The distinction between Israel and the church as two separate corporate entities is maintained by God in His word. This seems to be a foundational tenant of great importance in classical dispensationalism. If a Christian acknowledges a future time when God will restore the nation of Israel in the Promised land, then he would be considered a dispensationalist in some measure. This recognition of the future restoration of the Jews seems to have been made the starting point of dispensational thinking, of the system itself; this restoration is seen in Scripture to take place during a future thousand-year period of time (a dispensation). This serves to distinguish it from other theological systems.
It is this point that is manipulated in other systems – that the real natural descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons will eventually be brought back by God and given possession of the land as an inheritance (Rev. 7:1–8, 14:1–5); that the Jews will live in the land for a thousand years, and grow and prosper, becoming the greatest nation on the earth; that this is according to the promises God made exclusively to Abraham about his descendants, and that He, as God, can be nothing less than faithful to do exactly as He promised.
It would take too long to discuss all the various ways men have invented which do away with these prophetic truths. The primary way is replacement – Israel had their chance but rejected the Messiah, and now the church is raised up by God to take Israel’s place. This error requires the spiritualization of a great amount of Scripture, for God made specific promises to Abraham and David concerning their natural descendants. All these promises must now either disappear or be given to the church. Such forms of spiritualization (manipulation) are their way of making good the faithfulness of God in what He has promised. The church becomes the “new Israel” as well as many other erroneous thoughts and conclusions brought out by the imaginations of an active mind.
But the dispensationalist sees that God doesn’t need our help in maintaining the honor of His Person. God doesn’t need or appreciate our manipulation of Scripture in order to secure, in our own mind and reasoning, the infallibleness of His promises. God will do as He has spoken – Abraham’s natural progeny will be restored and blessed beyond all measure in the Promised land. And the dispensationalist should understand that this will not be the place of the church; that the church will not usurp Israel’s particular blessings (Deut. 28:1–14). So then, the dispensationalist acknowledges that Israel is a different and separate corporate entity from the church, and that Israel will exist again as a nation blessed of God in the future millennium.
Maintaining this distinction is good. Israel will exist as a nation, and will inherit the full extent of the Promised land. They will be physically blessed by God in houses, vineyards, and livestock. They will multiply in numbers and be great. All perfectly clear in prophetic Scripture. But what would be better for dispensationalism, in bringing clarity and less obscurity, is for its teachers to correctly distinguish what the church’s unique place will be as given by God. Let’s not stop by just getting the Jewish side of things correct. God has moved on to the Christian dispensation. There are important understandings to be grasped concerning the church and the new dispensation. And what God has promised the believer/church is just as exclusive as what God has promised Israel.
Let’s start our comparison of Israel and the church, and by the contrasts made, draw out the distinctiveness of each.
- Israel has an earthly calling to be brought into the land and possess it. But the believer/church has a heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1). Christians have mansions being prepared for them in the Father’s house in heaven (John 14:1–3). Eventually they will be glorified, removed from the earth and taken to the heavens (Matt. 13:30, 43, 1 Thess. 4:13–18). This event, known as the rapture, fulfills their calling.
- Israel has a right of citizenship in the Promised land. As citizens, they will inherit the land. The church’s citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Our rightful and privileged place is with our Father. Our heavenly citizenship is what makes all true Christians strangers, pilgrims, and sojourners in this world and on this earth. This world is not our home. Christians are not of this world as Jesus isn’t (John 17:14–16). But Israel is of this world and will have their home here.
- Israel’s promised destiny is to be blessed with every physical blessing in their land. But the believer/church has been promised to be blessed by their Father with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). In Christ, believers will be given to sit in heavenly places so to enjoy the exceeding riches of their Father’s grace in His kindness for ages to come (Eph. 2:6–7).
- Although the Jews will be physically blessed by God in the future millennium, they all will still be natural men, in the flesh and in Adam. They will be able to have children so to grow the nation in numbers. In contrast to this, the rapture will mean the entire membership of the true church will be glorified in body, conformed into the image of God’s Son (Rom. 8:29–30, 23). As a heavenly body the church will be complete and perfected. She will be taken to heaven to live in the very presence and glory of God, her Father. The glorified saints will look on the very face of God (necessitating individually having a glorified body), and be those who are nearest to Him.
- All believers are new creations in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17). Jesus is the first-born from the dead, the first-born among many brethren. He is the first of the new creation of God. All believers are identified with Him as part of God’s new creation. In contrast to this, Israel is part of the world and God’s first creation. They are a nation established by physical birth and natural descent. Jews are not born of God as are Christians (John 1:12–13). Israel is well connected to God’s first creation as a continuing intimate part, while the true church has no connection to it at all, except to eventually rule with Jesus over it (Rev. 2:26–27, 3:21, 5:10 – should read “over” the earth).
The privileged destiny of the church is to reside in the heavens, in the Father’s house, for all ages upon ages. Can we find the teaching of Scripture that brings the church back from heaven to live on the earth? Those who imply that she will enjoy only a temporary stay of seven years in heaven (the future tribulation) are as mistaken as those who deny the rapture altogether. Both are a similar error in making the church earthly in its calling and destiny (a subtle way of Judaizing Christian doctrine).
But the dispensationalist should be well versed in separating Israel from the church, realizing that each has its own unique place in the counsels of God – Israel for the earth and Christ’s earthly glory, and the church for the heavens and Christ’s heavenly glory. But there is a deeper understanding of this distinctiveness in view of the dispensational system itself.
- In all faithfulness to Israel, God had to do everything possible to see if the Jews could receive, in their own responsibility, the promises He had made to them. These promises were encapsulated in the sending of Messiah to Israel. When they rejected their Messiah, they rejected their own promises. Until this occurred, God remained faithful to the Jews and could not deny their calling or privileges by instituting anything different.
- God had to set Israel aside in order to start building the church. Behind this statement is an important biblical principle – God cannot and does not deal with two separate callings at the same time. When Israel rejected their Messiah, God rejected them. They were set aside and made desolate. All Jewish things were set aside by God, including their earthly calling. Now God is free to start something new. In the new dispensation, Christ builds the church. The institution of calling is now with the church. Only this is a distinctly different calling from Israel’s earthly calling. The church’s calling is heavenly, and she is a heavenly body.
- The practice of the law (Judaism) was a wall God had built up and used to separate the Jews from the remainder of the world (Gentiles). As long as God recognized Israel’s calling, He maintained this wall. But with the rejection of Christ by Israel, this wall of separation was broken down and abolished (Eph. 2:14–15). The law of commandments contained in ordinances refers to the practice of Judaism.
- This wall of separation is abolished by God for the time of the Christian dispensation, for as long as God recognizes the calling of the church. The church could only be built if the wall came down and Israel was set aside by God (Eph. 2:13–15). In Christ, and therefore in the church, there is no recognition of nationalities (Gal. 3:26–28). However, when Israel is restored in the land in the future millennium, this wall of separation will be re-established by God (in the world). There will again be separate nations, and Israel will be greatest among them.
- Prophecy is about Israel, the earth, and God’s government of the earth. When Israel was set aside by God, in a great sense, so was prophecy. During the Christian dispensation, God does not deal with Israel, the earth, or government of the earth. This dispensation is about the Spirit sent down to gather in the church. As the church is a heavenly body, there is no counting of time concerning its gathering on the earth; there is no time frame concerning the Christian dispensation; there is no counting time in heaven or with heavenly things. The counting of time in prophetic passages always refers, directly or indirectly, to Israel. This is why prophecy will only refer to the previous Jewish dispensation (Dan. 9:24–27) or the future millennium, when Israel’s calling is acknowledged by God and He is dealing again with earthly things.
- The church, the body of Christ, is the mystery of God hidden from the prophets and prophecy (Eph. 3:1–11). She was never the topic of Bible prophecy. The church is not Israel. She is not earthly in calling, nor concerned with earthly things. She is not associated with God’s government on the earth. Consequently, so also does Christendom and the Christian dispensation have these features. Like the true church, they cannot be found in prophecy. There is no prediction of the existence of the church, or its time frame on the earth. The same is true with Christendom. There is no prophecy which predicts a Christian dispensation coming in-between the Jewish dispensation and the millennium. This is the reason many prophetic passages pass from events in the Jewish dispensation right to events in the future millennium (Isa. 9:6–7, Ez. 36:16–38, and Dan. 9:24–27 are examples of this). What God is currently doing in this dispensation is not found in prophecy. The church, as the mystery of God, could not be revealed until after Jesus was glorified and the Spirit sent down (John 7:39, Eph. 3:5).194 With clearness, the word of God presents the church to us as quite a new revelation of that which had no existence previously, except in the eternal counsels of God, who thus predestinated for her an existence outside the course of ages (Matt. 16:18, Col. 1:24–26).
194 [As concerning the church, this is what the apostle says of it (Eph. 3:9-11): “And to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world has been hidden in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ; to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known, by the church, the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It is impossible to get anything more direct and certain than “hid in God.” This mystery of the church, hid in the depths of God’s counsels, was not disclosed, nor did she exist in fact, until the Spirit was sent down (Eph. 3:5). It is “now” that unto the principalities and powers is made known, by the church, the manifold wisdom of God. The angels had seen His patience, His power, His government in Old Testament times; but never had they seen a heavenly body upon the earth, united to His Son in heaven. Thus, God could set aside, for the time, the course of His earthly government, in order to enter into relationship with a heavenly people. This passage is very clear on this point – the church neither existed nor was revealed previously. Up to that time she was a mystery hid in God, although fully established in His eternal counsels, yet remaining hidden while God, in His ways, tested man under His government in the Old Testament, most specifically using Israel. By setting Israel aside and building the church, God was creating a heavenly system, based upon an accomplished redemption, in union with the second Adam in heaven. It is important that the reader should get a clear understanding in his mind the teaching of this passage. The object of the apostle is to show that the church is a new thing. There had been other means to show forth the wisdom and ways of God, earthly means with earthly Israel. Now, heavenly powers saw, in the church, a kind of wisdom quite new. Up to this time not only had the church not existed, but it had not been revealed it would exist; it had been a mystery hid in God]
- The revelation of the church as the body of Christ was given specifically to Paul as a personal stewardship in his care (Eph. 3:8–9, Rom. 16:25, Col. 1:25–27, 2:2–3). It was only found in his preaching and in his epistles. The mystery was that God would form, through redemption, a mystical, heavenly body that would be gathered and joined in union with the raised and exalted Son of Man in glory. Many members are baptized by the Spirit into one body, with Jesus as its Head. This was so different and foreign to the law and Judaism, or any Jewish thoughts.
- Scripture speaks of only two general callings – the earthly calling of Israel and the heavenly calling of the believer/church. And Scripture only speaks of three dispensations. In the first dispensation God recognized the calling of the Jews and brought them into the land. But this effort was a grand failure because of Israel’s general disobedience. Their calling to inherit the land forever went unfulfilled. In the second dispensation God recognizes the calling of the believer/church. The rapture of the saints in Christ near the end of the Christian dispensation is the power of God to glorify the saints, bringing them into the heavens and to the Father’s house – it fulfills the believer’s/church’s calling. In the future tribulation, which are the seven years preceding the last dispensation, God will again recognize the earthly calling of the Jews and seal a Jewish remnant (Rev. 7:1–8). At the beginning of the millennium Israel’s calling will be fulfilled by God sending out His angels to gather the elect Jews to the land from the four corners of the world (Matt. 24:31). This makes for a fairly simple understanding – each of the three dispensations is associated with only one of the two callings. God never deals with two different callings in the same dispensation. By this we have the clear separation and distinction of the three dispensations.
The nation of Israel is the vine which Jehovah brought out of Egypt and planted in the Promised land (Ps. 80:8–11). They were God’s chosen and special people (Deut. 7:6–8). They were Jehovah’s vineyard of old (Isa. 5:1–7). But God’s testimony concerning Israel was that they never produced acceptable fruit for Him. God’s mercy and long-suffering for the Jews runs out when they rejected Jesus Christ, their promised Messiah. His judgment of them set the nation aside and ended the Jewish dispensation. God was now free to start anew and plant something different. He was free to start a new dispensation. In representing God, the Son of Man did exactly this – the Sower went out to sow (Matt. 13:3, 24, 37).
When one compares the nation of Israel to the church, the differences which exist make it impossible to say they are the same. Israel is a nation dependent on natural birth. Biblically, this dependence is termed as “according to the flesh.” Because of their disbelief in Jesus Christ, the Jews, like unbelieving Gentiles, are still described as “in the flesh” and unable, under any circumstances, to please God (Rom. 8:8). But the church has a membership of Christians – any true believer is born of God (John 1:12–13), and his position before God is not in the flesh, but in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). Having believed in Jesus Christ, all Christians are declared to be sons of God (Gal. 3:26). The seal of God which shows the authenticity of sonship is the Holy Spirit given to the believer (Rom. 8:14–16, Gal. 4:5–7, Eph. 1:13).
The true church is the body of Christ and the bride of Christ (Eph. 1:22–23, 5:22–32). These symbols are never used to describe Israel. The rock on which Jesus would build His church was Peter’s confession of Him as the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16–18). The confession is distinct to Christians and Christianity. One thing Jesus doesn’t say in Matthew is that His church has been built already. He doesn’t say My church is Israel of old, the ancient people of Jehovah. When speaking to Peter and the other disciples, He said, “…on this rock I will build My church.” It being built was future. Also, Jesus had to go away to send down the Holy Spirit (John 16:7), or as John says earlier in his gospel (John 7:39), “…the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” The official beginning of the church is the day of Pentecost. It was when we first have the baptism of the Spirit, which places Christians into the one body of Christ (the church – 1 Cor. 12:12–13). The body of Christ never existed before this time, although it is obvious that Israel did.
The biblical proof of the distinct separateness of the church from Israel is overwhelming. It is not easy to spiritualize the evidence to make it say something different, or make it somehow disappear. The church is never to be mistaken for Israel in the Old or New Testament.195
195 [The dispensationalist knows that Israel will be restored in the land during the future millennium. And we are usually good in distinguishing Israel from the church, as it is applied to this restoration. These scriptural truths are the hallmark of the dispensational system. But are most dispensationalists rock-solid on the proper place of the true church in the coming millennium? This is where the mistakes begin to creep into the system. All too often the dispensationalist cannot maintain the complete separation between the two, and the truths about the church begin to be manipulated and compromised. If we bring the body of Christ back to the earth to live and reign here, it only serves to compromise the heavenly calling of the Christian. Essentially, this makes our calling to last only seven years at its max. How ridiculous is this? The believer’s/church’s calling is both irrevocable and eternal, as is Israel’s. This general thought is what is similar about the two. But, as for calling, this is where the similarities end. Israel has an earthly calling to be taken by God into the land, to be restored there, and to enjoy every type of physical blessing (Deut. 28:1–14). However, the church has a heavenly calling to be taken by God to heaven, to be blessed there with every possible spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3).
We cannot be guilty of giving the church an earthly calling like Israel. This is a subtle form of Judaizing the Christian faith. A dispensationalist should guard himself from ever making this mistake, or one similar to it.]