One People. Two Entities?

Reggie, I am a little confused, actually alot, ha. But anyway, I finished a book by Kaiser on the OT. But he stresses that though there are distinctions between the Church and Israel that there is one people. That just confuses me. I agree with the promise plan outline but am confused over the one plan and one people and yet two entities?


[Editor’s Note: For additional commentary see the article: One or Two Peoples of God? Reflections on the Mystery of Israel and the Church]

When it comes to the relationship of Israel and the church, there are two main schools of eschatology, covenant theology and dispensationalism. Both agree that the covenant with Israel is eternal and irrevocable; the principal point of difference is over the question of ‘who counts for Israel’? Kaiser’s statement is a reaction to dispensationalism which sees two peoples of God.

Kaiser would argue that it’s one thing to ‘distinguish’ between Israel and the church, but quite another thing to eternally ‘separate’ the two. Why this care between ‘distinction’ and ‘separation’? It becomes clear when you understand the historic debate between covenant theology and dispensationalism. According to dispensationalism’s unique definition of the church, the faithful of Israel living before Pentecost, and all that come to faith after the presumed pre-trib rapture, are thought to belong to an entirely different people of God. One is Israel; the other is the church, and never the twain shall meet.

Dispensationalism is so emphatic about this ‘dichotomy’ (their word), that they do not recognize the saints of the tribulation period as ‘church saints’ at all. They also reject the view that the church had any essential existence in the OT prior to its NT revelation as the “body of Christ”. So it depends on what you mean by ‘two peoples of God’. Certainly we believe Israel’s abiding election and calling is irrevocable. The covenant did not terminate with Christ’s first advent, but reaches to the second advent and reinstatement of the ‘natural branches’. Does this mean that with the church’s glorification at the last trump, it has passed from the earthly scene, so that now God turns back to His millennial program for Israel, as in dispensational theology (([Side note: In my view, and the view of many, this would be tantamount to a kind of reversionism that returns to a pre-gospel pre-Pentecost status that negates the glory of the one new man of NT revelation. Not only so, but once the Spirit has been given on the basis of Christ’s once and for all glorification (Jn 7:39), we may be sure that the Jews of the millennium will be as much indwelt by the Spirit of Christ as any of this present age (the term “church age” is a misnomer not found in scripture). This is denied by dispensationalism which teaches that after the rapture, the Spirit no longer ‘indwells’ the saints, but “reverts” to a pre-Pentecostal status where He is supposed to abide externally as strictly “with” or “upon”, but not ‘IN’ the believer.]))

No, the but the purpose for the reinstatement of the ‘natural branches’ is to fulfill the covenant necessity of an entirely regenerate nation. This means that the saved Jewish survivors of the tribulation become the body of Christ on earth. Though Israel will be a distinct people and nation among the nations during the millennium, the saved remnant will be one body in Christ with the saved of all other nations; it is only the unique millennial stewardship of Land and calling that is distinct. So there is only one “regenerate” people of God that are all counted as Abraham’s seed by reason of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. But this has always been true throughout Israel’s history. Only a “remnant according to the election of grace” has ever been counted for the true ‘seed’ of promise, the true circumcision, the “Israel of God.” Such concepts are not entirely original to the NT. This is seen when Moses and the prophets insist on circumcision of the heart, when Hosea denounces Israel as a “no people,” and when Jesus calls Nathaniel “an Israelite indeed,” and when Paul says, “for they are not all Israel that are of Israel.”

So clearly the election and destiny of the nation assures nothing for individual Jews apart from regeneration. This shows how that one may be ‘in covenant’ who is not necessarily ‘in Christ’. To be ‘in covenant’ but destitute of regeneration is to be under its curse. This is present “Israel after the flesh” (Gal 4:23, 29; 1Cor 10:18). But it will not always be so. Not the Sinaitic, but the ‘everlasting covenant’ promises a day when all of physical Israel will also be regenerate to the last man (Isa 54:13; 59:21; 60:21; Jer 31:34) and not some, but ‘ALL’ return to the Land to the last man (Ezek 39:22-29; “I have left none of them any more there”), ALL saved with an ‘everlasting salvation’ (Isa 45:17).

This is an important distinction to keep in mind. As a nation, Israel remains a disobedient “no people,” but still the object of God’s determination to bring them back into “the bond of the covenant” (Ezek 20:37), even as Paul looks ahead to “their fullness” (Ro 11:12). So how is a ‘no people’ yet to be called the ‘people of the living God’? Hosea gives the answer: There is to be an eschatological wilderness reunion patterned after the first exodus that is to be the appointed transition from covenant infidelity to covenant renewal (see Hos 2:14; Jer 31:2; Ezek 20:35-36).

So there has always been a ‘mixed multitude’ in the congregation of the assembly of Israel. It is essentially the same distinction we make between the visible church and invisible church, and between the wheat and tares within professing Christendom. Are these the people of God? Well, in a corporate sense they are treated and held accountable as such. It is understood that when scripture uses such broad terms as ‘brethren’ or ‘church’, this does not presuppose that all the number are necessarily regenerate. Members of the outward assembly may be instructed and initiated into the sphere of covenant privilege and responsibility, but this guarantees only greater accountability; it does not assume regeneration. Scripture shows how that greater light and privilege commended Israel to the greater covenant curse for slighting the Word of God. Just so, this should be the greatest occasion for the church to fear, as so many are exposed to great light by way of knowledge and accountability, but are not able to walk according to the Spirit, because they have never passed through the straight gate of true regeneration.

Remember that when the covenant was made with all Israel at Sinai, there was even then only a remnant of true faith (e.g. Joshua and Caleb). That is why Moses said that the nation that was soon to enter the Land would not last long upon it (Deut 4:26; 30:18). He told them why: “Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day” (Deut 29:4). There can be no safe or abiding continuance until the day that the heart is circumcised, and not for a remnant only, but for the whole of the nation, and that ‘forever’ (Jer 32:40). Only this covenant formula can defeat the threat of further judgement or exile and guarantee abiding continuance in the Land. Moses further shows that this eschatological circumcision of the heart does not come until the latter days after a time of ‘great tribulation’ (Deut 4:30; 29:4; 30:1-6). This is the pattern in all the prophets that speak of the new heart that comes only after Zion’s travail. It is the covenant background for Jeremiah’s expectation of “Jacob’s trouble,” and of Daniel’s and Jesus’ expectation of an “unequaled tribulation” that immediately precedes Israel’s deliverance and the resurrection of the righteous (Dan 12:1-2; Mt 24:21) This is the covenant background behind Paul’s statement “and so all Israel shall be saved,” and why he insists on the yet future regeneration of the natural branches “when the Deliverer shall come out of Zion” (i.e., the day of the Lord).

I would perhaps go even further than Kaiser (depending on his view of the church in the OT) in saying that the promise was never to other than the church (“the remnant according to the election of grace”), since it was always only “in Christ,” the personal ‘seed’. So it is not only the NT that applies this stricter definition of who are the true ‘people of God’, but this distinction is anticipated in the OT as well, since the language for the ‘remnant’ or the ‘circumcision of heart’ or ‘law in the heart’ implies true spiritual regeneration in contrast to the nation that remained always for the larger part apostate and under threat of the “vengeance of my covenant” (Lev 26:25).

But though I agree with Kaiser that there is only one regenerate people of God, the elect of all ages, I also believe that it is not only permissible, but necessary to speak of Israel as the ‘people of God’, or ‘the chosen people’, even now in their present state of unbelief. Even the individual Jew in his unbelief and set to perish apart from gospel regeneration, is nonetheless part of a nation that is UNDER both judgment and promise of a sure and certain destiny. That’s unique to the Jew alone. Even in unbelief, he is part of a body, a nation, a distinct ‘entity’ if you will, that abides in a unique covenant relationship. Though Israel’s covenant does not guarantee the personal salvation of the individual, it does in fact guarantee covenant severity ‘UNTIL’ the end, and covenant mercy ‘AT’ the end. So in that sense, then yes, for the moment only, there are two peoples of God, but not in the dispensational sense. When ‘all Israel’ shall be saved, the two collapse into one forever.

Israel’s election is not individual but corporate. Not the covenant of Sinai, but the “everlasting covenant” of Abrahamic and eschatological promise guarantees a time when the corporate election of Israel will include the salvation of every Jewish survivor of the last tribulation, together with all the children born to Jewish parentage throughout the thousand years (Isa 54:13; 59:21 etc.) That’s why the salvation of “all Israel” must include the reinstatement of the natural branches. This is covenant is what the millennium exists to fulfill and vindicate. If the covenant can be fulfilled without their return to their Land as a people, all eternally saved, safe and secure in the Land “forever,” well, then Paul’s language must lose all continuity with its covenant framework and context. But of course, that’s precisely what the debate is all about, namely, to what extent does the NT “re-interpret” the Old. I don’t think the NT “re-interprets” the OT; it reveals a mystery contained in the prophetic writings (Acts 26:22; Ro 16:25-26; 1Pet 1:11 etc.)

Moreover, it is crucial that the regenerate church of God feel its debt to God to honor the mystery of His divine sacrifice of His nation by postponing the day of Israel’s salvation for our sake in the mystery of Messiah’s coming, departure, and return to Israel. Like the mystery of Christ’s cross, this sovereign divine surrender of Israel to blindness and the curse “for your sake” is a mystery too deep for complete comprehension, but sufficient is the revelation of ‘this mystery’ to make it inexcusable for a gentile believer to deny to the Jewish people the name “people of God,” or “chosen people.” (Of course, I mean only in the broader sense in which it is typical of scripture to speak of Israel as the people of God).

We miss it if we think that the church is a kind of “new” Israel, as in Catholic theology. But there is an Israel within Israel that can be called the “true” Israel. Thus, the church of NT revelation should be seen, not as a separate entity, but in true spiritual continuity with the righteous remnant of OT Israel (the seed; Ro 4:16; 9:8, the church of the OT). Believing gentiles are no less called (Ro 9:24), and no less Abraham’s seed. Against nature, they have been grafted into the one covenant olive tree (“in among them”), no longer aliens from the “commonwealth of Israel.” Gentile believers are counted as the ‘true circumcision that worship God in the Spirit and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). There is clearly a NT distinction between “Israel after the flesh” (1Cor 10:18; Ro 9:3) and the so-called “Israel of God” after the Spirit (Gal 6:16; Ro 2:29); but it is a matter of ongoing dispute whether this latter distinction should be understood to include gentile believers or whether the term intends only to distinguish the Jewish believer as heir of the promise vis-a-vis his unsaved kinsmen (Ro 9:8). (I believe the term was meant to include all the children of the Spirit). In this sense, the church of NT revelation is a first-fruits of the eschatological salvation of “all Israel.”

So my answer is firstly that we are dealing with a profound mystery, and secondly that there is both a broad meaning for the idea of the “people of God” and a more strict definition, which is the object of NT focus. But this stricter definition of the ‘people of God’ was certainly anticipated by the OT, and according to Paul does nothing to cancel Israel’s abiding calling and election, despite their fall. So, are there two peoples of God? No, not in the sense of dispensationalism, but if Israel is not yet rightly called the ‘chosen people of God’ in this wider sense, despite their momentary estrangement (“I will hide my face from them”), then the covenant judgments of history from the Babylonian captivity to the Holocaust and beyond to the final tribulation makes no sense at all, because the severity of covenant judgment has all to do with the glory of predestined covenant mercy, so that the notable severity of Jewish suffering is writ large with covenant promise.

Yours in the Beloved, Reggie

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Israel and the Church, The New Hidden in the Old
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