Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Who Is Israel?
by Louis F. DeBoer
Events are building up in the Middle East for another war. Many are dismayed at the bloodshed, violence, savage reprisals, and terrorist actions committed by all sides in the conflict. In the midst of this we have a chorus of "Christians", mainly comprised of fundamentalists and dispensationalists, who are unreservedly supporting the State of Israel. However we may react to specific current events, we ought not to be guided by misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Scripture into unqualified support of an entity that may not be worthy of such support according to the word and will of God. We should seek justice for all men according to the laws of God and should seek peace among all men as far as that is possible. When an objective attempt to do so becomes impossible due to certain theological suppositions then it is time to address these suppositions. To that end this article on "Who is the True Israel of God" is offered.
This article is comprised of an exerpt from the Chapter on "The Abrahamic Covenant" in my book, "The Divine Covenants". It deals with the section of the chapter that identifies the parties involved in the Abrahamic Covenant.
The Parties:The parties to this covenant seem simple. As the scriptures state it, "And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee" (Genesis 17:7). There are only three parties to this covenant. They are God, Abraham, and Abrahamís seed. The first two parties are clear but there have been centuries of contention about the third. Just who are the seed of Abraham? It seems simple; they are the physical progeny of Abraham. But historically it has never been that simple. Even Abraham seems to have been confused on the subject. When God states his promise of the coming miraculous birth of Isaac by his legitimate wife Sarai, Abrahamís response is, "ÖO that Ishmael might live before thee!" (Genesis 17:18). And in the next generation there is similar confusion. Even though Isaac had been told, "Öthe elder shall serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23), he insists on attempting to give the birthright to Esau. If the seed of Abraham means his physical descendents it clearly does not include all of them. As Paul explains it,
"Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated" (Romans 9:6-13).
Paul is saying not all of the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) are, covenantally speaking, the "seed of Abraham". Only those who are the "children of the promise" are deemed such. Who are these children of the promise? Paul names Isaac and Jacob. These are physical descendants of Abraham but they are more also. They were Godís elect. God chose Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau. God does the choosing. He chose Abraham and made a covenant with him. And he chooses who Abrahamís seed are and who are included in the covenant. As Paul states it just two verses later, "For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Romans 9:15). But it is important to note that according to his covenant God chose them from among the physical seed of Abraham.
And so it was from Abraham to Christ. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, "Ösalvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22). When a Phoenician woman implored him for the covenant blessings Christ answered, "It is not meet to take the childrenís bread, and cast it to dogs" (Matthew 15:26). The covenant and its blessings were restricted to those who were Abrahamís descendants and those who joined themselves to them. To those who like Rahab in Jericho, and Ruth in Moab can say, "Öthy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (Ruth 1:16). As Christ brought the Messianic blessings to Israel he always related them to the Abrahamic Covenant. When he healed the woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath day and was rebuked by the ruler of the synagogue Christ responded,
"The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?" (Luke 13:15-16).
And when Christ sought out Zacchaeus, ministered to him, and received his repentance, and the multitude questioned his dealings with such a sinner, Christ answered,
"ÖThis day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham" (Luke 19:9).
It is by entering into the Abrahamic Covenant and its blessings that men receive the salvation of God. And so it was all through the time of the Old Covenant. But how are things now. Has all this changed? What happened at the time of Christ? What happened when the call of the gospel went out to the Gentiles? Did all this change? The answer is no. But what has happened is that this issue has become more confused than ever.
The Phoenician woman prevailed in her pleadings with Christ.
"And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the childrenís bread, and cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their mastersí table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour" (Matthew 15:22-28).
How could this be? Jesus had just said that it was not proper to give the covenant blessings to strangers and that salvation is of the Jews. Jesusí own answer to this apparent contradiction is that it is because of her great faith. The Abrahamic Covenant was based on justification by faith and those who exercise the faith required by the covenant are the children of the covenant. As Paul taught the Galatians as they wavered between the importance of faith and works,
"Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham" (Gal 3:6-9).
But if anyone regardless of their descent from Abraham can receive the blessings of the covenant based on faith, is the covenant now made void? Is the issue no longer who are the seed of Abraham? Is the only issue now who has the faith of Abraham? No, that is not what Paul is teaching. He explains this mystery another way. He says,
"Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ" (Galatians 3:16).
Paul notes that when the covenant was made with Abraham and his seed the word seed was in the singular. From this he argues that this referred to one special son of Abraham, Jesus Christ. From that he goes on to teach that if we are Christís, that if we are united by faith to Jesus Christ, then we have become Abrahamís seed.
"For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christís, then are ye Abrahamís seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:26-29).
Now it is at this point that the confusion generally enters. We are now told that physical descent from Abraham means nothing. We are told that being part of Israel according to the flesh, means nothing. We are told that the only thing that matters is faith. But that is not what the Apostle was teaching. And then to compound this we are told that there are two Israels. We are told that there is a physical Israel and a spiritual Israel. We are told that the former means nothing and that the latter means everything. And then we are told that the latter is the church, the assembly of those that believe. And this then sets up a false dichotomy between the two Israels, between national Israel and the church. This dichotomy is prevalent among both dispensationalists and the Reformed. The former say that national Israel is temporarily set aside until the church age is over. The latter say that national Israel is permanently set aside. But Paul makes it clear that national Israel is not set aside. He echoes Jeremiah, who said,
"Thus saith the LORD, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The LORD of hosts is his name: If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the LORD, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever. Thus saith the LORD; If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the LORD" (Jeremiah 31:35-37).
Stated in the context of the prophecy of the New Covenant this seems to be a pretty decisive statement. The New Covenant does not mean that national Israel is cast away. And this exactly what Paul restates in the time of the New Covenant.
"I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew" (Romans 11:1-2).
He explains what is happening to Israel according to the flesh and to the Gentiles under the figure of an olive tree.
"For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins" (Romans 11:16-27).
Now the olive tree represents Israel, the covenant nation. It represents the covenant people of God. It represents the seed of Abraham. Paul does not say that it has been cut down or cast away. Neither does Paul say that there are two olive trees, that there are two Israels. Paul will have none of these dichotomies that are so popular when dealing with this subject. Paul says that the olive tree stands and God has not cast away his ancient people Israel. What God has done is merely to prune out the unbelieving branches. Even as he pruned out Esau that "profane person"; even as he pruned out the generation in the wilderness that "could not enter in because of unbelief"; so he is pruning out those of Paulís generation that will not believe in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. God has not cast away national Israel but from every generation he reserves to himself a remnant of them according to his electing decrees.
"God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying, Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace" (Romans 11:2-5).
And what of all the Gentile believers? And what of the New Testament Church? Paul does not say that they constitute something separate from Israel. He says they have become part of Israel. He says that they have been grafted into the olive tree. Nothing has changed in principle. As always, as in every generation, Gods has pruned the unbelievers out of his covenant people. Faith is the essential requirement of the covenant. And as in every generation God is grafting in those like Ruth, and Rahab, and Naaman, who profess true faith in the God of Israel. What has dramatically changed is the scope of these operations. There has been massive pruning as the nation of Israel rejected their Messiah. And there has been extensive grafting in as the gospel has gone forth from Jerusalem to the nations of the Mediterranean Sea. But what is common to all is that they are part of the olive tree. They are part of the one true Israel of God. They all partake of the root and fatness of the olive tree. They all partake of the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant as his seed.
Consistently the New Testament teaches that we all need to become the seed of Abraham to be saved. Salvation by faith in Jesus Christ is a blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant. We all need to enter into that covenant. God will save his people but he will only save them as the "seed of Abraham". When Israel grievously sinned in the wilderness God was prepared to wipe them out. But he would raise up a new seed of Abraham through Moses.
"And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation" (Exodus 32:9-10).
When Christís generation was so grossly unprepared for the coming of the Messiah they came under the rebuke of Christís forerunner, John the Baptist. He warned them severely.
"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matthew 3:7-10).
Unfruitful individuals may be cast out but there will always be a seed of Abraham. And if all of national Israel should prove unworthy God would if necessary raise up seed to Abraham from the very stones that his covenant might to kept and his purposes fulfilled. And to the degree that national Israel was unfaithful God has grafted in the Gentiles that the olive tree might flourish and that according to his covenant, the seed of Abraham might be as the stars of the heavens and as sand on the seashore for multitude.
The covenant was made with Abraham and his seed. And what a blessing it is that we can by faith be joined to Jesus Christ and become the seed of Abraham and enter into those precious promises and inherit that kingdom that shall have no end.
Reverend Louis F. DeBoer was born in the Netherlands on June 29,1944. He was baptized in the Gereformeerde Kerk in which his father was an elder. At age 5 his family emigrated to Ontario, Canada. He grew up in Clarkson, Ontario, Canada as a member of the Christian Reformed Church. He attended the University of Toronto and graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1967. He was always set for the defence and confirmation of the gospel, earnestly contending for the faith which was once delivered to the saints, and always ready to give an answer of the hope that was in him. Reverend Louis F. DeBoer passed from this life into the everlasting arms of his God and Savior on November 23, 2007.