The Commonwealth of Israel
I have been providing a number of brief rejoinders to Sam Waldron’s critical review of John MacArthur’s 2007 Shepherd’s Conference message, Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Premillennialist.
The last two rejoinders in this study addressed Sam’s view of Galatians 6:16 and Romans 9:6. In short, Sam believes the name “Israel,” as it is often used in the NT epistles, is a synonym for the NT Church. In other words, the NT Church has replaced, or in Sam’s view, fulfilled the OT promises God made to the people Israel in which He says He will make them a great nation and establish them in an everlasting kingdom. Those promises are understood to be fulfilled in the Body of Christ, a spiritual people of God who comprise both Jews and gentiles believing in Christ alone by faith alone. Hence, those promises are taken to be spiritual promises fulfilled in the salvation by faith in Christ.
Now, there are a few other NT passages Sam says supports his position of a NT spiritual Israel equating the NT Church, but I want to zero in upon his study of Ephesians 2:11-20.
In his opening paragraphs introducing his study, Sam make this bold statement concerning Ephesians 2:12, “The use of Israel in Ephesians 2:12 cannot be regarded as anything but an explicit reference to the church.” [MMM, 61]. He then proceeds to build his argument with an examination of the passage.
Beginning in Ephesians 2:11, Sam draws attention to the description of the Ephesians as “gentiles in the flesh.” The description, argues Sam, is significant in two respects. First, Paul is concerned with contrasting ethnic gentiles and ethnic Israel, and then secondly, the phrase, “in the flesh” strongly implies that in the spirit they are not gentiles, but Jews or Israelites [MMM, 62].
Then moving to vs. 13, Sam points out how Paul says the believing gentiles are brought near, but the question can be asked, near to what? The context, Sam answers, insists those gentiles are brought near to, or become participants in, the commonwealth of Israel. “The gentiles are made near to all the things from which they were formerly excluded … According to verse 12, they were excluded from Christ, the commonwealth of Israel, the covenants of promise, hope, and God,” [MMM, 63]. Thus, Sam concludes that if the gentiles are made participants in the “commonwealth of Israel,” that clearly means (at least to Sam) that gentiles are now Israelites.
He goes on to explain how the root word translated in 2:19 as fellow citizens is the same as the word translated as commonwealth in 2:12. So Paul then is saying that those gentiles who were formerly aliens and strangers to Israel are now fellow citizens in the same commonwealth as the Jewish saints mentioned in verse 19, and they are now considered Israelites.
Those grammatical factors, Sam confidently argues, provide clear reason as to why he can say the NT church has taken upon itself the title of the New Israel. He even states emphatically that he has seen no one commentator who has interacted with his precise arguments for Ephesians 2:12-20 as he has laid them out in this chapter. Moreover, even though he is aware that dispensationalists have their own opinion as to how they handle this passage, he smugly notes that the text is fraught with many difficulties for the dispensational system and suggests most dispensational commentators pass over the section quickly without fully dealing with the difficulties often straining the grammatical bounds of the passage in order to save their system.
Before offering my response to Sam, allow me to note a couple of things.
First, like with so many of his arguments presented in his book, Sam simply assumes some theological factors are true without warrant when appealing to his proof texts.
For instance, he seems to want to spiritualize many portions of this passage when such a hermeneutic is not necessitated by the context. His understanding that “gentiles in the flesh” has an implied “gentiles in the spirit,” thus concluding they are spiritual Israelites, is being read into the passage not derived from it.
And then secondly, I find his claim that he has found no one who has interacted with his precise arguments for his interpretation of this passage to be a bit incredible in light of so many commentators who have written on this passage. He does interact with one internet article by dispensational theologian, Michael Vlach, of The Master’s Seminary where MacArthur is president. However, even with the brief comments he offers, they are reacting to a small section of a much larger article that does not have as its focus the whole of Ephesians 2:12-20.
A better dispensational commentator to have interacted with would have been Harold Hoehner who has published a massive 900+ page commentary on Ephesians. He provides almost 64 pages of detailed exegesis of 2:11-22 and he interacts with many of Sam’s arguments for his position. Perhaps he picked Dr. Vlach because he teaches at a seminary affiliated with MacArthur, but if he is going to make such a bold assertion it may lend more credibility to his claim if he picked a disagreeing representative who has provided substantive research to consider.
Now, with those thoughts in mind, does Sam’s take on Ephesians 2 stand up to scrutiny? A lot of my response to his will draw from Harold Hoehner’s work, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary in order to demonstrate that his precise arguments have been answered.
In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul discusses the great gulf that once existed between Jews and gentiles and that now both Jews and gentiles in Christ (the operative phrase) have been united in one new humanity, or “New Man.” The idea of “new” isn’t a new title for what was called something different in the OT, (i.e, Israel=people of God=Church), but it is an entirely unique creation on account of the finished work of Christ.
Originally, the gentiles were called “uncircumcision” by those who were “circumcised” meaning the Jews took great pride in their practice of circumcision as it related to the seal of the covenant God made with Abraham. Contrary to Sam drawing spiritual inferences in verse 11 with the phrase “in the flesh” as a contrast to “in the spirit” [MMM, 62] which he thinks makes the gentiles “spiritual” Jews, all that Paul is doing is pointing out the deep separation that existed between the Jews and the gentiles before either group were in Christ. He is not using the phrase “in the flesh” to infer that gentiles are now spiritual Jews.
In verse 12, Paul notes the lack of privilege the gentiles had formerly. Such as being without Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world. Two comments in response to Sam regarding the verse:
First, Sam sees the phrase “without Christ” as referring to the gentiles being without salvation, or without saving faith in the gospel of Christ. Hoehner points out that the gentiles were not only separate from Christ personally, something true of all Jews as well, but that it was a separation from the national hope of the Messiah. That is what Paul means when he says the gentiles were “without Christ.” Whereas Israel had a national hope of a coming Messiah, the gentiles were without that revelation, [Hoehner, 355-356].
Then secondly, the phrase “citizenship of Israel” or as the NASB translates it, “commonwealth of Israel,” is not a spiritual entity as Sam supposes in his argument that now makes the gentiles spiritual Israelites. Hoehner notes two possible interpretations of the phrase: either reference to a citizenship of a political state (or spiritual state as Sam suggests) or citizenship in belonging to a group [Hoehner, 356-357]. The last one is to be preferred because the whole context speaks to the privileged community of Israel chosen by God as the recipients of His favor and promises. God fearing gentiles would desire such citizenship, but would be limited to their participation in such a group due to their gentile status.
Ephesians 2:13 then goes on to state that those gentiles have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Sam asks, near to what? and proceeds to verse 19 skipping the five verses in between by just given a quick mention of what Paul says in them. Obviously it is correct to ask, near to what? and verse 19 explains the answer as being near as fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household. But there needs to be an explanation as to why Paul can give that answer in verse 19 and that is explained in verses 14-18.
In verse 14 Paul begins his explanation of his answer by saying how Christ is our peace, the one who tears down the middle wall of partition, alluding to the dividing wall between the court of the gentiles and the court of the Jews in the temple compound, and how He unites both Jews and gentiles together in one. That unity is further accomplished by Christ when He in His death rendered inoperative the law of commandments in decrees, or those Mosaic ordinances which kept the Jews separated from gentiles. The reason that has happened, notes Paul, is because in Christ God has created out of the two groups one New Man.
It is important to keep in mind here that Jews, in spite of their privilege as Israelites, were just as separated spiritually from God as they were from the gentiles. That is a point Sam seems to miss in his discussion, or at least he glances over it. When both groups are made one, as Paul goes on to say, it is as a unified new humanity. That isn’t a new title for an entity that had previously existed that now just includes gentiles, but it is an entirely new body.
That is why it is theologically inaccurate to say the gentiles are now spiritual Israelites, or the NT Church is a “new Israel.” God wasn’t adding gentiles to Israel and He wasn’t creating a new Israel. He was creating an entirely new man comprised of believing Jews and gentiles who share in the redemption of all saints in the household of God through all ages (2:19, 20).
As much as I commend Sam’s efforts in an attempt to present his view on the NT Church being a New Israel here from Ephesians 2, I don’t believe it holds up under examination. Thus, in my opinion, MacArthur’s original statement about amillennialists only having Galatians 6:16 and Romans 9:6 as the only places were they can try to say the Church is a New Israel is correct.
Moreover, I believe Sam’s position is hermeneutically driven, which I am sure Sam will readily admit, but the hermeneutics are driven by the engine of Covenant Theology, something I don’t believe an honest study of Ephesians supports. Now, others may say my take on this passage is driven by my “dispensational” theology. Perhaps that is true, but I think I have shown that 1) the so-called dispensational take on Ephesians 2 is not fraught with many problems as Sam claims, and 2) I think the more correct handling of the exegesis yields my conclusions on the passage rather than Sam’s.