Is the Church Spiritual Israel?
There are millions of Christians today, especially in the United States, who identify with the movement known as dispensationalism. This movement is actually far from being uniform, and dispensationalists hold quite a wide range of views on things.
For our purposes in this article, I will divide dispensationalism into 2 categories, mainstream dispensationalism and progressive dispensationalism. This is actually a simplification, because there are some in-between views that cannot easily be classified within either of these categories, and because within the categories there are sub-categories too. Nevertheless, dividing dispensationalism into these two categories will be appropriate for this article.
A few points about dispensationalism
Mainstream dispensationalism arose in the 19th century and includes some views on important issues that seem never to have been held by any Christians before that time. Progressive dispensationalism arose in the 1980s and is much more in line with traditional evangelical beliefs than mainstream dispensationalism is.
Dispensationalism, both mainstream and progressive, is premillennialist. This refers to the view that Jesus will return to earth immediately before (hence the ‘pre-‘) He sets up a kingdom on this earth that will last for a thousand years.
In the 2nd century AD premillennialism seems to have been a common view among Christians, although in the following centuries it became increasingly rare. The theology of premillennialists of these early centuries of the church is known as historic premillennialism. Historic premillennialism has a lot in common with progressive dispensationalism, but it differs significantly from mainstream dispensationalism.
As I have noted, mainstream dispensationalists believe some things that never seem to have been believed by any Christians before the 19th century.
One of these is that Jesus will return to earth twice, once to the air above the earth when the church is raptured up, and then again a few years later when He comes down onto the earth itself.
I have to say that I am surprised so many Christians today believe this. It can be read out of a few biblical passages if it is first read into them, but it is not what the Bible teaches. And until the 19th century all Christians seem to have believed what the majority believe today, which is that Jesus will return once to earth, and that the rapture will take place on that occasion.
It is not my intention in this article to give a biblical argument for the traditional view of the rapture. Instead, my focus will be on another unbiblical idea of mainstream dispensationalism, one that concerns the church and ethnic Israel.
When I refer to ‘ethnic Israel’ in this article I will be making another simplification. Throughout history it has been possible for people of any ethnic group to become physical Jews, so ‘ethnic Israel’ is not technically accurate as a term. However, for want of a better label, I will use this one.
The mistake of mainstream dispensationalism that I am interested in here is the idea that God has distinct purposes for the church and for ethnic Israel. This is another belief that seems not to have been held by anyone before the 19th century.
This idea appears to have arisen as a result of the highly literalistic reading of Scripture that is found in mainstream dispensationalism. One characteristic of mainstream dispensationalists is that they insist on reading every passage of the Bible as literally as conceivably possible.
This is something else I find strange. I think this approach probably came about as an overreaction to illegitimate spiritualising by liberal theologians in the 19th century. I also think that dispensationalists have allowed themselves to be influenced by modern Western ways of thinking and writing about things. In the West we tend to speak and think about things more straightforwardly and literally than ancient Jews did, and I think this has distorted the biblical interpretation of dispensationalists.
As it happens, the New Testament is full of spiritualising, non-literal interpretations of the Old Testament. Things that the NT gives a spiritualising interpretation to include the children of Abraham (Romans 4:16; Galatians 3:7, 29), the land promised to Abraham (Romans 4:13), the temple (e.g., John 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16), Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21:10-27), the dwelling of David (Acts 15:16) and Elijah (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13; Mark 9:11-13). The main argument of the book of Hebrews also involves a spiritualising interpretation of the OT sacrificial system.
The church as spiritual Israel
In this article I want to concentrate my attention on one other OT concept that is given a spiritual interpretation in the NT, i.e., Israel.
Mainstream dispensationalists can often be heard saying things like, ‘In the Bible ‘Israel’ always means ethnic Israel.’ They claim that the NT authors never understand Israel in a spiritual, non-literal sense, and that it is a mistake to refer to the church as spiritual Israel.
This claim is completely wrong. In fact, the NT clearly portrays the church as a spiritual Israel.
Before we turn to some of the evidence for this, it is worth me saying a few words about explicit and implicit evidence. Importantly, we must beware of falling into what we could call ‘the word – concept fallacy’. This is the mistake of thinking that if a word that is commonly used to refer to a concept is not present, then that concept itself cannot be present.
It should be obvious that this is a mistake. For example, suppose I come into a house and say to someone there, ‘I’ve been outside for one minute and I’m soaked! If you go out, make sure you take an umbrella.’
Here I have not been explicit that it is raining, since I have not used the words ‘rain’ or ‘raining’. But I have clearly implied that it is raining nevertheless.
Similarly, in the Bible John’s Gospel never uses Greek words that mean ‘faith’ or ‘repentance’, but these concepts are strongly implied in that book. And although Jesus can never be found in the Gospels using any word that means ‘grace’, the grace in His message is implied all the same.
When considering a spiritual interpretation of Israel, then, it is the concept of spiritual Israel that is key, not whether the word ‘Israel’ itself is used, although that will also come into the following discussion.
Let’s turn now to look at what the NT has to say about this topic. There is so much evidence that the NT portrays the church as spiritual Israel that I will limit my comments to a few passages. The following texts are especially relevant:
In this passage Paul tells the believers in Rome:
’25 For circumcision is of benefit if you practise the Law. But if you break the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if an uncircumcised person keeps the regulations of the Law, won’t his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And the person who is naturally uncircumcised but keeps the Law will judge you who have the written code and circumcision but break the Law. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is performed outwardly in the flesh, 29 but a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code . . .’
In Paul’s day one key feature of ethnic Jewish males was that they were circumcised, and in v. 25 Paul is clearly implying that if an ethnic Jew breaks the Law of Moses, at a deeper level that person is in effect a non-Jew. And then in v. 26 he just as clearly implies that if an ethnic Gentile (‘an uncircumcised person’) keeps the Law of Moses, at a deeper level that person is in effect a Jew.
In Romans 2:28-29 Paul is even clearer. He plainly teaches that real Jewishness has to do with what is going on inside a person. It is those who are Jews inwardly who are real Jews. Given the reference to uncircumcision being regarded as circumcision in v. 26, Paul is obviously including ethnic Gentiles among those who he says are real Jews by being Jews inwardly.
It is true that in the Greek Paul doesn’t explicitly use an adjective like ‘real’ or ‘true’ to refer to those who are Jews inwardly, but an adjective with this sort of meaning has to be understood. The passage would make no sense otherwise.
When Paul refers to ‘circumcision . . . of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code’ in v. 29, he is obviously thinking of Christians. So there is no doubt that he is applying this concept of being a real Jew to all Christians.
Israel, of course, is the sum of all Jews. So this passage implies that the church is real Israel or true Israel. That, of course, does not literally mean that ethnic Israel is not real or true in any sense. It just means that the church can be understood as Israel in a much deeper, more real and more profound sense than ethnic Israel can.
Although Paul implies a description such as ‘real’ or ‘true’ to define the Jewishness of those who are Jews inwardly, it would be appropriate to say that these inward Jews are spiritual Jews. Therefore, this is a passage which teaches that the church is spiritual Israel.
In this verse, as Paul is about to begin discussing how the rejection of Jesus by most of the Jews of his day fits with the purposes of God, he states:
‘For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.’
Paul clearly has 2 groups of people in mind in this sentence: (a) the group that comprises the whole of ethnic Israel; and (b) the group that comprises a different sort of Israel. Because the whole of ethnic Israel can reasonably be referred to as literal Israel, we can refer to (b) as a kind of spiritual Israel.
Paul must mean that not everyone who belongs to ethnic Israel belongs to the spiritual Israel that he has in mind.
It is true that nothing in the immediate context of v. 6 directly connects this spiritual Israel specifically to the church.
Nevertheless, firstly, even if, for the sake of argument, we were to conclude that the spiritual Israel here is something other than the church, it would still be the case that this verse uses the term ‘Israel’ in a spiritual sense. And this is something that mainstream dispensationalists so often say the Bible never does.
And secondly, we have already seen that earlier in the same letter, in Romans 2:25-29, Paul expresses the concept of the church being spiritual Israel. It would then be surprising if the spiritual Israel in 9:6 was something different from that. This interpretation also fits well with the rest of chs. 9-11 and Philippians 3:2-3 that we are about to look at, as well as much more in Paul’s letters. Although in 9:6 Paul is thinking only about ethnic Jews who are part of the spiritual Israel, it seems likely that the spiritual Israel he has in mind is the church.
In this passage Paul says to the church in Philippi:
‘2 Watch out for the dogs; watch out for those who do evil; watch out for the mutilation [Greek: katatome]. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision [Greek: peritome], who worship by the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and do not trust in the flesh.’
The first thing to note here is that ‘the circumcision’ in v. 3 refers to Christians. And it must refer to all Christians, i.e., the whole church, since it is all Christians, whether ethnic Jews or Gentiles, who worship by the Spirit, boast in Christ and do not trust in the flesh.
Furthermore, the congregation in Philippi itself very probably had a majority of Gentile believers among its number at the time Paul wrote. The fact that Philippi was a Roman colony, the fact that Paul was apostle to the Gentiles, and the account in Acts 16:12-40 of the first Christians in Philippi suggest that a large proportion of the Philippian congregation was Gentile. And it is very implausible to think that it was composed entirely of Jewish Christians when Paul wrote his letter.
Not only, then, does ‘the circumcision’ in Philippians 3:3 have to refer to the whole church comprising all Jewish and Gentile Christians. But even if we think about the Philippians who were in the forefront of Paul’s mind as he wrote, ‘the circumcision’ must have been referring, in part, to some Gentile Christians in Philippi.
Importantly, in the first century ‘the circumcision’ was an alternative way of referring to Jews and ethnic Israel.
In Galatians 2:9, for example, Paul himself uses the same Greek word that he uses in Philippians 3:3, peritome, to refer to ethnic Israel:
‘. . . so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcision [peritome].’
Other passages that use peritome to refer to ethnic Israel include Romans 3:30; 4:9; 15:8; Galatians 2:7-8; Ephesians 2:11; and Colossians 3:11.
Therefore, in Philippians 3:3 Paul clearly expresses the concept of the church being Israel, even though the word ‘Israel’ isn’t used. And ‘spiritual Israel’ is a good way of describing what Paul has in mind.
Furthermore, we need to take note of the wordplay in this passage. Paul tells his readers, ‘watch out for the katatome. For we are the peritome’. The similarities in spelling and meaning between these Greek words and the presence of the connecting word ‘For’ surely shows that Paul is making a play on words here.
Katatome has to do with cutting in some way, and in the context the cutting must have a negative connotation. For the wordplay to make sense, Paul must be referring to Jews or professing Jewish Christians who were insisting that Gentile Christians be circumcised. And he seems to be implying too that the circumcision these people thought so highly of was actually bringing spiritual cutting that leads to ruin. The ‘we’ in v. 3 would then be emphatic, and we could paraphrase in this way:
‘Watch out for those who say that circumcision is necessary for salvation. Those who teach this are not circumcising in what matters but are spiritually cutting to pieces themselves and those who accept their teaching. It is not they but we Christians who are circumcised in what matters and are the real Israel.’
This is surely what Paul means. We know that he encountered opponents of this kind, because Galatians was written to counter the teaching of just such people. This interpretation also makes perfect sense of the Greek text. And no other interpretation looks plausible.
When Paul implies that it is the church that is the real Israel, this is not to be taken literally as if suggesting that ethnic Israel is not real in any sense. But, as in Romans 2:25-29, Paul is implying that the church is Israel in a more profound sense than ethnic Israel is.
In this verse James writes:
‘James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the 12 tribes that are in the dispersion. Greetings.’
The first point to note here is that ‘the 12 tribes’ is clearly a reference to the 12 tribes of Israel. Whether these 12 tribes of Israel should be understood literally or spiritually will be discussed in what follows. But the 12 tribes have to refer to the 12 tribes of Israel in some sense. No other interpretation is conceivably possible.
Secondly, the dispersion, also often known as the diaspora, is a term used to refer to the fact that many ethnic Jews in James’s day lived outside the ancient land of Israel. They had been dispersed through many parts of Europe, North Africa and the Near and Middle East.
It is disputed whether James is referring here to the literal dispersion of ethnic Jews throughout various lands, or whether he is referring to some sort of metaphorical dispersion of Christians (or only Jewish Christians) in this world.
Regardless of the answer to that question, there can be no doubt that ‘the 12 tribes’ is not a reference to ethnic Israel. James is writing his letter to Christians. See, for example, how in 2:1 he says:
‘My brothers, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of favouritism.’
Therefore, it is only believers in Jesus who make up the 12 tribes James is writing to. So the 12 tribes cannot be ethnic Israel, because a large majority of ethnic Jews of the time did not believe in Jesus. James is therefore referring to the 12 tribes of Israel in some sort of spiritual sense.
There is a debate, which involves the meaning of the dispersion that I mentioned above, about whether the 12 tribes in this verse are all Jewish Christians or the whole church.
Given that numerous passages in the NT understand the church as spiritual Israel, it seems better to see the 12 tribes of Israel here as the church. However, even if we were to take the view that James has only Jewish Christians in view, it would still be the case that this verse provides a clear example of the concept of Israel being applied to a group of people other than all those who comprised ethnic Israel. This is another passage, then, that clearly contradicts the idea that in the Bible Israel is always understood literally.
In this verse Peter tells his readers:
‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s possession . . .’
The first thing to note here is that these words are addressed to the church. To be precise, the letter is addressed to Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, as 1:1 makes clear. But none of the teaching in this letter should be seen as limited to situations in these areas, and in reality the letter contains teaching that is relevant for all Christians. There is no doubt that in 2:9 Peter is thinking about the whole church.
Crucially, all the terms used here for the church – chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation and people for God’s possession – are terms that perfectly and precisely describe ethnic Israel of OT times. See especially Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. Peter has clearly gone out of his way to describe the church in terms that bring ethnic Israel to mind.
Mainstream dispensationalists often claim that in this verse Peter is just saying that the church is similar to ethnic Israel in being a chosen race, royal priesthood etc., not that the church actually is Israel in any sense. This, however, is a very contrived interpretation. Peter is surely implying that the church is spiritual Israel in some sense.
There is much more biblical evidence that the church is spiritual Israel. However, to prevent this article from becoming any longer than it needs to be, I will stop giving examples at this point.
It is not my intention here to discuss the relationship of ethnic Israel and the church. Nevertheless, given all the evidence that the church is portrayed as spiritual Israel in the NT, and given how some passages teach that the church is Israel in a deeper and more real sense than ethnic Israel is Israel, we should have no hesitation in saying that mainstream dispensationalist theology is in serious error. It is simply not the case that ethnic Israel and the church are distinct entities with distinct programmes in God’s purposes. And there seems to be no evidence that any Christians before the 19th century believed this anyway.
That is not to say that God has no unfinished business with ethnic Israel. I find it hard to believe that the reestablishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was without significance. And I think Romans 11:11-32 probably teaches that we should expect a massive influx of ethnic Jews into the church at some point in the future in fulfilment of OT prophecy. In fact, Jews seem to be turning to Christ more today than they ever have done, and I think it is a real possibility that we are beginning to see the fulfilment of prophecies in Romans 11.
My best guess is that God has reestablished the Jewish state so that there is a focal point for a mass conversion of Jews to Christ. It is certainly not God’s purpose for there to be another literal temple or anything else of the old order that was superseded in Christ. Nor should we expect a millennial kingdom after Jesus returns. The NT teaches repeatedly that the judgment of all the living and the dead will take place when He returns, and also that the present universe will be replaced by a new heavens and earth at that time.
But God has not forgotten the ethnic Jewish people. And we must pray that they will accept Jesus as their Messiah and Saviour.
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