revelation of the gospel has only identified and distinguished the living church of God, i.e., the remnant of the Spirit who were always there in the nation’s midst.

The future tense in Mt 16:18 tends to make the church seem to be something entirely new and future. This is a great overstep. Rather, it is the “revelation” (Mt 16:17) of Jesus’ identity as both Messiah and Son of God that becomes the new basis on which the church will be built in all its future progress. This will be the new dividing line of manifestation of who is under the salvation and blessing of the New Covenant. For those ‘outside’ the circle of Jesus’ disciples, this was a divinely kept secret (Mt 16:19) until the appointed time of revelation and public declaration (1Cor 2:7-8).

The revelation of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and divine Son would become the stone of division that would constitute the new dividing line that would pass through Israel, manifesting and distinguishing the living church of God from the rest of the nation that had been blinded. The revelation, and the confession based on the revelation is indeed new, but this does not mean that the body of Messiah did not exist in essence wherever there were those throughout the OT period who were “indwelt” by the “Spirit of Christ” (1Pet 1:11), and joined to the Lord by the one Spirit (1Cor 6:17). The visible and comprehensive ‘assembly’ or ‘kahal’, on the other hand, whether of Israel or the assembly of Jesus confessors, is a far more embracing concept, NOT to be equated with much more narrow concept of the body of Christ. This is why the word, ‘church’, can be so misleading if we fail to distinguish between the visible assembly, which is often a very mixed bag, if even alive (Rev 3:1), and the body of Christ, which by definition is comprised strictly of the regenerate.

Because of the ease with which this can be mistaken, together with some inadequate, if not false, understanding concerning the nature of regeneration, and particularly the Spirit’s role in the regeneration of OT believers, the unity and continuity of the one people has been greatly misunderstood. This has contributed dramatically to the church’s understanding of its relation to Israel. And certainly the converse is equally true. Israel has defined itself over against the church’s claim to replace Israel with a new religion that can trace its origins no further back than Pentecost. It’s a mess; but one that we should see as divinely ordained. Not that God approves of the pride that has made it so, but the historic impasse between church and synagogue is no accident of history. In His larger, overarching providence, God is using the sin of human self-reliance to bring, not only to bring the greater exposure and judgment on religious pride, but to bring the greater glory to Himself in His ability to resolve the impasse that is humanly impossible.

However we conceive of this “Israel of God” that is the “Israel within Israel”, even before we come to the further question of gentile inclusion, it is clear that this is what Paul calls, “the church of God”. This is the entity that Paul persecuted before his conversion when it was still entirely Jewish (Gal 1:13). Here was an example of Israel “after the flesh” persecuting the Israel ‘after the Spirit’, what Paul would later call the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:15 with Ro 2:28-29;9:6; 11:5; Rev 12:17)).

After his conversion, Paul commanded the elders of the largely gentile church at Ephesus to feed the “the church of God” (Acts 20:28), and to this could be added many examples of his inseparable association of the local assemblies of the body of Christ with the “church of God” (1Cor 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; 1Cor 1:1; 1Tim 3:5). My point is that before this persecuted Jewish nucleus swelled to include gentiles from all nations, with assemblies scattered all over a very gentile world, it was called “the church of God” and was the equivalent, at least at that time, with what Paul would call, “the Israel of God”.

With many, I see the growing community of Jewish confessors of Jesus in continuity with the “holy seed”, the circumcised of heart, the perennial “remnant according to the election of grace”. Even if the term is not explicitly used in scripture, how is this not a distinct “Israel within Israel”? It is into THIS ‘Israel of God’ within the larger nation, that gentile believers are added and en-grafted upon their believing in Jesus. It is what Paul will call, “the household of faith” (Gal 6:10), and “household of God” (Eph 2:19; 1Tim 3:15; 1Pet 4:17).

These terms are manifestly NOT inclusive of the nation as a whole, but only of the regenerate assemblies of the saints, newly revealed as “the one new man” of the new creation. But again, I reiterate, one cannot be grafted into this ‘Israel within Israel’ without also being put into an inextricable bond of relationship with the whole of the elect nation on its way to its millennial fullness for which all creation groans in waiting. Even as the faithless vinedressers (stewards) of the vineyard are ‘replaced’ by faithful, we may be sure that the fruitful nation (the regenerate body), will not become usurpers, but travail in expectation for a kingdom that will only come in its fullness when ‘all Israel’ shall be saved. (Mt 21:33-43; Ro 11:25-29).

As I’ve often said, it is theologically impossible to be “in Christ” and not be “in Israel”. But to be “in” the Israel of God is also to be profoundly bound in spirit and deepest identification with the nation as a whole in all its tragic history and glorious story, sharing, as it were, in Jeremiah’s lamentation and Paul’s travail “till Messiah be formed” in them’ (Gal 4:19). It is not too far to say that perhaps the best way to conceptualize the church’s relation to Israel is to compare it to the relationship between the believer’s renewed spirit to the body awaiting resurrection. The two are distinct but inseparable, the one incomplete without the other.

How is that an argument for a separate entity? My mantra and oft repeated refrain in this discussion has been “distinction without separation!” As long as the church of God is defined as something internal to Israel, in spiritual essence and identification, by no means equivalent with affirming Israel’s political policies, of course, then isn’t this what you’re conceding? If not, I invite your kindness to present corrective evidence to the contrary.

Now, a second tier to our discussion must be ask, what are to make of this unexpected influx of gentiles into the one covenant people of God? Here is the question that faced the Jerusalem council. To what then were the gentiles being added by the Holy Spirit?. Was it to the larger kahal (congregation) or assembly of Israel as pertaining to the ethnic nation, without discrimination between saved and unsaved? If it was, then we need to carefully qualify what we mean, because larger Israel would have had nothing of it.

Let’s face it; the parting of the ways was inevitable and built right into God’s design that Jews be made jealous by gentiles believers, contrary to any natural probability. But we see Paul’s faith for the future of this largely gentile entity that rises from within Israel but appears outwardly as a detached, independent entity. This is the false illusion that we all deplore, but God has permitted the illusion for a still greater purpose. The question for us is do we have Paul’s faith for the church, that living organism that Jesus will not deny, despite all the defect and error in her visible assemblies? While it is true that the visible assembly is not the exact equivalent of the body of Christ, and must not be confused with the true seed of faith that exists only where saints are genuinely indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus, we must be careful of plucking up the wheat in our zeal to weed out the tares. By what standard are we judging?

No, believing gentiles were being added to the Israel within Israel, the church of God, equipped with its own, distinct, visible government. However, as pointed out, to be in the one is to be in the other, as there was no other nation with whom God has made this particular, everlasting covenant of grace. There is no other place to be grafted but Israel, because the covenant stands with no other people except by inclusion into THAT irrevocably elect people. Salvation is of the Jews! (Jn 4:22; Mt 10:6; 15:24, 26) and to the Jew first. If you will be saved, it is by being grafted “in among them”, and by “them”, Paul had in mind the natural branches as a whole. The olive tree is “THEIRS” (Ro 11:24), and God will see to it that the nations know it and submit to it.

As we have made much of the fact that it is naive to pray for the kingdom to come without notice that it must come through much tribulation; it is blind error to imagine a kingdom that can come on earth without the return of ‘all Israel’ to covenant favor, and that this will not happen in a vacuum. But in that qualified sense, I fully agree with you that to be ‘in Christ’ is to be also grafted “in among them”, not only to the inmost spirit of the nation, but to share, as the prophets shared, not only in Israel’s glorious future, but the agony of their present experience and fallenness as no less elect and beloved, as in it with them, feeling their afflictions as God is afflicted in their afflictions. That is what the church’s calling to be priest and servant means.

I’m saying that the Jews that were being added daily to the church and the gentiles that have been added ever since have always had gatherings and assemblies that were NOT received or incorporated into the religious government of the larger nation, but had their own governments and portable ordinances. I know this is obvious, but I’m just reminding us of how inevitable, even foretold that some of these increasingly gentile assemblies, and even very early on when yet heavily populated by Jews, would become aberrant and shot through with defect and error, some falling so far away as to have a name that they live while dead (Rev 3:1). Well, what did we expect? The question for us is what has God said He’s going to do about it? And what’s our part in the process?

When Paul warned of the gravity of missing this mystery, as when he corrected so many other serious errors, note how many times he showed patience, bearing with the ignorant, the blind, and the out of the way “UNTIL” we all come into the unity of the faith. There’s a lot of bearing with the assemblies of Jesus’ body in their various degrees of spiritual health, and a lot of wheat still to be found among the tares, both of which must wait till fully ripened and manifest, lest in our zeal (or disgust) we pluck up some of the wheat with the tares.

There is much to discuss, both doctrinally personally, even emotionally. There are many stones that have not been adequately turned over in our whole approach and stewardship of this mystery. To be continued …


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