When the last Apostle died sometime in the 90s, the church had to define where authority lay. Scripture was always central. But who would lead the churches like the apostles did? Would it be the itinerant prophets, or would it be the elders? Already by the late 90s, the answer became clear: elders or bishops would lead the church (cf. Ignatius and Clement).
But the elder-led churches in the generation after the apostles frequently encountered persecution and opposition. Emperors persecuted, philosophers accused (Celsus), and Jewish believers challenged the faith (Trypho, Ebionites, etc.).
In response, Christians appealed to Emperors and defended the faith. The question of identity also became extremely important. Who were God’s chosen people, and who was God working through today: Israel or the church?
The New Testament already provides preliminary answers to the question (cf. Rom 9-11), but the new apostles—the elders and bishops—had to clarify for their people what the church’s role was in relation to the people of Israel.
Elders and other church leaders began to answer this question by solidifying the identity of Christians as the people of God. Overwhelmingly, they saw themselves as not only the successors to Israel but the true, faithful people of God, whose roots lie in the faith of Abraham and whose faith is unrevocable in Christ. Here are three witnesses that testify that the church, not Israel, is the true people of God.
Barnabas (c. 100 AD)
Not much is known about the author of Barnabas, except that his letter comes from quite an early period in history. It is possible that it was written during the time when later New Testament documents were also written.
In his letter, Barnabas explains how the church relates to Israel. He cites the Sinai account in Exodus to clarify his point. When Moses broke the tablets of the covenant, Israel lost the covenant itself.
The purpose of this loss was so that “the covenant of the beloved Jesus might be sealed in our heart, in hope inspired by faith in him” (Barnabas, 4.6). Presumably, Barnabas means something like this: Israel’s sin works out for the salvation of the world because it requires a new covenant.
The church becomes a new creation, and it dwells in the new land of milk and honey as Israel had been instructed to do (6.8-19). With hearts of flesh, Christians “are the ones whom he brought into the good land” (6.16).
Abraham believed in God while uncircumcised, and so he is saved while not an Israelite (13.7). So being an Israelite is not necessary for salvation. In fact, it’s detrimental according to Barnabas.
God gave Israel the covenant but “they were not worthy to receive it because of their sins” (14.1). Moses saw the Golden calf and destroyed the tablets of the covenant in the Exodus narrative (14.3).
How does the church receive the covenant and not lose it like Israel? They can because Christ suffered for the church, took the sin of Israel, and inherited the covenant of God (14.5). Christ therefore makes a covenant in the church because he is worthy to receive it (14.5).
Barnabas is aware that Christians too would lose the covenant like Israel did, if they could. But they cannot because Christ is the church’s substitute and is worthy to receive it.
While Barnabas sees the church as succeeding Israel as the people of God, he does so because he sees the church’s identity as wrapped up in Christ. Christians like the Israelites would loss their salvation, if they could; but they cannot because Christ has earned it for them.
Justin Martyr (100-165 AD)
Justin Martyr lived from 100 to 165 AD, dying a martyr. “Martyr” is not his last name but a title. His apologetic ability to defend the faith and his Logos theology made him a well-known figure in the early church. His reputation of a martyr ensured that his writings would influence the church until this day.
He recounts a dialogue that he had with a Jewish person named Trypho. In it, Justin calls Christ both “the new law, and the new covenant” (ANF01, 200). According to Justin, “we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ” are “true spiritual Israel” and follow in the footsteps of Abraham who was “approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith” before he was circumcised (ANF01, 200).
Justin grounds salvation outside of national Israel (Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, etc.). The nation of Israel sinned against God, and so God accommodated to their idolatry, allowing for sacrifices. Furthermore, the law was given to Israel because of their Sin (Ezek 20:19-26).
Christ is the new law and covenant. Belief in him is to return to an Abrahamic faith, although with the fullness of Christ’s work in view.
In Justin’s dialogue, he respectfully but forcefully exalts Christ who brings Christians back to Abraham, Noah, and Enoch’s faith. Christians believe apart from the Jewish Law.
Melito of Sardis (died c. 180 AD)
Melito was a bishop at Sardis in modern day Turkey. While much of his writing has been claimed by the sands of time, some of it has remained. His sermon on the Passover (Exod 12) stands as one of greatest rhetorical and theological messages ever delivered. And its influence courses through the church, even to this day.
For Melito, the Passover in Exodus 12 is a mystery—an event that is hidden but later fully revealed; and an event that contains the reality to which it points. The Exodus prefigured, typified the coming Messiah. As Paul says, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). Melito takes this Christ-centered approach to heart, reading the Exodus narrative to reveal its mystery—its revealed reality in Christ and in the church.
According to Melito, “the slaying of the sheep and the distribution of the blood and the scripture from the law have reached as far as Christ, on whose account were all things in the ancient law, or rather in the recent word” (Peri Pascha, sec 6).
The lamb was a “model” of the reality to come. And the Son is the true lamb, the reality: “For the model indeed existed, but then the reality appeared” (Peri Pascha, sec. 5).
Melito’s typological logic applies not to the lamb alone but also to the people of Israel: “The people then was a model by way of a preliminary sketch, and the law was the writing of a parable; the gospel is the recounting and fulfilment of the law, and the church is the repository of the reality” (Peri Pascha, sec. 40).
While marvelous, Israel prefigured the true body of Christ, the church: “the people was made void when the church arose” (Peri Pascha, sec. 43).
Melito views Scripture through the lens of mystery and typology. The Old Testament prefigures Christ and all the realities that he inaugurates. The church arises with Christ, and so Israel as the people of God no longer have an independent purpose; they must believe in the Gospel and join the church.
Melito clearly teaches that the church fulfills Israel’s purpose. While both Barnabas and Justin would basically agree, Melito makes the case without qualms. The church is the reality to which the nation of Israel points, according to him.
Such a position needs to be carefully articulated because it can easily lead to anti-semitism. Furthermore, Melito’s language almost makes the historical realities of the Old Testament useless in and of themselves; for they are mysteries of the reality hidden there, containers of later realities.
This strikes me as unbalanced. Christians must respect the integrity of the Old Testament institutions while also affirming that Christ is the revealed mystery of Scripture. Paul can read the Old Testament as a moral exhortation without making the Old Testament void of existence (1 Cor 9:9-10). Jude can also read the mystery of the Exodus when he says: “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5).
Even with this balance affirmed, the early church’s conclusions on the relationship between Israel and church will certainly be uncomfortable for many today. Two considerations will reduce this discomfort.
First, the early church was a small group without political power. Jewish believers pressured early Christians, and believers needed to define who they were in this tumultuous time. They did not live in the post-holocaust West. So some of their overstatements should be viewed in this way.
Second, Christians of all types agree that, to be saved, you must believe in Christ and be united to his body, the church. Barnabas, Justin, and Melito are not saying much more than this.
In the end, we must face the reality that the early church overwhelmingly affirmed that the church is the true people of God and that Israel has lost that status. It may not fit with our theology or practice today, but we need to be honest with history.
The Bible is our final authority. And our view must be adjudicated by the Bible’s words. For my part, I affirm that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:36) in the future kingdom, but they will be saved by belief in the Messiah alone.