The first question to address is, “What does ‘Israel’ mean?” Israel was the personal name of Jacob, given to him by God in Gen. 32:28. And He said,Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.
According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Israel means, “the prince that prevails with God.” It has also been interpreted as “God rules“ and God prevails.” The name was applied to the Hebrew people in Exodus, Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, Thus says the LORD God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness (Exodus 5:1).
This name was applied to a remnant of people who remained believers in the one true God. A remnant means the left-overs. To have a remnant meant that many had fallen away and only the true believers remained as the remnant. They were still called Israel. Here we see that true Israel were those of faith. “Thus says the LORD of hosts: They shall thoroughly glean as a vine the remnant of Israel; as a grape-gatherer, put your hand back into the branches” (Jer. 6:9).
The Seed of Abraham
When we come to the New Testament, we discover important passages of the scriptures in Romans, chapters 9 and 11, where Paul refers to “physical” and “spiritual Israel.” He does so by saying that all who are of the natural descendants are not necessarily Israel. Beginning in Romans 9:1, Paul grieves over the fact that his kinsmen, after the flesh, are not turning to Christ as he would desire for them to do. He grieves because he knows that unless they accept the same Christ in the same way as do the Gentiles, they are not “true Israel” and therefore would be accursed. His statement in Romans 9:6 is in defense of the Word of God. He knows the promise of God to Abraham, but he declares their falling away is not a reflection on God’s word but rather all are not Israel who are of Israel. He writes, “But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel.”
What is Paul saying when he says not all are Israel that are of Israel? He is saying just because they belong to the natural nation of Israel that does not make them a part of true Israel. He goes on to say, “Nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham” (Rom 9:7). Belonging to the natural seed of Abraham does not qualify them as the Israel or the chosen of God. That is a big statement in light of the Dispensationalist teaching that God has a covenant with Israel that is independent of their faithfulness. Lest we misunderstand what Paul is saying, he declares it even more clearly: “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” (Rom. 9:8).
Who then are the children of promise? We are not left to wonder about this either. In Galatians 3:6-9, once again Paul, who was given this mystery, elaborates on the concept that the promise came to Abraham by faith, therefore, it has always been by faith and not by race. Here Paul declares:
“Just as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.”
We know that Christ was the Seed; therefore, all Abraham’s seed are those who have their faith in Christ Jesus. Paul tells us only those who believe are sons of Abraham: “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” (Gal 3:7) “Only those who are of faith,” is a very important statement because he is speaking of those who have faith in Jesus Christ and none other.
Jesus dealt with this same issue when He made a distinction between Jews who believed in Him and those who did not. Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples . . . ” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants . . . Then Jesus replied, I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you . . . You are of your father, the devil . . . “(John 8:31, 33, 37, 44)
John the Baptist spoke almost these same words to the Jewish leaders of his day when he said:
“…and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now, the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:910).
Both Jesus and John the Baptist are plainly saying that those who believe on Jesus are the true “children of Abraham.” In spite of these strong arguments some still say that natural Israel has a covenant apart from Christ in this present age. Their understanding is that God will give natural Israel of today a second chance as the nation favored by God. In the future, natural Israel will all come to know Jesus, born of Mary, as Christ. This belief is based upon the understanding that God has made a covenant with natural Israel through Abraham, and it was not fulfilled in Christ through the gospel but will be fulfilled in the future during a time of a millennium reign.
The Mystery of God
So much of Paul’s message was on the subject of all believers being one in Christ. He spoke concerning the church as the true Israel, made up of all those who are of faith. He tells us that it was the mystery of God. He expounds on this mystery in Ephesians 3:26.
“If indeed you have heard of the stewardship of the grace of God, which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I wrote before in a few words, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in the other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel.”
Some teach that Paul saw the church as the mystery, but that is incorrect. Notice, clearly, the mystery was that both Jews and Gentiles were together as one in Christ’s church. That can’t be missed. The body of Christ did not exist until the Day of Pentecost, but we could say the church per se, existed in the Old Testament. The Greek word translated to English as church is ekklessia, which literally means the “called out ones.” It should be noted this term was used for Israel in the time before the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, they were called the church or the “called out ones” according to Acts 7:38: This is he who was in the church in the wilderness . . . “ This is important because it shows God’s heart to have a people. It was his plan from the very beginning. That is why God declared that the seed of the woman, which is Christ, would crush the head of the serpent, which is Satan (Gen 3:15). Christ has always been the focus of the Scriptures. God’s plan has always been to have a people in which He may dwell and call His bride.
With the coming of Christ, the favor of God is manifest upon all nations, tribes and tongues. Christ’s inheritance is the nations of the world (Psa 2:8). The idea of a special called out people was the identical concept of Israel. In Ephesians, Paul goes on to emphasize the mystery as God’s: “…eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11).
“Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by that which is called the ‘Circumcision’ in the flesh made by hands; that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:11-12).
Notice, he speaks of those who “once” were Gentiles. He makes it clear that now they are no longer considered Gentiles; a Gentile being those estranged from the promises of God. Paul even says the Gentiles who are called uncircumcised by the Jews, really are not the uncircumcised, but rather are the circumcised. They are just called uncircumcised by those who are not “really circumcised.” The natural Jews were circumcised “in the flesh by hands;” therefore, Paul did not consider them as truly circumcised. Why is Paul making such a big deal out of this concept? He did not want there to be a misunderstanding about God’s people.
Speaking to these who were former Gentiles, Paul declares the wall of separation between them and the natural descendants of Abraham has been torn down. Through Jesus they have been made as one. The new joining together in Christ is called a new man. The Gentiles are said to be made fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God.
“But now in Christ Jesus, you who sometimes were far off are made near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of two one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now, therefore, you are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God . . . “(Eph. 2:11-19).
Early Church Fathers understood the Church to be the fulfillment of all the prophets declared:
Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D) understood this the same when he wrote:
“Jesus Christ … is the new law, and the new covenant, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for the good things of God. For the true spiritual Israel, and the descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations), are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ. God blesses these people and call them Israel and declared them to be his inheritance, therefore, all who have fled through him to the Father constitutes the Blessed Israel.”1
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (AD 130-200)
“Now I have shown a short time ago that the church is the seed of Abraham.”
Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170-236)
“For it is not of the Jews He spoke this word of old, nor of the city of Zion, but of the church. For all the prophets have declared Zion to be the bride brought from the nations.”
The reformers believed those of faith were the seed of Abraham. Martin Luther clearly explains Galatians 6:16:
Paul adds the words “upon the Israel of God.” He distinguishes this Israel from the Israel after the flesh, just as in 1 Cor. 10:18 he speaks of those who are the Israel of the flesh, not the Israel of God. Therefore peace is upon Gentiles and Jews, provided that they go by the rule of faith and the Spirit. 2
Explaining this same verse, John Calvin says:
“Upon the Israel of God. This is an indirect ridicule of the vain boasting of the false apostles, who vaunted of being the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh. There are two classes who bear this name, a pretended Israel, which appears to be so in the sight of men, and the Israel of God. Circumcision was a disguise before men, but regeneration is a truth before God. In a word, he gives the appellation of the Israel of God to those whom he formerly denominated the children of Abraham by faith (Galatians 3:29), and thus includes all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, who were united into one church.”
A quick look through the Scriptures reveal the Bible holds this to be true that the Old Testament Israel is fulfilled in the saints of the New Testament made up of both Jews and Gentiles.
Old Testament New Testament
Psalm 89:7 Saints or Holy Ones 1 Corinthians 14:33
Isaiah 45:4 Elect or Chosen 1 Peter 1:2; Colossians 3:12
Deuteronomy 33:12 Beloved Colossians 3:12, Romans 1:7
Isaiah 43:7 The called Romans 1:6; 8:28
Isaiah 40:11 Flock Acts 20:28; Luke 12:32
Exodus 19:6 Holy Nation 1 Peter 2:9
Isaiah 62:5 Bride John 3:29
1. Circa AD 160. English translation from the Dialogue with Trypho xi, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1 (Eerdmans, repr. 1987), 200.
2. English translation from Lectures on Galatians, 1519, in volume 27 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1964), 406.
3. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXI, trans. by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, reprint ed. 1979), 186.
About the Author:
Glenn Shaffer is the author of Apostolic Government in the 21st Century, Christianity 101 and Discipleship 201. He has a Masters of Ministry degree in leadership studies from Southwestern Christian University and is working toward a Doctorate in Ministry at ORU in Tulsa.
Glenn and his wife, Ami have been married for 40 years with two sons, Matt and Daniel. Together, they co-see the elder pastoral care of Destiny Life Church, one church in two locations (Owasso and Claremore, Oklahoma) where they have been serving for almost 4 decades. It is a non-denominational church, based on a New Testament Apostolic form of church government. Together, they also serve as the directors of ATI- Apostolic Teams International, an emerging network of churches and ministers.