God’s New Covenant Reality in Christ
By Rick Owen
Much has been written and debated regarding the relationship of the church to Israel. I recently read another article about this by John Parsons entitled "Israel and the Church - What's the Relationship?"1 I found much of what Parsons shared to be helpful and I liked his succinct summaries of Replacement Theology, Separation Theology and Remnant Theology.2 I would like to suggest a fourth category known as New Covenant Theology (NCT).3 Following Parsons’ method of describing the other categories, this view could perhaps be labeled as Fulfillment Theology. I believe NCT comes closer to understanding and articulating the biblical view of Israel and the church by discussing it more properly within the context of God's New Covenant reality in Christ.
I enjoyed Parsons’ discussion of the New Testament Greek word “ekklesia.” This word is usually mistranslated as “church” in the New Testament.4 "Ekklesia" actually means a “called-out gathering” or “summoned assembly” which meets for a specific purpose and allows those in attendance to participate as co-equal members of a decision-making community. These features are present in both secular and Christian assemblies in the New Testament as they were in ancient Greek culture.
Jesus said, "I will build My church," in Matt. 16:18, as most Bible translations go. This could be more correctly rendered as "I will build My summoned assembly." Parsons underscored how Jesus’ Ekklesia began as a Jewish assembly very similar to the synagogue. This was a simple gathering which originally functioned somewhere between a town-hall meeting and a family gathering for Jesus’ community of believers.
Gentiles were included over time in the Christian assemblies, but by the second and third centuries, unfortunately, it seems that most of these assemblies began to change into a form of godliness without the substance or power of God in Christ and His gospel (2 Tim. 3:5). This led to pagan-like rituals conducted by magistrates who acted like wannabe Old Testament priests officiating in a theatrical manner before audiences consisting mostly of unbelievers. Jesus and Paul, of course, warned of false teachers and Christian assemblies drifting away from the simplicity of Christ (Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:29-31; 2 Cor. 11:3). I agree with Parsons that most church traditions have not sufficiently understood or shaped their practices around the New Testament model of Jesus’ Ekklesia.5
THE REAL QUESTION
Parsons makes a statement about Christ’s Ekklesia at the end of his article which I thought was very good. He wrote, “it is evident that the ekklesia of Jesus is something ‘over and above’ the remnant of Israel.” This is where advocates of NCT begin to nod in agreement. The issue is not so much “What is the relationship between Israel and the Church?” The better question is “What is the relationship of anyone, Jew or Gentile, to Christ?” This is what will finally matter on the day of judgment (Matt. 25:40, 45).
THE PREPARATORY & TEMPORARY NATURE OF THE OLD COVENANT
The purpose of Israel was to prepare the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. Once He came on the scene, the stadium builders and stagehands, so to speak, faded into the background. Jesus was and still is the 'Main Event.' Since Jesus and His people are “one flesh” (Eph. 5:25-32), His Body (or Ekklesia) is also lifted above the former types and shadows of the Old Covenant, because “in Christ” and “with Christ” His people are the fulfillment of them. God's new reality in Christ has appeared. Now that the age of faith in Christ has arrived, we are no longer under (and, therefore, no longer need) the 'pointers' (“guardians” or “tutors”) which led us to Him (Gal. 3:25).
THE ANTECEDENT IDENTITY OF GOD'S PEOPLE
Another way to look at this is to think about who God’s people really are and how they began. Scripture tells us that everyone who is part of God’s family pre-existed within the mind and purpose of God “in Christ” and was written in the Lamb’s book of life before Creation (John 6:37, 39; 10:29; 17:2, 9, 24; Heb. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8; 17:8). God’s people are called God’s elect (or chosen ones). They were chosen for salvation from the foundation of the world (Matt. 25:34; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; 1 Pet. 1:20).6
So anyone who has ever been saved, or becomes saved, first existed as one of God’s chosen people before he or she was ever given any other identity. Before any believer was an Israelite, or one of the believing remnant within Israel, or a Gentile, or a Christian, he or she was first one of God’s elect, chosen in Christ before Creation. From the divine perspective, God’s elect have been set apart and called out as a chosen remnant from among the Gentiles just as much as they ever were from within Israel (Acts 13:48).
THE NEW COVENANT PARADIGM
The New Covenant view pictures believers of any origin – whether from ethnic Israel or any of the nations of the world – as joined together “in Christ” and members of God’s new creation. They have been delivered from the domain of darkness – the common spiritual origin of all lost persons – and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13). God’s gracious choice of such lost persons precedes and transcends the historical and ethnic identity of believers (whether Jewish or Gentile) and stretches from eternity past to eternity future (Rom. 8:29-30). This perspective places the focus on God’s eternal purpose and His chosen people in Christ, which includes both Jewish and Gentile believers from all time.
New Covenant Theology affirms the historical continuity and progression of God's faithfulness to Israel (Rom. 9) while also recognizing a transition toward the unique person (Christ), paradigm (new creation), power (Holy Spirit) and practices (body-life) of the New Covenant (Luke 22:20; John 6:63; Rom. 2:29; 7:6; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:3, 6). Here is how this might be illustrated:
Paul describes the community God has created in Christ Jesus as “one new man” – a singular and unique body – incorporating people from both Old Covenant and Godless backgrounds:
"For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility" (Eph. 2:14-16).
Notice three things from this passage:
- The "one new man" stands "in place of the two" – that is, in place of both the Jews and the Gentiles. Both have been joined together to share a new identity as one community and household of God in Christ Jesus.
- What is abolished is not Israel, nor the Gentiles, but "the dividing wall of hostility" – rooted in unbelief – which stood between people of all kinds (Jews and Gentiles) and God. Believers from both camps are transformed and brought together "in one body through the cross" as they are reconciled to God.
- This is the language of peace, inclusion and union based upon something “new” – not a return to or renewal of obsolete practices and distinctions (Heb. 8:13). “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28; cf. Rom. 3:22-29; 1 Cor. 7:19; 12:13; Gal. 5:6; Col. 3:11).
Under the New Covenant, God's special purpose of blessing the world through Abraham’s seed is being fulfilled through Christ and all who are “in Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Christ’s body (or Ekklesia) includes “everyone who believes in Him” (John 3:16, 36) from among Jews and Gentiles (Acts 2:39; Eph. 2:17). God's promise of global salvation goes back to Abraham prior to Israel (Gen. 12:1-3), yet incorporates both believing Jews and Gentiles (Gal. 3:8-9) as fellow saints and brethren in Christ (Heb. 11:40).
“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8-9).
THE PRIORITY OF ABIDING IN JESUS CHRIST
God's redemptive garden, so to speak, with its historical layers and budding landscape, is built upon His purpose, promises and oath rooted in Israel (historically) but centered in Christ (eternally). The true vine, Jesus Christ, takes priority over anything and everything which preceded and prepared the way for Him (John 3:30). Abiding in Christ accounts for God’s rejection of fruitless branches (unbelievers within Israel) and preservation of fruitful ones (believing Jews and engrafted Gentiles) – for apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15).
While John the Baptist spoke of the ax already being laid at the root of the trees of an unrepentant nation, and Jesus spoke of the kingdom being taken away from the unbelieving Jews and given to a believing nation (of elect Jews and Gentiles) producing fruit in keeping with God's purpose and plan, the holy root of the natural olive tree remains intact (Rom. 11:11-24).
The believing community of the New Covenant (Jesus' Ekklesia) should never discount or disregard the preparatory Old Covenant culture and history of Israel. Believers should thank God for the Messiah and salvation He brought to the world through Israel; and they should welcome and make disciples of people from every fold (whether Jewish or Gentile – from any nation in the world), by compelling them to enter through Christ the door and enjoy fellowship as one flock with one Shepherd (John 10:16). Jesus is gathering “into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” as He reigns from heaven with all authority and power (John 11:52). Believers should work in harmony with His purpose by making disciples of all the nations (Matt. 28:18-20).
SUMMARY & CONCLUSION
The New Covenant stands in relation to the Old Covenant like Substance (Christ) to shadows (the Law). Christ came not to destroy or set aside the Law but to fulfill it and elevate it by introducing a higher standard and reality: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27); “Christ is the end [i.e., goal or fulfillment] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).
Israel's law included distinctive practices (priests, animal sacrifices, special days and feasts) and a culture of separation (Israel versus 'the world'). The Gentile world had its own culture and practices too. But all of this (both Jewish and Gentile traditions) changed when Jesus brought into existence God's New Covenant creation (Col. 2:6-23). Paul sets Christ above these influences in his letter to the Colossians: "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving" (Col. 2:6-7). God's New Covenant reality is focused on life in His Son, Jesus Christ.
The chosen remnant of Israel and the chosen remnant of the Gentile world (Rom. 11:5) are called together now to share a new reality in Christ Jesus, which grows within this age, yet transcends it, until it reaches its zenith in the age to come (Matt. 13:31-33). This transfigured but yet-to-be-glorified reality includes “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (believers from pre-Calvary generations), who were incorporated into “the heavenly Jerusalem” and joined with “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,” so that believers from all time make up one fellowship in Christ through His blood.
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24).
The dwelling of the fullness of God in Christ and the reconciliation of all things to Himself through Christ (Col. 1:20) summarizes the mystery, glory and supremacy of the Mediator of the New Covenant and God's new reality in Him. Jesus is sitting at God's right hand in majesty and glory reigning over all things until His enemies are made His footstool and all of God's children scattered abroad are gathered together into one group (Heb. 10:12-14; John 11:51-52; Eph. 1:22-23).
1. You can read John Parsons' full article here: Israel and the Church - What's the Relationship?
2. Parson’s conclusion about these three views is as follows: “The Gentile Church does not exist instead of Israel (replacement theology); nor does it exist outside of Israel (separation theology); but rather it is incorporated within the faithful remnant of Israel.” The last view is what he calls “remnant theology.”
- First, Jesus’ Ekklesia should not be equated with “the Gentile Church.” His Body consists of all kinds of people, both Jews and Gentiles. The New Testament teaches that such distinctions and divisions no longer exist in Christ: “you are all one in Christ Jesus.” By His atoning blood, Jesus has created “in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15).
- The second error is that Parsons makes “the faithful remnant of Israel” the antecedent and abiding category into which he fits the church. As I explain above, God’s people (both Jewish and Gentile) possess a pre-existing identity “in Christ” as His elect before the foundation of the world. This precedes and transcends all subsequent categories (both Jewish and Gentile) which appear later in history.
3. Here is a brief description of New Covenant Theology (NCT): What is New Covenant Theology?
4. Here is a brief explanation of why “church” is an improper translation of “ekklesia”: The Ekklesia and the Kuriakon.
5. I respond to and proactively discuss these and related issues about functioning as Christ’s Ekklesia in a variety of articles on this site (The Fellowship of the Lamb).
6. Each elect person is united to or in union with Christ in three ways: before Creation (Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:4; 2:10); at the Cross (1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 2:5-6, 13; Rom. 6:6, 8); through faith in Him, joined to His one body via the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:13). Believers long for the fourth and final manifestation of their union with Christ: when they will also share in His glory (Rom. 8:17).