The view presented below is held by premillennialists (those who believe in a 1,000 year earthly reign of Christ between his second coming and eternity), amillennialists (those who believe the millennium is occurring now, in heaven, among the saints with Christ, and who believe the second coming will be followed immediately by the eternal state), as well as some postmillennialists. Although these groups disagree over the nature and timing of the millennium, they are in agreement in their rejection of dispensationalism and their affirmation of one people of God.
A. The People of God and the Promise of the Kingdom
1. There is in God’s redemptive purpose one people, the elect. This single body of elect people, however, when viewed within the context of biblical history, is comprised of differing individuals and assumes diverse forms. Beginning with Gen. 12, however, God selected out from among all the peoples of the earth one man, Abraham, and pledged Himself to him and his seed to be their God. Thus beginning with Abraham and extending to the first advent of Christ the elect of God were found almost wholly within the bounds of one ethnic body, Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is only appropriate that the people of God in the OT should be called Israel, for it was in that stage of biblical history that God’s elect assumed the form of a national, socio-political group. Therefore, from Abraham to Christ, or more specifically, from Moses to Christ (since with Moses and the giving of the law the nation of Israel was more conspicuous as a national body), it was God’s will that His people be definitively set apart by a national organization with specific geographical boundaries hedged in by laws to keep them separate from all heathen peoples. Since the coming of Christ, however (as we shall see), He has seen fit to remove the restricting element of the Law and to organize His people as a Church which transcends national and geographical boundaries.
2. The covenant promises given to Israel included a land, prosperous and numerous seed, an everlasting throne, international supremacy, etc., all of which may be called an expression of the Kingdom of God; i.e., the whole of these promises and their fulfillment via the Messianic reign of Christ = the Kingdom of God (the consummate fulfillment of Israel’s covenant promises).
3. The expectant attitude and hope of the 1st century Israelite was for the fulfillment of just such a kingdom. His question was: “When will Yahweh send the Messiah to deliver us from our oppressors and fulfill the covenant promises given to our fathers? Where is God’s promised fulfillment of the kingdom?”
[To this point, most DP would agree with the majority of what you’ve just read. It is with the coming of Jesus and his offer of the kingdom that disagreement sets in.]
B. The Coming of the Kingdom
1. The focus of Christ’s ministry was the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God - Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 4:23; 10:7; Luke 4:43; 10:9; Matthew 24:14; see especially Mark 1:14-15 (“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”).
2. What exactly did Jesus mean when he referred to “the kingdom of God” being “at hand”? Was Jesus offering to Israel the fulfillment of the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of an earthly Davidic throne and rule, as they perceived that rule? I think not. What, then, did he offer?
3. The concept of the kingdom clearly in the mind of the OT Jew was that of God’s visible conquest of His enemies, the vindication and restoration of His people, Israel, to supremacy in the land, and the fulfillment of the promises of a Davidic throne and rule upon the earth in power and glory. That this kind of a kingdom was expected by the average Israelite in the 1st c. is indisputable. According to N. T. Wright,
“God’s kingdom, to the Jew-in-the-village in the first half of the first century, meant the coming vindication of Israel, victory over the pagans, the eventual gift of peace, justice and prosperity. It is scarcely surprising that, when a prophet appeared announcing that this kingdom was dawning, and that Israel’s God was at last becoming king, he found an eager audience” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 204).
The crucial issue was: when will Yahweh return to Zion to dwell with his people, to forgive them and to restore them? Jewish hope, notes Wright,
“was concrete, specific, focused on the people as a whole. If Pilate was still governing Judaea, then the kingdom had not come. If the Temple was not rebuilt, then the kingdom had not come. If the Messiah had not arrived, then the kingdom had not come. If Israel was not observing the Torah properly (however one might define that), then the kingdom had not come. If the pagans were not defeated and/or flocking to Zion for instruction, then the kingdom had not come. These tangible, this-worldly points of reference . . . are all-important” (223).
For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day as well as the common man, the coming kingdom of God would be a matter of national liberation and the military defeat of the pagan oppressors. [However, “for Jesus, the kingdom was an offer to those who would repent of just that aspiration” (384). More on this later.]
This was surely what John the Baptist expected; thus his bewilderment concerning Jesus: Matthew 11:2-6.
N.B. - In his response to John's disciples, Jesus was claiming that the fulfillment of the OT hope with its attendant blessings was in fact present in his person and ministry. The fulfillment, however, was not taking place along expected lines, hence John’s perplexity. The unexpected element was that fulfillment was taking place in Jesus, but without the eschatological consummation. The OT prophetic hope of the coming Messianic kingdom of God as promised to Israel is being fulfilledin the person and ministry of Jesus, but not consummated. The Jews of our Lord’s day, in keeping with what they saw in the OT, expected the consummation of the kingdom, the complete and final overthrow of Israel’s political enemies and the ushering in of the age of blessed peace and prosperity in the land. Our Lord, however, came with the message that before the kingdom would come in its eschatological consummation it has come in his own person and work in spirit and power. The kingdom, therefore, is both the present spiritual reign of God and the future realm over which He will rule in power and glory.
This brings me to my central thesis. Quoting Ladd, I contend that “before the eschatological appearing of God’s Kingdom at the end of the age, God’s Kingdom has become dynamically active among men in Jesus’ person and mission. The Kingdom in this age is not merely the abstract concept of God’s universal rule to which men must submit; it is rather a dynamic power at work among men. . . . Before the apocalyptic coming of God’s Kingdom and the final manifestation of his rule to bring in the new age, God has manifested his rule, his Kingdom, to bring men in advance of the eschatological era the blessings of his redemptive reign. There is no philological or historical or exegetical reason why God’s Kingdom, God’s rule, cannot manifest itself in two different ways at two different times to accomplish the same ultimate redemptive end,” (The Presence of The Future, p. 139).
4. The present form of the kingdom manifested in Matthew 11:5
Christ’s deeds (e.g., binding of Satan; “The meaning of Jesus’ exorcism of demons in its relationship to the Kingdom of God is precisely this: that before the eschatological conquest of God’s Kingdom over evil and the destruction of Satan, the Kingdom of God has invaded the realm of Satan to deal him a preliminary but decisive defeat” [ibid., p. 151]. Cf. Luke 10:18; Mt. 12:22-37).
Christ’s words (“The word which Jesus proclaimed itself brought to pass that which it proclaimed: release for captives, recovery for the blind, freeing of the oppressed. . . . The message creates the new era . . ., it makes possible the signs of the messianic fulfillment. The word brings about the Kingdom of God. The gospel is itself the greatest of the messianic signs,” [ibid., p. 165].)
5. Thus the kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among men. Furthermore, “this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver men from its power, and to bring them into the blessings of God’s reign. The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history (Ibid., p. 218).
6. This thesis is illustrated by the parables. Consider Mark 4:26-32 and Ladd’s explanation:
"His [Christ's] mission was to bring to men the fulfillment of the messianic salvation, while the apocalyptic consummation remained in the future. Such an event was unheard of. Precisely here was to be found the predicament of Jesus’ hearers: how could this be the supernatural Kingdom of God? Jesus made no display of apocalyptic glory. He refused to act as a conquering Davidic king, supernaturally endowed to crush Israel’s enemies. How could the Kingdom be present in one whose only weapon was his word, whose only victory was over demons and Satan and sickness?
The unexpected presence of the supernatural Kingdom is the central message of the parable in its historical setting. The Kingdom of God which will one day bring an apocalyptic harvest is present; but it is like a seed rather than the harvest. Yet the seed is related to the harvest; and the life of the seed is itself the act of God -- supernatural. While men sleep, the earth produces fruit automate. The supernatural act of God which will one day be disclosed in glory is active and at work in a new and unexpected form, in Jesus of Nazareth. In him is taking place a supernatural work of God" (TPOTF, p. 192).
7. This unexpected advent of the kingdom in its present form as God’s redemptive reign is precisely the “Mystery” form of the kingdom as illustrated in the parables of Matthew 13. That God proposed to bring in His kingdom is, of course, no secret or mystery. That the kingdom was to come in power and glory was no secret. The “Mystery” is a new disclosure concerning God’s purpose for the establishment of that kingdom; to be more specific, that the kingdom which is to come in the future in power and glory has, in point of fact, already entered into the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within and among men:
“. . . the ‘mystery of the kingdom’ is the key to the understanding of the unique element in Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom. He announced that the Kingdom of God had come near; in fact, he affirmed that it had actually come upon men (Mt. 12:28). It was present in his word and in his messianic works. It was present in his person; it was present as the messianic salvation. It constituted a fulfillment of the OT expectation. Yet the coming and presence of the Kingdom was not self-explanatory and altogether self-evident. There was something about it which could be understood only by revelation. This meant that while the presence of the Kingdom was a fulfillment of the OT expectation, it was a fulfillment in different terms from those which one might expect from the prophets. Before the end of the age and the coming of the Kingdom in glorious power, it was God’s purpose that the powers of that eschatological Kingdom should enter into human history to accomplish a defeat of Satan’s kingdom, and to set at work the dynamic power of God’s redemptive reign among men [cf. II Cor. 5:17]. This new manifestation of God’s Kingdom was taking place on the level of human history and centered in one man---Jesus Christ,” (Ibid., pp. 227-29).
8. George Ladd answers several important questions concerning the Kingdom of God in his book Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God.
"Are we to conclude that because the Jews interpreted the 'kingdom of God' as the Davidic kingdom that Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of heaven was at hand meant that he was prepared to inaugurate the promised earthly Davidic kingdom of Israel, if Israel would accept him, their Messiah? On the answer to this question rests the so-called 'postponed kingdom' theory. It is very possible that our Lord offered the Jewish people something which they misunderstood and misinterpreted. In fact, their very misunderstanding may well have been the very reason why they did not accept him. He did not offer them the sort of kingdom they wanted. Had he offered them the earthly, Davidic kingdom, they would have accepted it; but that was not yet to be. Before the coming of the earthly phase of the kingdom, there must come another manifestation of the kingdom, in saving power. The cross must precede the crown. The clue to this interpretation is found in this fact: Jesus did not offer to the Jews the earthly kingdom any more than he offered himself to them as their glorious, earthly King. . . .
Jesus did not present himself to Israel as the Davidic king, as Israel interpreted that kingship. He was the King, indeed. Matthew makes this as clear as can be. But he came not on a throne of glory, but “meek, riding upon an ass” (Zech. 9:9).The coming of the Messiah was to be twofold. He was to come in meekness, in humility, to suffer and die; he was also to come in power and glory to judge and to reign. In the same way, God’s kingdom was first to come to men in a spiritual sense, as the Saviour-King comes in meekness to suffer and die, defeating Satan and bringing into the sphere of God’s kingdom a host of people who are redeemed from the kingdom of Satan and of sin; and subsequently it is to be manifested in power and glory as the King returns to judge and reign. We are under no more obligation to interpret Jesus’ offer of the kingdom in light of the Jew’s understanding of it than we are to interpret his messiahship in light of Jewish interpretation. It is the inspired record, not Jewish theology, that is our guide. . . .
It is difficult to see how Jesus could have offered to Israel the earthly Davidic kingdom without the glorious Davidic King who was to reign in that kingdom. The very fact that he did not come as the glorious King, but as the humble Savior, should be adequate evidence by itself to prove that his offer of the kingdom was not the outward, earthly kingdom, but one which corresponded to the form in which the King himself came to men" (113-117).
9. Jesus did not offer to Israel the earthly Davidic kingdom which was postponed because they rejected it. Nothing was postponed. The fullness of the promised kingdom, that is, the earthly reign of Christ in power and glory, was not offered to the Jews. It was not God’s purpose that the kingdom in that sense should then come. Such is reserved for the consummation. It was God’s purpose, on the other hand, to prepare for himself through the ministry and message of Jesus a people who submit themselves now to his sovereign and kingly reign. That is the kingdom Jesus offered and it was accepted! To those who received our Lord then, and also now, the kingdom is a present spiritual reality. The powers of the future kingdom have been realized in present experience.
“This reign of God, inaugurated by Christ, calls into being a new people. The Jewish people rejected this kingdom, and it was therefore taken from them, who by history, background, and religion ought to have been the ‘sons of the kingdom’ (Matt. 8:12), and was given to a people who would receive it and manifest the righteousness which the kingdom must require (Matt. 21:43). This is the Church, the body of those who have accepted the Christ and so submitted themselves to the reign of God,” (CQATKOG, p. 131).
“As the messiahship of Christ involved two phases, a coming in humility to suffer and die, and a coming in power and glory to reign, so the kingdom is to be manifested in two realms: the present realm of righteousness or salvation when men may accept or reject the kingdom, and the future realm when the powers of the kingdom shall be manifested in visible glory. The former was inaugurated in insignificant beginnings without outward display, and those who accept it are to live intermingled with those who reject it until the consummation. Then the kingdom will be disclosed in a mighty manifestation of power and glory. God’s kingdom will come; and the ultimate state will witness the perfect realization of the will of God everywhere and forever,” (Ibid., pp. 131-32).
C. Israel and the Church: Contrast or Continuity?
1. It is clear that Jesus came as a Jew to the Jewish people to proclaim to them that God was now acting to fulfill his covenant promises. It was against the background and upon the foundation of the covenant promises to Israel, as the natural “sons of the Kingdom” (Mt. 8:12), that he spoke.
2. However, the nation of Israel as a whole rejected both Jesus and his message of the kingdom. As for the gravity of Israel’s rejection and the judgment of God which resulted: cf. Mt. 11:20-24; Luke 13:34f.; Mt. 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44; 23:27-31; 21:20-24; Mark 13:1-2 (the temple destroyed); 14:58; 15:29. See also Mt. 11:16-19; Mark 8:11-13; 9:19; Mt. 12:34; Luke 13:1-5; 13:6-19. The culmination of this judgment is stated in Mt. 21:43 and Mark 12:9.
This judgment of God against Israel for their unbelief and calloused rejection of the Messiah is described by Paul in Romans 11 as the “breaking off of the natural branches.”
3. On the other hand, a substantial group of Israelites did respond in faith and received Jesus as the Messiah with his offer of the kingdom. If Jesus offered the Messianic kingdom (i.e., its fulfillment as previously described), then that very fulfillment was actually realized/received in and for those who acceded to Christ’s claims.
“The recipients of the messianic salvation became the true Israel, representatives of the nation as a whole. While it is true that the word ‘Israel’ is never applied to Jesus’ disciples, the idea is present, if not the term. Jesus’ disciples therefore are the recipients of the messianic salvation, the people of the Kingdom, the true Israel,” (TPOTF, p. 250).
Let us never forget that Jesus' disciples, those who accepted his offer of the kingdom, those who would form the nucleus of the emerging Church, were Jewish.
4. It is against the background of the believing remnant that this concept of Jesus’ disciples as the true people of God is to be seen. They would become, by reason of their acceptance of the kingdom as over against the nation’s rejection, the nucleus of the new people of God, the Church.
In the OT the prophets, while viewing Israel as a whole as disobedient and thus subject to divine judgment, always perceived that there yet remained within the unbelieving nation a remnant of believers who were the objects of God’s love and care (cf. Ladd, TPOTF, pp. 72ff.). That is, within the nation of physical Israelites there was always a remnant of spiritual (or believing) Israelites (cf. Rom. 9:6 - “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel”). This believing remnant, wherever it may appear and however large or small it may be, is the true people of God. This theme reappears in our Lord’s reference to the disciples as a “little flock” (Luke 12:32). Israel as a whole, ideally God’s flock, rejected the Messiah; they were deaf to the voice of the shepherd; “but those who heard and followed the shepherd constitute his fold, the little flock, the true Israel,” (Ibid., p. 251). Cf. John 10:16.
Thus, Jesus saw the realization of Israel’s true destiny in the circle of his disciples. They are not to be thought of, however, as a “new” Israel, but as the "true" Israel, the “true people of God.” With Jesus’ offer of the kingdom came the fact that acceptance means the realization and fulfillment of the promise. This offer was accepted by the disciples and thus was realized and fulfilled in them. They constituted neither a new Israel nor a separate body of believers: rather, they were the BELIEVING REMNANT WITHIN THE UNBELIEVING NATION.
5. Matthew 16:18-19 - This “church”, therefore, is not a wholly distinct and completely new creation or purpose of God, separated from his people of the OT, Israel. Rather, the Church of the present age is but the continuation and maturation of the believing remnant of Israel, namely, the disciples and all others who received Jesus as Messiah. Thus, the fellowship or church established by Jesus stands not in opposition to but in direct continuity with the OT Israel. This body is “true” OT Israel: the remnant!
A word is in order here about so-called “Replacement” theology, according to which the Church has replaced and supplanted Israel in God’s purposes. A key text in understanding the truth concerning the relationship between Israel and the Church is Romans 11 and, in particular, its metaphor of the olive tree (more on this below). Paul doesn’t say that when Israel rejected Jesus that God uprooted or displaced the olive tree, only then to plant another tree (ostensibly the Church) in its place. Rather, the olive tree remains, firmly linked with and grounded in the roots of the patriarchal promises (Rom. 11:16-18). What God did was simply to remove or to break off individual branches (Jewish unbelievers) and to graft in (11:17) others (Gentile believers). There is no disruption in the identity of God’s people. The olive tree remains the Israel of God. Only now it is the true Israel of God, for in it are found only genuine believers. But because in this olive tree are now found Gentile believers who share the life of that tree equally with Jewish believers (cf. Eph. 2:11-22), it is also called the Church. No one has been replaced. But many have been included.
NOTE: When we speak of “one people of God” we should not conclude that the OT saints belonged to the “Church”. The “Church” properly and technically had its birthday on Pentecost. Although Acts 7:28 refers to “the church in the wilderness” (an obvious reference to OT Israel), and despite the fact that the word ekklesia (“church”) is used some 86 times in the LXX of the nation Israel, let us not forget that the word had not as of then attained its technical sense of the body of Christ, a congregation of God’s people called out from among all nations and united by the baptism in the Holy Spirit. It was at Pentecost, and not before, that God’s people (at that time, I might add, a people comprised almost wholly of believing Israelites, the remnant) became or took on a new form as the “Church”, the body of Christ. Therefore, it is appropriate to speak of Israel and the Church, the titles for God’s people in the OT and NT respectively, all the while recognizing in them God’s one people through whom he will accomplish his purpose.
To be continued . . .