When the Bible speaks of Israel, what does it mean? Is it a land, an ethnic people, an individual person, a political nation, or a group of mixed ethnicity defined by God in scripture? Which is it, or is it all of the above? To some extent we could say Israel is all of the above, and we would be right. This broad definition brings many problems to understanding scripture and thus the world in which we live.
Lets begin by reminding you of the informal fallacy of Equivocation (click the word for my article on it.) It is obvious that in different contexts “Israel” can mean different things. If it were not so, there wouldn’t be so many different things included in it’s definition. Therefore, when we speak of Israel we should define in what sense we mean Israel i.e…define our terms. Misunderstanding which definition is being used leads to many problems in doctrine and life. “…all of Israel will be saved…” Romans 11:26. Also, clearly the early church controversy over circumcision shows a problem with being saved if you are not “of Israel.” Does being a “Jew” make you “of Israel” always in every context? Beyond salvation we have eschatology (the study of last things.) What role does “Israel” play in them? Again you must define the term according to scripture and in context in order to know. Doing that, we should then ask if the political nation in the Middle East today called Israel fits that biblical definition of a place, land or people.
These are my three main concerns here. Who is the “all Israel” who was to be saved? Who is Israel now? And finally, is that country or it’s people biblically significant today?
1. “All Israel”
First, who is this “all Israel” who would be saved according to Rom 11:26. To answer this question we must go back a bit in Romans to see if Paul himself is using the term univocally and if he defines it. Does he mean the exact same group of people each time he uses the term and if not how can we determine who he is speaking of with each use? BTW I’ll not reproduce each verse in full in order to save space. Get your bible out to follow along if you like.
Yep, Paul defines it, Rom 9:3-4 “…,my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites,…” So, we can safely say (with a little more study) that Paul defines Israelites as the physical descendants of Abraham. Done deal? Not so fast! Just read on to vs.6 thru 13, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring,.” Now we have a mess to figure out. Is Paul self contradictory? I think not! The only option remaining answers my above question. Paul does not mean the exact same group of people every time he uses the terms “Israel” and “children/offspring of Abraham.” How do we figure out who is who? Well first lets relabel them to make the distinctions clearer. Thinking ahead I’ll call them “ethnic Israel” and “spiritual Israel.” Label them however you want but you cannot logically deny that Paul is speaking of two different groups unless you think he (and thereby God) is irrational in vs. 3-13.
In Rom 9:8 Paul does not call all of ethnic Israel the children of God, but rather spiritual Israel are “counted as offspring.” Why is that? Paul answers in Rom 9:11 “that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call.” Then we are reminded in Rom 9:13 that even before they had opportunity to choose, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” That’s a choice God made without their volition, merit, choice or birthright. Paul has begun to establish a pattern here of God’s choice being preeminent, and not ethnicity in deciding who is “of Israel.” Was not Esau descended from Abraham? Yet he is not of Israel according to this implication by Paul. Furthermore, here and elsewhere the old covenant rules of the firstborns right of inheritance don’t seem to apply when God has chosen according to his plan and purpose.
Now, lets look at Rom 9:25-26 because we see now that not only are some of ethnic Israel not “of Israel” but also that some Gentiles are now included in spiritual Israel. “…they (faithful gentiles) will be called ‘sons of the living God.” Notice we have now equated some non-Jews with the children of God from v.8. There are children of promise in ethnic Israel and among the Gentiles. Both are included in spiritual Israel.
There is much more here as regards the doctrines of grace, but I’m moving toward the olive tree and maintaining the given identities of these two Israels and where they came from. On to Rom 9:27, notice here that it is God who decided who will be included in spiritual Israel. That is, only a remnant of ethnic Israel will be included in spiritual Israel.
Rom 10:1-4 “They,” ethnic, non-spiritual Israel, are ignorant, unsubmissive, unrighteous, self-righteous, and unbelieving. “everyone who believes” is spiritual Israel. Further in Rom 10:12, Paul tells us there is no ethnic distinction that matters to being sons of God (spiritual Israel.)
In Rom 10:14 Paul asks a question rhetorically. If “they” ethnic Israel do not believe how are they to (or how can they) call on someone in whom they do not believe. If they don’t believe or call on God, how can they be a part of the saved or spiritual Israel?
Rom 10:20-21 He (God) has been found by those (the chosen), and seen by the chosen who didn’t seek or ask…or choose. All these are spiritual Israel. Now look at Rom 10:12-21 all the way through. Some Gentiles are included in spiritual Israel and many/most of ethnic Israel are not!
Rom 11:1-2 First lets notice that Paul again affirms that he is of Israel in his ethnic heritage. Does he do this to prove he is of spiritual Israel? I don’t think so. He does this to show that all of ethnic Israel has not been rejected. The promised remnant will be saved. Notice the “For” at the beginning of the third sentence. It tells us he is about to give a reason that his statement in the previous sentence is true. In short, God couldn’t have rejected “his people” because (for) I am one of them and I’m not rejected. Next he shows us on what basis he was chosen from among ethnic Israel to be part of spiritual Israel. That basis is God’s foreknowledge, not blood.
Rom 11:4-6 Here Paul establishes the idea of a remnant again. This remnant is within ethnic Israel but it is not all of them. How many is required for God to keep his promise of a “remnant” among ethnic Israel? Here it is defined as 7000. Now read Acts in the early parts where Peter was preaching to Jews (ethnic Israel.) How many were saved? More than this 7000 (by a long shot) which God called a remnant. Lastly and again, it is of grace and not by blood or works.
Rom 11:7 Ethnic Israel failed, the elect (spiritual Israel within ethnic Israel) obtained. The rest of ethnic Israel were hardened. The elect here is synonymous with the remnant. All became or were spiritual Israel.
I think I have establish a difference between ethnic and spiritual Israel. And that, not all of ethnic Israel is of spiritual Israel. Rather, the chosen remnant of ethnic Israel and the chosen/elect of the Gentiles are included in spiritual Israel.
Okay, now lets see if we can find the “root” of spiritual Israel. Do they share the same root with ethnic Israel? My answer may surprise you. Lets look through Rom 11:16-24 and see if we can find our answer. We’ll need to define how some terms are used here for purposes of simple logic.
First of all we have the word “holy” in v. 16. Holy can mean many things in context. It can mean faithful believers by old or new covenant standards, does it in this passage? I think not. Notice that “if the root is holy, so are the branches.” Now this is speaking of Jews as branches of the “holy” root. Many think that the root is the fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or maybe just Abraham. If they were holy then their offspring are as well, would be the conclusion. However if holy here means faithful believers, then the wicked Jews were faithful believers just by their blood. Didn’t we just cover this? Holy must mean something else. It regularly means set apart for special use. This meaning would eliminate the necessity of the “branches” to be faithful believers and still be “holy.” A thing can be separated for special use (holy) and not love or be loved by God. The enemies of OT Israel who God ordained to take them captive were “holy” for this purpose, yet not loved by God.
Now I have them as separated groups who are not necessarily all faithful believers, though all are separate. What separates them? A covenant, I think, and not a common ancestor.
The root is: A relationship of covenant made by God with any (individual or group) He chooses to make it with, for whatever purpose He chooses to make it and whatever stipulations He wants to put in it. All who are placed in a covenant with God are holy/separated “branches” of that root/covenant. This allows that the root is also holy/separate as it is a special/separate relationship God has made with its federates. This covenant can be made for their benefit or to their detriment.
You can regularly read of non-Jews coming into this covenant relationship with God and becoming part of His covenant people. Being a branch does not require blood ties to a blood root. Lets not forget the “Hall of Faith” of Hebrews 11 names Rahab (the harlot and Gentile) from Jericho. There are even Gentiles in Jesus’ lineage! Blood is not necessary to be part of the covenant “people” of God ie. Israel!
As we saw in chapters 9 and 10, being “of Israel” (spiritual Israel) had nothing to do with blood! I submit, neither does the root. Old or New covenant matters not, as the root is more specifically the relationship.
Therefore, to be broken off means removed from covenant relationship. In other words removed from the Israel of God. Of course only non-faithful, nonbelievers are removed. And, of course only faithful believers are left or grafted in. That is the nature of the NC relationship. “I will give them a new heart and cause them to walk in my statutes.” The branches of the two roots (holy and wild) were “natural” to their covenant relationship or lack thereof. Those natural branches of the holy root could be narrowed no more than to those of Israel that God was to be in covenant with. Which under the OC (I think) would probably mean: mostly ethnic Israel who practiced torah, including those of them who believed by faith in the promises. It could be slightly broader to include the “God fearers,” who practiced the OC torah along side them. The natural branches of the “wild” tree would be Gentiles who had never been in a covenant relationship with God and no broader than to include descendants of “the fathers” who had long ago left the practice of old covenant torah, long a part of other religions or atheistic.
In conclusion of this part: The “Israel of God” are all those God chooses to be in covenant relationship with. This covenant is now known as the New Covenant. Non-believing ethnic Jews are no longer the “Israel of God.” They have not been replaced by any other group. They simply didn’t transfer, with the promised remnant, into the NC or were not grafted back in, either by God’s choice, their choice or both depending on your soteriology. (I think Rom 9 demonstrates well who’s choice it was as does all of scripture.) And finally, the “all Israel” who will be saved Rom 11:26 is the remnant of ethnic Israel who were brought into the NC and were joined by the believing Gentiles to form spiritual Israel ie. the NC “the Israel of God.” One group containing all the members of the NC, without distinction, neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but one body in Christ.
2 and 3. Israel Today or in the Future
Now that we have identified who “all Israel” is these questions become easier. The “Israel of God” today is the Body of Christ, the Church Universal of the NC faith in the gospel of Jesus and His kingdom. This new covenant and kingdom has no end according to scripture. If this is what scripture speaks of when speaking of Israel prophetically then, non-believing Jews will never be the Israel of God again based (in any way) on a blood relationship to “the fathers.” The OC is obsolete and will not be honored by God. It was this old covenant that was replaced not the people. They are wanted and welcome in it. They must only believe. There is no scriptural warrant to believe God will again shine on them because of their bloodline or traditional heritage. They must come as we all do by faith into the NC. There is only one way to God and that is through Christ. When a “Jew” comes to Him he is not a Christian Jew with a special relationship because of blood. He/she is one with the rest in Christ Jesus.
Israel (the country) today is just a historical name applied to a country founded in 1948 and Israelis are merely citizens of that country. They will be blessed or cursed according to the NC as individuals and as a political nation and that alone. As America we should treat them as any other nation. Either ally, enemy or indifferent according to our national best interest and our moral and ethical standards in judgment of their conduct.
What connects that country or it’s people to scripture anyway today? The genealogies were destroyed almost 2000 years ago. This was commanded in the OC if they were to have an inheritance among God’s people “in the land.” They no longer practice Torah, new or old covenant. There hasn’t been a sacrifice or a temple to do it in since 70AD. If they rebuilt it they could never find a Levite (high priest required for the sacrifices) as the genealogies are lost. Even the Encyclopedia Judaica says one is a Jew today merely by choice and there are no racial distinctions that can be scientifically found and by all measures the are indistinguishable from most eastern Europeans or other Middle Eastern peoples. Where would they get the ark of the covenant to place in the holy of holies, therefore no mercy seat. No seat, no mercy? Where would they find Aron’s staff or the jar of manna to put in it? They could fake it all they want but would God honor a fraud? Would he go back on his word that the NC is everlasting and “replace” it with the old? Where in scripture do we find these two simultaneous paths to God? None of this makes any logical or biblical sense.