In the realm of biblical interpretation there are two predominant schools of thought, Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. When these two systems of thought are understood, it is found that one of, if not the, dividing tenets is the relation of Israel and the Church. Covenant theology holds that the church is the new Israel, and that the Church fulfills all of the covenants God made to the nation in the Old Testament. Those who hold to dispensationalism see in the Bible that the Church is a new entity and that God still has plans for the future of Israel. When interpreting the Bible in a consistently literal fashion, the only outcome is that in the New Testament, the Church is an entirely new entity that stands distinct from the nation of Israel.
Passages Used To Show Equality Between the Church and Israel
These days Covenant Theology is the popular system of interpretation. But the idea that Israel is distinct from the Church is untenable. When reading literature that tries to equate Israel and the Church it is found that there are two main texts used to uphold this position. They will be examined here.
A. Romans 9.6 – “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”
With this verse the case is made that an individual is not a part of true Israel by being a descendant of Abraham. The condition for being an Israelite is to be a believer in God/Christ. Concerning this, Wayne Grudem says that
Paul here implies that the true children of Abraham, those who are in the most true sense “Israel,” are not the nation of Israel by physical descent from Abraham but those who have believed in Christ. Those who truly believe in Christ are now the ones who have the privilege of being called “my people” by the Lord (Rom. 9.25, quoting Hos. 2.23); therefore, the Church is now God’s chosen people.(1)
To go ahead and give the answer to this problem, Paul here is saying that there is a true group of Israelites within the nation of Israel. The basis of being a true Israelite is fulfilling the purpose of the nation of Israel. That is, being a nation of priests and being an example to the nations. To not have faith in God and thereby reject His rule is to not fulfill the purpose God created the nation for. This is how Paul can say “not all from Israel belong to Israel.” There are several reasons that can be given to show the given interpretation to be correct and that Grudem’s and covenant theology’s interpretations of this passage are incorrect.
The first reason is that the immediate context (vs. 1-5, and then chs. 9-11) is about national Israel. It is a poor interpretation to say that Paul is speaking of the church in these verses while the surrounding context makes it obvious that nation of ethnic Israel is in view. Furthermore, the Greek word ek (“from” or “out of”) is used in vs. 5 of Christ physically descending from the fathers (i.e. David). It would make sense then that when Paul uses the same word in the next verse (translated “descended”) he is thinking of a physical descendent, not a spiritual one. It should also be noted that in verses 1-5, Paul is speaking of unbelieving Jews. He wishes that they could become believers in Christ. The church is not in view in his discussion of Israel. (2)
The second reason for this interpretation is highly significant. What is being argued is that Paul is denoting the spiritual Jewish believers within the overall nation of Israel. After his statement in verse 6, Paul then illustrates his point in verses 7-13. Paul refers specifically to the twins Jacob and Esau, who both are physical descendants of Abraham. The point here is this:
if explanatory material concerns only two categories of those physically descended from Abraham, then it stands to reason that the verse being explained, v. 6, concerns two categories of those physically descended from Israel without any reference to the Church. (3)
It is evident that this verse is speaking of Jewish believers who are set apart from, or contrasted from non-believing Jews. As Waterhouse put it, “one must first be an amillennialist to come up with an amillennial interpretation of Rom. 9.6.”(4)
B. Galatians 6.16 – “And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”
One of the arguments for keeping the Church and Israel distinct (and which will be discussed further below and in the next post), is that the word “Israel” in the New Testament is always used of national or ethnic Israel and is never used of the Church. Covenant Theologians would disagree, and would put forth Galatians 6.16 as their proof-text. This is the one use of the word “Israel” that is debatable as to whether or not the word is applied to the Church. It is maintained by covenant theologians that the word “and” equates the Church and Israel. The proper interpretation of this passage is that Paul is pronouncing a special blessing to the believing ethnic Jews, distinguished from believing Gentiles, within the Church at Galatia for having properly understood grace and the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are several reasons for holding to this interpretation.
The first reason is “the fact that everywhere else in the scriptures the term Israel is applied only to those who are the natural seed of Abraham and Isaac.”(5) A perusing of concordances reveals that every use of the word “Israel” is a reference to national or ethnic Israel.(6) The belief that the Church has replaced Israel is the result of theological bias, not the work of exegetical study.
The second reason is the overall message of the book of Galatians. Paul criticized the Galatians for turning to the teaching of Judaizers who wanted to return to Law, or at least parts of it. After an entire book of criticizing this type of thinking, why would Paul choose to bless the nation Israel who rejected Christ? Instead, it makes more sense to understand the passage as Paul blessing the Jews within the church of Galatia who had properly understood the grace and freedom that comes in Jesus Christ.
Third, the use of the word kai (“and”) is most likely used in the emphatic sense. This then would mean that Paul is emphasizing a second special group in his benediction. The only way the term “Israel of God” could be equated with “them” is if the kai is used in the explicative sense. This is an uncommon use of the word. Also, it would make little sense for Paul to make two distinctions if he was actually only speaking of one entity.(7)
These three points make a good case for the term “Israel of God” being a reference to ethnic Jewish believers in the church of Galatia. Out of all the uses of the word “Israel” in the New Testament, this is the one use that is debatable as to whether or not it is used of the Church. Paul in no way was saying the Church is Israel, or that the Church is the true Israel.
(1) Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, 861.
(2) These points taken from: Waterhouse, Steven. Not By Bread Alone: An Outlined Guide to Bible Doctrine, 497.
(5) Walvoord, John F. “Is the Church the Israel of God?” Bibliotheca Sacra, 101:404, 412.
(6) cf. Strong, James. New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, based on the KJV, and,
Thomas, Robert L. New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, based on the NASB.
(7) Ryrie, Charles. Basic Theology. 462-3.