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Israelites, Gentiles, and the New Covenant

by Kenneth V. Ryland

 


It occurred to me the other day that I have been taking this matter of the Old and New Testaments all wrong. For years I heard terms like "Torah Story" and "Whole-Bible Approach" from people like Dr. Charles Dorothy, but being a little slow on the uptake, the implications of such concepts found somewhat shallow soil in my brain. I had for too long been locked into the belief that we have Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New -- a sort of divine schizophrenia.

Then one day I was listening to a friend explain that the Old Testament was inadequate for the preaching of the gospel; that's why God gave us the New. Only then did the absolute illogic of his statement and the absurdity of our belief in this mythical wall of separation between Israel and the Church hit me right between the eyes.

Finally, I realized that it is not that there is no difference between the Old and New Testaments or the Old and New Covenants. Differences abound. The problem is that we have separated the Church of Jesus Christ from Israel. What I failed to see is that the Church is the promised faithful remnant of the nation of Israel -- complete with gentiles grafted in. The apostle Paul did a wonderful job explaining how all this works, but it seems that when we read Romans, chapters 9 through 11, the veil is over our eyes.

To be sure, we come by this misunderstanding naturally. First, many Jews were hostile to this new "sect of the Jews" called Christianity, so there came a point at which Christians were no longer permitted to worship in synagogues. Then came the Catholic Church with its abhorrence of anything Jewish. The bishop of Rome, making good use of the powers of the emperor himself, made sure that the practices of the Apostles and first century Church were subverted and exchanged for a variety of "Christianized" pagan practices such as the observance of Easter, Christmas, and Sunday in place of the Sabbath and other God-ordained observances. (Please refer to the article, "Sunday Roots," by Dr. Sidney Davis on the main page of this Web site.)

Getting back to my friend's statement that the Old Testament was inadequate for the preaching of the gospel, just a little reflection on the circumstances of the Apostles' day should be convincing enough as to why such a statement is not only absolutely false, but bordering on ludicrous.

The Scriptures from which Jesus taught the Apostles the gospel were what we call the Old Testament. There was no other "Bible" from which to quote. The entirety of the gospel came from Jesus' and the Apostles' understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. They understood that Jesus was not starting a new religion, but that in Him and later in the Church were fulfilled the promises of redemption for Israel made to the Patriarchs.

As the apostle Paul explains in Romans 11:5, "there is a remnant according to the election of grace." The remnant is made up of those Israelites who accept Christ and God's salvation through Him by faith, together with gentiles who likewise accept Christ through faith and become grafted into this tree of the remnant of Israel.

Let's look at a few scriptures that exemplify this point:

Galatians 6:16: And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

Ephesians 2:12,13: at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

[Comment: The implication here, of course, is that the gentiles are no longer aliens from the commonwealth of Israel.]

Hebrews 8:8: For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:

Hebrews 8:10: For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:

[Comment: Through this new covenant made with the blood of Christ, the gentile becomes a member of the houses of Israel and Judah, who are being brought together again into a single nation through Christ. The New Covenant, that Christians talk about so often, is made with Israel -- the seed of Abraham, and in order for non-Israelites to become partakers of this New Covenant, they are, through faith, grafted into the tree of Israel through the root of Jesse -- Jesus, the son of David.]

Romans 2:28-29: For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

When we are "in Christ," we take on His lineage, that is, we become the descendants of Abraham, whether or not we are Abraham's descendants "in the flesh."

Galatians 3:29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

At this point we should take a look at some of the verses in apostle Paul's lament for the Jewish people in Romans 9 through 11: I have highlighted and commented on some of the verses that pertain directly to the subject of this article. I have certainly not exhausted the richness of the apostle's narrative.

Romans, chapter 9 (RSV):

3: For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.
4: They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
5: to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.
6: But it is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,

[Comment: Notice in verse 4 that to the Israelites belong the covenants. Observe also that the apostle Paul states that not all who are physically born as Israelites belong to Israel. To put it another way, true Israelites are those who cling to Israel's Messiah by faith.

Also in verse 4: The sonship belongs to Israel. To be a son of God, you must be an Israelite. That is to say, Israel is God's family. Tie this together with verses 24 - 26 in which gentiles are referred to by God (quoted from Hosea) as "my people" and "sons of the living God."]

24: ... not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
25: As indeed he says in Hosea,
"Those who were not my people
I will call `my people,'
and her who was not beloved
I will call `my beloved.'"
26: "And in the very place where it was said to them, `You are not my
people,' they will be called `sons of the living God.'"
27: And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved;
30: What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith;
31: but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law.
32: Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone,
33: as it is written,
"Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble,
a rock that will make them fall;
and he who believes in him will not be put to shame."

Romans, chapter 10

10: For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.
11: The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame."
12: For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.
13: For, "every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved."
15: And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!"
16: But they have not all obeyed the gospel; for Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?"
17: So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.
18: But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for
"Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
and their words to the ends of the world."
19: Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
"I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry."
20: Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
"I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me."
21: But of Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people."

[Comment: Notice in chapter 10 that the apostle Paul demonstrates how the gospel is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and is the proclamation of the fulfilled promises of God given through the prophets to Israel. To the apostle Paul the Hebrew Scriptures were fully adequate for the preaching of the gospel.]

Romans, chapter 11

1: I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.
2: God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew...
7: What then? Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,
11: So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.
12: Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!

I would urge the reader to study the entirety of Romans 9 through 11. It is a wonderful outline of how the true "Israel of God," as the apostle calls it, came into being. It truly is a remnant of faith.

Going back to the erroneous notion that somehow the Church and Israel exist in two different worlds, it can only be described as an illusion constructed out of whole cloth. All one has to do is examine the history of the apostolic Church to realize that wherever the Church was planted, the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath, were an integral part of preaching the gospel and teaching new Christians to "observe all things I have commanded you."

Over the past century there has been a tremendous amount of historical and archeological research that verifies the conclusion that the earliest Church of God followed the law of God and the precepts given to the people of Israel as they were interpreted by Christ and His apostles. It was only through the coercion of the bishop of Rome and what later became the Catholic Church that pagan practices and holidays, borrowed from the sun-worshipping Romans, were eventually sanitized and substituted for the Sabbath, the quartodeciman Christian Passover (kept on the 14th of the first Hebrew month) and the Holy Days which God gave to Israel.

Jesus made a statement in His Sermon on the Mount that few Christians believe today. "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-19)

Jesus made a point of saying that His followers could not put aside the Law and the prophets. One things that every Christian should remember is that heaven and earth have not yet passed away. Jesus saw the law and the prophets as a very integral part of the gospel -- and so did His apostles.

Historically we see the Church of Jesus Christ in its infancy keeping the law, evidenced most often by their keeping of the Sabbath. It must be noted, however, that the early Church kept the Sabbath not in imitation of the Jews, but because Jesus was Lord of the Sabbath. That fact is noted even by the early enemies of the Sabbath-keeping Church.

So, where does all this lead us? We are led to the conclusion that the rules which God made for Israel also apply to the Church. Please remember: The apostles and early evangelists did not have the New Testament. It was taken for granted that the gospel derived from the Hebrew Scriptures. To them the gospel meant the good news of the fulfillment of the promises concerning Christ and His kingdom made to the patriarchs and prophets.

Christians in places as far apart as China and Britain kept the Sabbath, and we know for sure that in the case of Celtic Britain, there were many who avoided unclean meats, observed a quartodeciman Passover, and kept the Holy Days outlined in Leviticus 23. Even Saint Patrick, the great patron saint of Ireland, held up by the Catholic Church as one of their own, was a Sabbath-keeper. Once the Celts embraced Christianity, they established the law of Moses as the basis even of their civil law in a code known as the Liber ex Lege Moisi.

Evidence of other commandment and Sabbath-keeping congregations has been found in India, Persia, the eastern Gothic empire, Ethiopia, and Ghana. Apparently, the farther the early Church congregation was from Rome, the more likely it was to value the keeping of the commandments, including the Sabbath. In all this we find proof that the apostles obeyed their Lord and preached the gospel in all the world during their time.

What we can conclude from all this is that the Church, including its Jewish and non-Jewish members, was treated as an extension of Israel -- a latter-day remnant of God's holy nation. It is very unfortunate that the understanding of this seminal concept has been lost. The Protestant Reformation was a good start in recovering the truth of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Church of the 21st century needs to continue on with the Reformation and allow itself to be drawn back to its apostolic roots.


Resources:
A general history of Sabbath-keeping churches can be found at international site of the Christian Churches of God: http://www.logon.org/

For a historical overview of how antisemitism motivated the Church in the West, under the control of the bishop of Rome, to repudiate the quartodeciman Christian Passover and the Sabbath in favor of Easter and Sunday, see the Ryland Home Page.

Email Ken Ryland at kvryland@yahoo.com!

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