Israel is Israel

Romans 11:26 - And thus all Israel will be saved.

Read all of Romans 11.

Israel is Israel!" It's an odd title, but as a point of biblical interpretation (or hermeneutics) it is so important and so crucial that denominational boundaries have formed over it! Since every serious Bible student must work through the questions raised by this principle, it's very important for growing Christens to grasp the concept that "Israel is Israel." So, although this topic is challenging reading and probably won't produce "warm fuzzy devotional feelings," read on!

The Important Question?

Will the unfulfilled prophecies and promises which were made to the Jewish people in the Old Testament be fulfilled literally to a literal Israel in the future, or are they being fulfilled spiritually today in the Christian Church? Should Israel be viewed as the Church in the Old Testament, and the New Testament Church viewed as a "New Israel"? Does the Bible teach that there is only one "people of God" throughout human history, called "Israel" in the Old Testament and "the Church" in the New Testament? Or does the Bible consistently differentiate between Israel and the Church? How we answer these questions makes huge differences in our interpretation of the prophecies and promises made to Israel throughout the Old Testament. To get a handle on the subject, let's look at three passages of Scripture which illustrate these important differences in interpretation.

In the Abrahamic covenant beginning in Genesis 12, was literal land in the Middle East promised by God to Abraham and his descendants--or was God speaking figuratively of "spiritual land" that Christians would inherit? (See Genesis 13:14-17 and 15:18.) Abraham and the other patriarchs received this unconditional promise in a literal way. Years later, when the Jews were captives in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel believed that, in spite of the disobedience of Israel, the ultimate literal fulfillment of the "land deal" made in the Abrahamic Covenant was not affected. (See Ezekiel 28:25-26.) It's logical to assume that we should interpret these promises in the same way as did the inspired prophet!

For a second example, read Isaiah 11. A prediction is made of a second return of Israel to its homeland from all over the world, including the islands of the sea. Isaiah 43:5 indicates that many will come "from the west" during this return. Obviously this return never took place in ancient history. So how do we interpret this prophecy? Will this return to the Promised Land literally occur at a future time? Or should we decide that this prophecy does not refer to a literal Israel of the future, but is spiritually fulfilled as converts from all over the world are brought into the Church, a "new Israel"?

And how do we view the peaceful state of the animals in verses 6-9? Is this Eden-like description a prophecy of a literal time of future peace and harmony on the earth, or is it a figurative way of describing "wolf-like people" and "lamb-like people" getting along peacefully in the Church? In order to be hermeneutically consistent, we cannot interpret this passage both ways! Either it's all figurative and is being spiritually fulfilled today in the Church as the "new Israel," or it is all literal, and will be fulfilled literally in the future--because Israel is still Israel!

For a third example, consider Ezekiel 47. In this prophetic vision, Ezekiel predicted great physical blessings for Israel at a future time. In verses 1-10 we find a detailed account of water flowing from the Temple area in Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea. As a result, the Dead Sea (which presently has no aquatic life) becomes fresh, and is populated with many fish. Now how do we interpret this detailed account of blessing for Israel? Should it be seen as an allegory--great spiritual blessings for the Church, the "new Israel," with the "gospel stream of living water" going out into this dead world? In verse 10, are Christian "fishers of men" catching converts out of this world, which is dead in sin? Is this a prophetic vision for the Church, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Source of the river of life? Or is Israel still Israel, and Ezekiel's prophetic vision a clear and straightforward promise of great physical blessings which will literally come to the land and nation of Israel in the future?

When Did the Church Begin?

Many more Old Testament examples could be given, but these three should be sufficient to show that big differences result in interpretation if we don't distinguish between Israel and the Church. Should the many unfulfilled prophecies and promises made to Israel be spiritualized and transferred to the Church, or will these unfulfilled prophecies and promises be fulfilled literally with Israel in the future? Obviously, a key consideration in resolving this question is determining when the Church began! Some Christians believe that there is no distinction between "the people of God" in the Old and New Testaments, and that the Church began in the Old Testament.

If this scenario is true, a case could be made for transferring the prophecies and promises given to Israel in the Old Testament to the Church of the New Testament. For instance, if the Church began with Abraham and his response of faith to God, there would be a legitimate scriptural basis for shifting the promises of the Abrahamic covenant from the people of God in the Old Testament (the nation of Israel) to the people of God in the New Testament (the Church), and we could rightly blur the distinction between Israel and the Church. Israel could be considered the "Church of the Old Testament." The Church of the New Testament could be considered the "new Israel" (a term which is never found in Scripture, by the way). But did the Church begin in the Old Testament?

Taking the Bible at face value, Scripture apparently teaches that the Church did not begin in Old Testament times, but began with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). The first mention of the Church in the Bible is found in Matthew 16:18, where the Lord Jesus said, "I will build My Church, and the gates of hades shall not overpower it." If the Church had come into existence in Old Testament times, the Lord would have said, "I am building my Church" rather than "I will build My Church." When the Lord made this statement, He was speaking of future activity, because the Church did not yet exist.

Another reason for believing that the Church did not begin in Old Testament times is the fact that the New Testament refers to the Church as a "mystery" (Ephesians 3:1-12). Today we use the term "mystery" to describe a strange happening or a spy novel. But the New Testament uses the term "mystery" to refer to a scriptural truth that was concealed in the Old Testament but is now fully revealed in the New Testament with the coming of Christ. If "the Church" is merely a change in terminology for the people of God throughout human history, it would not be called a "mystery." The mystery of the Church includes the great truths that the Church is the Body and Bride of Christ, according to Ephesians 5:30-32. It could not have existed before the coming of Christ! The Church is unique and must be distinguished from Israel.

Not only is the Church called a mystery in the New Testament, but the apostle Paul, to whom this mystery was revealed, put great emphasis on the newness of the Church. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are being brought together in the Church to form "one new man" (Ephesians 2:15). The word "new" here is not the Greek word used for "new" in the sense of recent in time. It's a different Greek word which means "new" in the sense of different. The Church is different from anything which came before--in form, quality, character and nature! So Paul's description of the Church as "one new man" does not convey the idea of a recentaddition of Gentiles to an already existing "Jewish man." He's not describing an "old Israel," composed only of Jews, being transformed into a "new Israel," composed of Jews and Gentiles. No! The Church is something brand new and distinct in essencefrom Israel.

Furthermore, Ephesians 2:19-20 likens this new body of believers to a building which is being built on "the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone." The foundation of a building obviously comes first--the building comes after the foundation! Could the Church have started in Old Testament times when this Scripture clearly states that it is being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ Himself as the cornerstone in the foundation?

The Olive Tree Illustration

In Romans 9-11, the apostle Paul builds a convincing case to prove that the Church has not replaced Israel, or become the so-called "new Israel." These chapters show clearly that, in the mind of God, Israel is still Israel, even though New Testament times have come and the universal Church has been formed. The fact that Christian Jews today (called the "Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16 and the "remnant of Israel" in Romans 11:25) are part of the Church, does not mean that God no longer has plans for Israel as a nation! A careful examination of the olive tree illustration in Romans 11 confirms this conclusion.

While Romans 11 indicates that individual Jewish Christians today are part of the Church (Paul himself being "Exhibit A"), it also teaches that the Jewish people as a nation will turn to the Lord in the future. This is the "all Israel" of verse 26. The olive tree illustration is key to understanding the confusing and much-debated scriptural statement, "All Israel shall be saved." In the illustration, the olive tree represents the position of God's special favor. This privileged position of God's special favor was first occupied by Israel, is now occupied by the Gentiles, and once again will be occupied by Israel in the future. Using the olive tree illustration, the apostle Paul shows that the nation of Israel has been temporarily sidelined (set aside from its former place of God's special favor), while the grace of God goes out to the Gentile nations (the wild olive branches in the illustration). Israel will once again receive "Most Favored Nation" status when the Jewish people turn back to the Lord in the future. This great truth is also called a "mystery" (11:25) because it was concealed in the Old Testament, and not fully revealed until New Testament times.

In understanding Romans 11, it is very important to recognize that the olive branches do not represent believers in the Church. (Remember, the olive tree does not represent the Church, but rather the position of favor in God's dealings with mankind.) If the olive tree represented the Church and the branches represented the people of God throughout Old and New Testament times, we would have a big theological problem of true believers being "cut off"! No! The olive tree represents God's special place of privilege which was first occupied by Israel, is now occupied by the Gentiles, but once again will be occupied by Israel in the future.

With the olive tree illustration in mind, we turn to Zechariah 13 for a clear prophecy of Romans 11:26. The "all Israel" which will be saved will consist of one third of the Jewish population. Zechariah 13 tells us that, in the process of cleansing from sin, two thirds of the people of Israel will be struck down (v8). The remaining one third will be saved. "They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say, 'They are My people,' and they will say, 'The Lord is our God'" (v9).

The groundwork for these great prophetic events is presently being prepared, but the great spiritual awakening of Israel will probably not begin until "the fullness of the Gentiles has come in" (Romans 11:25), and the Church has been taken home to heaven (1 Corinthians 15:51-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Then the time for the return of the natural branches to God's place of privilege will have fully arrived. The conversion of Israel at that time will lead to the return of the Messiah and the establishing of His glorious kingdom on this earth. Then the unfulfilled prophecies and promises made to Israel in the Old Testament will be literally fulfilled--because Israel is Israel!

Before we conclude, two questions must be answered. The first question regards Christians as the "spiritual seed of Abraham." Believers in the Church are called the spiritual seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:7,29), and the blessings of the covenants made with Israel in the Old Testament have been extended to the Church (2 Corinthians 7:1 and Hebrews 8), but the unconditional promises made to the people of Israel have never been taken away from the natural seed of Abraham. The second question regards "typology"--seeing pictures of New Testament truth in Old Testament people, things or events. Typology is a legitimate form of spiritualization--used, for example, by our Lord Himself in John 3:14-15. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-11, the apostle Paul shows that the experiences of Israel in the wilderness are a type because they are spiritualized to the Christian life. Notice, however, that typologynever denies or transfers the literal and historical aspects of the items which are spiritualized. Israel is never spiritualized away and replaced by the Church. In typology, Israel is still Israel!

When we read God's Word in a straightforward, normal way, the meaning becomes quite clear. Just as many Old Testament prophecies and promises have been fulfilled in a literal way to the natural descendants of Abraham, so the unfulfilled prophecies and promises will be fulfilled literally to Israel in the future. The land promised by God to the natural seed of Abraham is the literal land of Israel in the Middle East, in which descendants of Abraham will literally dwell.

In Messiah's future peaceful earthly kingdom, the lion will literally lie down with the lamb! The literal water of the literal Dead Sea will become fresh, will be populated with literal fish, and will be fished by flesh-and-blood fishermen! And there will be a literal temple built in Jerusalem when the Lord returns to set up His literal kingdom on this earth. The Old Testament prophecies and promises are not meant to be spiritualized or allegorized away from literal Israel and transferred to the Church as the so-called "new Israel." In fact, denying the literal fulfillment of prophecies and promises made to the historical nation of Israel by transferring them to the Church may actually defame the character of God by casting doubt on the authenticity of His clear communications with mankind! Does He, or does He not, keep His promises exactly as He communicated them?

Convoluted interpretation usually means bad interpretation! To practice consistent hermeneutics, we must differentiate between Israel and the Church all the way through the Bible. The Church is the Church, and Israel is Israel!

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