Dispensationalists point out that God promises the new covenant to Israel only. The Jeremiah 31 text clearly mentions only “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” How can we say that the new covenant finds fulfillment in the Church?
Dr. Gentry’s response:
Thanks for your question. I hope the following brief answer will be helpful.
First, please note that Jesus and Paul both apply the new covenant to the Church.
The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of the new covenant that Christians take on a regular basis. Christ established the Lord’s Supper with these words: “And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood'” (Luke 22:20). Paul repeats this in his epistle to the Corinthians: “In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me'” (1 Cor. 11:25).
Paul is the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:13; 1 Tim 2:7), yet he claims that he is a servant of the “new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6). Obviously he sees the new covenant as including the Gentiles.
Second, you will find by reading the New Testament that the Church of Jesus Christ is the fruition of Israel. In fact, many Jewish descriptors are applied to the Church. We are the “seed of Abraham” (Rom 4:13–17; Gal 3:6–9, 29), “the circumcision” (Rom 2:28–29; Php 3:3; Col 2:11), “a royal priest-hood,” (Rom 15:16; 1Pe 2:9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; cp. Ex 19:6), “twelve tribes” (Jas 1:1), “diaspora” (1Pe 1:1), the “temple of God” (1Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 2Cor 1:16; Eph 2:21). These terms clearly reflect Israel’s covenantal identity, yet they are applied to the Gentile Church.
Peter designates Christians as “stones” building up a “spiritual house” (1Pe 2:5–9). But he does more: he draws upon several Old Testament designations of Israel and applies them to the church. He calls Christians: “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation” (1Pe 2:9–10; Ex 19:5–6; Dt 7:6). He and Paul call Christians “a peculiar people” (1Pe 2:10; Tit 2:14), which is a familiar Old Testament designation for Israel (Ex 19:5; Dt 14:2; 26:18; Ps 135:4).
Thus, New Testament Christians may even call Abraham “our father” (Ro 4:16) and the old covenant people our “fathers” (1Co 10:1), clearly evincing a spiritual genealogical relation. Employing another figure, Paul says we are grafted into Israel (Rom 11:16–19) so that we become one with her, partaking of her promises (Eph 2:11–20). Jesus teaches that Gentiles are other sheep which must be brought in to make “one flock” (Jn 10:16).
Paul even applies the name “Israel” to Christians: “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). The “and [kai]” preceding “Israel of God,” is probably epexegetical, so that we should translate the passage: “mercy upon them, that is, upon the Israel of God.” Unfortunately, Dispensationalists see Galatians 6:16 applying to Jewish converts to Christ, “who would not oppose the apostle’s glorious message of salvation” (New Scofield Reference Bible). But such is surely not the case. After all, Galatians’ entire context opposes any claim to a special Jewish status or distinction: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26–28). In the new covenant Christ does away with all racial distinctions. Why would Paul hold out a special word for Jewish Christians (“the Israel of God”), when he states immediately beforehand that we must not boast at all, save in the cross of Christ (Gal 6:14)? After all, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal 6:15).
Consequently, Jeremiah’s mentioning the house of Israel and the house of Judah poses no difficulties for the New Testament writers. They apply Jewish terms to the Christian faith because it is the fulfillment of Israel.
Third, the dispensational system presents an unnecessary confusion here. Consider: By Christ’s appointment, the Lord’s Supper is the sign of the new covenant (Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1Co 11:25). It is to be kept until he comes (1Co 11:25–26). But in dispensationalism, when Christ comes to establish the new covenant with Israel for a millennium, he will do away with the Lord’s Supper (which is the sign of the new covenant), while re-establishing the bloody sacrificial system (which is an old covenant foreshadowing of Christ’s redemptive labor, Heb 10:1–3) as a “memorial.” And the millennial priests will perform this memorial in Christ’s bodily presence for 1000 years.
The new covenant is one of the key stumbling blocks for dispensationalism. As important as the new covenant is in Scripture, dispensational theologians have not been able to settle on a particular view of it. Charles Ryrie’s Basis of the Premillennial Faith outlines three leading dispensational views: (1) The Jews Only View. This is “the view that the new covenant directly concerns Israel and has no relationship to the Church” (p. 107). (2) The One Covenant/Two Aspects View: The one “new covenant has two aspects, one which applies to Israel, and one which applies to the church” (p. 107). (3) The Two New Covenants View. This is Ryrie’s view, for this actually “distinguishes the new covenant with Israel from the new covenant with the church. This view finds two new covenants in which the promises to Israel and the promises to the Church are more sharply distinguished even though both new covenants are based on the one sacrifice of Christ” (p. 107).
Oddly enough, today dispensationalists no longer hold to three views of the new covenant. They now have four views: “there are four major dispensational views of the new covenant” (Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, 280). The new covenant creates pandemonium in the dispensational system.