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Israel in the New Testament

The following text is adapted from Derek Prince, The Destiny of Israel and the Church. Word Publishing (UK), 1992.

Who is Israel?

Much confusion has pervaded the Church for many centuries concerning the identity of Israel.

The origin of the confusion may be traced back to the early Church Fathers, who developed a doctrine that the Church had replaced Israel in the purposes of God and was to be known as the ‘new Israel.’ This kind of teaching was promulgated about AD 150 by Justin Martyr and was later adopted and amplified by such celebrated figures as Irenaeus, Origen and Augustine. More and more, the Old Testament was interpreted in an allegorical way, which no longer did justice to the plain meaning of many texts.

From about AD 400, Israel has regularly been used by Bible teachers, commentators, and even translators as a synonym for the Church. This has resulted in applying to the Church words and promises that are specifically addressed by name to Israel.

Star of David MosaicEssential truth is usually simple, and the truth is, Israel is Israel, and the Church is the Church.

To recover the truth about the identity of Israel it is necessary to go back to the text of the New Testament and see how the apostles used the term Israel.

There are about 77 instances in the New Testament where the words Israel or Israelite occur. A close examination of these instances reveals that the apostles never used Israel as a synonym for the Church.

Nor does the phrase ‘the new Israel’ occur anywhere in the New Testament.

Israel is, on the other hand, often used as a ‘type’ of the Church. Concerning the experiences of Israel in the Exodus, Paul says:

Now these things happened to them as examples [or types], and they were written for our instruction… (1 Cor 10:11)

Unfortunately, Christians have frequently adopted a principle of interpretation that is seldom stated explicitly: “All the blessings apply to the Church and all the curses apply to Israel.” Behind this principle of interpretation lies the assertion (in which there is much truth) that Israel had her chance but was unfaithful to God. Now, therefore, continues this line of reasoning, God has changed His mind and reapplied His promises, once preserved for Israel, to the Church. Such a conclusion, however, clearly impugns the faithfulness of God.

Paul expresses his reaction to such a suggestion in Rom 3:1-4. Analyzing the consequences of Israel’s unfaithfulness he says:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though everyone were a liar.

Who is a Jew?

The word Jew occurs in the New Testament nearly 200 times. Out of all these occurrences, the only passage in which Jew is clearly used in a way different from the accepted norm is Romans 2:28-29.

These verses come at the end of a chapter in which Paul has been explaining—with particular reference to the Jewish people—that knowledge of God’s will through the Law justifies no one. A person is not righteous simply because he knows what is right. On the contrary, Paul says, that knowledge merely increases human responsibility. He goes on to apply this specifically to the Jewish people of his day.

After pointing out that the Jews of his day had in many cases fallen short of God’s will, Paul closes the chapter with these words:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. (Rom 2:28-29)

When Paul says ‘whose praise is not from men,’ he is playing on the Hebrew meaning of the name Jew, which is taken from the name of the tribe of Judah, meaning ‘praise’ or ‘thanksgiving.’ So Paul says if you are a real Jew, your praise should come from God and not from men. In a certain sense, he is restricting the use of the word Jew here. He is saying it is not enough to be a Jew outwardly. A true Jew must have the inner condition of heart that earns him or her the praise of God.

Paul is not extending the use of Jew, or implying that all Christians are somehow “spiritual Jews.” On the contrary, he is restricting the term.

In addition to Romans 2, there are two passages—Revelation 2:9 and 3:9—where the Lord speaks of ‘those who say they are Jews and are not.’ There are various possible ways to interpret these passages. They could possibly refer to the same kind of people Paul describes in Romans 2—those who have the outward marks of being Jewish, but lack the inward spiritual requirement.

Suppose, however, we accept these two passages in Revelation, together with that in Romans, as examples of a special use of Jew which restricts the term to Jews who fulfill certain spiritual requirements. The fact remains that out of nearly 200 passages in the New Testament there are only three examples of this special, restricted meaning. Anyone, therefore, who argues for this meaning in any passage must produce a strong, objective reason, and one which is clearly required by the context. Certainly this extremely restricted use could never replace the normal meaning of the word Jew.

“They are not Israel”

Of the 77 occurrences of the word of Israel in the New Testament, there are only two passages where Israel is used with a special sense. As with the word Jew, this special New Testament usage of Israel does not extend but restricts the application of the word.

The first such restricted use is found in Romans 9:6-9, where Paul explains that even though Israel did not in many instances receive or obey the word of God, this does not mean the word of God has no effect:

For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”

Paul explains here that to be physically descended from Israel—that is, from Jacob—is not sufficient. To qualify for God’s promised blessing, a person must also demonstrate the same faith that characterized Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: otherwise, he or she is not really entitled to the name Israel.

Paul is not extending the use of Israel to include all believers, irrespective of a national origin. On the contrary, he is restricting its use to include only those descendents of Israel who are in the faith of the Messiah. It is an error to suggest that in this passage Paul describes all believers as Israel.

In other places in the same chapter, Paul uses Israel in the normal sense of all who are descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In verses 3-5, for instance, he says:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

Here Paul calls Israelites those who have actually rejected the Messiah. Nevertheless he calls them his countrymen. “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for [them],” he writes. In other words, Paul wishes he could take their place of the unbelief and rejection by God. It is obvious that Paul is here using the name Israel or Israelite to describe all those descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whether they are believers or unbelievers. This is the normal use throughout the New Testament.

The "Israel of God"

The other passage in which Paul uses Israel in a restricted sense is Galatians 6:15-16:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (NKJ)

Paul is talking about two kinds of people. On the one hand are those who, without a background in circumcision or Judaism, have experienced the new birth and are walking in the new creation. On the other hand are Israelites by natural descent who have remained in the faith that was the mark of their ancestors and through that faith have embraced Jesus as Messiah, thus entering into the New Covenant. The latter Paul calls the ‘the Israel of God.’ What really matters, Paul is saying, is not some religious rite but a creative act of God in the heart generated by the New Covenant.

It is interesting to note some variations in the translation of Gal 6:16:

Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God. (RSV)

Pease and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. (NIV)

In the RSV the word and has been left out, so that “all who walk by this rule” are identified with “the Israel of God.” In the NIV, even has been substituted for the normal and, so that “all who follow this rule” are “the Israel of God,” whether they are Jews or Gentiles.

This omission or substitution is based not on linguistic grounds, but on theological grounds. The Greek word is kai, which is overwhelmingly translated ‘and.’ What prompted the RSV translators to leave it out, and the NIV translators to change ‘and’ to ‘even’ on this occasion? Apparently the old tradition that all true believers are the “Israel of God.” This thinking has so influenced Christians that they will change the plain meaning of a text to bring it in line with their theology! This illustrates the extent to which this “spiritual Israel” theory has penetrated the thinking of the Church.

When translated correctly, the verse distinguishes between “all who walk by this rule”—all Christians— and the “Israel of God”—those of Israel who have come to faith in the Messiah, representing the fulfillment of the purpose for which God had brought Israel into being.

It must be emphasized, however, that this is by no means the normal use of Israel in the New Testament. The following list demonstrates that the terms Israel and Israelite always refer to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and are never used as a synonym for the Church in the New Testament.

Use of Israel and Israelite in the New Testament

Matt 2:6

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.’ ”

Matt 2:20

“Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”

Matt 2:21

And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

Matt 8:10

When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.

Matt 9:33

And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke; and the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.”

Matt 10:6

but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Matt 10:23

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes.

Matt 15:24

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Matt 15:31

so that the throng wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.

Matt 19:28

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Matt 27:9

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel,

Matt 27:42

“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.

Mark 12:29

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one;

Mark 15:32

Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

Luke 1:16

And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,

Luke 1:54

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

Luke 1:68

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people,

Luke 1:80

And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Luke 2:25

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

Luke 2:32

a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

Luke 2:34

and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against

Luke 4:25

But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land;

Luke 4:27

And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

Luke 7:9

When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Luke 22:30

that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Luke 24:21

But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened.

John 1:31

I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

John 1:47

Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”

John 1:49

Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

John 3:10

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?

John 12:13

So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

Acts 1:6

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Acts 2:22

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—

Acts 2:36

Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Acts 3:12

And when Peter saw it he addressed the people, “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?

Acts 4:10

be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well.

Acts 4:27

for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,

Acts 5:21

And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and taught. Now the high priest came and those who were with him and called together the council and all the senate of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought.

Acts 5:31

God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.

Acts 5:35

And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you do with these men.

Acts 7:23

“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel.

Acts 7:37

This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up.’

Acts 7:42

But God turned and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘Did you offer to me slain beasts and sacrifices, forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?

Acts 9:15

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;

Acts 10:36

You know the word which he sent to the sons of Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),

Acts 13:16

So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel, and you that fear God, listen.

Acts 13:17

The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it.

Acts 13:23

Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.

Acts 13:24

Before his coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.

Acts 21:28

crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; moreover he also brought Greeks into the temple, and he has defiled this holy place.”

Acts 28:20

For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

Rom 9:4

They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;

Rom 9:6

But it is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,

Rom 9:27

And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved;

Rom 9:31

but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law.

Rom 10:19

Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”

Rom 10:21

But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”

Rom 11:1

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.

Rom 11:2

God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?

Rom 11:7

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,

Rom 11:11

So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.

Rom 11:25

Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in,

Rom 11:26

and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;

1 Cor 10:18

Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?

2 Cor 3:7

Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was,

2 Cor 3:13

not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor.

2 Cor 11:22

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.

Gal 6:16

Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.

Eph 2:12

remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Phil 3:5

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee,

Heb 8:8

For he finds fault with them when he says: “The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah;

Heb 8:10

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Heb 11:22

By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his burial.

Rev 2:14

But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality.

Rev 7:4

And I heard the number of the sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand sealed, out of every tribe of the sons of Israel,

Rev 21:12

It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed;

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