The church in prophecy


Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days.
Acts 3:24

IN SPITE OF PETER'S ASSERTION THAT THE EVENTS TAKING PLACE in the days following Jesus' death and resurrection were prophesied by "all the prophets", early expositors could not find any Old Testament prophecies that could be said to point plainly to the entity we know as "the church". The Old Testament is replete with prophecies about Israel and the nations, with the future ideal age under the prophesied "seed of blessing", the Messianic Son of David, serving as the focal point. But no hint is given of a switch of God's focus from Israel to a new institution under Gentile control.

Making life more difficult for such early interpreters, Paul and other New Testament writers often quoted such Old Testament prophecies about the future of Israel and of the nations in their discussions about the phenomenon and purpose of the church that began on the day of Pentecost in 31 AD.

Then the light went on. Augustine found the solution - from the very beginning, God's real object of affection was to be the congregation of saints who would make up the church through their adoration of Jesus Christ. The calling and election of Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, had as its real purpose the role of acting as a shadow, a pantomime, of the true people of God - the spiritual seed of Abraham, the body of Jesus' disciples. When Jesus died on Calvary hill, the raison d'etre of Abraham's physical descendants ceased forever. They had served their purpose of foreshadowing God's true people and were to be forever relegated to the back room in the museum of salvation. Old Testament prophecies about Israel's future role as God's heralds and ministers of salvation had to be totally reinterpreted as foretelling divine activity through the church as intermediary. The Old Testament Messiah was not to be viewed as a future king ruling on earth but as the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ ruling over the nations comprising the church.

The Old Testament Messiah was not to be viewed as a future king ruling on earth but as the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ ruling over the nations comprising the church.

The church replaced Israel as the object of God's affection and became the new, true Israel. Boyer says,

... theologians from the dawn of Christianity have pondered the Bible's prophetic references to the Jews and Israel. St Augustine saw them as allegorical allusions to the Church; the Jew qua Jew had no eschatological role. This approach became Catholic doctrine, and remained so (1992, p. 181).

Hence, the prophets had much to say about the church after all; when you see "Israel" in the prophecies, you can by and large insert "church". Never mind that this approach produces some shocking and highly embarrassing prophetic reflections on the church (read Isaiah 30:9-13), nor that it gives no logically equivalent way of interpreting Old Testament prophecies about Gentile nations.

Though most Bible readers have faithfully toed Augustine's line ever since, some scholars take the position that confusion reigned in the New Testament; it simply was not consistent on the matter. Davies declares,

. the epistles of Paul reveal a conflict. which was never completely resolved, a conflict between the claims of the old Israel after the flesh and the new Israel after the Spirit. It is, indeed, from this tension that there arise most of the inconsistencies that have puzzled interpreters of Paul. (1995, p. 58-59).

Today, you will hardly find a scholar in Christendom who questions the replacement theory - the notion that the "true Israel" is the new band of Jesus' disciples. Some look to Jesus for support of this bye-bye-Israel-hello-church scenario. After all, did He not plainly state that "the kingdom" was to be taken from the physical nation of Israel and transferred to spiritual Israel, the church (Matt. 21:43)? Boyer quotes an unnamed Reformed theologian as saying,

The New Testament church is the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel. To suggest that God has in mind a separate future for Israel. is like putting the scaffolding back up after the building has been finished (p. 191).

Paul and others were supposedly inspired to recognize the true meaning of Israel's existence as a mere analogy for Christendom. They reinterpreted Israel-and-Gentile prophecies symbolically to illuminate and clarify the new phenomenon that was the church; Paul is hence the first replacement theologian. Never mind that he made it abundantly plain that Israel has not "fallen" (Rom. 11:11) and that it would one day attain "fullness" (vs. 12). Beale summarizes replacement concepts very nicely:

Therefore the church is the true Israel in so far as they are now receiving the prophetic promises intended for Israel in the Old Testament (ed. Beale 1994, p. 231).

The Old Testament doesn't really mean what it seems to mean. The New Testament reinterprets Old Testament oracles, showing what they really meant. National Israel merely served for a simplistic day and age as an icon of the real thing - the church. The New Testament removes the Israelite disguise in which the ancient oracles were dressed, exposing the church beneath in all its naked glory. Followers of Jesus become spiritual Israelites, "true" Israelites.

All very plausible but all so very, very wrong.

Click here for a discussion of the parallel issue of whether or not non-Jewish Christians become "honorary Israelites"

Does the New Testament reinterpret Old Testament prophecy? After dealing with that general issue, we will address two related questions: 1. Are the glowing predictions concerning Israel's and the world's future fulfilled now in the church? 2. Are Gentile Christians included in the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies related to Israel?

Resolving the issues involved explains the seeming puzzling lack of Old Testament coverage given the church. Grasping the simple truth that prophecies about Israel and Gentiles begin fulfillment in the church, in anticipation of future consummation, explains the dearth of ancient, transparent prognostications about the church era. A fundamental premise to get in mind is that Old Testament Israel prophecies are being literally fulfilled in the church; Israelites have always comprised a goodly portion of Jesus' genuine disciples. The church is the continuation of the assembly of believers of pre-Christian times - the qohal or "church" (ekklesia) of God - consisting of a core of Israelite worshipers with Gentile followers of the God of Israel (and now, today, His Son Jesus Christ) sitting harmoniously alongside them. That assembly of believers comprised a distinct phenomenon within the body politic of the nation of Israel. When Jesus said He would build His church, He was not speaking of some brand spanking new institution - the foundation had long been laid, with Jesus as its cornerstone and believing Israelites, such as the prophets, its other stones.

When Jesus said He would build His church, He was not speaking of some brand spanking new institution…

Does the New Testament reinterpret Old Testament prophecies?

Most debates about this question are framed in terms of "literal" versus "figurative" interpretation of prophecy. Past readers of the Old Testament, so the idea goes, would have interpreted the prophecies, using a literal methodology, to mean just what they appear to mean. But the New Testament, according to the reinterpretation philosophy, provides the key to deciphering their real meaning - the prophecies are all figurative, their ironic nature hiding the true meaning from earlier generations.

To provide a fascinating instance of reinterpretation methodology, consider the following verses from Psalm 45 followed by one author's view of them:

Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions. All Your garments are scented with myrrh and aloes and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, by which they have made You glad. Kings' daughters are among Your honorable women; at Your right hand stands the queen in gold from Ophir. Listen, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your own people also, and your father's house; so the King will greatly desire your beauty; because He is your Lord, worship Him. And the daughter of Tyre will come with a gift; the rich among the people will seek your favor (Ps. 45:6-12).

The literal versus figurative debate isn't about whether or not Scripture uses metaphorical and poetic language. The focus is whether the real meaning is what it appears to be. In spite of this Psalm's strong poetic overlay, any reader without the reinterpreting spectacles supposedly supplied by the New Testament will see literal hints of a coming good and powerful king, adored by all, who will rule over his people in brilliant splendor. Such a literalist reader may also see hints of the reward awaiting those - expressed poetically in terms of the king's beautiful queen - who worship that future king now. Reinterpreters read it quite differently:

Many of the Old Testament predictions of Jesus Christ depict his ministry in terms of great material honor and prosperity. This is true in particular of those who see him as the inheritor of the glory of David's kingdom, such as the royal Psalms which depict the glories of Messiah's reign (cf. Psalms 45, 72). In fact the fulfillment shows that the riches of his reign are the riches of grace and mercy. His present reign is spiritual, not material (Milne 1979, p. 54).

Milne turns Psalm 45's vision of Jesus' future glorious triumph into a caricature of Jesus' earthly ministry and current reign in heaven over his earthly queen, the church. The error lies not so much in seeing a secondary application in such images to the church and Jesus' wonderful spiritual reign; rather, it lies in insisting on that as their only real meaning and denying their obvious literal intent. Does this Psalm envision Jesus' brief earthly ministry and heavenly high priesthood as its crowning fulfillment? You be the judge.

The whole question of New Testament use of Old Testament prophecy is a vast one. The simple answer to the question of whether or not the New Testament reinterprets Old Testament prophecy is "yes", and "no". It depends what you mean. We reject the belief that the New

The simple answer to the question of whether or not the New Testament reinterprets Old Testament prophecy is "yes", and "no". It depends what you mean.

Testament reinterprets the Old in the sense of denying the plain meaning of the Old. Consider for a moment the larger context of the relationship between Old and New Testaments.

Magnifying, not reinterpreting

Many Bible readers make the mistake of seeking to squeeze the Old Testament through the sieve of the New Testament's innovations, like trying to change the shape of a loaf of bread after it has been baked. But how can you understand a book if you read if backwards? John Bright frames the issue this way:

All take the New Testament as their point of orientation, and from that perspective they read, understand, and evaluate the Old. All make the assumption that the true text and norm is the New Testament and that the Old is relevant and valid only if, or to the degree that, its teachings accord with those of the New (1975, p. 111).

As he points out, this approach invariably produces unworkable results. Instead, "we must begin with the Old Testament itself and move with the line of history ahead to the New" (p. 112). Doing so produces the simple conclusion that, although the New illuminates the Old, it doesn't overthrow or overhaul it. The coming of the promised seed through whom all nations would be blessed (Gen. 22:18) sheds shafts of brilliant light on what the Old Testament promise meant - but it doesn't reinterpret or reshape the promise! Jesus Christ did not come to overthrow Old Testament revelation (Matt. 5:17) but to illuminate and to magnify it (Is. 42:21). He didn't reinterpret the promises made to the fathers, He confirmed them (Rom. 15:8).

Before Jesus came, the Old Testament was like shelves full of engraved clay tablets in a dark room. You could grope your way around, and try to read the tablets by feel. You could make much sense of it all. But how much more could you grasp when someone turns the light on and you can read unhindered. Jesus Christ, both in his teaching and acts, turned on the light. The New Testament clears up mysteries, solves riddles, turns on lights, but doesn't change the Old Testament's meaning.

So the question - does the New Testament reinterpret Old Testament prophecy? - can be answered affirmatively when, by reinterpretation, one means that the New Testament sometimes opens up larger vistas than a straightforward reading of the Old Testament text would provide. It adds vital information or insights needed to understand what previously could not be understood. Read that way, Ladd is correct in saying that the "Christ event" reinterprets prophecy (ed. Clouse 1977, p. 21). However, such illumination would more accurately be called "interpretation", not re-interpretation.

Consider the promises-cum-prophecies made to the patriarchs. We would never guess that God's promise to Abraham that his seed would inherit the land of Palestine forever (Gen. 12:7) means, literally, not only that his physical descendants would always occupy the land, but also that those who walk in faith as he did, his spiritual seed, will personally inherit the same land forever in the kingdom of God. But New Testament insights, such as, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29), turn on the lights - those who walk in Abraham's footsteps of faith, regardless of nationality, are his spiritual seed and will, like him, inherit the Promised Land forever. (That does not make converted Chinese "spiritual Israelites" however; they are spiritual Chinese!)

That does not make converted Chinese "spiritual Israelites" however; they are spiritual Chinese!

In short, though we could not understand many prophecies without the luxury of hindsight and New Testament insights, those prophecies have a "literal" meaning. Once apprehended, the fulfillment matches and enhances the plain prediction rather than denying it. The New Testament explains them, it does not reinterpret them.

1. It's only just begun: fulfillment and consummation

Now to a question of great importance - are Old Testament prophecies about Israel's glorious future fulfilled in the church? Milne expresses succinctly the general view:

. in general, the New Testament sees the Old Testament prophecies to Israel as having ultimate reference to the universal church (p. 56).

He is both wrong and right. His assertion that the church amounts to the ultimate fulfillment of visions concerning Israel is incorrect. But the general notion that many "Israel" predictions are fulfilled in the church is right - but fulfilled only in mustard seed form, as will soon be explained. As Ladd says, ".there are unavoidable indications that the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in the Christian church" (ed. Clouse, p. 27).

Understanding the difference between fulfillment and consummation helps solve the riddle of New Testament use of Old Testament prophecies about Israel. Prophecy can begin fulfillment thousands of years before it reaches complete fulfillment, or consummation. Fruit can hang on a tree for a long time before it ripens.

Can we now understand how it can be seriously said that prophecy has been fulfilled when it hasn't? By scriptural convention, mere initiation of prophecy amounts to its fulfillment. To illustrate the principle, consider Joshua 21:43-45:

So the Lord gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it. The Lord gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers. Not a word failed of any good thing which the Lord had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.

Written shortly after Israel possessed the Promised Land in Joshua's time, we are plainly told that all the promises made to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had been fulfilled. And yet about fourteen hundred years later, at the birth of Jesus Christ, Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, was inspired to say,

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant (Luke 1:68-72 ).

Jesus was to perform the very same promises, given in the "holy covenant", that Joshua said had already been fulfilled. A prophecy (or promise) initiated is a promise fulfilled, albeit not consummated. Note how a couple of scholars express this dynamic notion of fulfillment:

God gave a promise to Abraham, and through him to mankind; a promise eternally fulfilled and fulfilling in the history of Israel (Kaiser 1987, quoting Beecher, p. 88).

Promises which have been fulfilled in history are not thereby exhausted of their content, but remain as promises on a different level. (Von Rad 1966, p. 92).

In other words, fulfillment comes in installments; the grand finale is yet to be played out. The opening scene anticipates the final one. (Such initiated fulfillment, or anticipatory eschatology, is different from duality, in which a prophecy experiences a powerful first fulfillment that acts almost as a mirror image of a final, "grander", climactic fulfillment. Many years may separate the two.)

Mustard seed and tree

This concept of initiated fulfillment is what Jesus' famous parable of the mustard seed appears to have been all about:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches (Matt. 13:31-32).

Many "kingdom" students take Jesus' words to mean that one day the gospel work will enter a period of unparalleled success; now the mustard seed has germinated and is growing slowly in poor soil, they believe. But some day the mustard tree will develop rapidly; nation after nation will progressively recognize the truth of the gospel and embrace Christ's teachings. As a result, Jesus will become the invisible ruler over all peoples for an unknown period of time - that is, the church will become a world-dominating institution - before He returns to bring history to a close and usher the faithful into their eternal reward. This view cannot be sustained.

Initiated fulfillment sees it quite differently. Ladd puts it this way:

The parable of the mustard seed illustrates the truth that the Kingdom, which one day will be a great tree, is already present in the world in a tiny, insignificant form (1974, p. 97).

In reality, this parable contrasts the current, initial fulfillment of the kingdom promises, which appears quite insignificant, with the future manifestation of the kingdom of God when it appears in full consummated glory. Though currently almost invisible, the initiated powers of the kingdom of God are present and real. The church is not that kingdom, but its members are the kingdom's citizens (Col. 1:13).

Though currently almost invisible, the initiated powers of the kingdom of God are present and real.

The numerous prophecies about Israel's and the nations' future peace and glory during the millennial period of the kingdom of God have begun a mustard seed fulfillment. Believers can be discouraged by the apparent failure of the cause of truth to really make a difference in the world. Instead, they should rejoice that fulfillment, however small, has begun. Illustrations of the incipient reality of the kingdom of God are numerous. Notice just a few:

  • Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 that Israel's king would come in peace (Matt 21:5). Jesus has begun a genuine invisible reign over His kingdom citizens;
  • Isaiah foretold the removal of the veil of blindness from all nations to begin in the land of Palestine (25:6-8); that began with the demise of the old covenant and the beginning of the new (2 Cor.3:16);
  • Peter declared on the day of Pentecost that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples in the upper room amounted to fulfillment of Joel's prophecy (2:28-29) of the Spirit being poured out on "all flesh". Yet the context of Joel shows its fulfillment to occur when God is in Israel's midst (2:27), and Israel will "never be put to shame" - clearly not yet in full flight;
  • Jesus bound Satan (Matt. 12:29), the initiated fulfillment of that which will be consummated when the kingdom comes in its fullness (Rev. 20:1-2);
  • Matthew 12:28 plainly declares that, in Jesus, the kingdom of God has "come upon you".

This era between Christ's first and second comings, sometimes called the "era of the church", is that period of time in which such kingdom prophecies have been initiated but not consummated. Such initiation amounts to a literal fulfillment, not to a figurative fulfillment. The prophet Zechariah warns us against pessimism and discouragement about our times when he says, "For who has despised the day of small things?" (4:10). God's mysterious plan evidently requires a period of initiated fulfillment before glorious consummation. Exactly why is unclear. But as Witherington puts it, "These same parables suggest a connection between what is happening in the present in Jesus' ministry and what will happen in the future." (1992, p. 63).

Initiated fulfillment in the church

Do prophecies about Israel experience initial, anticipatory fulfillment, in the church? No question about it. The church, you see, contains Israelites. And since the prophecies about Israel and the millennial Messianic reign have begun fulfillment in those Israelites, then no reinterpretation of Old Testament prophecy is being done when Paul and others see prophecies about Israel - and Gentiles - fulfilled in the church. Israelites in the church constitute the initiated fulfillment of those oracles about the remnant of Israel that will turn to God. They are the mustard seed fulfillment of Hosea's promise that once again Israelites would be God's people.

For an example of the same principle applying to prophecies about Gentiles beginning their fulfillment "now", take James's words in Acts 15:14-17:

Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: "'After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord who does all these things."

The passage in Amos (9:11-12) is set in a context that speaks of God's bringing sifted Israelites back from captivity so that they may live under the rule of Messiah, the Son of David, at which time the "plowman shall overtake the reaper" and "they shall build the waste cities". Since one would have to be slightly potty to suggest that these prophecies have ever been literally fulfilled, and yet, since James speaks of them as if they have, one can see why many expositors have shouldered the belief that the entire history of Israel occurred for the purpose of serving merely as a shadow of a supposedly more noble historical institution - the church, often dubbed "spiritual Israel". But this solution to the problem of how the New Testament uses Old Testament prophecy is the wrong solution. Amos truly was speaking of the Messianic Age, or "Days of the Messiah", and they haven't "come" yet. In the early church, Gentiles did begin to seek the Lord and call on His name. Fulfillment has been initiated.

In the early church, Gentiles did begin to seek the Lord and call on His name. Fulfillment has been initiated.

Isaiah 40-66 speaks of Israel's reconciliation with God and her creation as a new people. In his landmark study on Paul's use of these themes in 2 Corinthians 5-7, Beale (chapter 14) shows that Paul considered these prophecies as having fulfillment in the church. For instance, he says that, "Paul draws from Isaiah in explaining the reality of the readership's part in the new creation" (p. 220). He then goes on to say,

. Paul understands reconciliation in Christ to be the inaugurated fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of Israel's restoration from exile (p. 241).

Though the term "new Israel" never appears in Scripture, the concept is validated by Isaiah's prophecies, and also by Jesus' symbolic acts of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple, and his choice of twelve disciples to represent the twelve tribes of the "new Israel" (Davies, p. 101). Gentile believers, however, do not constitute any part of the "new Israel".

Let's look at a few more examples of the initiation of fulfillment of Old Testament Israel prophecies in the church.

New covenant

Jeremiah prophesied (31:31-34) that God would make a new covenant with Israel and Judah, as a result of which they shall all know God. God's law, expressing His mind, will be written in their hearts. Do all Israelites today know God? No way! Yet what are we to make of Jesus' words?

Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you" (Luke 22:20).

The Book of Hebrews emphasizes the reality of the new covenant at that time. Its fulfillment has begun. But has its consummation? Not at all. The new covenant has been signed and sealed, but not yet delivered. In celebrating its imminent fulfillment with his Israelite disciples, Jesus was saying that the prophecy was about to be fulfilled.


Scripture foretold the provocation of Israel by foreign nations (Deut. 32:21). Paul avers that this prophecy was fulfilled in his time (Rom.11:11). Initiated fulfillment explains how it had already begun but clearly had not produced the results the original prophecy foresaw. As an interesting aside, read Acts 13 for the first fulfillment of Gentile provocation of Israelites. Note the result (vss. 44-45).


Luke 1:38 plainly says that God has already redeemed His people:

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.

As authority for his famous assertion in Romans 11:26 that "all Israel will be saved", Paul quoted Isaiah 59:20 which, in the Hebrew text, reads as follows:

"The Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob," says the Lord.

The passage probably means that the Redeemer will turn back transgression from Jacob rather than meaning what the above translation suggests. Either way, Paul obviously taught that this salvation had already begun in the remnant of Israel elected to believe in Jesus Christ. Commonsense tells us that few Israelites today have been redeemed. Yet we cannot deny this scriptural testimony. Initiated fulfillment solves the problem. Some Israelites have been redeemed, and thus fulfillment has begun.

Don't let the significance of these facts escape you. Forgive the repetition: millennium prophecies about Israel enjoy a mustard seed, initial fulfillment in the church. By comparison with the future full grown mustard tree, they are "nothing". Hasten the consummation!

The gargantuan error made by many is to confuse the mustard seed with its yet-to-be-seen tree. This dogma robs the world of the greatest hope it has - a new world ruled over by Jesus Christ, a time when salvation will flood earth's every nook and cranny.

Gentiles and the new creation

Another vital question. Does one do violence to the original prophet's intention to see fulfillment of predictions about Israel's great hopes in an organism consisting of Jews and Gentiles combined? Not at all. For the simple reason that Old Testament prophecy has much to say about Jews and Gentiles making up one people of God during Messiah's millennial reign. Which brings us to an intensely studied passage in Paul's epistles - Ephesians 2:14-15:

For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one. having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.

Note carefully that Paul refers to the "one new man" as a creation. This passage makes most sense against the backdrop of Isaiah's predictions of unity between Israelite and Gentile during Messiah's millennial reign. That unity has been initiated now in the church. It is probably what Jesus had in mind when He spoke of one flock under one shepherd (John 10:16).

2. Do Gentiles fulfill prophecies about Israel?

God promises that He will again accept Israel as His people, after a period of time in which they would not be His people. No hint is made there that the ones who were to become His people would include Gentiles. Yet Paul seems to say otherwise in Romans 9:22-25:

22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us whom he has called, 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.'"

With this king of reinterpretation passages in mind, is it any wonder that many interpreters believe the New Testament takes prophetic Israel to represent the church of mixed blood? Beale says that in this passage Paul applies "Israel's promises to Gentiles" (ed. Beale 1994, p. 231).

Who would argue otherwise? I will.

Have we forgotten something? The Old Testament is exceedingly plain in showing an eternal distinction between Israel and all other nations. The great debate in the early church was all about the question of whether or not Gentiles had to become Israelites. The answer was simple. No. In fact, they could not become Israelites. (Though Jewish teaching said otherwise.) Would Paul go maverick on such a vital issue? Not likely. He was totally committed to literal Old Testament interpretation.

The great debate in the early church was all about the question of whether or not Gentiles had to become Israelites.

Many assume that verse 25 is intended as an immediate commentary on verse 24. Not necessarily so at all! One must read the entire chapter carefully looking for the thought flow. Just running one verse onto the next certainly can give the impression that Paul's comment about "not my people" is a reference to Gentiles. But the train of thought can take a new turn at any point. With overwhelming scriptural testimony that God does not blur the ethnic distinction between Jews and Gentiles, and that thus Old Testament prophecies about Israel do not refer to Gentiles, we must recognize that verse 25 starts a new thought block rather than qualifying the previous verse.

Verse 25 goes with the other Old Testament quotes that immediately follow it (verses 26-29) as part of one block of thought. In verse 27 Paul says,"Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel .". Israel is the focus. The central feature of this thought block is not that Jews and Gentiles are one spiritual people, but that God's dealings with Israel would be through a remnant only, to begin with, in creating a "new Israel". All the Old Testament quotes in those verses deal with that point.

This great thought fits as a unit in the greater scheme of Romans 9 which says that spirit-led Gentiles (vs. 24) and the spirit-led remnant of Israel (vss. 25-29) together comprise the spiritual seed of Abraham (vss. 6-9), a seed which has always existed.

Prophecies about Israel whose fulfillment has begun in the church are not fulfilled by Gentiles. Just as Israel prophecies are being fulfilled now by Israelites, numerous prophecies about Gentiles have begun their fulfillment in the church by Gentiles. (See, for instance, Romans 10:20; 15:7-12). Never the twain shall meet.

To see what other readers have said about this article, see The church in prophecy

References and notes

Beale, G. K. (ed.) 1994, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts, Baker Books, Grand Rapids

Boyer, P. 1992, When Time Shall Be No More, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Bright, J. 1975, The Authority of the Old Testament, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids

Clouse, R. G. (ed.) 1977, The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove

Davies, W. D. 1995, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, S.P.C.K., London

Kaiser, W. C. Jr. 1987, Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids

Ladd, G. E. 1974, A Theology of the New Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids

Milne, Bruce 1979, I Want to Know what the Bible says about the End of the World, Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne

Von Rad, G. 1966, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, SCM Press Ltd

Witherington III, B. 1992, Jesus, Paul and the End of the World, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove


Further reading

Dawn to Dusk publications

Other printed material

On the Web

Shechem to Calvary: the Story of the Covenants deals thoroughly with the contentious topic of the physical and spiritual seed of Abraham.

Showdown in Jerusalem deals with the fascinating question of the respective roles of Jews and Gentiles in the divine "mystery", as well as with the question of the New Testament debate over circumcision for Gentiles — be prepared for some surprises.

Do non-Jewish Christians become "spiritual Israelites"

Though dispensationalism faces numerous problems, a good place to start is Blaising and Bock's Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church

D. T. Lancaster, Mystery of the Gospel

Tim Hegg, Fellow Heirs

Firstfruits of Zion — a good resource for material on the relationship between Israel and the church. You can also order Lancaster's and Hegg's books here.


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