Is the Church Really Israel?
A study of Romans 11 as it Relates to Israel's Present and Future
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Originally Published May 9, 1998
Revised Feb 27, 1999; October 19, 1999; December 31, 1999; Jan 2, 2000; November 15, 2009
We see much today being said in the church about the promises given to the church, and indeed there is a fast growing movement within the church that takes the position that Israel as a people and a nation have no further place with God, having been eternally rejected for their rejection of the Messiah. This view goes further, and holds that the true Israel is the church, and that all promises given to Israel in scripture actually belong to the church.
This view, which has been held for some time by groups known as reconstructionists, dominionists and Kingdom Now, has crossed the lines, is fast growing with the current laughter/renewal movement, and is infiltrating churches that previously took a premilliennialist eschatological doctrinal viewpoint.
Any doctrine or interpretation must be based upon a consistent context of scripture, not based upon a single verse. The focus of this document is to study whether or not this view is scriptural, with a focus on Romans 11, which is the chapter in scripture which most directly and thoroughly deals with the church/Israel relationship.
Context of the Book of Romans
In order to clearly understand the context of this part of scripture, it is important to understand the context. As someone said to me recently, you cannot properly understand Romans 11 without reading Romans 1-10. I agree. Though the focus of this document is Romans 11, lets have a very brief look at the earlier chapters of Romans. Though my treatment of the first ten chapters is brief because the focus of the document is Romans 11, I would strongly encourage all to take the time to read Chapters 1-10 to get the full picture of how Paul builds up to the topic of Israel and the church in Romans 11.
First, to whom is the message given? Romans 1:7 states that the message is given to the Christians in the church at Rome, and therefore references in the book where Paul addresses gentiles, he is addressing gentiles in the church at Rome. Thus, those gentiles would be assumed to be believers, or gentile Christians, not gentiles in general, or unsaved gentiles. This is an important point to take note of in order to understand the focus of Paul's message in the rest of the letter. Romans 1, going into Rom 2 also points out that no one has an excuse because the evidence of the truth of God is all around us.
Romans 2 further goes into the discussion regarding the law. It points out the futility of trying to obtain salvation through the law, and thus the focus of the chapter is the facts that Jews do not have any advantage in clinging to the law, and that their physical circumcision is of no benefit unless they keep the law. Since all have sinned, the law only serves to show us how far short we fall of God's meausre of holiness. It is only through Jesus that we can be saved, not through the law. The chapter closes with a statement that it is not enough to be circumsized externally to be a Jew, but rather God's concern is for the heart to be changed, not changes in the flesh which were only symbolic.
Key points that I see in Romans 3-8 are that the Jews had an advantage over the gentiles in that they were given the truth of God's word and were entrusted to keep it. It is also important to note that both Jew and Gentile have sinned, and neither is justified outside of Jesus. Abraham's faith (or faithfulness) was reckoned to him as righteousness. How can this be? It can be because though Jesus came, in our timeframe reference, later than Abraham, God is outside of time, and thus was not restricted by our timelines. Thus Christ's sacrifice applied to those both before and after his death. No one was ever saved of their sins by any means other than through the death and resurrection of Jesus, be they Jew or Gentile. Romans 9:6 says that not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. This indicates that just being a Jew in the flesh is not enough - you must also be in a right relationship with God to be able to fully partake in your heritage as a Jew, and be part of true Israel. What does it benefit a Jew to be part of Israel in the flesh, yet fail to take advantage of the opportunity affforded by the death of resurrection of the Messiah and thus lose out on the eternal inheritance of Israel?
When we get on the topic of Israel in discussions, many people who hold to the eternal rejection of Israel or similar views quote various verses that speak of the fact that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, and this is true. But these same people frequently say that that means that Jews should not be offended at those who say that the Israel and the Jews were eternally rejected by God. That is not scriptural nor true. Nowhere does scripture say that we cease to be Jew or Gentile in the flesh, but rather that salvation comes only through Jesus, and once saved, we are all just sinners saved by grace, and neither Jew or Gentile has any advantage in the body of Christ. Clearly Paul takes a stand on that point in a number of places, including Roms 9:1-5 and Romans 11:1. It is therefore wrong and contrary to scripture to say that God has rejected the Jews.
Indeed, those who take this view are speaking contrary to the very verses that they use regarding the fact that there are no differences in Christ between Jew and gentile. They try to create a difference themselves by stating that for some reason the Jews are less deserving of grace than the Gentiles are by saying that the Jews are rejected. Romans 10:12-13 further says that there is no distinction in Christ between Jew and gentile because all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. Lets not forget that though the Jews did reject their Messiah in the first century, it was the Romans who nailed Him to the cross and killed Jesus. It was the Romans who had the authority to issue the death penalty, or to revoke it.
The rejection of Jesus was both by the Jews and the Gentiles. God had given the Jews His word centuries before and thus they should have been more aware of the Messiah than the Gentiles and therefore God dealt with the Jews more harshly and extended His grace to the Gentiles in what became the start of what scripture refers to as the "times of the Gentiles" and the Jew "stumbled" as Paul puts it, but Paul is also clear to say that God did not reject the Jews as a people. Further, if there ever was a society deserving of judgement, it has to be the western Gentile civilization. We now have less excuse than did the Jews of the first century because we have the witness of the New Testament and we, as a civilization have also rejected the Messiah.
Okay, so with that introduction to complete the setting for Romans 11, lets get into the meat of what Paul has to say about the relationship between Israel and the church.
Examination of Romans 11
All the scripture references below come from Romans chapter 11 unless stated otherwise.
1. 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.
Paul begins his dissertation of Romans 11 by giving his credentials as a Jew, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. This establishes that fact that there is a physical existence of a physical nation of Israel, and the tribe of Benjamin, a tribe that was noted in the old testament for some horrific crimes, is not cast off. Paul states without any conditions that his existence is proof that God has not cast off the Israelites.
3 Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life.
4 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.
5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.
Paul repeats that he has not cast away Israel, and establishes the fact that God has always preserved a remnant. Paul says that "even now" the remnant of this physical nation exists who are faithful to the true God!
7 What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded
What - were the promises to Israel taken away here? No, such a reading is out of context - it is referring to salvation, and the fact that Israel failed to recognize their saviour, and that we have entered the "time of the gentiles" where salvation is extended to the gentiles, but yet no reference to gentile believers replacing Israel. Lets read on.
9 And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompence unto them:
10 Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway.
11 I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but [rather] through their fall salvation [is come] unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.
12 Now if the fall of them [be] the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?
What! That their fall, and the riches which the gentiles obtain because of it should show their fullness even more? How could that be is the church were Israel??? There are two distinct groups of people spoken of here, Israel and the Gentiles to whom salvation has come. These cannot be one and the same.
Thus the only way to read this verse that makes sense is to suggest that though the Jews have stumbled, God forbids that they fall.
14 If by any means I may provoke to emulation [them which are] my flesh, and might save some of them.
15 For if the casting away of them [be] the reconciling of the world, what [shall] the receiving [of them be], but life from the dead?
16 For if the firstfruit [be] holy, the lump [is] also [holy]: and if the root [be] holy, so [are] the branches.
Paul directly addresses the gentiles in the church at Rome (gentiles Christians), and speaks of the Jews/Israel. He cannot be speaking of the church that is cast away and reconciled or again the text is rendered meaningless.
The context is clear that God speaks of the Jews/Israel here. The roots which are of Israel are holy, and have not changed, thus remain Israel. The roots were there before the church. Remember, Paul tells us that, as always, a faithful remnant is raised up by God out of Israel. He notes that the branches and the roots have the same holy nature. Read on.
It is also important to note that the New Covenant was not made with this church, as some would have us believe but was made with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31, Isaiah 59:20-21 and Romans 11:25-27), and thus we who are Gentiles and were grafted in are supported by Israel with who, God made the covenant. If God has rejected His covenant with Israel, then we who are supported by Israel would also be without hope. Fortumnately, God is faithful even when we are not and God says that his call is irrevocable so neither Israel nor Gentiles are eternally rejected as a people, and we can depend upon the covenant that God made with Israel to support us.
18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.
Paul continues from verse 16 speaking of Israel. Some of the branches of Israel, Paul says here, were broken off, and gentiles (in verse 13 he indicates directly that he is addressing the gentile believers in the Roman church) believers have been grafted to the tree. It is important to note that the text says some, not all of the branches were broken off, thus indicating again a faithful remnant of Israel remains, and not all Israel was cast off.
So, if we as redeemed Gentiles, are grafted to the tree (Israel), we should not boast, or exalt ourselves, but rather he notes, that we, the church, do not support the roots, but the root supports us. Quite interesting. We, the church are grafted into Judaism, and we should not boast over them. This seems clear enough.
20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear:
Paul establishes here that the branches that were broken off (and remember, these were some, not all of the branches) because of unbelief, but lets heed the warning - "be not highminded, but fear".
This is an important warning for those who feel highminded because we were grafted in. Consider - what is Paul warning about here. He speaks to the church, and says, be not highminded over the Jews, because you were grafted in. He then goes farther and says rather than be highminded about being grafted in where the Jews were broken off, we should fear. Or to re-state, do not boast that Israel is the church, because we are the graft. Do not get highminded because you are grafted on the tree. Remember the roots! They support you, not them. We are the "foreign" branch grafted in, not the other way around. We have nothing to boast - we were grafted in because of grace, not because we were any better or had any worthiness that made us more acceptable than the Jews.
We should be humble and grateful, not boastful.
What should we fear...
If we become highminded, Paul says we should fear that we might share the fate of the branches that were cut. Quite a warning against those in the church that might see themselves a replacements for the root, which as we saw earlier, is Israel. Beware, he tells us. This verse should not be ignored.
They were broken off because of their unbelief, not because they were of Israel, and we likewise could share that fate. We have no reason to boast.
24 For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural [branches], be graffed into their own olive tree?
25 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.
Another powerful warning - Do not become wise in your own conceits - Israel is temporarily blinded, but will be restored when the time of the gentiles is over. Note, he says that those who do not believe this may be wise in their own conceit!!! This is Paul speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not me. Note the harmony between what Paul says in verse 25 with the gospel as reported in Luke 21:24 when Jesus said that Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies and will be trodden down until the times of the Gentiles are over. We know that Jerusalem was surrounded and taken in 70AD, which would have been the timeframe that the "times of the gentiles" started. We also know that Jerusalem was fully retaken by Israel only in 1967. Added to that, the number of Jews who have come to know Jesus as their Messiah over the past 20 years exceeds the cumulative numbers of all saved Jews for the past 19 centuries.
We therefore have not only seen the return of the Jews back to their physcial country, as predicted, but we also see God calling the Jews back to a right relationship to Him in numbers unprecendented since before 70 AD when the times of the Gentiles began. Further, as we see Jews in unprecedented numbers coming to Christ, we see the Gentile world turning to false religions and away from God in a massive change. Are these the signs that the times of the Gentiles are coming to a close as scripture predicted?
The nature of Israel is that of the roots. We are the "foreign" branches grafted in.
So all Israel shall be saved. Now, as I said before, this whole chapter sounds like incoherent babblings if we change the word Israel to church, because he would speak of grafting the church onto the church, and restoring the church that exists, and would speak of saving the church which is the body of Christ, which by definition is already saved.
So, the only way to make sense of this part of scripture is to realize that he speaks of physical Israel, and the time of the gentiles is coming to an end, and our "wisdom in conceit" will be folly.
28 As concerning the gospel, [they are] enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, [they are] beloved for the fathers' sakes.
29 For the gifts and calling of God [are] without repentance.
30 For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief:
31 Even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy.
32 For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.
God's mercy extended from the Jews to us, and will extend back to the Jews in the last days when he restores them. Hallelujah!
34 For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
35 Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
36 For of him, and through him, and to him, [are] all things: to whom [be] glory for ever. Amen.
Lets heed the word of God on this issue, and not become "highminded" or "wise in our own conceit" by contending that we are somehow replacing the roots (Israel), or that we are better than them. Heed the warning from Paul through the inspiration of the spirit against such boasting!
If you want to better understand the problems of the doctrine of Israel=church, read Romans chapters 9 through 11, and substitute the word "church" wherever you see the word "Israel". It actually becomes quite humorous at points, but makes no sense. An example is that Romans 10:1, if the word church is used to replace the word Israel, reads - "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the church is that they might be saved".
In an effort to illustrate what Romans 11 has to say about the relationship between the church I issue, I would like to present the following two diagrams.
Contrary to what some who believe that the church is Israel say, the view presented in this document does not call for two "peoples of God" or for two "ways of salvation", but quite the contrary - this view presented herein says that there is only one way for salvation and that is through Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross.
These are the one and only people of God. As the diagram shows, Israel is divided into believing Israel and unbelieveing Israel. Only those who believe (saved through Jesus sacrifice) are part of the one people of God along with the believing gentiles. Throughout the history of Israel, salvation only came to individuals because of their belief in the God, a faith in the saviour to come. The fact that Jesus' death came afterward did not matter - God is outside of time, and Christ's sacrifice applies equally to those who died before, as it does to those who after his resurrection - the key is that believe upon him who is their saviour - Jesus. Thus, the church is made up of both the gentiles and believing Israel - the one people of God.
A second diagram shows this more in the pictorial view that Paul presents in Romans 11, and that is of Israel as a tree.
Note that the branches on the ground, according to Romans, remain Israel, remain natural to the nature of the tree, whereas we who are grafted on are contrary to the nature of the tree. How much clearer would it have to be to say that we who are grafted in receive a share in the promise of salvation because we have been grafted into the tree by grace. Is this grace not sufficient? Why do some feel that they must take the name Israel from those to whom God gave it (Gen 32:28)?
Dangers of the Belief that the Church has Replaced Israel
This topic is not just an academic exercise, but has some very real implications in our doctrine, our understanding of who God is, who Jesus is, and a proper and balanced scriptural view of the place of Israel in scripture. It has also had some very serious implications to the people and nation of Israel and the church.
I am in no way suggesting that all who hold this view would associate or support such groups in any way, but this view started to enter the church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD but people who were also well meaning. Unfortunately, despite the best intents of these people, once you accept error, it can grow into something with far wider implications. In this case, Israel is central to God's plan for the world, to the extent that he chose Israel to be a blessing to the world through whom he would send his word (Bible), and through whom would come the Messiah, who is our hope for salvation from our sins; and our hope for reconciliation with God.
It is important to remain true to God's word.
Appendix A : Calvin's View on the Future of Israel
It is not my intent here to go into a detailed examination of Calvin's views with respect to Israel, but I do want to include a reference here to Calvin because so many have said that Calvin held the view that the church inherited the promises of Israel, and that the church is Israel.
The quote shown below makes it clear that Calvin did believe in a future restoration of national Israel, and thus those that seek comfort in the belief that they can rest on Calvin's scriptural interpretation, hope in vain. In any case, our hope must rest in the truth of scripture alone, and not in man's understanding, which is at best, flawed.
Lecture One hundred and Twenty-sixth.
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, [even] the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering. Interpreters agree not as to the meaning of this verse; for some of the Hebrews connect this with the former, as though the Prophet was still speaking of the calling of the Gentiles. But others, with whom I agree, apply this to the dispersed Jews, so that the Prophet here gives hope of that restoration, of which he had before spoken.
They who understand this of the Gentiles, think that Atharai and Phorisai are proper names. But in the first place, we cannot find that any nations were so called; and then, if we receive what they say, these were not separate nations, but portions of the Ethiopians; for the Prophet does not state the fact by itself, that Atharai and Phorisai would be the worshipers of God; but after having spoken of Ethiopia, he adds these words: hence we conclude, that the Prophet means this, - that they would return into Judea from the farthest region of the Ethiopians to offer sacrifices to God. And as he mentions the daughter of the dispersion, we must understand this of the Jews, for it cannot be applied to the Ethiopians.
And this promise fits in well with the former verse: for the Prophet spoke, according to what we observed yesterday, of the future calling of the Gentiles; and now he adds, the Jews would come with the Gentiles, that they might unite together, agreeing in the same faith, in the true and pure worship of the only true God. He had said, that the kingdom would be enlarged, for the Church was to be gathered from all nations: he now adds, that the elect people would be restored, after having been driven away into exile.
Hence he says, "Beyond the rivers of Ethiopia shall be my suppliants": for "'atar" means to supplicate; but it means also sometimes to be pacified, or to be propitious; and therefore some take "'atarim" in a passive sense, "they who shall be reconciled to God;" as though he had said, "God will at length be propitious to the miserable exiles, though they have been cast away beyond the rivers of Ethiopia: they shall yet again be God's people, for he will be reconciled to them." As David calls Him the God of his mercy, because he had found him merciful and gracious, (Ps. 59: 18,) so also in this place they think that the Jews are said to be the "'ararey", the reconciled of Jehovah, because he would be reconciled to them. But this exposition is too forced: I therefore retain that which I have stated, - that some suppliants would come to God from the utmost parts of Ethiopia, not the Ethiopians themselves, but the Jews who had been driven there.
To the same purpose is what is added, The daughter of my dispersed; for "puts" means to scatter or to disperse. Hence by the daughter of the dispersed he means the gathered assembly of the miserable exiles, who for a time were considered as having lost their name, so as not to be counted as the people of Israel. These then shall again offer to me a gift, that is, they are to be restored to their country, that they may there worship me after their usual manner. Now though this prophecy extends to the time of
the Gospel, it is yet no wonder, that the Prophet describes the worship of God such as it had been, accompanied with the ceremonies of the Law. We now then perceive what Zephaniah means in this verse, - that not only the Gentiles would come into the Church of God, but that the Jews also would return to their country, that they might together make one body.