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Israel is the Church!

This week I had to read a large section of a book on ecclesiology—I know, it sounds boring (it was! Well, not completely.). Please, don’t stop reading. Ecclesiology is the study of the church, the ecclesia. Just a side note, the word church (“kūrikón” greek, kirche, German) is not a good translation for ecclesia—Luther preferred assembly or congregation. “A kirche (church) is a location while an ekklesia (church) is a purposeful, often powerful gathering of people united by identity and purpose.[1] Ecclesiology simply asks, “what is this thing we call the church?”

We studied the views of seven of the top theologians in this area from different backgrounds: Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and some others…even a Pentecostal! For instance, John Zizioulas believes the church is the church only when receiving the Eucharist from a bishop. “The church can be found in all its fullness wherever the Eucharist is being celebrated.” For Zizioulas, “the Eucharist is the foundational act of the church—in fact, the act that makes the church.” (p. 96) The idea that the primary job of the ecclesia is to gather and take communion is so foreign to me. There’s no concern for evangelism or equipping the saints.

Where is Israel?

All but one view in the section was silent on Israel, as well as ethnicity in general when speaking of the ecclesia. However, James McClendon, a Baptist, stated, “One may wonder what difference it makes to look at the age-old problem of the Jewish-Christian relationship from a distinctively believers’ church perspective.”[2]

The church’s very existence is based on Israel’s story—how can she be irrelevant? In all the narratives with Miriam, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, Zechariah, Elizabeth…the issue is what this Savior will do for Israel. (Matt. 1:20-21, Lk. 1:16-17, 29-33, 69-75, 2:11, 30-32, 34, 38) There is always the hint (“a light for revelation to the Gentiles” [Lk. 2:32]) of what Paul reveals in Eph. 3 (see below).

We cannot accept that the church is “the new Israel,” displacing the old. McClendon says this “outlook … appears nowhere in the New Testament.”[3] When the New Testament refers to Israel, it is always ethnic Israel. The only verses with some ambiguities are Rom. 9:6b and Gal. 6:16. A common view of these two verses are that they refer to Jewish Yeshua followers.

Dealing with early Prophecy in the New Testament

Matthew quotes Micah saying Yeshua will be a “ruler to my people Israel.” How do these theologians do ecclesiology (define the church) without asking how this verse (and many like it) plays out? The apostles fully expected the church to be connected to Israel: “Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) they asked the risen Messiah. And Yeshua said that in time, that will happen (v. 7), but not yet.[4]

(Preachers have wrongly mistaken Yeshua’s response as if He was rebuking them for having a wrong eschatological expectation (end-times scenario). He does not correct them. In fact, he affirms that one day the kingdom will be restored to Israel, but that will be in the future. They were only wrong in their timing. And that is because the mystery of the ecclesia, the one new man (Eph. 2:15), had not been revealed. They simply did not yet understand that first, the gospel will be preached from Jerusalem to the whole world as a witness.)

Many ecclesiologists are so steeped in replacement theology that such a reference to natural Israel, in regard to the church, is nonsense.

The question is, who and what is Israel here in Micah? Some might say it is the church. Some say physical Israel (which is clearly Matthew’s mindset). But could the prophet have been speaking about a greater Israel or what some scholars (and Paul) call the commonwealth of Israel (Eph. 2:12)?

The Root is Jewish

The ecclesia is the Romans 11 olive tree, whose root is the Patriarchs.[5] That makes the tree Jewish in nature. The tragedy is that the majority of those who would naturally be linked to this olive tree—the Jews—rejected it. God breaks off those branches (who can and will be regrafted in Rom. 11:24. 26), and the door is opened to the Gentiles. They, along with Jews who did not reject Yeshua, become the “one new man” (Eph. 2:15)—the ecclesia. Why is that important?

  • There is a promise of Jewish Revival (v. 12, 15, 25, 26).

  • The Gentiles will be used (v. 11) to bring Israel back.

  • The Millennial community will connect to some degree with Hebraic worship (Zech. 14:16, 8:23). They come to Jerusalem and go back to the nations with God’s Torah (Is. 2:2-4).

If you separate the church from the expectation of Jewish re-entry (Romans 11:23-24, 26), it becomes an antisemitic religion stolen from Israel. “The Catholic feminist Rosemary Ruether has claimed that deeply rooted anti-Semitism spews from the very heart of the Christian gospel; it is almost “the left hand of Christology.” For her, historical Christianity is a “divine invader” to messianic Jewish theology.”[6]

Paul’s expectation

But Paul has an expectation (based in theology) that Gentiles will not turn on the Jewish people as the Roman believers had begun to do but would catch his heart expressed in chapter 9:1-5, where he says he’s willing to go to hell if only his Jewish brothers will believe. Why does Paul write this incredibly intimate passage in a book to non-Jewish believers? He wants them to understand that with the same love that God is now expressing for the nations in bringing them to the gospel, he longs with deep agony for the natural branches to be regrafted in—the Jewish people to return. Paul is calling the Gentiles to enter into intercession with him for Israel’s regathering. The church cannot be the church without the Jewish people. Remember, the one new man is made of Gentiles and Jews.

Happy Ending

But this tragedy has a happy ending. Through the witness of Gentiles, Jewish people are provoked to jealousy (Rom. 11:11), sparking a massive revival (Rom. 11:12, 15). At the same time, the nations attack Israel (Zech. 14:1-2, Rev. 16:16) led by the antichrist, culminating in the Second Coming and all Israel being saved (Zech. 12:10, 13:1, Rom. 11:26). “Now the challenge to the Christian church and theology is to repent (of historic Christian antisemitism) and return to the Jewish people in humility and dialogue. This is the way of Jesus for McClendon.”[7]

Leaving ethnic Israel out of ecclesiology leaves an unnoticed yet massive hole.

What kind of community will make it impossible for believers in Jesus to be at the same time enemies of his brothers and sisters according to the flesh (Matt 25:40)? What kind of community will reject the link with the state’s coercion that led so many Christians into the maelstrom of violence (against Jews)? What kind of Christian community can reclaim its heritage from before the time when ‘the parting of the ways’[8] denied the Jewish footing of Christian community?[9]

The ecclesia must love, not persecute, her older brother. In other words—a proper ecclesiology is incomplete without Israel when you consider that one of the ways the ecclesia is explained is being brought into Israel and her covenants.

Remember that you were at that time (when you were pagans) separated from Messiah, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Messiah Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Messiah (Eph. 2:12-13).

The church has not replaced Israel; the church is included in “the commonwealth of Israel.”

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household. (Eph. 2:19)

You were excluded in Israel (vv. 12-16), and now, through Messiah, you are included (v. 19).

“The Gentiles are no longer outside the covenant community (see vv. 12–13).”[10] And this covenant community, the household of God, made up of ethnic Jews and believers from the nations, is called the ecclesia. “[T]hrough the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Messiah Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). This was the mystery that the apostles did not originally see in Acts 1 but was unfolded to them over the next two decades, leading to the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council.

Notice Paul says in both Eph. 2:19 and Eph. 3:6 together with, not instead of. There is no hint that the Jews will be replaced, but rather that the Gentiles are invited in.

There was no mention of ethnic identity in any of the ecclesiologies, save McClendon. “[The ecclesia] is a people made out of peoples, a future-oriented, gift-created, plural community of destiny, whose canon or entrance standard is in every case new creation.”[11] John sees people from every nation in Heaven. It would appear that we retain national identity in the Millennial Kingdom (Zech. 14:16, Is. 2:2-4, Rev. 7:9).

The one new man—the ecclesia—is not an ethnicity-less people; it is “a people made out of peoples” from every nation, tribe, and tongue coming together, saying “Yes” to Yeshua, being molded into a new kingdom under his everlasting dominion (שָׁלְטָ֤ן עָלַם֙ Dan. 7:14) of Jesus the Messiah. McClendon sees this, but whereas I see ethnicities (that is what John sees in Heaven, Rev. 7:9) making up the Olive Tree, he sees Jews with those from other Christian denominations. “The implications abound: Christians and Jews together as a people. Catholics, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran, Baptists, Pentecostals, you name it. Or an Anglican people, a Swedish Lutheran people, a Mennonite people, for example.”[12]

Every other theologian that sought to describe “the church” ignored the issue of Israel altogether—though it is highlighted in all of the early promises to those first believers in the New Testament.

Is my ethnicity significant to God?

Though very few theologians seem to grasp the significance of ethnicity in the ecclesia, I was happy to see that scholar Amos Yung does.

We are told in the revelation to the seer on the isle of Patmos that those gathered before the throne of God and the Lamb are “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9; cf. 7:9). This is in part because the gospel is being sent “to every nation and tribe and language and people” (14:6). On that final day, the great multitude representing such a staggering diversity of persons will lift up a resounding chorus of voices to the Lord God almighty as they celebrate the great wedding feast joining together once for all the Lamb and his bride (19:6–9).[13]

Another way of looking at the church is as Abraham’s spiritual seed. When God told him that he would make him into a great nation and give him the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession, he also said, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:3b). In chapter 17, He changes his name to mean father of a multitude of nations. The church is one but made up of people from every nation. Joseph’s “coat of many colors” symbolizes Jesus ruling the nations. The nations still exist during his millennial reign.

[1] [2] Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 145 [3] Kärkkäinen, 145. [4] Preachers have wrongly mistaken Yeshua’s response as if He was rebuking them for having a wrong eschatological expectation (end-times scenario). He does not correct them. In fact, he affirms that one day the kingdom will be restored to Israel, but that will be in the future. They were only wrong in their timing. And that is because the mystery of the ecclesia, the one new man (Eph. 2:15) had not been revealed. They simply did not yet understand that first the gospel will be preached from Jerusalem to the whole world as a witness. [5] Israel is “loved on account of the patriarchs.” Paul is tying this into v. 16. “If the root is holy so are the branches.” Despite unbelief, God still deeply cares about Israel (see Romans 9:1-5). God is saying that based on the faithfulness of the patriarchs, he can still show favor to Israel—to what level, we don’t know. He teaches something similar in 1 Cor. 7:12-14. [6] Kärkkäinen, 146. [7] Kärkkäinen, 147. [8] "The parting of ways," is when Christianity made a clean break from her Jewish roots. Some put this around 90 CE, 135 CE or even much later. Yoder calls this Christian rejection of her very heritage the original “fall of the church” (p. 146). [9] Kärkkäinen, 147. [10] Thomas B. Slater, Ephesians, ed. R. Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2012), 74. [11] Kärkkäinen, 147. [12] Kärkkäinen, 147-148. [13] Yong, Amos. The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh (p. 173). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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I was born into catholicism. Baptised as a baby, sent to Catholic school. Until my family moved and my mom started attending a Baptist Church and soon experienced being born again, and was baptized rightfully. We did not turn back but occasionally attended a mass with my grandmother or aunt. My aunt, several years later, began working at a Christian school. She started to read God's word and learned to pray in the spirit and was born again. Her home now hosts a home Church. And amazing things are happening in their small rural community. I suppose I benefited from seeing both ends of the spectrum of 'Christianity'.

I began to realize the horrific tragedy that has descended on the…


The Root Jewish?

Ron, I really love this newsletter, and I know you are doing much good!

May we make a distinction, as Scripture does, between Jewish and IsraEl and the Patriarchs? Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov are the patriarchs. Afterward come the tribes, 13 in number. Judah is one of them. Yes, his is preeminent in the Kingdom for several reasons. However, The Kingdom, land and people of YisraEl includes Judah, but definitely not exclusive to Him.

You may be adopting the rather Churchy vision that 'Jewish' is the root and heredity that we hold to. YisraEl is the larger entity, the one spoken of in all of Scripture. If you want to hold to this narrow view, more Scripture…

Ron Cantor
Ron Cantor

By the time of the New Testament the word Jew or Jewish refers to any Hebrew. In Romans chapter 1, 2 and 3 Paul uses the word Jew to refer to any Israelite. Even if one concludes that the 10 tribes of the north were taken captive, everyone knows that there were representatives of the 10 tribes in the southern kingdom as well. Plus you had Benjamin and Levi. I think your comment misses the entire point of the article. Straining gnats and swallowing camels. 


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Shalom from Israel! I am Ron Cantor and this is my blog. I serve as the President of Shelanu TV.

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