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Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Church: Definition, Purpose, and Destiny

While one might think that it is easy to give a biblical definition of the Church, there is no consensus on what the Church is and how it fits within God’s overall plans in history. Generic statements that “the Church is the people of God united to Christ through faith,” while accurate, do not address some important questions such as: (1) When did the Church begin? (2) What is the Church’s role both now and in the future? and (3) How does the Church specifically relate to Israel?  

With this blog I want to offer some specific statements concerning how I understand the Church, and in doing so address some issues that often are not addressed. Be aware that this is more of a statement of how I understand the Church and not a full-blown defense of my views. Since I am addressing some issues that are rarely addressed I offer my thoughts with the caveat that I may modify my wording later based on further reflection and interaction with others. So let me know what you think.

Definition: The Church is the New Covenant community of God as it exists in this dispensation between the events of Acts 2 (Day of Pentecost) through the rapture of the Church prior to the Day of the Lord.

Constituents: The Church consists of the believing remnant of Israel and believing Gentiles in this era between the events of Acts 2 and the Rapture. The emphasis of this era is on Gentiles coming to faith although a remnant of believing Israel—the “Israel of God”--continues to exist (see Gal 6:16).

The Church only consists of true believers in Jesus Christ. In this sense there is a “universal” Church which consists of all true Christians of this era regardless of geography or time period in which they live. The actual manifestation of the universal church is found in local churches where Christians meet together.

Purpose:  In this dispensation while the nation Israel is experiencing a temporary judgment of God and the nation as a whole is characterized by unbelief, God has sovereignly established His Church as His instrument for Gospel and kingdom proclamation. The Church’s purpose is to take the Gospel to the world so that people from every people group can be saved and be qualified to enter Christ’s kingdom when it is established on earth at His second coming. This mission of the Church is to bring glory to God through reaching the lost for Christ, preaching the Word of God, and edifying Christians. The Church is a strategic part of God’s plans as it becomes the instrument for His truth during this era before the kingdom is established.

Relationship to Israel: The Church is not Israel but it is in a close historical and redemptive relationship with Israel. Those in the Church participate in Israel’s covenants which even in the Old Testament were given for the purpose of one day including Gentiles (see Gen 12:2–3). Both the believing remnant of Israel in this age and believing Gentiles participate together in the “one new man” concept (Eph 2:15) in which they participate equally in salvation and spiritual blessings by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Yet they still retain their ethnic identities (see Eph. 3:6). Believing Gentiles are not incorporated into Israel but they participate together with believing Jews in salvation. The Church is a strategic part of God’s plans but in itself is not the final completion of God’s plans. When the “fullness of the Gentiles” has been completed then “all Israel will be saved” and there will be an increase in blessings to the Gentiles (see Rom 11:12).  

The Future of the Church: When Israel is saved and restored in connection with Jesus Christ’s second coming and the establishment of His millennial kingdom on earth, those who comprised Jesus’ Church will have positions of authority over the nations which is part of the Church’s reward for faithful service. These are real positions of authority with specific functions to the various nations of the earth. Thus, the Church goes from persecution to positions of authority in the kingdom (see Rev. 2:26–27).

How do members of the Church relate to Israel and the nations in the Millennium and eternal state? I am not dogmatic on this, but it is my belief that members of the Church will forever be identified with the Church and the important role that Christians had in this era between the two comings of Christ. Yet it is also possible that individual members of the Church may integrate into the nations, perhaps identifying with their ethnic group or nation they were associated with during the present era.

I believe this is the case with the remnant of Israel during this present era. I see no reason why a believing Jew in the Church cannot be identified with the nation Israel when Israel experiences the full blessings of the eternal covenants in the Millennium and Eternal State. Thus, in the case of Christian Jews, they can be both part of the Church in this dispensation and part of national Israel when Israel is saved and restored. Thus a dual identity with both the Church and Israel is possible.

14 comments:

  1. Dr. Vlach, along with this discussion, what is the relationship of the Davidic Cov with the Church. Due to my limited research, I only know of the NT speaking of Christ's current Messianic current role and vague references to Individual members of the Church claiming inheritance in the Kingdom, but what is the corporate role of the Church as the Davidic Cov comes to fulfillment. Would you mind directing me to passages and monographs.

    Thanks, Shawn

    Please keep these posts coming!!!!!

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  2. Hi Shawn, my short answer is that there is a relationship but the emphasis on the Davidic Covenant is on future fulfillment. I think the resurrection and ascension of Jesus has implications for Jesus' exaltation as Messiah (Acts 2). I also hold that Jesus' identity as Messiah allows for Gentiles to be related to the kingdom program (Acts 15:13-18). I think being saved makes one a son of the kingdodm which is to come (Matt 13). But Heb 10:12-13 indicates that Jesus is at the right hand of God "waiting" until His enemies are made a footstool for His feet. While Jesus has been given all power and authority the exercise of the Davidic reign is future.

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  3. An interesting point about the relation of Church members to the nations in the kingdom.

    One question I've asked myself (and others) is what happens to Jews in the church?

    On one hand, they cannot lose anything they had in the Abrahamic Covenant. On the Other, they gain more spiritually in Christ. Yet, they are dispensationally Jews in the Church, and according to Dispensational doctrine, the Church and Israel don't cross paths-at least now.

    This is where all the promises of God are Yes & Amen in Christ, to the Jews who believe now.

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  4. Well put. I have children who were born abroad, and, for a period of time, had dual-citizen status.

    I also think you could amplify. How do you see the Church as the Bride of Christ now, in the Tribulation, in the Millennium, and throughout eternity? And what role does Israel have in relation to the Bride in the Kingdom and in eternity? Certainly the two share the same city as their capital in eternity.

    And while we are at it, will there be a physical land of Israel in eternity? (Why have a capital city over no land?)

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  5. It seems to me that the distinctions attained during the various dispensations hold throughout both the temporal and eternal phases of the eschatological kingdom. Saved Jews from the Church age and saved Gentiles from the Church age remain identified with the "one new man concept" and never shift to either national Israel or those of the saved gentile nations, respectively. I think when one considers the uniqueness of the Church, the sequence of the resurrections, and some key scriptural passages, it appears the distinctions hold up forever. This does not, however, attack or diminish the fact that each distinct group has its salvific basis in the atoning death of Christ no matter what period of history or ethnicity one may be a part of.

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  6. Pierre,
    The answer is that believing Jews in this age are related to both the church now and Israel. This is a both/and situation. They are related to the Abrahamic Covenant and the blessings in Christ.

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  7. Hi Ron, thanks for interacting with me on this.

    I think that believing Jews are linked with the church now and will be with the nation Israel in the future when the nation is saved. This is a both/and situation. Galatians 6:16 refers to believing Jews as the "Israel of God" showing their connection with Israel even now. Also, I'm not seeing any evidence that a believing Jew in the church age will not be identified with Israel in the future.

    Do you think the one new man concept ends with the rapture?

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  8. Dr Vlach,

    I do believe the “one new man concept” ends with the rapture if by that you mean the rapture sets the ending limit by which one could become a member of the body of Christ. If, however, you’re asking whether the church loses its distinctness and the redeemed of all ages become a homogeneous people group during the Messianic Age, the eternal state or both, then I would say no. To my way of thinking, the "nature" of the church provides one of the strongest reasons in support of the view that distinctions remain intact. Paul’s description of the church as a “mystery” in Ephesians 3 is quite telling. As you know, the church is the union of Jew and Gentile “in one body” and unlike anything previously revealed in Scripture. Yes, the Abrahamic Covenant envisioned blessings upon the Gentiles but the concept of them uniting with Jews “in one body” and being baptized in/with the Spirit was totally new. Although a “connection” with Israel may be supported by Galations 6:16, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that a saved Jew, who is a member of the body of Christ, would then be identified with a saved national Israel, a particular corporate body itself, at some time in the future. As the Israel of God, the believing Jewish remnant of this dispensation, while being connected “ethnically” to national Israel, finds itself more intimately and/or mystically joined to believing Gentiles. The futures promised to each group appears to be different. National Israel finding itself in a place of priority with respect to the nations and seen by some as leading the nations in corporate worship while the Church rules with Christ as part of His administration on earth. While there may not be direct "evidence" speaking against the concept of dual identification or even a melding of Jew, Gentile, and Church in the future, it seems the burden would be on this position to show where these changes are implied.

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  9. Ron, I used to hold the view that the one new man concept ends at the Rapture and that Jewish members of the church are only identified with the church and not Israel, but I changed my thinking on this because I did not feel these views could be supported. I think the burden of proof is on those who would say that believing Jews in this era will not be related to the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. If we grant that believing Jews are related to Israel now ("Israel of God" Gal 6:16) while the church is in existence why would this change in the future? Also if you look at Rev 21-22 the emphasis is on the nations; they are mentioned three times. I think believing Jews now will be related to Israel in the millennium and the new earth and believing Gentiles will be related to the other nations in these periods.

    I guess I'm seeing this more as a 'both/and' situation instead of an 'either/or'. I'm not denying that believing Jews now will be related to the church in eternity, I just don't see why they would be excluded from the nation Israel in the millennium and the eternal state.

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  10. Dr. Vlach, I greatly appreciate the exchange on this topic. In my opinion, Gal 6:16 is using the realization on the part of the believing remnant of Israel to emphasis the point that “peace and mercy” is to be obtained when one is set free from the Judaizing error, the overall context of the epistle. With respect to Rev 21 and 22, it appears that the “nations” are entering the New Jerusalem, the location already occupied by the Church as evidenced by Rev 3:12 “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God” and Rev 22:3 “and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him”. This would seem to indicate that redeemed Gentiles from among the nations are not essentially merged with the redeemed Gentiles within the body of Christ. And if the redeemed gentiles from among the nations are not intrinsically identified with the redeemed gentiles within the Church, by implication the same may hold true for Jewish believers and their relationship to national Israel and the Church. From my perspective, believing Jews of this era are related to the fulfillment of the promises to Israel by virtue of the fact that their membership within the body of Christ in the present is a guarantee that God will keep His promises to national Israel in the future.

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  11. New creation eschatology: excellent. But can we define the church as a new covenant community? The new covenant is made with Israel and Israel was set aside as the covenant nation and dissolved until God restores her in a day. Does God recognize Jews today? I don't see how, Israel rejected the Messiah and the covenant nation has been set aside. The remnant referred to believers of the real Israel which no longer exists and won't exist until God restores the kingdom and regathers Israel unto it. They had a privileged position due to covenant status but no longer. They are trespassers and have lost their national covenant status. As a result, all including Jews must come to God on the basis of grace rather than covenant. The branches were broken off and no one can be added to Israel until God re-establishes her. The nation referred to as Israel today is merely just another gentile nation with no special covenant privilege. The remnant died out with the first century. What are we referring to when we talk about Jews today? How many actually have a blood line relationship to the Biblical ethnic group? Any? Aren't they rather blood relations to religious converts? Can they be seen as having any legitimate claim to being a Biblical Jew? And religious (in contrast to blood-line) Jews stand in rejection of their Messiah. I don't see how there can be seen to be any continuity between the Israel God set aside and the twentieth century birth of a secular nation adopting the name of Israel.

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  12. Paul has revealed that the church has access to God by grace rather than covenant. It is true that we have covenant blessings through and in Christ. This is not through a covenant relationship though. Christ as sovereign executor is free to distribute those blessings as He sees fit...either through covenant or apart from covenant through grace! So we enjoy covenant blessings through the grace of a sovereign executor, but we can not be said to participate in the covenant. Now when the remnant still existed, I think they could look forward to a restoration of believing Israelites into a new covenant relationship with their God. Israel will be recreated when the kingdom is established and they will be in a new covenant relationship with God. Until then there is only grace and no one can claim any privilege.

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  13. Ross - is there such a dichotomy between grace and covenant? I can see a need to distinguish between law and grace (Rom 6), or law and covenant (Gal 3), but covenant and grace are friends, right? Perhaps you can have grace without covenant, but covenant is always an act of pure grace, right?

    As to whether we are part of the covenant... While Israel's name was on the covenant to begin with, haven't we been added into that (Romans 11)?

    I put all this in the form of questions, because I genuinely would like to hear you (Mike and Ross) respond.

    p.s. Praise God for His "precious and magnificent promises by which we have become partakers of the divine nature!" (Loosely 2 Pet 1)

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  14. Having commented on the Gentile side of the equation, I'd like to probe on the Israeli part of it.

    Ross, you suggest that Israel's participation in the covenant has been dissolved, that it no longer even exists.

    Can you substantiate this for me? What scriptures are leading you to that conclusion?

    I would like to understand this better as I am always drawn back to the inviolable nature of a grace-based divine promise. I can wrap my brain around the idea that, on account of Israel's unbelief, God has deferred their inheritance, but I struggle to see sufficient evidence that He has entirely written them out of the promise. Also, if this is what has happened, it certainly begs the questions as to why He would see any need to fulfill His many promises of Israelite restoration and salvation.

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