The Israel of God (Part 2)

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The belief that Israel is a nation before God forever is one held almost fanatically by some professing Christians. In fact, to deny that the modern state of Israel (as she is called) located in the Middle East is the people of God is heresy in some circles. Reformed Christianity teaches unashamedly that the church (made up of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ) is God's chosen people. One who teaches this today in some circles will be labelled as "replacement theologian" (you believe that the church replaces Israel!), "supersessionist" (you believe that the church supersedes Israel) or simply "anti-Semite" (you hate the Jews). 

 

Let me remind you, before we continue this study that Jesus forbids His disciples to call one another pejorative, insulting names such as "thou fool" or "Raca" (Matt. 5:22). 

In addition, let me remind you that the question concerning Israel's status is to be answered on the basis of the Word of God, not on the basis of feelings, desires, preferences, or even a study of history or politics in the Middle East.

If you cannot agree to those principles there is hardly any point in your reading further. 

Who Is the Seed of Abraham?

Next we turn to the epistle to the Galatians. In Galatians 3, having proved that Abraham was justified through faith in exactly the same way as believers in all ages, Paul declares, "Know ye therefore that they which are of faith the same are the children of Abraham ... so then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham" (vv. 7, 9). On the other hand, the unbelieving Jews and Judaizers (and all those today, whether Jew or Gentile, who teach and believe in justification by works) are under the curse (v. 10), from which curse Christ has redeemed us (v. 13). Thus, "the blessing of Abraham [has come] on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (v. 14). 

Verse 16 is pivotal. To whom was the promise of Abraham made and what was the promise? Consider these texts: "unto thy seed will I give this land" (Gen. 12:7); "all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever" (Gen. 13:15); "unto thy seed have I given this land" (Gen. 15:18); "and I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God" (Gen. 17:7-8) and "in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice." 

Did you notice the recurring word "seed" and the fact that "seed" is singular, not plural? Shamefully, modern translations of the Bible have obscured this truth by translating seed as descendants. The fact that God makes promises to Abraham's "seed" is highly significant. It identifies for us the ones to whom God's promises are made.

God never promised anything to the mere physical descendants of Abraham. God's promises were to Abraham's seed. Galatians 3:16 identifies Abraham's seed: "Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ." Furthermore, Paul identifies the seed of Abraham as Jews and Gentiles (and there is no difference any longer, v. 28) who believe in Jesus Christ: "And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29).

Do you see how earth-shattering, and yet how wonderfully blessed that is? Paul explains it further in Ephesians 2-3. The Gentiles in Ephesus had, before their conversion, been "without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." But now, because of what Christ had done in His life and death, "ye who sometimes were afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ" (vv. 12-13). Paul's conclusion is this: "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone" (vv. 19-20). It is not, however, something new that Gentiles are brought into the people of God. This happened frequently in the Old Testament, but to become a Jew in the Old Testament required circumcision (for males). The "new" aspect is that Gentiles are equal with the Jews through faith in Christ. Paul explains this "mystery" in chapter 3: "the mystery of Christ, which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel" (vv. 4-6). Paul does not say that the concept "church" was utterly unknown in the Old Testament, or that the idea of the conversion of the Gentiles was hidden. He teaches that it was not known in the same way as it is today. Gentiles are partakers in God's promise in Christ through faith! 

But, we digress, so let us return to Galatians.

In chapter 4 Paul teaches that the Old Testament people of God (elect Israel) is essentially the same people as the New Testament church (consisting of elect Jews and Gentiles in one body). How so? The Old Testament people of God (elect Israel) was a child, who, although the heir of God's promises, was in her minority, and could not receive the promises until the time of her maturity. During her minority period (legally as a child) she was under the law (a schoolmaster, 3:24; tutors and governors, 4:2). With the coming of Jesus Christ the same minor child (elect Israel) matures into the church of Jesus Christ. The church does not replace or supersede Israel: the church is Israel in her maturity, having thrown off the yoke of the law, and having entered into the enjoyment of her inheritance. That is why, for example, elect Israel in the Old Testament did not enjoy the fullness of the Spirit and many other blessings purchased by Jesus Christ and poured out upon His people from His exalted position at God's Right Hand (see Acts 2:33).  

By the way, it would be absurd for Israel to return to her period of minority. 

Later in the same chapter Paul uses an allegory to illustrate a spiritual truth. In Paul's allegory there are two covenants, two Jerusalems, two mountains and two kinds of sons of Abraham. FIrst, there is "the Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage to her children" (v. 25). This refers to unbelieving Judaism, whether in Paul's day, or in the modern state of Israel, and it refers to all persons (whether Jews or Gentiles) who seek salvation in the law of God and not through faith alone. These are the ones "born after the flesh" (v. 29) who persecute the true children of God. These are the children of the bondwoman, Hagar (vv. 30-31) who are "cast out" (v. 30). Second, there is "Jerusalem which is above" and she is "free, which is the mother of us all" (v 26). The heavenly, spiritual, true Jerusalem of above gives birth to children who are "the children of promise" (v. 28). We (that is, all believers in Jesus Christ, regardless of ethnicity) are children of the free! (v. 31).

Thus Paul identifies as the children of Abraham, the children of Jerusalem, the children of the free all those (and those only) who believe in Jesus Christ. All others, even if they have an impeccable ethnically Jewish pedigree, are cast out as children of the flesh, not counted for the seed.

Paul has one more thing to say before he closes his epistle to the Galatians: "and as many as walk according to this rule, peace upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16). 

What does Paul mean (and more importantly what does the Holy Spirit mean) by "the Israel of God" here? To answer that we need to examine the text carefully. First, Paul speaks a benediction (a blessing of peace and mercy) upon "as many as walk according to this rule." The word 'rule" is canon, which is a rule, standard or measuring rod. The immediate context, as well as the argument of the entire letter, demands that the rule be that of making no distinction in the church between believing Jew and Gentile, a rule which Paul defends in this letter. In Christ circumcision is nothing (v. 15; see also v. 6, as well as 2:11-21). As many as walk according to that rule are partakers of the apostolic blessing of peace and mercy. All those who walk against that rule, by making in the church a distinction between Jew and Gentile, are denied the blessing of God. Thus there is no blessing for the Judaizers, but the anathema or curse (1:8-9; 3:10, etc).  

Now, what about the Israel of God? If Paul meant Israel as she existed as a nation in his day, he would be violating his own rule. How could Paul pronounce the apostolic blessing of peace and mercy upon unbelieving Israel? The meaning is clear: the Israel of God is (as we have seen in studying many passages) the church, that is, the body of believers made up of Jews and Gentiles. In other words, the phrase "and the Israel of God" is a further explanation of "as many as walk according to this rule" and could be translated, "even the Israel of God" (the Greek word kai can mean "and" or "even" in the New Testament). 

Is Israel Not a Nation Forever?

Premillennial Dispensationalism in an effort to promote a Jewish kingdom after the "church age" refers us to the Old Testament. However, we should note that the New Testament is the authoritative interpretation of the Old Testament. Some premillennial dispensationalists have complained that this approach to Scripture causes the New Testament to "restrict" or "inflict" or "oppress" the Old Testament. This is an absurd argument. 

The New Testament clearly teaches that the Old Testament period was a time of types and shadows, and the New Testament, with the coming of Christ, is a time of fulfillment. "Let no man judge you in meat or in drink or in respect of an holy day ... which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ" (Col. 2:17). The whole book of Hebrews teaches us that the sacrifices, the tabernacle, the temple and its furniture, the feast days and indeed all other aspects of Old Testament worship have been fulfilled in Christ. This should give us pause when we seek to interpret Old Testament passages about temples, feast days and sacrifices! 

Let me illustrate with an example from Amos 9:11, "in that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen ..." If you read that passage without the light of the New Testament, and if you insisted on taking it literally, what would you make of it? Would you come to the conclusion that it means that in the New Testament age the Jews and Gentiles together will form one people of God or one church, and that believing Gentiles will not need to be circumcised or keep the law of Moses to be saved? Well, that is exactly how James interprets it at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, an interpretation approved by the delegates (Peter, Barnabas, Paul, etc) and the Holy Spirit Himself (Acts 15:14-19, 28)! Only a fool would suggest that James took a totally irrelevant passage to prove a controversial point and twisted it to give it a meaning it never had in Amos' prophecy. A humble believer must say to himself: "Clearly, my understanding of the Old Testament is flawed and carnal. I will learn from this example how to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New."

Let us end with the clearest passage on the perpetuity of Israel's nationhood: "If those ordinances [sun, moon and stars, etc] depart from before me, saith the LORD, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me forever. Thus saith the LORD: if heaven above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the LORD" (Jer 31:36-37).

That seems clear: the state of Israel, as a political entity, is under the eternal blessing of God, and will always be a nation. But we should notice a few things. First, what does the text mean by nation? The Hebrew word is goy, the plural of which, goyim, means the Gentiles. A nation would appear to be a distinct people with a head, or a people with a king. Second, how did God keep this promise in a way to satisfy the most literalistic premillennial dispensationalist? Israel only became a nation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. God declared Israel to be a peculiar treasure (Hebrew: segulah; Greek: laos periousios) and a kingdom of priests and an holy nation (Hebrew: goy qadosh; Greek: ethnos hagion) (vv. 5-6). Was Israel a nation when the 10 tribes were carried away into captivity; was Israel a nation when the remaining 2 tribes were carried into Bablyon for 70 years; was Israel a nation when she existed as a  plaything for the nations from the return to the time of the Roman empire, and when no Davidic king ever sat on the earthly throne in Jerusalem again; was Israel a nation when she was destroyed in AD 70; and was Israel a nation from AD 70 to AD 1948/1967; and is Israel today a nation? Third, the promise of Jeremiah 31:36-37 is made explicitly to the seed of Israel, and not to the corporate entity known as Israel. The seed of Israel includes all those, whether ethnic Jew or ethnic Gentile, who believe in Jesus Christ, and excludes all ethnic Jews (and all ethnic Gentiles) who reject Jesus Christ. Since the Jews who returned to Israel in AD 1948 were unbelievers, Jeremiah 31 has nothing to do with them. 

But what of the nationhood of Israel? In which people is this promise fulfilled if not in the unbelieving Jewish state in the Middle East?   And is there a king to sit on David's throne? The New Testament tells us that Jesus is the son or seed of David and that He sits on David's throne: "the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:32-33). Premillennial Dispensationalists are fond of asserting that this prophecy will be fulfilled in a future millennial reign. First, 1.000 years is not forever, and Luke 1 demands that Jesus rule forever over the house of Jacob. And, second, Acts 2 teaches that Jesus is already sitting on the throne of David in heaven (vv. 30, 33-36).  

As to who the nation of Israel is to whom God makes a promise in Jeremiah 31, Jesus gives us a very clear indication in Matthew 21:43, "Therefore I say unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." And we do not have to look too far to discover which nation that is: it is the church, the church of Jesus Christ, made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, who are the seed of Abraham, the children of God, the Jews of the New Testament. Peter writes to the church in these words: "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people ... which in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God" (I Peter 2:9-10). Holy nation is the name given to Israel in Exodus 19:5-6. Peter now applies it to the church! The church is the holy nation, and since the church will never be destroyed, in her and not in the modern post-1948 state of Israel, the promise of Jeremiah 31 is fulfilled. Titus 2:14 is also instructive: to the churches in Crete Paul attributes the title "peculiar people," a name taken from Exodus 19:5 (Greek: laos periousios)! 

One more thing must be noticed in Jeremiah 31: the promise of the new covenant. This promise is made to "the house of Judah and the house of Israel" (v. 31). In this covenant with the house of Israel God will "put [his] law in their inward parts and write it in their hearts and will be their God and they shall be [his] people ... " (v. 33). Moreover, God promises to the same house of Israel: "I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more" (v. 34). 

How is this new covenant promise fulfilled, and to whom? The answer is found in Hebrews 8:6-13. This covenant has nothing to do with the house of Israel as a distinct entity from the church of Jesus Christ. The church of Jesus Christ, which enjoys the knowledge of God and the forgiveness of sins, is the house of Israel. 

Are there, then, no promises to the political entity known as Israel? The answer is an unequivocal no. Will Israel as a political entity ever rebuild her temple and worship God as she did in the Old Testament? That is very unlikely, but if she does manage to build a temple in Jerusalem and institute a priesthood, offer sacrifices and celebrate the feasts, it will be just another sign of Israel's apostasy from God.  If the sacrifices of the wicked were abominable to God in the Old Testament (Prov. 15:8, 21:27) how much more abominable would the recommencing of animal sacrifices be in the future after the one, only sacrifice of the Son of God?

All the promises of God are in Christ (II Cor. 1:20). All the promises of God were made to Christ, as the Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). Therefore, there can be no promise of any kind for any unbeliever outside of Jesus Christ. The calling of the Jew, as the calling of the Gentile, is to repent and believe in Jesus Christ and join the church of Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free, where there is no diffrence, and as many as walk according to this rule, peace be upon them and mercy!"

For they are the Israel of God!