In the latest issue of The Master’s Seminary Journal, Michael Vlach writes a critique of the non-dispensational understanding of Christ and Israel. After laying out the case of four non-dispensationalists for understanding Israel to be fulfilled in one way or another in Jesus, Vlach turns to Isa 49:3-6 as a prooftext for the dispensational view that “national Israel” has a future distinct from Gentile Christians in the church. On page 54, Vlach lists four conclusions that lead him to reject the non-dispensational position. Let’s have a look at his conclusions and see if they lead to a rejection of a covenantal position on the meaning of Israel.
1. No writer in the Bible states that Jesus’ identification with Israel means the end of national Israel’s significance.
Immediately, we are confronted with a thorny problem that simply will not go away throughout Vlach’s article. What is “national Israel?” Unfortunately, Vlach does not define this phrase anywhere in his article. I assume he means something like “a geo-political nation consisting of exclusively ethnic Jews.” But herein lies the problem. When the Bible, specifically the OT, uses terms like Israel, Jacob, and Judah, does it always mean a geo-political nation consisting of exclusively ethnic Jews? Genesis, the foundation of all the OT promises to Israel, dispels any notion of Israel as a geo-political nation consisting exclusively of ethnic Jews. Israel begins not as a nation but as a family. The family of Israel consists of both Jews and Gentiles within the twelve tribes themselves, as Joseph, who becomes the patriarch of two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, marries an Egyptian woman. This sets a pattern that recurs throughout the Old Testament, as Gentiles regularly become part of the family (and, later, nation, to use Vlach’s term, of Israel). This reality is seen most clearly in the line of Jesus Himself, which consists of the Gentile Rahab and the Moabitess Ruth. When Rahab converted, she became an Israelite. When Ruth converted, she became an Israelite. Were these women ethnically Jewish? No. Were they part of the nation of Israel? Yes. Therefore, the idea that “national Israel” is a nation composed exclusively of ethnic Jews is debunked in the OT itself.
With that foundation, Vlach’s point that the Bible does not eliminate the significance of ethnic Jews is well taken, though certainly it is not a point on which dispensationalists have a monopoly. Certain strands of Amillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Historic Premillennialism, as his quote from Ladd shows, have a place in their eschatological system for ethnic Jews. Unfortunately, until Vlach defines what he means by “national Israel” and validates his definition from Scripture, his first point must be disregarded as either being nonsensical, since the Bible does not know of a “national Israel” consisting exclusively of Jews, or irrelevant, since theologians from both dispensationalism and covenant theology recognize a place for ethnic Jews in their eschatological systems.
2. Isaiah 49 specifically predicts that the Servant and ultimate Israel, Jesus Christ, would restore the nation Israel and bring light to the nations.
An attempt to exegete Isaiah 49:3-6 would take an article in itself, so I will not attempt it here. I simply want to point out that the prophecy in Isaiah never states that Israel will be restored as a geo-political nation. The context of the passage is clearly the salvation brought by Jesus Christ. The raising up of the tribes of Jacob and the restoration of the preserved ones of Israel is a reference to God redeeming Israel from her sins. For the Servant of the LORD, to bring this great salvation only to ethnic Jews would be too slight, so God will make the Servant a light to the nations so that this great salvation reaches the ends of the earth. The point of the passage is therefore not to separate and divide “the nation Israel” from the Gentiles, but to show how both Jews and Gentiles will experience the same salvation from the Servant of the LORD. Any exegesis of this text must interpret the restoration of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles as a unity.
3. Jesus did not view His identity and ministry as the end of national Israel’s existence; instead, He affirmed national Israel’s place in the eschaton.
Because Vlach limits “national Israel” to ethnic Jews, he creates a problem the Scripture does not contain and therefore does not answer. Jesus did not view His identity and ministry as the end of Israel’s existence. He viewed His identity and ministry as the expansion of Israel to include a multitude of Gentiles. While several passages could be used to prove this point, I’ll simply mention one, John 10:16.
Jesus said, “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (emphasis mine). At this point in the context of John, Jesus can only be referring to the Gentiles as the “sheep which are not of this fold.” The dispensational insistence on national Israel being a group of ethnic Jews exclusively cannot reckon with this text. Jesus does not say that He will call the other sheep and make them something other than part of the “one flock.” The sheep that were by and large outside the fold would soon be called into the fold and join the one flock of the people of God, which could have only referred to Israel to Jesus’ original audience. Israel’s identity is not annihilated by Jesus; it is expanded to include sheep from among the Gentiles.
4. Even after the church started the apostles affirmed a future for the nation Israel.
As with the first point, if all Vlach means is that the apostles affirmed a future for ethnic Jews, then many covenant theologians would have no quarrel with him. However, Vlach goes beyond this to mean that “the nation Israel” will exist apart from Gentiles as an exclusively Jewish political entity. This idea, however, goes against the entire tenor of not only Acts but the rest of the New Testament.
When the church started in the book of Acts, the Apostles did not see themselves as anything other than Israelites who had believed in the Messiah. They understood themselves to be the people who were following their ancient religion and practicing their faith according to the Scriptures. If the Apostles would have thought of themselves as something other than “Israel” as the church of Jesus Christ, one can only assume far less consternation would have occurred when the Gentiles began receiving the Holy Spirit. If the Gentiles who had believed were not considered to be part of Israel, why was there ever a debate about whether they should be circumcised? And, assuming the Judaizers simply had a poor ecclesiology, as dispensationalists must, why were the Judaizers not refuted with the simple, straightforward argument, “Gentiles do not need to be circumcised because they are not part of Israel; they’re part of the church!” The only reasonable conclusion is that the early church did not make the church/Israel distinction dispensationalists have made the cornerstone of their system. The entire point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, as he refutes the Judaizers, is that Gentiles become full participants in God’s covenant promises to Abraham and his offspring through faith alone, so they do not need to be circumcised to become members of “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16).
In Eph 2:14, Paul makes this point as clear as can be. The wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles is broken down in Christ. They are now one body in Him. But the dispensational insistence that the nation of Israel has a future distinct from the church attempts to rebuild the wall broken down by Christ’s cross. In this future Vlach posits, is the nation of Israel in Christ, or not? If they are not in Christ, how are they saved? By what Gospel? In whose name? And on what authority? If they are in Christ, why is there such a sharp distinction? Will Christ rebuild the wall He tore down by the very blood of His cross? Does He think so little of His own cross-work that the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Him is only meant to be a temporary blip in history?
Finally, Rev 1:6 states clearly that Christ “has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.” John is writing to churches filled with Gentiles. What else can he mean, if we are to interpret Revelation literally, except that the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles who have been released from their sins by the blood of Christ, is a kingdom, a nation of priests to God?
Vlach is absolutely correct that the apostles affirmed a future for Israel, rightly understood. It is a future in Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, but that includes them both. It is a future as a kingdom of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, that is, Jews and Gentiles, bought by the blood of the Lamb. It is a future where Israel is what she was always meant to be: The uniting of a multitude of nations as the covenant people of the one, true, and living God, to give glory to His name through His Son, Jesus the Messiah, and to enjoy Him forever.
In conclusion, Vlach’s four conclusions are not persuasive reasons to adopt dispensationalism.