Even if one has never heard the word “dispensationalism” or received formal teaching on the doctrines of dispensationalism, it has had a great influence on modern evangelicalism. So, many evangelical Christians read the Old Testament and (perhaps even subconsciously) dismiss portions of God’s Word, thinking that they only apply to national Israel or those physically descended from Abraham. But, the Bible teaches that Israel under the old covenant is the root of the tree into which believers in the new covenant have been grafted in (Romans 11:17-21); those who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed (or descendants), heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:29). To put it another way, borrowing from Paul’s language in Galatians 3, the Westminster Confession of Faith calls the people of Israel in the old covenant, “a church under age” (WCF 19:3).
In our summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, this past Sunday we examined the first petition of the prayer which Jesus taught His disciples: “Hallowed be Thy name.” At the most basic level, the definition of what it means to hallow or sanctify the Lord’s name is given to us in the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
This past Sunday, through the study of two different Psalms, we learned that there is a bit more to the meaning of this petition. First, Psalm 67 tells of how God enables us to glorify His name, by blessing His people. The Lord blesses His Church so that we may proclaim the way of salvation through Jesus Christ among all the nations. As the conclusion of Psalm 67 declares: “God blesses us, That all the ends of the earth may fear Him” (Psalm 67:7).
Second, Psalm 83 teaches us how God glorifies His own name by disposing all things – especially His righteous judgment – to His own glory. Psalm 83 is an imprecatory Psalm which means that it is a prayer and petition of God’s people for the Lord to punish and judge those who hate and persecute the Church. As we mentioned on Sunday, as Christians who stand on this side of the cross in the new covenant, God’s Word commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). Yet, that doesn’t mean that we can simply discard other parts of God’s Word because they make us uncomfortable or are difficult to understand and apply.
So, while we seek to love those who hate Christ and His Church and pray for their conversion, we also are to pray that the Lord would mete out His justice according to His righteous judgment. The Lord is the Judge of all the earth who deals justly (Genesis 18:25); we as God’s people are called to be ambassadors for Christ as ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). There are other things that we could say in order to help us properly interpret and apply difficult passages such as the imprecatory Psalms; however, understanding the perfection of God’s wisdom and justice is foundational.
Confusion Caused by Dispensationalism
Another element which often causes confusion for some Christians today (particularly when seeking to read and apply the Old Testament) is the false notion that the Bible contains two different plans of salvation: one for national Israel and another for the Church. This erroneous teaching has arisen in the last 150-200 years in England and the United States and is known as dispensationalism (I’ve written before on dispensationalism here).
Even if one has never heard the word “dispensationalism” or received formal teaching on the doctrines of dispensationalism, it has had a great influence on modern evangelicalism. So, many evangelical Christians read the Old Testament and (perhaps even subconsciously) dismiss portions of God’s Word, thinking that they only apply to national Israel or those physically descended from Abraham.
But, the Bible teaches that Israel under the old covenant is the root of the tree into which believers in the new covenant have been grafted in (Romans 11:17-21); those who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed (or descendants), heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:29). To put it another way, borrowing from Paul’s language in Galatians 3, the Westminster Confession of Faith calls the people of Israel in the old covenant, “a church under age” (WCF 19:3).
This understanding that the Church of the new covenant is Israel ‘grown up’ is critical to properly interpreting and applying the Scriptures. In our sermon this coming Sunday, we will see how this is especially key in understanding and applying portions of Scripture that speak of Zion, the city of God (in this case, Psalm 87). While these passages certainly had direct application for believers in the old covenant, they find their ultimate fulfilment for believers living in the Messianic age.
A Succinct Summary of What the Bible Teaches about Israel, the Church, and the Gospel
In 2002, some of the faculty members of Knox Theological Seminary wrote an ‘open letter to evangelicals and other interested parties’ which is a succinct explanation of what the Bible teaches (in contradistinction to dispensationalism) about Israel, the Church, the Gospel, and the one way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Others have since signed this document; the full title is, “An Open Letter to Evangelicals and Other Interested Parties: The People of God, the Land of Israel, and the Impartiality of the Gospel” and you may view or download a pdf copy online here.
[Just as an aside: don’t let the long title turn you away. The actual document contains ten statements and is only about a page and half long, but with many footnotes and biblical references which makes it seem longer than it is. I highly recommend downloading and reading the whole thing, checking the Scripture references as you go along.]
Here is just one of the ten points which speaks to how the church of Israel in the Old Testament and the Israel of God in the New Testament is one body of the Lord Jesus Christ:
6. The inheritance promises that God gave to Abraham were made effective through Christ, Abraham’s True Seed. These promises were not and cannot be made effective through sinful man’s keeping of God’s law. Rather, the promise of an inheritance is made to those only who have faith in Jesus, the True Heir of Abraham. All spiritual benefits are derived from Jesus, and apart from him there is no participation in the promises. Since Jesus Christ is the Mediator of the Abrahamic Covenant, all who bless him and his people will be blessed of God, and all who curse him and his people will be cursed of God. These promises do not apply to any particular ethnic group, but to the church of Jesus Christ, the true Israel. The people of God, whether the church of Israel in the wilderness in the Old Testament or the Israel of God among the Gentile Galatians in the New Testament, are one body who through Jesus will receive the promise of the heavenly city, the everlasting Zion. This heavenly inheritance has been the expectation of the people of God in all ages.
Again, you may view or download a copy of this helpful document (“An Open Letter to Evangelicals and Other Interested Parties: The People of God, the Land of Israel, and the Impartiality of the Gospel”) online here.
This coming Sunday we’ll be looking at Psalm 87 and what we mean when, in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Thy Kingdom come.” Here is a statement from the conclusion of the ‘open letter’ mentioned above that speaks directly to this petition and what we are praying for:
The promised Messianic kingdom of Jesus Christ has been inaugurated. Its advent marks the focal point of human history. This kingdom of the Messiah is continuing to realize its fullness as believing Jews and Gentiles are added to the community of the redeemed in every generation. The same kingdom will be manifested in its final and eternal form with the return of Christ the King in all his glory.
Peter M. Dietsch is pastor of Providence PCA in Midland, Texas. This article first appeared on his church website and is used with permission.