I’m taking a class at Reformed Theology Seminary this Spring on the church and sacraments.
One discussion that always comes up when discussing the nature of the church is how the New Testament church relates to the Old Testament. Or put another way, in what way does the Israel of the OT relate to the church of the NT? Is there inherent unity between the testaments, as in, is God making one people throughout the Bible? Or, is there a break, a separation, which distinguishes the people of the OT from the people of the NT?
There is a diverse series of stances on this question, ranging from what is called dispensationalism all the way to common Reformational covenant theology. Dispensationalism answers the question of the church and the OT by essentially explaining that there are two peoples of God, Israel and the church. While they intersect, the church and Israel are two separate redemptive programs in God’s plan for the world.
Reformed theology, in contrast, boasts itself in being a two-testament church; meaning, there is an inherent unity between the Israel of the OT and the church of the NT. And while there are certainly things which distinguish the two testaments (the Christ-event no less), there is in principle one church which bridges the gap of the two testaments.
In attempt to prove the Reformation understanding of the church, professor Scott Swain listed several metaphors that describe the people of God throughout both testaments. In doing so, he hoped to show that the people of God or the church was one organism in both testaments, though brought to new fulness in the NT.
For instance, one metaphor found all throughout the Bible is the picture of God’s people as a building. This metaphor is found in both Ephesians and Corinthians. Also, Jesus himself famously alludes to the church as a building when he promises to Peter in Matthew 16: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it”.
In alluding to the church as a building, Jesus, Paul et al, were not creating a new metaphor, but actually drawing from the prophets, who often referred to Israel as a building, or a temple, which could be broken down or built up depending on covenant faithfulness.
For instance, in Jeremiah 1:10, God threatens to “break down” Israel for their covenant unfaithfulness. In another text, Jeremiah 24:6, God promises that although Israel will been torn down for their sin, he “will build them up” again.
Another metaphor which is found in both testaments is the metaphor of God’s people as a plant, or vineyard, or tree. Both Jesus as Paul refer to the church in botanical terms: Jesus refers to the church as a vineyard, which requires faithful workers. In Mark 12, Jesus warns the Pharisees that he will replace unfaithful vineyard workers with faithful ones (implying a new regime in the apostles). Jesus compares himself to a vine onto which believers are grafted; if any do not bear fruit, the Father will prune them and throw into the fire. Or Paul, for instance, in Romans 11, refers to the church as an olive tree, which God will prune and graft in order to bring forth fruit.
Again, this is not a new metaphor. It is found all throughout the prophets. Isaiah 6 refers to Israel as a dead stump which God will bring to life again. Jeremiah 12 compares Israel’s leaders to unfaithful vineyard workers who will be punished for their sin.
There are other metaphors, but the point here is that the church is not a new program. The metaphors and themes bleed across testaments. And the point the NT writers wanted to make was that Israel found her final fulfillment in the church. The church is not a new program, but a renewed covenant people. Israel was a broken down building, a dead plant, because of their unfaithfulness; and yet God promised to renew covenant with her; to rebuild, to replant, to breathe life into his people. Christ came to do that very thing. He did not come to create a new people, but to assume the covenantal responsibility of Israel, bear her curses, and fulfill God’s purposes for the world he had from the beginning. For this, the church must be thought of as two-testament.