The Church as Israel
In one sense, the Church of Christ did not come into being on the day of Pentecost. That is because the Church of Christ is the Israel of God that accepted its destiny in Christ and embraced the promises which God made to his people and fulfilled through Jesus—and Israel began long before the day of Pentecost circa 33 A.D. God had promised to bless Israel, and after their return from exile, to bring the Messiah and to establish His Kingdom on earth. The Church of the first century was that portion of Israel which believed in Jesus and through which God fulfilled his promise to bless and glorify his people. It constituted the faithful remnant, the true Israel.
The history of the Church, therefore, properly begins with the call of Abraham and God’s promise to him that through his family, all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen 12:1–3; Gal 3:14). It was on the day of Pentecost that Israel began to be glorified by him and began its work of blessing all the world’s nations.
The identity of the Church with true Israel is sometimes obscured by the overwhelming predominance of Gentiles within the Church. One therefore hears of the so-called supersessionist theology which teaches that the Gentiles in the Church have replaced (Jewish) Israel as the people of God. It is true that because of the hard hearts of many in the synagogue, Paul said that he was turning to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). And it is true that the Law fulfilled its divinely appointed role as a pedagogue to lead Israel to Christ, and that Judaism as a religion was therefore now obsolete (Gal 3:24; Heb 8:13). Yet even after Paul turned away from the hard-hearted Jews of Pisidian Antioch, he continued to preach the Gospel to other Jews in their synagogues, offering the Gospel to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom 1:16). And Israel as a people still had a fundamental role to play as God’s true vine, whose final conversion would signal the end of the age and the resurrection of the dead (Rom 11:17–21, 15).
Paul’s teaching is clear. The Church has not replaced Israel. The Church is Israel, the faithful remnant in whom the Messianic promises for blessing Israel would be fulfilled. The cross and resurrection of Christ have radically re-configured and re-defined membership in God’s people. Formerly, membership in Israel was expressed through circumcision and keeping the Mosaic laws. Now it is expressed through baptism and discipleship to Jesus. That is why Paul called the Church “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 and “the commonwealth of Israel” in Ephesians 2:12. This is the reason that St. John (or rather the Lord, speaking through John as prophet) declared that those in the synagogue of Smyrna, who were persecuting the church there, were lying when they said that they were Jews (Rev 2:9). The true Jews and members of Israel were the Christians, whether they came from Jewish or Gentile parents.
The quarrel of the Church with the synagogue was therefore an in-house Jewish quarrel, a disagreement over what now constituted membership in Israel after the death and glorification of Jesus the Messiah. The apostles’ contention was that the Jews which rejected Christ thereby forfeited their right to be called true Jews or to be considered a part of his people. The death of Jesus as Messiah radically changed everything, relativizing the Law and reconfiguring Israel’s destiny. The glory that was promised by the prophets had indeed come with Jesus, but that glory was not to be realized nationally. Israel was not to be glorified as a nation, but rather as a transnational people in the glorified Messiah.