While the title of this article may appear odd, as a point of biblical interpretation or hermeneutics it is so important that denominational boundaries have formed over it! Since every serious Bible student must work through the questions raised by this principle, it is very important to grasp the concept that “Israel is Israel.” Some Important Questions Will the unfulfilled prophecies and promises 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 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 history, called “Israel” in the Old Testament and “the Church” in the New? Or does the Bible consistently differentiate between them?
How we answer these questions makes a big difference in our interpretation of the prophecies and promises made to Old Testament Israel. To get a handle on the subject, let’s look at three passages of Scripture which illustrate these important differences in interpretation.
Three Helpful Examples
First, was literal land promised to Abraham’s descendants in the Abrahamic covenant, or was God speaking figuratively of “spiritual” land that Christians would inherit? (Gen. 12:6; 13:14-17; 15:18). Abraham and the other patriarchs received this unconditional promise literally. Years later, when the Jews were captives in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel believed that, in spite of Israel’s disobedience, the literal fulfillment of this “land deal” was not affected (Ezek. 28:25-26). It’s logical that we should interpret these promises as did the inspired prophet.
Our second example is a prediction made in Isaiah 11 of a second return of Israel to its homeland from all over the world, including “the islands of the sea” (Isa. 11:11). Isaiah 43:5 says many will come “from the west” during this return. This return never took place, so how do we interpret this prophecy? Will this return to the Promised Land literally occur in the future? Or should we decide that this prophecy does not refer to literal Israel, but is spiritually fulfilled as converts worldwide are brought into the Church viewed as a “new Israel”? And how do we view the peaceful state of the animals in Isaiah 11:6-9? Is this Eden-like description a prophecy of a literal future peace on earth, or is it a figurative way of describing “wolf-like” and “lamb-like” people getting along peacefully in the Church? To be hermeneutically consistent, we cannot interpret this passage both ways. Either it’s figurative and being spiritually fulfilled today in the Church as the “new Israel,” or it’s literal, and will be fulfilled literally in the future – because Israel is still Israel.
Our third example is in Ezekiel 47. In this prophetic vision, Ezekiel predicted great physical blessings for Israel in the future. Verses 1-10 give a detailed account of water flowing from the Temple area in Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea. As a result, the Dead Sea (which today supports no aquatic life) becomes fresh, and is populated with many fish. How do we interpret this 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 which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit and Source of the river of life? Or is Israel still Israel, and Ezekiel’s prophetic vision a clear promise of great physical blessings which will literally come to Israel in the future?
When Did The Church Begin?
These three examples should suffice 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 they 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 there is no distinction between the people of God in the Old and New Testaments, and that the Church began in the Old. If this is true, a case could be made for transferring the prophecies and promises given to Old Testament Israel to the Church of the New. For instance, if the Church began with Abraham’s faith-response to God, there would be a legitimate scriptural basis for shifting the Abrahamic covenant from the Old Testament people of God (Israel) to the New Testament people of God (the Church), and we could rightly blur the distinction between them. Israel could be seen as the “Old Testament Church” and the Church as the “new Israel.” But did the Church begin in the Old Testament?
However, Scripture 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 Jesus said, “I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.” If the Church had come into existence in the Old Testament, the Lord would have said, “I am building my Church. When the Lord made this statement, the Church did not yet exist.
Another reason for believing that the Church did not begin in the Old Testament is because the New Testament refers to it as a “mystery” (Eph. 3:1-12). Today we use “mystery” to describe a strange happening or a spy novel. But the New Testament uses it to refer to a scriptural truth that was concealed in the Old Testament but revealed in the New with the coming of Christ. If “the Church” is merely a change of names for God’s people throughout human history, it would not be called a mystery. The mystery of the Church includes the truths that the Church is the body and bride of Christ (Eph. 5:30-32). It could not have existed before Christ’s coming. The Church is unique and must be distinguished from Israel.
Not only is the Church called a mystery in the New Testament, but Paul, to whom this mystery was revealed, emphasized the newness of the Church. Jewish and Gentile Christians are brought together to form “one new man” (Eph. 2:15). The word “new” here is not the Greek for “recent” but for “different.” The Church is different from anything which came before it in form, quality, character and nature. Paul’s description of the Church does not convey the idea of a recent addition of Gentiles to an already existing “Jewish man.” He’s not describing an “old Israel” of Jews only, being transformed into a “new Israel” of Jews and Gentiles. The Church is something new and distinct in essence from Israel.
Furthermore, Ephesians 2:20 likens this new body of believers to a building being built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” A building’s foundation obviously comes before the building. Could the Church have started in Old Testament times if this Scripture states that it is being built on the foundation, with Jesus Christ Himself as the cornerstone?
Olive Tree Illustration
In Romans 9-11, Paul proves that the Church has not replaced 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 are part of the Church, does not mean that God no longer has plans for Israel as a nation. The olive tree illustration (Rom. 11) confirms this.
While Romans 11 indicates that individual Jewish Christians today are part of the Church (Paul himself being an example), it also teaches that the Jewish nation will turn to the Lord in the future. This is the “all Israel” of Romans 11:26. 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 was first occupied by Israel, is now occupied by the Gentiles, and will again be occupied by Israel in the future.
Using this illustration, Paul shows that the nation of Israel has been temporarily set aside from its former place of God’s favor, while God’s grace goes out to the Gentiles – the wild olive branches. Israel will once again receive “most-favored-nation” status when the Jews turn back to the Lord in the future. This great truth is also called a “mystery” (Rom. 11:25) because it was not fully revealed until New Testament times.
In understanding Romans 11, it is important to recognize that the olive branches do not represent believers in the Church. The olive tree doesn’t represent the Church, but rather the position of favor in God’s dealings with mankind. If it represented the Church and the branches represented God’s people throughout Old and New Testament times, we would have a big theological problem of true believers being “cut off.” The olive tree represents God’s place of privilege which was first occupied by Israel, is now occupied by the Gentiles, but once again will be occupied by Israel.
With this illustration in mind, let’s 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 (Zech. 13:8). 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’” (Zech. 13:9).
The groundwork for these prophetic events is presently being prepared, but the great spiritual awakening of Israel will not begin until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25), and the Church has been taken home to heaven (1 Cor. 15:51-58; 1 Th. 4:13-18). Then the time for the return of the natural branches to God’s place of privilege will have arrived. The conversion of Israel will lead to the return of the Messiah and the establishing of His earthly kingdom. Then the prophecies and promises made to Israel will be literally fulfilled – because Israel is Israel.
Two Remaining Issues
But two issues must still be addressed. The first regards Christians being called “sons” or “offspring” of Abraham (Gal. 3:7,29). They are so called, because the blessings of the covenants made with Israel in the Old Testament have been extended to the Church (2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 8). But the unconditional promises made to the people of Israel have never been taken away from Abraham’s natural seed.
The second issue regards “typology” – seeing pictures of New Testament truth in Old Testament people, things or events. Typology is legitimate spiritualization – used, for example, by our Lord Himself (Jn. 3:14-15). In 1 Corinthians 10:1-11, Paul shows that Israel’s wilderness experiences are a type because they are spiritualized to the Christian life. Notice, however, that typology never transfers the literal and historical aspects of the spiritualized items. Israel is never spiritualized and replaced by the Church. In typology, Israel is still Israel.
When we read God’s Word in a normal way, the meaning becomes quite clear. Just as many Old Testament prophecies and promises have been fulfilled literally to Abraham’s natural descendants, so the unfulfilled prophecies and promises will be fulfilled literally to Israel in the future. The land promised to Abraham’s natural seed is the literal land of Israel in the Middle East, in which his descendants will literally dwell. In Messiah’s future kingdom, the lion will literally lie down with the lamb. The literal water of the literal Dead Sea will become fresh, will be populated by literal fish and caught by literal fishermen. And there will be a literal temple built in Jerusalem in the Lord’s literal kingdom.
The Old Testament prophecies and promises are not meant to be spiritualized 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 communication with mankind! Does He, or does He not, keep His promises exactly as He communicated them?
Convoluted interpretation usually means bad interpretation! Consistent hermeneutics will differentiate between Israel and the Church throughout the Bible. The Church is the Church, and Israel is Israel!
By David R. Reid]
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org