Don't Mark Me 'Israel'


ARE WE, THE CHURCH, the ‘New Israel’? Some think so. The position is variously referred as ‘supersessionism’ or 'replacement theology'. It's an old idea among Christians dating back to the 2nd or 3rd Century.

What does the Bible say?

The term ‘Israel’ is used 87 times in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, the meaning is rather straightforward. Like in the Hebrew Scriptures it means, well, Israel. Israel in the ethnic and national sense that we tend to think of even to this day. 

[There is one exception. I will mention it at the end.]

Jesus and Paul
In the Gospels, the term is used 31 times and it’s hard to imagine in these contexts Jesus ever meaning it as a spiritual code for ‘the church’. In Matthew 10 Jesus commands his disciples not to go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, ‘But rather got to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Whenever Jesus talks about Israel, he means Israel―not the church.

What about Paul? Do basic terms take on new meanings after Pentecost?

Paul refers to Israel twenty-five times in his writings and five times in his speeches in Acts. Does Paul refer to us as ‘Israel’?

In his speeches in Acts, Paul still uses it to mean ethnic Israel. In Acts 13 he says, ‘Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God’. Likewise, his letters reflect similar usage. The most extensive treatment being in Romans 9-11.

It's in this passage that Paul goes into the most detail about the relationship between Israel and believing Gentiles. It is beyond the scope of this short blog to do an exposition of these three chapters, so let me encourage you: read it closely for yourselves. Take a pencil and underline every time Paul uses the term ‘Israel’. Then ask yourself if it is even possible that Paul is referring to the church. 
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Go to the Bible directly and do your own word search.
You'll be amazed at the clarity you find.
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Some supersessionists may grant that in Romans 9-11 it mostly refers to ethnic Israel. But they want Paul's final usage of it to be spiritualised to mean the church. For some people Paul’s prediction of a future, national revival in Israel is too grand. Paul says ‘All Israel will be saved!’ (11.26). Surely, some think, this must be a reference to the church! But though understanding this phrase may fit our theological presuppositions, it doesn’t fit the context if we’re using a straightforward hermeneutic. In verses 11-25 Paul has been continually distinguishing between Israel and believing Gentiles. This is why Dr. Keith A. Mathison (part of the late RC Sproul’s teaching fellowship) comments here,

We have to remember that Paul’s concern in these chapters is for his kinsmen according to the flesh (9:1–5). His prayer in this context is for the salvation of unbelieving Israel (10:1). In Romans 11:26, Paul is revealing that the prayer of 10:1 will be answered once the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

After telling us many things about God’s purposes for ethnic Israel in chapters 9-11, Paul leaves us with hope that prayers for Israel’s salvation will one day have fulfilment in a massive, spiritual awakening.

What About Galatians Six?
Other supersessionists, whose theology is desperate to find at least ONE reference to the church as ‘Israel’, may look to Galatians six. In it, Paul declares in verse sixteen, at the end of his letter, ‘Mercy to the Israel of God!’ They will say that Paul is praying for mercy for the Galatian church―the ones he’s just written to.

But there are problems with this view. Is it right to refer to just one local congregation as ‘the Israel of God’―as opposed to the whole church worldwide? Also, is this interpretation demanded by the context?

No. It’s not demanded. It’s wide open to be seen in at least one of two ways (if not more). In the context Paul is helping the Galatians deal with false teachers from Israel who are telling the Gentile believers that they must also become Jews if the want to be true Christians. Much of the discussion revolves round circumcision. Verses 15 and 16 together read:

15 For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation. 16 May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy to the Israel of God! (HSCB)

The first way one could read this is in a parallel fashion. In that way we see ‘Israel’ as a synonymous repeating those ‘who follow this standard’ (the obedient Galatian church). A second equally obvious way would be to see it as a prayer for two separate entities: peace for those following his instruction and mercy for the Israel from which ‘the circumcised’ false teachers are emerging.

Is there anything we can look at to determine which understanding is the most likely? As this is the only time Paul uses the term ‘Israel’ anywhere in Galatians, we must look at how he uses it in his other letters. If we do that, we see that the most obvious understanding is overwhelmingly that we understand ‘the Israel of God’ to mean just that. Israel.

Again, do your own word study on Paul's use of the term. You won't need a postgraduate degree in hermeneutics. 

Circumcision? 
Some may ask, ‘What about when Paul discusses true circumcision or inward Jewishness?’ Sure. Those are great discussions. But let's not conflate the topics. They're not identical. Paul uses different terms because he addresses different subjects. Having God reach inside of you and circumcise your heart (being a Jew inwardly) is a powerful reference to true, individual devotion. Though it may overlap with the subject of God’s purpose for corporate, ethnic Israel, the issues are not fully synonymous. When using ‘Israel’ the New Testament means Israel.

The One Exception
As stated at the beginning of the blog, there is one exception. It's only fair to mention it. There is one place in the New Testament where there is room for a poetic or symbolic license in understanding the term ‘Israel’. It's John’s usage in (unsurprisingly) the book of Revelation. There John refers to ‘the 144,000 taken from out of Israel.’ 

Understanding that passage (if not many throughout the book) is a task of elephantine proportions. Commentators are all over the place in their understanding who exactly these 144,000 are. My simple keyboard has no words to add to the effect of their true identity here. All I can say is that if your foundation for understanding the church to be 'the New Israel' is taken exclusively from here, it is a shaky foundation indeed. 

And Us?
It is for the reasons that we've briefly discussed here and more that Dr. Gerald McDermott, Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson, points out in his book, Israel Matters, ‘The Bible never suggests that the church is the “New Israel,” or that God’s covenant promises to Israel have been revoked.’

There is a sense in which Jesus Himself is the fulfilment of Israel. But neither He nor Paul ever label us Gentiles as ‘Israel’. We are referred to as 'co-heirs' with Israel in the Messiah.  We now share certain promises, benefits, and titles that were historically and uniquely theirs as newly adopted members of God's family. We are grafted in as wild branches into the saving purposes of God. But while the Bible may say many of the same things about Israel and the church, it does not confuse the two. 

So please don't mark me 'Israel'. That name is already taken.
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