One of the enduring influences of Dispensationalism is the belief in a radical discontinuity between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. Some people even believe that Jews are saved in a way different, i.e., by obeying the Law, from Gentile Christians.
However, this is not the historic Protestant view. In sermons, confessions, and commentaries from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries one will often see references to the "Church of the Jews" when referring to Old Testament believers. In his comments on Isaiah 54:10, John Wesley said, "God will not cast off His Christian church, as He cast off the church of the Jews..." What may shock many American evangelicals is that such usage is actually quite biblical!
In the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, "congregation" was the word "qahal." In the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Old Testament, a Jewish translation, "qahal" was translated by "ekklesia," the exact word used in the Greek New Testament for "church." Some of the verses where "qahal" is found include Num. 20:6, 10, Dt. 5:22, 9:10, 10:4, 18:16, 31:30, Josh. 8:35, Judg. 20:2, 21:5, 8, I Sam. 17:47, I Kgs. 8:14, 22, 55, 65. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
In the New Testament, we have two verses which strongly identify the people of God under the two testaments. In Acts 7:38, Stephen refers to Moses and Israel in the desert as the "congregation in the wilderness." "Congregation" here is the Greek word "ekklesia," and is translated "church" in this verse in the KJV and ASV. And looking at it from the New Testament perspective, the Apostle refers to the church, in Galatians 6:16, as "the Israel of God."
How did this come about? The key is in Romans 11. Verses 8 through 10 tell us that God has hardened ethnic Israel. This is their judgment for rejecting their Messiah and cooperating with the Romans in His murder (refer back to 9:33). Then verses 17-21 tell us that the natural branches of the olive tree, representing ethnic Israel, were cut off, and wild branches, representing Gentile Christians, were grafted in. Notice that these are two sets of branches, but of one tree.
The dispensationalists overlook the words of Paul in Galatians 3:7, that it is faith, not blood descent, that makes one a "son of Abraham." Also, in Romans 2:29, "a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart." As he explains in I Corinthians 7:19, "For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God." And Philippians 3:3, "For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh."
Of course, I cannot deny that there are differences between the people of God under the two testaments. I simply believe that the differences are matters of administration, not nature.
But there is more: Paul doesn't end with the wild branches grafted in, as if ethnic Israel no longer had any place in the purposes of God. Just as He pruned them out for unbelief, a day will come when their hardness will abate, and they will return to their God. Romans 11:24, "For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree." And that thought continues through the next several verses.
This was also an Old Testament promise. Zechariah 12:10, "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on Me, on Him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over Him, as one weeps over a firstborn."
The Book of Acts is a history book, the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. This in no way undermines its infallibility. However, such books aren't generally useful as a doctrinal foundation. They tell us more about what God and His people have done, rather than what they have taught or believed. The reversal of that hermeneutical principle is how we ended up with some of the more bizarre doctrines of some Pentecostals, such as the modalism of the United Pentecostal Church. However, that is not to say that there is no theology in it; I merely suggest that it be used as support for a doctrine, not the foundation.
For example, sovereign election is most-explicitly a Pauline doctrine, though it is certainly prominent throughout both Testaments. Somehow, the Pentecostals overlook it while mining for their distinctive doctrines in Acts.
First consider Acts 4:27-28, "Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, Whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place." This is a portion of the prayer of the Apostles after they had been hauled before the Sanhedrin. I think it is especially significant that the Apostles find comfort and renewal in their knowledge that all that had occurred was only according to the prior plan and purpose of God.
And in Acts 13:48, we read, "And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed." Arminians are especially annoyed by this verse. They try to say that those that believe are appointed to eternal life. They gnash their teeth when anyone points out that the Scriptures teach the opposite order: those whom God has appointed to eternal life come unfailingly to believe.
My name is Chris Cole. I have lived in the Charlotte, NC, area for over thirty years, and have been an active Presbyterian during most of that time. I love the Westminster Confession of Faith as a beautiful expression of my own personal beliefs.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I prefer the English Standard Version of the Bible, and all quotations are from the ESV, unless otherwise stated.
I have a number of reviews of Reformed books on Amazon. There is a link to them in the Reformed links below.
"Seeing [that] the Lord of lords, the Lord Jesus, is so ready (never was there king so ready to hear a subject as Jesus is), [even] if thou wert the vilest body that goes, a thief, a harlot, etc., yet if thou wilt say this, 'Lord, remember on me, and give me a part of thy kingdom'; - if thou prayest to him from a penitent heart, with confidence and assurance, I promise unto thee, heaven and earth shall go [fall] together ere thou wantest [lack] thine asking. Seeing [that] our Lord Jesus is so liberal [free-giving], then seek more than enough, more than a kingdom, and thou shalt get more. The only cause why we want [lack] is in us: we have no hearts to seek it." - Rev. Robert Rollock, Scottish Presbyterian minister, about 1590, in a commentary on Luke 23:42-43