Does the Church Fulfill Israel’s Program? — Part 2

Does the Church Fulfill Israel’s Program? — Part 2 John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00

[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary.]

If the Old Testament is allowed to stand alone in its prophecies of a future for Israel, most scholars agree that it would be normal to expect precisely what the premillenarians anticipate, that is, that Israel would return to the land, possess it, and enjoy it while being ruled by their coming Messiah. Premillennialism is based on such a literal interpretation in contrast to amillennialism which interprets these prophecies in a nonliteral sense. Many amillenarians admit that the issue is literal interpretation.

Allis, for instance, states, “The Old Testament prophecies, if literally interpreted, cannot be regarded as having been yet fulfilled or as being capable of fulfilment in this present age.”1 In a similar way, Hamilton states, “Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just such a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the premillennialist pictures. That was the kind of a Messianic kingdom that the Jews of the time of Christ were looking for, on the basis of a literal interpretation of the Old Testament.”2

Having admitted that the Old Testament, if interpreted literally, teaches just such a fulfillment of prophecy as premillenarians anticipate, amillenarians counter with two possible explanations. The most common, following Augustine, is that the prophecies are not to be interpreted literally. Hamilton, for instance, states, “Jesus Himself, in speaking of the whole idea said, ‘the kingdom of God is within (or, in the midst of) you’ (Luke 17:21), thus contradicting the idea that it was an earthly, literal Jewish kingdom.”3 Accordingly the majority of amillenarians believe that it is an error to interpret prophecy literally, especially as it relates to the future of Israel or a millennial kingdom on earth. They do not object necessarily to a literal second coming, a literal heaven, and a literal hell, but they object to a literal millennium and a literal fulfillment of Israel’s earthly promises.

Another route followed by amillenarians is to state that while the promises are to be interpreted literally, they are conditional promises based on obedience. Allis states,

It is true that, in the express terms of the covenant with Abraham, obedience is not stated as a condition. But that obedience was presupposed is clearly indicated by two facts. The one is that obedience is the precondition of blessing under all circumstances…. This is the general principle of God’s providential and also of His gracious dealings with His children…. The second fact is that in the case of Abraham the duty of obedience is particularly stressed.4

It is rather remarkable that Allis, who is a strict Calvinist and believes in unconditional election, should make obedience a precondition of blessing under all circumstances. It is quite clear that some blessings of God are conditioned on obedience in both the Old and the New Testaments, and the Mosaic law in particular had many conditional promises. But it is also true that God’s sovereign purposes are sure and that what God promises, He can fulfill. Accordingly while Israel was severely disciplined for disobedience, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise is not presented as conditioned on human response, although there will be a godly remnant of Israel who will respond to God. It is true that obedience is stressed on the part of Abraham, but it is also true that in spite of predicted disobedience, God declared He would fulfill His promises to Israel.

The two diametrically opposed lines of argument against the literal fulfillment of Israel’s promises—that they were never intended to be interpreted literally, and that they are literal but conditional—obviously cannot both be true although Allis argues as if they were. What is clear is that those who lived in Old Testament times regarded the prophecies as literal. One certainly would expect clear evidence to the contrary in the New Testament if indeed these prophecies are not to be fulfilled in the way the Old Testament saints anticipated. In particular, the question is whether the term Israel is applicable to Gentile Christians who form the church, the Body of Christ. Matthew 13, the kingdom in its mystery form (that is, in a form different from that anticipated in the Old Testament) is pictured as being fulfilled between the first and second advents of Christ.

After the beheading of John the Baptist, symbolizing the opposition to Christ, and the further evidence of unbelief in the attempt of the Pharisees to test Jesus, Christ announced the future church. To Peter He said, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matt 16:18). Here was an announcement of a new entity which would not be Israel nor would it fulfill Israel’s prophecies. Obviously the disciples did not understand the promise because it was so foreign to their thinking, but did this new undertaking of God replace or fulfill spiritually the promises given to Israel?

The subsequent teaching of Christ is clear that it does not. When the mother of James and John sought a special place of privilege for her sons, Christ did not rebuke her and tell her that she had a wrong interpretation of the kingdom. Instead He answered, “‘You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to Him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right hand and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father’“ (Matt 20:22-23). Here, instead of correcting the disciples, He affirmed the fact that there would be a kingdom, that He would sit on a throne, and that there would be others sitting on His right and His left. This is obviously not a picture of heaven, but of the kingdom on earth which Christ anticipated.

The concept of an earthly kingdom is further confirmed by Christ in His conversation with His disciples concerning their role in the kingdom. Christ said to them, “And just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:29-30). Here again the picture is one of an earthly kingdom, not the throne in heaven, and one of administering justice to the twelve tribes of Israel, something that will be unnecessary in heaven. For the disciples it was an absolute confirmation of the literalness of the Old Testament prophecies, and it was clear that the disciples understood it this way. If they were interpreting the Old Testament literally when it should be interpreted spiritually, this would have been a good opportunity for Christ to correct their error. Instead He confirmed their method of interpretation. church seldom appeal to the Gospels for proof, although they assume that their conclusions are correct. Actually the four Gospels are barren of any support of the idea that the present age is the fulfillment of the promises given to Israel.

Is Israel Ever Used as a Synonym for the Church?

Opponents of the idea that Israel’s promises will be fulfilled literally often point to literal fulfillment as a complete absurdity and an unreasonable extreme. Allis, for instance, writes, “Carrying to an almost unprecedented extreme that literalism which is characteristic of Millenarianism, they [the Brethren Movement] insisted that Israel must mean Israel, and that the kingdom promises in the Old Testament concern Israel and are to be fulfilled to Israel literally.”5 Allis here attempts to prove that the concept of a literal fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies is confined to a small Brethren movement, when as a matter of fact a number of scholars who are not premillennial hold that the term Israel always means Israel. An illustration of this, as mentioned in the discussion of Israel in the Old Testament,6 is the famous Calvinistic scholar Charles Hodge of the nineteenth century. In his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans he clearly distinguishes between Jews and Gentiles and never makes the term Israel equivalent to the church.7 For instance, in his exegesis of Romans 11:26 he states, “Israel, here, from the context, must mean the Jewish people, and all Israel, the whole nation.”8 In a similar way, William Hendriksen, well-known amillenarian commentator, in his exegesis of Romans 11:25-27 states that Israel means Israel.9 Accordingly it must be concluded that Allis’s statement that this is an unprecedented extreme is untrue. In fact, there is an observable trend among modern scholarship to regard Israel as meaning only Israel. To be sure, amillenarians may find other reasons for denying premillennialism, but it is not on the basis of the concept that Israel is identical to the church. If the universal understanding of the Old Testament prior to the time of Christ were that the promises to Israel were to be fulfilled literally, certainly it should take strong and unequivocal language in the New Testament to correct this misconception. Appeal is made, however, to certain specific passages in the New Testament which some have interpreted as confirming the idea that Israel’s promises are fulfilled by the church. These passages will be discussed in the next article in this series.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1945), p. 238.

2 Floyd Hamilton, The Basis of the Millennial Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1942), p. 38.

3 Ibid., p. 39.

4 Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 33.

5 Ibid., p. 218.

6 John F. Walvoord, “Does the Church Fulfill Israel’s Program?” Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (January-March 1980): 24.

7 Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Philadelphia: H. B. Garner, 1883), pp. 462-602.

8 Ibid., p. 589.

9 William Hendriksen, And So All Israel Shall Be Saved (Grand Rapids: Baker’s Book Store, 1945), p. 33.