Every serious Christian needs to ask, “Who and what is Israel? What should it mean to me?” The answer to those questions and the drawing of a proper distinction between Israel and the Church is important to one’s spiritual life and understanding of the Bible.
Many people in the Church use the approach, “Every promise in the Book is mine,” which views the nation of Israel as being the earliest Church. But on closer examination, most Christians wouldn’t actually want “every promise in the book.” Bible promises include threats as well as blessings. For example, the Scripture promised Israel national punishment for disobedience:
So you shall not turn aside from any of the words which I command you this day, to the right or the left, to go after other gods to serve them. But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the produce of your land, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.Deuteronomy 28:14-19
Christians who think the promises to Israel have all been applied to the Church should be dismayed by the many “unblessings” that God promised Israel if they failed. Unfortunately, Christians are not much better at the obedience thing than Israel. And if the Church has all the promises, it also has all the obligations either to obey or to face pain and exile. It is a very good thing that Y’shua (Jesus) obeyed and His obedience was imputed to us when we became part of His Body, the Church.
Still, many Christians continue to have a case of mistaken identity regarding the Church and Israel. Some of this faulty thinking comes from logic which says: Since Israel was the chosen people of God, and now He’s chosen us in Christ, the Christian Church as the new chosen people must be the continuation of Israel. The Puritans thought that way, and many good churches teach that today. But in so doing, they wrongly turn Israel into a metaphor. And if Israel has its value as a metaphor only, why does it exist literally today?
To see the Church as Israel, one must ignore the fact that Israel consisted of certain people of a certain lineage who were given a certain type of rule, and had definite land boundaries. To substitute the metaphorical for the literal is always a bad policy. The same people who make Israel to be a metaphor could just as easily make the creation account with Adam and Eve into a metaphor. Anything we have to struggle to understand could be converted into metaphors. Where does the temptation to avoid accepting the literal truth of Scripture end?
Now there are parts of Scripture that are poetic and do use metaphors. These instances are easily understood because they make no sense if taken literally. However, Israel is more than a metaphor. The people of Israel are called Jews and are literally, actually and certainly with us today. There is a literal place that is The Land of Israel. To think that the Church has replaced Israel is to hide from history.
So why is Israel important to the Church? The Apostle Paul said that those bad things that happened to Israel because of her disobedience should be examples to us (1 Corinthians 10:6). But Israel is not important merely to serve as a “good bad example.” Throughout the Bible we also see her crying out to God and turning back to Him, much like the Prodigal Son of Luke 15.
The history of Israel is rich in lessons about how God relates and what God requires of people. It is also rich because the things that Israel was commanded to do—the elements of the Law—teach us about redemption. For example, the sacrificial system shows our need for substitutionary atonement. Similarly, all of the Jewish holidays in Scripture typify redemption. Moody Press just re-issued our Christ in the Passover book, which they originally published in 1977. (The new edition is significantly expanded.) At the same time, they issued a terrific new book by David Brickner called Christ in the Feast of Tabernacles.
The feasts, the fasts—all the celebrations—are packed with metaphorical material that was literally observed by Israel. They are regular reminders of how God has been faithful to Israel, and how He has kept His promises.
The promises that God made to Israel, like the promises He made to followers of Jesus, are irrevocable. How can we conclude that His promises to one group of people (Israel) have shifted and now belong to another group of people (the Church)? If that is how God operates we must be prepared to believe that His promises to Christians might also one day be applied to a different group. If God took the election away from Israel, can any believer be secure?
If God had taken away the election from Israel, if His promises no longer applied to the literal people who descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Jewish people would have long since been wiped from the face of the earth by numerous enemies. There can be no doubt that the people of Israel exist today because of the sheltering hand of God, and that in His providence, He has a purpose for Israel—the Jewish people—to survive. There is the hope that the nation of Israel will eventually fulfill their God-given destiny.
Israel has not survived for sociological reasons: we were not isolated from other people; we were not great warriors; nor were we many in number, but rather we were few. Yet those who were once our conquerors have ceased to exist, and Israel has survived despite all of the historical forces arrayed against our people. We Jews can sometimes delude ourselves into believing that we have survived because of our faithfulness to God, our piety, our diligence or our Law. The truth is that, as in the days of the prophets, those of us who were faithful to the God of Israel have been few indeed, and we have failed to keep the Law and the commandments. It was not our nobility or our traditions that preserved us. It was the Almighty Himself. One does not have to be an expert to see that. We would have been utterly vanquished many times over if our survival depended on us—or the good will of our neighbors. We survived because there is a God. Every living Jew is living evidence that the God of the Bible is, and that He keeps His word. This is how it has been, is and will be.
The Church is a new order, chosen of God, whose destiny is a heavenly destiny. The destiny of Israel is an earthly destiny. There need not be confusion between the two. The Body of Christ is to be impelled, propelled and governed by God’s own Holy Spirit. Israel was compelled by the Law, and those without Christ are still under the Law. Those of us who are Jewish and born-again through Y’shua are doubly-blessed and chosen to be part of the people of Israel and part of the Church—again, not because of who we are but because of who God is.
That is why I say that every serious Christian needs to have a clear understanding of who and what Israel is. When people misunderstand the distinction between Israel and the Church, they misunderstand God and His promises. Christians need to understand the role of the Jewish people because our existence says much about who God is, and how He demonstrates His faithfulness.