If you would have asked me two months ago what a believing Gentile’s relationship to Israel is, I would have said something like, “Gentiles don’t become part of physical Israel, but through Jesus, they become part of ‘Spiritual Israel’.” In my last post titled Law and Covenant Membership, I said I had been going through a bit of a paradigm shift. Perhaps one of the largest shifts that has taken place is that I have come to understand, there is no such thing as “Spiritual Israel.”
Israel is a Physical People
I, like many, have wondered about our identity within the people of God. In my last post, I attempted to set the stage of this series by talking about covenant membership. I believe this is where we as believers (whether Jew or Gentile) need to identify. Why do I believe this? Because this is how the Bible speaks. If we are going to rest our lives on the Word of God, we should use the language, imagery, and concepts given in Scripture.
Let’s first note that within our Bible there isn’t a single reference to “Spiritual Israel.” In fact, I would argue that there isn’t even a concept within Scripture of a spiritual Israel and every time the Bible talks about Israel, it is talking about a physical person or people. So where does this put us Gentiles?
When we talk about the covenants, we can see that the Abrahamic covenant is made directly with Abraham but any who believes in Abraham’s seed (i.e. the Messiah) is part of this covenant. This is why Paul can say:
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3.7–9 ESV)
Thus, anyone who has faith in Jesus Christ shares in the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant. But what about the other covenants. Most Christians have no problem understanding the fact that the Mosaic covenant was made with Israel. A simple search in my Bible program within the Torah for the phrase, “speak to the sons of Israel” and similar variations brings 45 results.
This has brought a significant amount of debate. If the Mosaic covenant was made for Israel, then does it apply to Gentiles?
Are We Consistent?
The answer may seem like an obvious no, however, historically Christianity has taken quite a different stance on this when viewing another covenant made with Israel:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: (Jeremiah 31.31–33 ESV)
I have yet to find a Christian that says we as believers are not part of the new covenant, yet this covenant was not made with the nations, but with the house of Israel.
There have been some interesting ways to reconcile this. Perhaps the most notorious is that of replacement theology, also known as “supersessionism.” This theological understanding suggests that God gave Israel a chance but they rejected the Messiah and killed Him so God decided to leave Israel behind and made the Church His new people. Thus, the Church replaces Israel as God’s people and receives all of the blessings that Israel would have had.
The major problem with this theology is that it is not found anywhere in Scripture. Quite the opposite is true. Israel continues to be seen as God’s people and as those who God has made covenant with.
My father has told me on numerous occasions that he stays away from terms like “spiritual Israel” or saying things like Gentiles “become Israel.” This never really made sense to me until recently. The reason is that the Bible doesn’t use these terms.
Recently I was watching a teaching online and the speaker said, “if you haven’t figured it out yet, you are Israel.” I understand the point that is trying to be made, but this is also a term that we don’t find in Scripture. This is not to say that the Scriptures don’t give us some imagery of attachment to Israel, but specific words and terms are used for this. The words that are used are precise, yet so many people have left those terms behind and have begun using phrases that they think are helpful but are really not.
I was born and raised in Washington state in a nice middle-class neighbor to a white father and mother. If I decided to move to Japan and become a Japanese citizen, no one would look at me and think that I was a native to Japan. I might enjoy all of the benefits of being a Japanese citizen and I would also be required to keep the same rules and laws that come with that citizenship. I would not, however, say “I am Japan.” Nor would I say that I am Japanese.
This is one of the things that we see within the Scriptures themselves. Paul tells the Gentiles that we are “fellow heirs” (Rom. 8:17, Eph. 3:6) and “citizens” and “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). He also says that this is a “mystery”:
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3.6 ESV)
Paul does not say, “can’t you see, the Gentiles become Israel!” or “Therefore the Gentiles are Israel.” Rather, there is a clear distinction.
Why the Distinction
This distinction is not made because Gentiles get less of the covenant blessing (we will discuss land rights in a later post), nor is it because gentiles are held to different covenant standards. Rather, it is because God wants to show the Abrahamic promise of “in your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed” is being fulfilled within the body of Messiah. In order for this to take place there must be a distinction between Israel and the nations. We as Gentiles become covenant members and we do attach ourselves to Israel through the covenants. We enjoy the blessings and the covenants as members, but this does not make us Israel. And this is what the mystery is.
Paul has figured out that the Gentiles take part in the covenants even though they are not Israel. These covenants were made with Israel but the Gentiles are able to take part in, benefit from, and be members of them nonetheless.
Non-Believers and Covenant Membership
Something that made me rethink my understanding of Israel and covenant membership is when my father told me that a non-believer could become a covenant member. This can be demonstrated in he Torah itself.
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. (Deuteronomy 21.10–13 ESV)
This woman becomes a fellow citizen of Israel and enjoys the blessings of the covenant. Her children can even have land rights and the temporal covenant blessings apply to her. The Jewish people today, although not believers in Jesus Christ (as a nation), still share in the temporal blessings and curses of the covenant made with Israel and the people.
It needs to be quickly noted that there is a difference between temporal covenant blessing and eternal covenant blessing. Only those who have faith in Jesus Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, share in the New Covenant blessings that are eternal.
In my next post in this series I hope to look at some specific passages and the language used. We will also talk about the temporal blessings of the covenant and what makes Israel God’s chosen people and the benefits this may bring. For now, I believe it is enough to simply say, there is no such thing as ‘spiritual Israel.’
Photo by Cole Keister