A Question I Was Asked:

Is 'Israel' Now the Church ?

The Question:

Covenant Theology teaches that the Church today is Israel. However you should take these two Scriptures into account.

Then Joseph removed them from Israel's knees and bowed down with his face to the ground. And Joseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Israel's left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel's right hand, and brought them close to him. But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraims head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh's head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn. Then he blessed Joseph and said, "May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm - may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly on the earth." (Genesis 48:12-16).

No inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits. (Numbers 36:9).

The name Israel is Ephraim and Manasseh's inheritance. It's non-transferable. How can the Church be called Israel when biblical law forbids transferring birthrights/inheritances?

UK Apologetics Reply:

First of all, not only 'Covenant Theology' teaches that today's church is spiritual Israel, just about all of Christianity teaches this, save for dispensationalist theology which continues to insist that Israel and the Church must be seen as entirely separate entities (frankly, in the light of the New Testament, it is hard to see how this position can be maintained, nevertheless, an attempt is made to maintain it). Interestingly, I have found that those belonging to 'rapturist' groupings, frequently do cast doubt on this teaching in private conversation.

Genesis 48:12-16 is quoted to me but nothing in those verses has any real bearing on this. Various groups, perhaps especially armstrongists, place a lot of emphasis on this Scripture in Genesis. The claim is made that, on account of these verses alone, Ephraim and Manasseh become the two most important tribes of Israel, but nothing within these verses ever amounts to as much as is claimed, simply that Joseph's blessing is split between his two sons. These blessings upon Israel (mentioned in several places in the Old Testament, of course) have been fulfilled to a large extent among the descendants of Israel but are only finally and comprehensively fulfilled within the Church which Jesus founded, circa AD33. The Church of God is known to have been established by Jesus and Our Saviour is known to be descended from Abraham and Isaac, Isaac being the 'child of promise.' Paul also points out that the Christian stands in a faithful - rather than legalistic - relationship with God, just like Abraham. See Galatians 3:6-9. In these ways, the Church is called by the names of Israel, Abraham and Isaac. Moreover, whilst the land promises given to Israel were fulfilled to a good degree among the physical Israelites, they are only finally and comprehensively fulfilled in the New Heavens and New Earth, where true believers will reside.

Paul the Apostle explains the point about the church now being spiritual Israel quite conclusively in the New Testament even if we did not have several parables of Jesus which explain that the promises of Israel are now substantially removed from physical Israel and placed upon spiritual Israel, the Church. Let us look at two such parables first:

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. "Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.' "But they paid no attention and went off - one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. "Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, 'How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?' The man was speechless. "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' "For many are invited, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:1-14, NIV throughout).

No serious Bible commentator doubts that those originally invited to this banquet in this parable were the Jewish people who are then discarded because of their unfaithfulness. Also note the following parable:

"Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. "The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said. "But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. "Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed." When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46).

Again, please note that the Jewish religious leaders themselves had no doubt that Jesus was talking about them! (verse 45).

Okay, so some of the parables of Jesus showed that the people of physical Israel should no longer be seen as the true inheritors of God's promises - that is clear. But Paul explains this point further. For any really keen to understand this point it would be helpful to read carefully from Galatians 3:6 right through to the end of Galatians 5. For our purposes right now we will just look at a part of that, from Galatians 4:21 until 4:31. Here Paul explains the Christian's position under the New Covenant:

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: "Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband." Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

So that should be clear enough: Old Covenant Israel are here compared to Hagar, standing under an inferior (old) covenant compared to the New Covenant of the Christian who is compared to Sarah, Isaac being the child of promise. Like Isaac, we are now the children of promise (verse 28). But the text goes further, saying that we must "get rid" of the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman (Hagar and Ishmael typifying the Old Covenant) can never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son, namely Isaac (representative of Christ and the Church). It follows therefore, that physical, national Israel are no longer 'people of the promises,' - the Church alone is!

Now if the above is not sufficiently clear (but it really is!), then Paul states more on this elsewhere.

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule - to the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:14-16).

Paul specifically here calls Christians "the Israel of God." He also states that such matters as circumcision are now irrelevant, for Christians are "the new creation."

But he states even more:

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person's praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29).

Paul also - very clearly - states the following:

It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son." (Romans 9:6-10).

Now, that - I would suggest should be unmistakably clear for all who really want to see it - but do all really want to see this point? I have become convinced that some do not.

It is not that Israel are replaced, but that only Jews who are converted Christians can now be included within God's people. Non-converted people of Israelitish stock are now excluded. This is not to be construed as 'anti-Israeli,' or 'anti-semitic,' or anything similar - I am just giving clear Bible teaching!

But do not physical Israelites who still faithfully obey the Old Covenant (as far as they are able to) remain God's people? Absolutely not, for that covenant is abrogated, abolished, made obsolete (Hebrews 8:13); its time has come and gone and God has offered something far better! It matters not how long one might stand petitioning the Lord at 'the wailing wall' - the old covenant has come and gone.

Okay, now what about Numbers 36:9 which my inquisitor quotes? It is irrelevant. In fact it speaks of the well-known case of the daughters of Zelophehad. You have to go from verse one to get the full meaning. My questioner uses the following verse: "No inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits" (verse 9), to suggest that the Church cannot be Spiritual Israel. But both Jesus and Paul clearly (not hazily) show us that Christians are indeed spiritual Israel so any argument should be taken up with them! Okay, Old Testament Israel were not allowed to swap around tribal inheritances, we all know that - but that is nothing to do with the Church. Ancient Israel typified the Church, but the Church is the ultimate reality. That is the true Bible perspective; the true Bible perspective is not that God's working with His Church is just a temporary interruption until He gets back to His real interest of working with physical, national Israel!

My questioner then concludes by stating, " It's non-transferable. How can the Church be called Israel when biblical law forbids transferring birthrights/inheritances?" These comments, unfortunately, reveal a gross misunderstanding, because ancient Israel are assumed to be the ultimate reality of 'Israel' when, as Paul clearly shows, it is the Spirit-led Church (Jews and Gentiles) who are that. Moreover, these things plainly are 'transferable.' Note Paul in Romans 11:

I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in." Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (Romans 11:13-24).

So despite my inquisitor's point, these things plainly are "transferable" (to use his word). Paul's words show that there is no favouritism with God and although physical Jews (by rejecting Christ) are currently on the outside, repentance and faith in Christ can cause them to be grafted back into Israel. Also note Paul's clear acceptance that the 'Israel of God' are currently mainly Gentile, although that could change in the future and he is plainly hopeful that that would eventually change.
Robin A. Brace. December 11th, 2011.