Purpose Statement: This blog sets out the Scriptural arguments, from a Christian perspective, against the notion that there are two peoples of God, the church and the nation of Israel. There is only one people of God, and its membership is determined by God’s grace on the basis of faith, not race or ethnicity.
There is only one people of God
Nowhere does the Bible speak of two peoples of God. There has only ever been one people. There is a both an Old Testament ‘church’ and a New Testament one: the Greek word ‘ekklesia’, meaning ‘called out assembly’ or congregation, or even synagogue, appears almost as many times in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament as it does in the New Testament. The ‘ekklesia’ is not a place: it is one, continuous, people of God, elected by grace and characterized by faith, not ethnicity. And at the root of the New Testament church, or people of God, is the person of Jesus Christ.
Investigating the evidence
1. There was one people of God in the Old Testament and it was open to all on the basis of grace, not race.
We tend to think of the ‘nation of Israel’ in the Old Testament as an exclusive and racially pure group, the physical descendants of Abraham. This is the theme of books like Nehemiah, where inter-marriage is forbidden, but then we have the story of Ruth, who was a Moabite not a Jew (and indeed listed along with other non-Jews such as the Amorite Rahab in the ancestry of Jesus in Matthew 1). Those welcomed into the people of God, the true descendants of Abraham, always included non-Jews. In the book of Isaiah we see God anticipate and repudiate the rise of an exclusive Israelite nationalism by welcoming into his people all who have faith in God (‘a house of prayer for all nations’). This theme of inclusion rather than exclusion occurs throughout the Old Testament.
2. In the New Testament there is one people of God, those who believe in Jesus.
This is the central message of the New Testament and to argue otherwise is to undermine the efficacy and power of Jesus’s death and resurrection. The Bible is explicit that in Jesus there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile’ (Galatians 3:28). Through the blood of Jesus we have all, Jew and Gentile, been ‘brought near’; Jesus has, crucially, ‘made the two groups one’ (Ephesians 2:14). In his first epistle Peter applies the words ‘chosen’, ‘holy nation’ and ‘God’s special possession’ (all descriptors applied to Israel in the Old Testament) to ‘you who believe’, which means believers in Jesus, whether Jewish or Gentile. Chosenness in the New Testament is defined on the basis of faith in Jesus, not nationality or race.
3. But isn’t this just ‘replacement theology’, and so antisemitic?
No. The church has not in any sense ‘replaced’ Israel. There is no Scriptural basis for antisemitism. The Bible does not teach ‘replacement theology’ but ‘fulfilment theology’. The promises made to Israel have been fulfilled in Jesus, who is now our true temple (John 2:19) and perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14) and in whom all God’s promises are ‘yes’ (2 Corinthians 1:20). But God is also clear that there is still business to be done with the Jewish people; they are not abandoned or forgotten. God longs that ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26) but this occurs when individual Jews accept Jesus as their Messiah. It cannot occur other than through faith in Jesus.
In A Nutshell
Paul very helpfully gives us the illustration in Romans 11 of the olive tree. The Gentiles are the wild branches ‘grafted in’. Other natural branches, representing those Jews who have not accepted Jesus, have been broken off ‘because of unbelief’ (11:20). But such ‘hardening’ is hopefully temporary, for God is able to ‘graft them in again’ (11:23). Paul’s concern for his Jewish brothers and sisters in Romans 9-11 is sometimes held up as justifying a ‘two covenant theology’, with two peoples of God. But this is to take Paul’s observations out of their wider context. The whole message of the Letter to the Romans is that ‘re-grafting’ can only be achieved by individual Jews having faith in Jesus, who is the root of the tree and indeed the true vine (John 15:1).
There is one olive tree, one Jesus, one seed of Abraham, one Gospel message (‘the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile’, Romans 1:16) and one covenant. For Christians there can therefore only be one people of God.
Romans 4:16: ‘Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring - not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.’
Jeremy Moodey is the CEO of Embrace the Middle East. He speaks on behalf of the organisation in churches and at conferences and festivals, and writes regularly in the press and through social media. Any opinions expressed here are entirely personal. Embrace does not take a view on such matters.
Follow Jeremy Moodey on Twitter @JeremyMoodey