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“The story of the church begins with Israel, the Old Testament people of God.” So writes Dr. Edmund Clowney in The Church.

Some years ago, I would have disagreed with that statement. I would have said that the church did not exist prior to Pentecost in Acts 2. I would have argued that the Old Testament people of God ran on a separate track, with their own purposes in God’s plan for history. I would have interpreted God’s Old Testament promises to His people as yet to be fulfilled in a future Jewish nation. I would have perceived the Old Testament as their book, applicable to me only indirectly, if at all. And I would not have written this article.

Obviously, I have changed my mind. Maybe you have, too. If not, this article might persuade you to consider doing so. I want to argue that the people of God are one throughout the whole course of Biblical history. Yes, there is some discontinuity as the Old Testament flows into the New Testament. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost has been greater, as Moses wished (Num. 11:29) and as Joel foresaw (Joel 2:28–32). But far more deeply, God’s people throughout all ages are bound together as one in Christ.

In the early years of my ministry, I made the book of Galatians a personal project. The question of Israel and the church was not at the forefront of my agenda. My primary interest lay in understanding the Gospel of grace more clearly. So there I was, working my way carefully through Galatians, minding my own business, when the apostle Paul absolutely blindsided me one day. He made an assertion that was loaded with implications I did not expect to find in the Bible. This is what he said: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).

“Abraham’s seed”! Me? I had thought that the promises of the Old Testament belonged to Jewish people. Aren’t they literally Abraham’s seed and therefore heirs? And aren’t we supposed to read the Old Testament “literally”? But Galatians 3 forced me to admit that Paul is saying something more profound. The apostle is arguing that spiritual union with Christ, not ethnic connection with Abraham, is what identifies the heirs of God’s promises. Christ is Abraham’s true heir (Gal. 3:16). And we have been baptized into Christ and have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). Whatever our ethnicity, class, or gender, all believers are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). So it is union with Christ that alone qualifies anyone to inherit God’s Old Testament promises.

There is only one line of inheritance, only one family of God.

Think with me about the context of Paul’s amazing assertion. In Galatians, he is contending for the purity of the Gospel. Certain Jewish believers were alarmed at the Gentile converts flooding into the churches. The Mishnah, a compilation of ancient Jewish religious tradition, warned, “The dwelling-places of Gentiles are unclean” (Oholoth, 18.7). So a devout Jew could not visit a Gentile’s home, for example, without becoming defiled. Sure, Gentiles could convert to faith in the Messiah. But they also had to shed their Gentile culture and conform to the rites prescribed by traditional Old Testament interpretation if they wanted acceptance into the covenant community (Acts 15:1). After all, weren’t the Jews the custodians of the Old Testament’s message? What did these scruffy Gentiles know about the Bible? But Paul understood the Gospel so clearly that he strongly opposed this distortion of God’s grace.

In one of the most dramatic moments in the Bible, Paul faced off with no less than the apostle Peter (Gal. 2:11–21). Peter already knew from the Cornelius episode in Acts 10 that God accepted Gentiles as Gentiles. And Peter had dared to live out the implications of that breakthrough when he rubbed shoulders with Gentile brothers in Christ (Gal. 2:12). But he distanced himself from the Gentile believers when the “Thought Police” from Jerusalem showed up. Even Barnabas was led astray. And Paul called it hypocrisy (Gal. 2:13). He could see that “they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Perhaps without realizing it, Peter was dividing the people of God into Jewish (first-class) and Gentile (second-class) levels of inheritance.

Paul argues the positive alternative to Peter’s hypocrisy in Galatians 3. Rather than divide the people of God along ethnic, cultural, and historical lines, Paul argues that faith in Jesus is the only requirement for anyone, Jewish or Gentile, to be restored to God’s favor and made an heir. And this, he explains, is the message of the Old Testament itself (Gal. 3:8–9). Then his stunning conclusion appears in 3:29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

When Paul asserts that “those who believe are children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7, NIV), it does not even occur to him to qualify that statement by dividing Abraham’s children into two groups, the Old Testament children and the New Testament children. His whole point is to erase distinctions between the two. All believers in Jesus, just because they believe in Jesus, are children of Abraham and therefore heirs of the Old Testament promises. Elsewhere, Paul makes plain that God’s purpose is not to create two peoples but one: “Christ Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation.…” God has declared “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body” (Eph. 2:14; 3:6a).

Therefore, Christian reader, whoever you are, you are a part of something vast, ancient, and glorious. If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and an heir of God. The promises of the Old Testament are yours as much as they are Abraham’s, as much as they are Christ’s. Why? Because you are an heir “according to promise”—not according to your compliance with any religious culture. Christ is all you need to be included. Welcome, believer, to the blood-bought people of God! Savor the prospect of your future inheritance in Christ. Live boldly, as one whose eternal happiness is not jeopardized by the buffetings of this life.

All believers in Jesus . . . are children of Abraham and therefore heirs of the Old Testament promises.

So there is only one line of inheritance, only one family of God. According to Romans 11:16–24, the people of God throughout history are united the way a tree is organically one from its root all the way to its outermost branches. Like the “whole building” of Ephesians 2:21, Jewish and Gentile believers are growing together into “a holy temple in the Lord.” Spiritual realities are more profound than physical externals, so that “we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). It is not ethnicity but faith that marks God’s true people (Gal. 3:9). Therefore, God is not realizing His saving purpose on two tracks, but on one, defined by Jesus Christ alone (Gal. 3:16). If you are in Christ, you are on track, whoever you are: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28).

It is unconvincing, then, when one scholar, in the book Continuity and Discontinuity, writes, “Paul’s concept of unity involved a spiritual unity in Christ in which there was no difference in relation to God (cf. Gal. 3:29), but not a unity which dissolved all historical differences.” On the contrary, a unity in Christ that dissolves historical differences is precisely what Paul is arguing for when he contends that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, … for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). For this scholar’s comment to be valid, one would have to suppose that God’s blessing will continue for the Jews outside the categories of the Pauline Gospel. But Paul is asserting that the oneness of the people of God is entailed in the very Gospel itself.

I hasten to add that it would be wrong to see God selecting ethnic Israel in Abraham long ago and, when they eventually failed Him, deleting them from His purposes. Some Reformed students of the Bible, with an eye on Romans 11:25–32, believe that God purposes a future ingathering of Jews, as Jews, into the church. They will be grafted back into the historical olive tree, as it were (Rom. 11:23–24). But there is still only one “tree” growing up through history. And even if another interpretation of these verses is to be preferred, as other Reformed students propose, still the New Testament people of God do not replace the Old Testament people of God. The Jewish branches on the tree have been trimmed back and some Gentile “wild olive branches” have been grafted in. But God did not switch from Plan A to Plan B in the New Testament. He continues to pursue Plan A as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit extends His blessing widely among the nations, as he had prophesied He would (Gal. 3:14).

Read the Old Testament the way Paul read it. Read it as the promises of God addressed to all believers in Christ, including you. Read it as your book. See the whole Bible as one book of God addressing your soul with one Gospel message to one church magnifying one Christ, who is the heir of all God’s promises and through whom you have become a joint heir!

Further up and Further In

Covenant Community

Keep Reading Bound Together in Christ: Communion of the Saints

From the September 2001 Issue
Sep 2001 Issue