God’s People: One Body, Two Forms
The New Testament uses the experiences of Israel in the New Testament to teach the Church important lessons about itself. It uses what Israel experienced, not just as illustrations, but as experiences God’s people have had before, which can occur again in different historical circumstances. See, for example, the use made of Israel’s idolatry in the wilderness in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 and of the failure of the first wilderness generation to enter the Promised Land in Hebrews 3:7-4:13.
This is possible because God’s people are one. The church is called ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16). Peter applied the language God used of Israel to the church: ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy’ (1 Peter 2:9,10). Paul told the Ephesian church: ‘So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19).
Israel and the church are one body, which existed in one form in the Old Testament and exists in another form in the New Testament. In the Old Testament the form was a nation among other nations, but essentially different because it was the kingdom of God. Israel was the only nation which God chose, redeemed, and ruled as his people.
In one sense the whole earth was God’s kingdom, because God, as the sovereign King, does as he will in his world. But God’s relationship with Israel was unique, for God showed, not merely his sovereignty, but his saving rule in and through Israel. Israel was a demonstration of what things would be like in a nation where God’s kingdom has come and his will done in earth as in heaven. Ruling Israel, God not only asserted his authority and accomplished his purposes, but also revealed himself, his redeeming power, and his will to them as his people.
In turn Israel acknowledged the LORD as the only true God, as their Redeemer and King. They were conscious of being set apart from the nations, because they alone had the LORD as their King, and they alone submitted to him as the God who created, saved, and protected them.
In the New Testament the form in which the body of God’s people exists is the church. The church is not confined to one nation or one ethnic group. The church, as the kingdom of God, transcends all the distinctions and divisions among people on earth.
The kingdom is not expressed in a political form. It is a spiritual kingdom, which does not mean that it is not real, but that it is different from all other kingdoms. It is ruled from heaven by King Jesus, the triumphant Messiah who rules over everything for the sake of the church (Ephesians 1:20-22). Its citizens are all who profess the true religion and their children.
It is governed by elders who watch over, care for, and lead God’s people in this present world. These elders have no means of coercion except the spiritual powers Christ has given to them – of receiving into, governing, disciplining, and sometimes expelling the members of the church. The church has no police, no jails, no pepper spray or guns, and no execution devices.
The church governs its citizens and conquers its enemies, not by earthly means. The church has no missiles or bombs, but it is not without weapons. Paul explains it in this way to the Corinthian church: ‘For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:4,5). The church has powerful and effective weapons at its disposal – the Word read and preached, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and its prayers to the God who can do ‘all his holy will.’
Historically, serious mistakes have occurred because of a failure rightly to understand the relationship between Israel and the church.
One mistake is separating Israel and the church entirely. This is what our dispensationalist friends do. They believe the current ‘church age’ is a ‘parenthesis’ in history, and that God intends not only to restore but to exalt Israel. When God has finished his purposes in the present age, he will take the church out of the world, and return to work on and with his first priority which is Israel.
Israel will at last return to her God and accept her Messiah. For this she will be opposed by the nations, finally by an alliance whose head is the Anti-Christ. But, at the last moment, when all seems hopeless and she is about to be destroyed, her King, great David’s greater Son, Jesus, will intervene, destroy Israel’s enemies, take up his rule, and sit on his throne in Jerusalem. In this view, the church is more or less Plan B, necessary because the first time he came, the Messiah and his kingdom were rejected by Israel. However, God did not abandon, but just set aside, Plan A to which he will return. Israel and the church are two different peoples of God. The view set out above, which I believe to be biblical, is that there is no Plan A and Plan B. There is one plan of salvation and one people of God.
Another mistake is made by those who understand that Israel and the church constitute one people of God. However, they do not believe that the kingdom of God today is expressed only in and by the church, but also in national and political forms. How does this happen? First, the church preaches the Gospel by which people come to Christ, receive his salvation, and submit themselves to him as their King. Then, the church teaches Christ’s people all that he has commanded. His will includes not just the moral law, but the laws he gave to Israel as his kingdom. As Christians become the majority in nations and gain influence, they will gain political power (in democracies, by the vote). They will use the powers of government to lead nations to acknowledge Christ as King.
Then the law of Christ will become the law of the nations that acknowledge him. But, where will Christians find the law of Christ, as it is to be expressed politically and governmentally? The Old Testament law God gave to Israel will show the way to bring a nation’s laws into conformity with Christ’s will. Obviously not exactly the same laws will be enacted. The Old Testament laws will have to be translated into forms that allow for historical and cultural changes, but the Old Testament laws in principle are all valid for the nations today. This is the view of our theonomist friends.
Here is the essential difference between this view and the view I believe is the biblical one as described above: This view believes not just that Christians will influence governments by participation in the political processes. They believe nations can become Christian; that is, can become the kingdom of God, by the enactment and enforcement of the laws given to Israel, with the necessary allowances to make them contemporary.
A third mistake is made by many Christians. They believe that because the church has no earthly powers of coercion, and because its powers are purely spiritual, the church has no real authority or power. In other words, what the church does is of no effect. There is no need to worry about what the church does, because practically it makes no difference. If the church does not accept a person because it cannot, even in the judgement of charity, accept the person’s profession of faith, so what? Another church will. If the church seeks to correct your conduct, by calling you back to obedience to the will of God (remember, the church has no power to enact laws, only to declare God’s will revealed in Scripture), just ignore it. What difference does it make? If the church should, after much patient and loving counsel, find it necessary to apply some form of discipline, don’t worry about it. It’s all just words and declarations.
But that is not what Jesus said about his church. Speaking to Peter as a representative of the apostolic office, and hence of the authority and powers of the church, Jesus said: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and what you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Matthew 16:19). After his resurrection, in anticipation of Pentecost, he said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’ (John 20:22,23). The church, by the true preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the lawful exercise of discipline, exercises the authority of heaven on earth.
William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Mississippi.
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