Israel was and is The Church

Israel and the Church

by the Rev. D. McDougall, M.A.
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A graduate of Edinburgh University, Duncan McDougall was for some time Examiner in Hebrew at the Free Church of Scotland College, six years Lecturer in Christian Evidences, Vancouver Bible School, British Columbia. He was also associated for some years with the British Israel Movement in Canada.

At the present crisis in the world's history, when the destinies of all nations are, so to speak, in the melting-pot, it is of the utmost importance that Christians should have a clear perception of the nature and identity of the Church, and its place in the divine order. Whether 'the Church' is a body subject to the Bishop of Rome, outside of which there is no salvation, and to which all earthly kings and governments owe servile obedience; whether it is a body identified with any particular nation, as the 'Church of England' or the 'Church of Scotland'; or whether it is purely and solely the mystic body of Christ, having no concern with mundane things and no interest in any one nation more than another. Who or what is the Church, and where does it come in the divine scheme of things?

The Church in the Gospels

The fact that in the Bible the word 'church' (Greek: ecclesia) occurs only in the New Testament has given rise to a widespread belief that the Church is an entirely new organisation founded after the Resurrection of our Lord, of which nothing was known in Old Testament times.

This belief is by no means confined to those who call themselves Dispensationalists, but it is Dispensationalism which seeks most assiduously to emphasise the supposed contrast between 'Israel' and the 'Church'. The argument runs thus: Israel was under the Dispensation of the Law, the Church is under the Dispensation of Grace; Israel sought justification by the works of the Law, the Church is justified by the faith of Christ; the blessings promised to Israel were all earthly and temporal, the blessings enjoyed by the Church are spiritual and eternal; the kingdom given to Israel was of this world, subject to carnal commandments, the kingdom given to the Church is of heaven, subject to the law of the Spirit of life; entrance into the kingdom of Israel was by the natural birth, entrance into the Church is by being 'born again'; Israel failed to fulfil the conditions imposed upon them by the Law, and so incurred the wrath of God and were finally rejected, never to be received into God's favour again, the Church was made heir to all the blessings of which Israel had been dispossessed, and is confirmed in the enjoyment of these blessings, in which Israel will never again be reinstated.

Dispensationalists are all agreed that the Church did not exist during the lifetime of our Lord on earth. The common belief among them is that the Church originated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

The main practical result effected, if not indeed the primary object aimed at, by this violent divorcing of Israel from the Church, is to make the Moral Law, and the rules for admission to membership given to Israel, wholly inapplicable to the Church. The Fourth Commandment in particular is frequently set aside as being entirely superseded, and circumcision as a seal of faith is assumed to have no counterpart in the Church. Other consequences follow, which it is not necessary to touch upon here, as we are concerned at the moment only with the previous question, the identity of the Church itself.

The word 'church' occurs only twice in the four gospels, the two references being within two chapters of each other, Matthew 16:18 and 18:17. The first of these is the great proof text of the Church of Rome: 'And I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build MY Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.' This is also the great proof text of Dispensationalism. As Rome, ignoring all the Old Testament references to the Rock, finds in this verse the sudden appearance of a new rock hitherto undreamt of, so Dispensationalism sees in it the sudden emergence of a new body, the Church, which had never before entered into the heart of man. And this body was still in the future, for Christ says, 'I will build My Church', which it is maintained proves that the building of the Church had not yet begun.

The use of the future tense proves nothing at all, or it proves too much. God said to Moses: 'I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy'; does this mean that He was only now beginning to show mercy, that He had never done it before? He said of Israel: 'I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people'; and again: 'I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters.' Such uses of the future tense could be multiplied, spoken of things which the Lord had been doing for ages before the words were uttered. Thus the use of the future tense proves nothing as to when the building of the Church was begun; He might be continuing a process which He had begun ages before.

When our Lord gave Peter this promise, the Apostles were still utterly in the dark as to its Death and Resurrection, and much more so as to the great transactions of the Day of Pentecost. If the Church was only then to take its rise, and was as yet nonexistent, and its very name had never before been heard, we would have expected Peter to show some curiosity, to ask some questions, about the nature of this new body mentioned in his hearing for the first time. But he does not have to ask any questions, and the reason is apparent two chapters further on, when Christ says, addressing all his disciples (ch. 18:17): 'If he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church: but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.'

Here it is evident that the Church was already in existence, and not only so , but that all the disciples were aware of its existence and its identity. Christ was not giving an injunction that could only be obeyed at some indeterminate future time; He was not directing His hearers to some nebulous, non-existent tribunal; and as He had not yet formed a separate body of His own followers, He could only be directing them to the rulers of the Jews, as He says again (ch. 23:2-3): 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do.'

Here, then, is the only other instance of the use of the word 'church' in the Gospels, we have evidence that our Lord did not think of the Church as something that was to come into existence for the first time on or after the Day of Pentecost.

We have but one other reference in the New Testament which is commonly admitted as definitely and beyond dispute identifying Israel of Old Testament times as the Church. It is in the address of Stephen to the council of the Jews, immediately before his martyrdom (Acts 7:38). 'This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai.'

As our Lord speaks to the multitude on the assumption that they will identify the rulers of the Jews as the Church, so Stephen speaks to the rulers of the Jews on the assumption that they will identify Israel in the wilderness as the Church.

To those who approach the subject with an open mind, the testimony of these two witnesses may appear final and conclusive; while those who are determined to date the origin of the Church from Pentecost deem it the better part of discretion to turn the blind eye on these references to any prior existence of the Church. The word of Christ and of Stephen does not weigh in the balance for one moment with them against their own theory.

The Church in the Old Testament

So far, the investigation as to the Church seems to be entirely confined to the New Testament, and there appears to be a tacit admission that the first mention of the Church in Scripture is in our Lord's promise to Peter: 'On this rock I will build My Church.'

It may startle some to be told - but a little reflection will convince any thoughtful person - that neither our Lord nor Stephen used the Greek word 'ecclesia' at all, any more than they used the English word 'church'. Christ and Stephen both spoke in Aramaic, the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the Jews in Palestine in their time, which embodied Biblical Hebrew terms for most religious ideas and usages, and it was Matthew, the ready writer among the twelve Apostles, and Luke, Paul's companion in travel, who translated into Greek the words of our Lord and of Stephen in which the 'ecclesia' appears.

Now if it is possible for us to tell what our Lord actually said He would build upon the Rock, what word He and Stephen used which Matthew and Luke rendered in Greek as 'ecclesia' it will bring us a long way towards discovering the identity of and nature of the Church.

When our Lord commanded the Jews: 'Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of Me' (John 5:39), He was directing them to the Old Testament, for the New Testament was not yet written; and when these noble Bereans ,searched the Scriptures daily', it was the Old Testament that they studied.

The Apostles made continual use of the Old Testament Scriptures, and not only in the Hebrew original. They made themselves thoroughly acquainted with the Greek translation, the Septuagint, which had been made by the Jews 250 years before, and which was the only Authorised Version in their day. Both Matthew and Luke are continually quoting from the Old Testament, and, as they are writing in Greek, they quote almost invariably from the Septuagint. It should be possible, by comparing the Hebrew of the Old Testament with the Greek of the Septuagint, to determine with a considerable degree of certainty what word our Lord used which Matthew felt justified in translating 'ecclesia' in the promise: 'On this rock I will build My ecclesia.'

Christ and the 'Qahal'

The evidence establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that qahal was the one and only Hebrew word which was to the Jewish mind the exact equivalent of 'ecclesia', the one word which Matthew and Luke would have translated 'ecclesia'. This makes it as near as possible a moral certainty that what our Lord said to Peter was: 'On this rock will I build My qahal.'

The 'ecclesia' is a people 'called out' (Greek ek or ex, out of, and kaleo, to call). There is a very common, but a very erroneous, impression that this calling out began on the Day of Pentecost, and Dispensationalists labour this point to prove that the idea of a people 'called out' did not exist until the word 'ecclesia' was used in the New Testament. It is interesting to notice, therefore, how strong to the Jewish mind was this idea of 'calling out' in the qahal.

We now come back to the first appearance of the qahal, the two places where our version renders it 'multitude'. It does not occur in any of the promises given to Abraham, for his seed included Ishmaelites, Edomites, and others who were not of the race 'called out'. But in the promise given by Isaac to Jacob (Gen. 28:3), and afterwards quoted by Jacob to Joseph as given to him by God Almighty (Gen. 48:4), both of which promises referred to the seed of Israel and to none else, we find the qahal introduced for the first time. The seed of Jacob were to become, not merely a promiscuous 'multitude' (A.V.), but a qahal, an 'ecclesia', a 'church' of peoples ('peoples' is in the plural, not the singular as in our A.V.).

We have here our first promise of the national church. Here, and not in our Lord's promise to Peter, we get our first vision of the Church emerging as a body 'called out' and separated from the nations of the world. Christ's promise to build His qahal upon the Rock had reference to a body with which Peter and all the Jews were already familiar, a body which had existed since the days of the Patriarchs.

The qahal or 'ecclesia' properly speaking, embraced all the twelve tribes of the children of Israel; but, after the division of the nation into two kingdoms, a new note is introduced. The northern kingdom, having lapsed into idolatry, is cut off, for the time being at least, from the qahal. At the coronation of the young king Joash we read (2 Chron. 23:3): 'All the congregation (qahal) made a covenant with the king . . .' But the Septuagint renders the qahal, 'ecclesia Iouda', 'the church of Judah', adding this explanatory word - which is not given in our English versions - to show that the 'ecclesia' now referred to embraced the Jews only; Jehu was at that time reigning over the tribes.

The added gloss appears to indicate that Israel of the Northern Kingdom at this time may also have claimed to be the 'ecclesia', so that there were two claimants to the title; but, in the view of Judah, Israel was an apostate 'eccleisia'. That northern 'ecclesia' was the barren woman, who did not bear, and could not possibly travail with child; whereas the Jewish 'ecclesia' was the married wife (Isa. 54).

To the Father's command to work in the vineyard, Judah had dutifully said, 'I go, Sir', whereas Israel had said, 'I will not'; so the Jew appeared to be the son who had done his Father's will. All these years the Jewish nation had served the Father, neither had they consciously transgressed at any time His commandment, while Israel, the prodigal son, was in the far country. The Jew could almost already hear the Father saying, 'Son, thou art ever with Me, and all that I have is thine.' Sure he was that when the fatted calf would be killed, the music and dancing would be in honour of himself - certainly not in honour of his prodigal brother.

The 'ecclesia Iouda', though only a remnant of the original 'ecclesia' of the twelve tribes, was for the time being a faithful remnant, and was divinely owned as the 'ecclesia'. And so, after the return from Babylon, qahal (Septuagint: 'ecclesia') is used again and again of the body of Jews who returned (Ezra 2:64; Neh. 5:13; 7:66; 8:17). These Jews were all that was left - to all human knowledge - of the original 'ecclesia' down to our Lord's time. The gates of hell had, over a long period, prevailed against the 'ecclesia', but our Lord's promise to Peter was that He would bring that condition to an end.

Thus Israel was not merely a type of the Church; Israel was the Church. And, in a very real sense, more real than most of us imagine, the Church is not merely the supplanter of Israel; the Church is Israel.

The contrast so glibly drawn by Dispensationalists between Israel and the Church is largely illusory. There were no two ways of salvation, one for Israel and another for the Church. The true Israel, though under the Law, were all saved by grace, as surely as any Christian is today. Abraham and all the saints in Israel were justified not by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Christ (see Hebrews 11). The blessings given to Israel were eternal as well as temporal; 'they confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth'; 'they desired a better country, that is, an heavenly'. They were Spirit-filled men, just as truly as any 'born-again' saints of the New Testament. And we have the definite assurance that 'all Israel shall be saved' (Rom. 11:26), which does not conform to any theory of all Israel being finally cast away or supplanted by the Church.

What, then, was the mystery which had been hid from ages and from generations, but was made manifest to the saints and preached by Paul (Col 1:26)? Was it that a new body was to arise to take the place of God's ancient chosen people? No, it was 'that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the Gospel' (Eph, 3:6).

The good olive tree, which is the Church, was planted when Abraham was called out of Ur of the Chaldees, and transplanted when Israel was called out of Egypt. It was not a new or different olive tree that was planted at Pentecost; it was not the followers of Christ who were separated from the olive tree. It is true that the olive tree underwent some change (Rom. 11: 17-24). Some branches, the unbelieving Jews, were 'broken off'; they had been in the olive tree, outwardly joined to the Church and professing to be waiting for the Saviour, before Christ was revealed to Israel. Other branches, believing Gentiles, were grafted in, becoming members of the Church. But the identity of the olive tree was not affected by this change. The 'root' remained unchanged, and was still the 'ecclesia', the qahal, and in the fullest, truest sense 'the Israel of God' (Gal 6:16).

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