Question: Do you believe the church has replaced Israel or do you believe that Israel still has a special place and is still God's chosen people?
The church has replaced Israel as the stewards and custodians of God's revelation in this present age. However, this replacement is I believe only temporary. It is a mystery not revealed in the Old Testament writings (Eph chapter 2-3). The church is a combination of Jews and Gentiles made into "one new man." This new man is however largely Gentile, and no longer a nation but an organization consisting of many local independent assemblys. Israel, on the other hand has a unique position in relation to God. It was Israel that God chose to use to accomplish His revelation of Himself, and His redemption (Deut 7:6), following the fall and man's hopeless situation. The question has to do with whether or not God’s special relation with ethnic Israel ended with Israel’s rejection of their Messiah.
The simple answer is the relationship with the true Israel cannot end, as God has promised in numerous places throughout Scripture that it is an eternal relationship (beginning in Gen 15:1; 17:7). To respond to this eternal aspect, some theologians believe the church is the "Israel of God" in the New Testament that has permanently replaced Israel. They use the term "Israel of God" from Galatians 6:16. However, the context of Galatians is not addressing the church being the replacement of ethnic Israel, but that within ethnic Israel there is the "Israel of God" or the true blessed descendents of Abraham. The true Israel that is carrying the promises are those who have the new birth (called "new creation" in Galatians 6:15). This is the same concept made by Paul in Romans 9:6. The only thing that really counts in relation to God's promises of ultimate blessing is being born again, not ethnic origin. Paul in Galatians is not dealing with the church replacing Israel. He is dealing with Jews who believe that Gentiles must become Jews (be circumcised) in order to be saved. He refutes this argument by explaining that salvation is not ethnic, but a new birth. The true Israel of God, speaking in the vernacular of those he is addressing, is not those exclusively related to Abraham by birth, but those who are born again.
With regard to the original promises made to Abraham, which is a different matter,we know they were made to ethnic Israel, and reiterated many times throughout the Old Testament prophets. Some however, have taken passages in the New Testament to teach that the church has permanently replaced ethnic Israel as the true Israel of God, and they believe that was God's intention from the beginning. To prove that God intended the church to be the fulfillment by being the true Israel, the following passages are predominately used: Rom 4:3; and 4:12 – an argument concerning actual relationship with God being by faith, not by ethnic relation; Gal 3:26-29 which states "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” This later passage is clearly a reference to the promise of “that in you will all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Those who believe in Christ (the promised descendent who would bring salvation) regardless of ethnic origin are included under the promise to Abraham. These and many other arguments taken out of context are used to prove the church has permanently replaced the nation of Israel as the true Israel. These arguments do not deal with the many Old Testament literal promises specifically prophecying a saved ethnic Israel, nor the clear explanations in the New Testament of the reiteration of those promises.
To understand the nature of argument that God has a permanent relation with an ethnic saved Israel one must understand the covenants God made beginning early in the book of Genesis. There are several very significant covenants that God made with ethnic Israel. A covenant is an agreement. God determined to make these covenants and they include specific promises. It is a fact that God “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). The first covenant was unconditionally made with Abraham in Genesis 12, and was further clarified in Genesis 15 and 17. This covenant was further reiterated numerous times throughout Israel’s history, and prophets. The covenant promised ethnic Israel - land, descendents, and blessings. It was unconditional in that Israel did not have to do anything – God swore and ratified that He would do it. The Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:11-17; 1 Chron 17:10-15), which was built on the Abrahamic covenant, and promised an ethnic eternal dynasty to One of David’s descendents. He would sit on the throne of Israel forever (referring to Christ). This was also an unconditional covenant. The Mosaic covenant (Duet 28:1;15; 1 Chron 17:10-15) was the covenant given to Israel through Moses in conjunction with the giving of the law. The law needed teeth – so God spoke to Israel through Moses and gave Israel a list of blessings (Duet chapters 27-30) He would do for them if they kept His laws, and a list of curses He would bring if they failed to keep His laws. This was a conditional covenant – that is, Israel was responsible to keep the law or it would be cursed of God. These curses would become more and more severe leading up to and including being disbursed into other nations. Israel’s ethnic history is a history of failure to keep these laws and therefore it was led into captivity of other nations, and disbursed throughout the world. However, the Mosaic conditional covenant did not eliminate the Abrahamic covenant with its promises of ultimate blessing ( see Gal 3:17). The “New Covenant” is another unconditional covenant made by God (Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 31:31). This covenant states that God himself will convert Israel from within by giving them a new heart to believe – the new birth spoken of by Christ in John 3. Israel (obviously ethnic) will be re-gathered into the land, and they will keep God’s laws because of their conversion. Now, the New Testament believer participates in the blessing of the New Covenant by the new birth spoken, but the New Covenant has not been literally fulfilled for ethnic Israel (read its context), and must therefore be futuristic for a saved ethnic Israel. Paul explains this in Roman's chapter 9-11. Out of ethnic Israel comes a line of the promised descendents that will be the recipients of the ultimate blessings. Even though Gentiles are also included by grace, they do not replace or nullify the promises God originally made to the actual physical descendents of Abraham. The context of all these covenants is ethnic Israel.
Now, with that foundation let’s look at just some of the powerful and otherwise unexplainable promises God made through the prophets to reiterate these covenants. “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands, Your walls are continually before Me” (Is 49:15-16). “Whereas you have been forsaken and hated with no one passing through, I will make you an everlasting pride, A joy from generation to generation. You will also suck the milk of nations and suck the breast of kings; then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (Is 60:15). “For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me, declares the Lord so your offspring and your name will endure” (Is 66:22). “Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; the Lord of hosts is His name; if this fixed order departs from before Me, declares the Lord, then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever. Thus says the Lord, if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the Lord” (Jer 31:35-37). There are many more verses like this – but, notice the last verse is given in the context of the “New Covenant” and clearly again is emphasizing the “nation” or ethnic Israel, and stating unequivocally that it would be impossible for God not to fulfill His promise to them. As these things have not occurred, they are yet future.
In addition to these promises, God clearly provides detail of His plan for future Israel. In Zech chapter 12-14, the prophet tells of the nations of the earth coming against Israel, God pours His Spirit out upon them so that they “look on Him whom they have pierced” (Zech 12:10) – He saves them spiritually, and then physically saves them at His second coming in chapter 14. An overview is given of this future plan in Daniel chapter 9, and then more detail in chapter 12. The Old Testament again speaks in numerous places of Christ literally ruling as He promised David “the government shall rest on His shoulders” (Is 9:6).
The New Testament is not silent concerning Israel either. The prophecy of Israel’s rejection of their Messiah and disbursement is provided in the Gospels through Christ Himself (Luke 21:24; 23:28-31). Keep in mind that Israel had been destroyed and brought back into their land twice before. What makes men think now is different, that God's patience finally ran out and He is through with Israel. Such a concept is not fitting God. Most importantly Paul has a whole section in Romans chapter 9-11 dealing with ethnic Israel and what has become of God’s promises to them. He culminates the section with the explanation that God will once again turn His attention back to ethnic Israel at the completion of the “fullness of the Gentiles” (a reference to the church which is predominately Gentile and led by Gentiles, not by the nation of Israel). In Romans 11:25 Paul speaks of this being a mystery, and then in verse 26 that all Israel will be saved (ethnic Israel at the time of the completion of the Gentiles). The same verse quotes the a reference to the New Covenant out of Isaiah 59.
In Christ’s prayer that we call the Lord’s prayer we see the clear reference to God's plan for Israel in the earthly kingdom statement “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” In Acts 1:6 just before Christ’s ascension He was asked by His disciples who had been with Him through all His teaching when He would restore the Kingdom to Israel. Christ did not rebuke them for their confusion, but told them it was not for them to “know the times and epochs.” Revelation 5:10 says that He will “rule on the earth.” So does Revelation 20:1-6, and as with all these and many more passages, if they are fitted together with all the other promises of God from the beginning, they are clearly equated to the future that yet involves an ethnic Israel that will be saved by God’s grace under the “New Covenant.” I would only add that we Gentiles who believe by faith will be there as well, ruling and reigning with them, and this too is in accordance with God’s original promise to Abraham (Gen 12:3b).