Israel and the Church: Why Does It Matter?

Israel and the Church: Why Does It Matter?

There is an effort among many Christian scholars today to revise the traditional approach to the question of Israel’s identity.

These scholars argue that the Church must be subtly distinguished from the ‘actual Israel’ in order to do justice to the voice of the Old Testament. But I will argue that this position must be rejected, not simply because it is our tradition, but also because the identity of Israel and the Church undergirds the very messianic claims of Jesus Christ.

The framework within which these scholars set the discussion is flawed, practically guaranteeing an incorrect conclusion. For example, speaking of “supersessionism,” they’ll claim:

According to this view, if Israel has a contribution to the Christian faith, that contribution is exclusively related to the Old Testament times . . . the living Israel has been totally ignored if not rhetorically demonized.1

But this assumes precisely what they’re trying to prove: that Israel according to the flesh constitutes the living Israel, while the Church is ‘grafted onto’ Israel according to the flesh. Such statements are impossible to reconcile with the New Testament. For Paul and the Apostles, every promise God made to Israel is fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

In order to understand how this works, one must see the Old Testament as a story. That story begins with God’s creation of the world, His investiture of Adam as Royal Priest over his world, and Adam’s failure to fulfill his commission. Adam’s failure incurs the curse of exile, wherein he loses access to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:17-24). The Lord calls the children of Israel to undo for the world what Adam had done to it. This is why He promises to give Abram a great “name” (Gen. 12:2), in contrast to the builders of Babel who tried to create a great “name” for themselves (Gen. 11:4). While the world had divided into seventy nations (Gen. 10), God promised to restore and reunite the human family through Abraham, saying that through him, all the families of the Earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3, renewing the primeval blessing given to humanity in Gen. 1:27-28), and that Abraham would become the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4-5).

The first key to understanding the Old Testament is the reality that Israel is Adam. The second is the nature of the Sinai covenant. God’s gift of Torah is meant to lead the New Adam to life. Moses promises that if Israel obeys, she will live, but if she disobeys, she will die (Deut. 30:15). Unfortunately, Moses prophesies that Israel will disobey. And yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel. When Israel is faithful, God circumcises her heart, brings her back from exile, and enables her to truly love the Lord. This, in turn, grants her true “life” (Deut. 30:1-6).

The Torah begins with Adam exiled from the Tree of Life, and ends with Israel, the New Adam, returning from exile to life. This is why Ezekiel prophesies that the return from exile would be constituted by God breathing His Spirit into Israel (the New Adam; cf. Gen. 2:7), and her rising from the dead (Ezek. 37:1-14). He even proclaims that the end of Israel’s exile—and her newfound obedience—will cause the land to turn into Eden (Ezek. 36:35).

Why these prophecies lead to Jesus is seen in the great irony of Deut. 30. Moses promises that once Israel is faithful, God will circumcise her heart, enabling her to be faithful. But how can Israel be faithful with an uncircumcised heart? This is where the Incarnation enters, and Isaiah 59 explains just as well as any writing of the New Testament.

The Lord mourns the plight: Israel is unable to fulfill her calling because she is full of sin (Isa. 59:1–16), but God solves this by “putting on a breastplate of righteousness and coming down” (Isa. 59:17). The Lord Himself becomes an Israelite in order to do for the world what Israel was supposed to. Isaiah 49:3–5 shares a similar point: the Servant of the Lord is named ‘Israel,’ but is called to bring the remnant back from exile.

I belabor this point for one reason: understanding that Jesus Christ is the one-man Israel allows us to understand the relationship of Israel and the Church. God has not cast off Israel, only to call a new people. Instead, God has focused Israel’s election onto one man—Jesus of Nazareth—who is faithful unto death and finds life in the resurrection. As a result, all who are “in Christ” are constituted as the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16–17). Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; only a new creation. This is why Paul says that he “bears on his body the marks of Jesus.” The marks of Jesus are opposed to the ‘marks of circumcision,’ since to be ‘Israel,’ one must be ‘in Jesus.’ The only way to be ‘in Jesus’ is suffering with Him—a sentence-unto-death we all receive in the waters of baptism.

The restoration of Israel from exile took place in the resurrection of our Lord. As such, Israel’s identity depends on union with him. To deny that the Church is identical with Israel is to deny that God has fulfilled His promises in the crucified and risen Messiah. And that is why this is all so important: The true Israel is not Israel ‘according to the flesh,’ because “you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:9).

The list of blessings attributed to the Jewish people by Paul (Rom. 9:1-4) are often cited as justifying a distinction between Israel and the Church, with covenantal blessings still ‘outstanding’ for the Jewish people. But I think this ignores the subtlety of Paul’s words. He ends his catena of praise with “according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:5). He then goes on to contrast Isaac and Ishmael, arguing that Isaac is the true descendant of Abraham, instead of Ishmael. (An interesting parallel is provided in Gal. 4:28–31, where the Christian is identified with Isaac precisely because Isaac was “born according to the Spirit.”) Carnal Israel is identified with Ishmael, because he was born ‘according to the flesh.’

Paul concludes his argument by telling the Galatians to “cast out” Ishmael. Had such a thing been penned by a Father of the Church, many modern scholars would dismiss it as ‘anti-semitic.’ But the whole point of Paul’s argument is that the blessings of the covenant come upon the family which is ‘in the Spirit,’ and not ‘in the flesh.’

So what does Paul actually argue in Romans 9–11?

I will provide a full exegesis of this section of Romans at a later date, but sufficed to say, Paul’s argument is three-hinged.

Its beginning is the proclamation (Rom. 9:6–8):

Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel . . . it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise who are counted as offspring.

The midpoint of the argument is Romans 10:9–11, where Paul says (quoting Joel):

[A]ll who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.

He exposits this to mean that:

[T]here is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches upon all who call on him.

The argument ends with stating “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).

Paul’s intent from the beginning has been to argue that God has been faithful to Israel. All Israel will be saved, but not all who are from Israel are Israel. The two statements are woven together by the fact that “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Salvation here does not refer to a last-minute conversion of the Jewish people, in my opinion. Instead, it refers to the eschatological salvation of the Church, which—through her union with Christ, the “goal (telos) of the Law” (Rom. 10:4)—is the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

The heart of this portion of Romans lies in Rom. 11:16–17. In order to demonstrate that God has been faithful, Paul argues that the people of God have not been “cast away” (Rom. 11:2). Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree (Israel), because they possess an organic link to ancient Israel—through the Jewish remnant that believes in Jesus. The “dough offered as first-fruits” (11:16) is the Jewish remnant. It is that dough that sanctifies the ‘whole lump,’ which is the Church.

Paul’s parallel metaphor is that of the ‘root’ and the ‘branches.’ The root, being identical to the ‘dough offered as first-fruits,’ is the Jewish remnant. The branches that gather life from the root are the Gentile Christians. I think it a mistake to identify the root with unbelieving Jews. Indeed, Paul says that such unbelievers are “broken off” from the tree altogether (11:17), replaced with Gentile branches. Even so, the Gentile must not boast against the branches (11:18), because God is fully willing to graft the Jew back into Israel—on the same condition that a Gentile is grafted in. 

Apart from Romans 9–11, other passages are sometimes cited to justify continued Jewish obligation to the law, especially Paul’s statement in Rom. 3:31 that he “upholds the law.” Yet such a reading turns Paul’s argument on its head. Earlier (2:17–24), Paul proclaims that Israel was chosen to be a guide to the blind and a light to those in darkness. Israel was summoned to heal the nations. Yet, in 2:25–29, it is Gentiles who are circumcised in their hearts (echoing Deut. 30:1–6, discussed above), thereby constituted as Jews. This calls into question God’s covenant faithfulness, known in Romans as the “righteousness of God.” That is probably why 3:1–8 comes where it does.

Israel was entrusted with the oracles of God, meaning that she was to take the words of God to the nations, but she has been ‘unfaithful’ in her vocation. Since the manner in which she was to shine light on the world was through obedience to the Torah, what God wants is an Israelite who is faithful. Such a person is provided in 3:22, where the “righteousness of God” comes into operation “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” for the benefit of “all who are faithful.” The point is that Israel’s election has been narrowed down to Jesus the Messiah—who has been faithful—and through His faithfulness, has done for the world what Israel was to do.

Now, all who embody the faithfulness of the Messiah in “suffering with Him” (Rom. 8:17) are likewise “glorified with him.” As Christ’s determination to go to the Cross unto resurrection is what constitutes his faithfulness to the Torah, what it means to ‘do the law’ has been reconfigured around Christ. It is because we are “in Christ” that we “uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31)—not because Jewish Christians are to keep observing badges of Jewish identity. The only badge of covenant identity is Christ himself, who is the covenant-made-flesh.

A critical misunderstanding popular among many modern scholars is that Jesus has accomplished his priestly mission by his first coming, but that his royal, conquering mission is entirely the function of the Second Coming.

By contrast, the great Apostle Paul proclaims that Jesus, in his resurrection, has been constituted as Davidic king and now reigns from heaven (Rom. 1:3–4, 1 Cor. 15:24–25). What these scholars fail to recognize is that the royal office of the Messiah is yet another part of inaugurated eschatology. Jesus’ reign has begun, but it is not yet complete. This is why Paul uses both Psalm 2 and 8—describing the Davidic king and the royal reign of Adam—in reference to Jesus’ present office. In fact, each promise of God has been inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus, even as they have not yet been consummated at the Second Coming.

The role of the Church, as the Body of Christ, is to continue the ministry of Jesus. This is why St. Luke wrote that his Gospel records what Jesus “began” to do (Acts 1:1). By implication, the Acts of the Apostles continues the narrative, as does the whole span of Church history. The Gospel is that the kingly rule of God has begun in the ministry of Jesus (Mark 1:15, Isa. 52:8); we dare not obscure this reality.

Proponents of a distinction between Israel and the Church often argue that to understand the Hebrew Bible on its own terms is to grant an ongoing, covenantal election of Israel in the flesh. But on the contrary, the opposite is true. If Israel is constituted by ethnic Jews and not the Church, God has failed in his promise.

Moses promised that there would be one exile and one return, and that return would be accompanied by the circumcision of the heart and the endowment of the Spirit. As N. T. Wright demonstrates in The New Testament and the People of God, Israel understood their exile as ongoing in the first century, having only partially ended with the return from Babylon. However, if a second exile began under the Romans in A.D. 70, then the words of both Moses and the prophets are thwarted. The Old Testament becomes a ‘lifeless, dusty, and mostly useless archive’ of promises that have failed. Only if the return from exile is constituted by the resurrection of Christ are the words of the prophets kept alive.

In my own experience, I have found that the most exegetically fruitful path is trusting the Church—even if we don’t completely understand what she teaches us. Over and over again, I have distrusted the Church, only to be proven wrong on other grounds.

People today are both understandably and rightly concerned about the evils of anti-semitism. It is not anti-semitic, however, to call the Jewish people home to the Church—to Abraham’s family of promise in our Lord Jesus Christ. On the contrary, it is far more anti-semitic to hide the truth for the sake of ‘tolerance.’ The truth of Christ, spoken in love, is never hate.

The witness of the New Testament, our divine services, the Ecumenical Councils, and the writings of our fathers is abundantly clear: The Lord Jesus Christ has summed up all things in Himself. All of God’s promises find their ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ in His death and resurrection:

If you are Christ’s, you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Let us therefore celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises in both Christ and his Church—the Israel of God.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Eugen J. Pentiuc, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p. 39


  1. Ed Williamson says

    Excellent discussion! You have put forth what I have always believed, although you did it in a much better fashion. Trying to reconcile the political state of Israel with God’s chosen people has caused so many Christians to focus on the wrong thing. Your discussion is so very plain. Thank you!

  2. says

    Excellent post, sir. Even if this weren’t the authoritative teaching of the Church on this matter (which it clearly, undeniably is), or even if the authoritative word of the Church whom Christ told “whoever rejects you, rejects me” isn’t enough for you for some odd reason, still, the intrinsic coherence of the Christian, biblical narrative of salvation in Christ hinges on this point, and completely unravels if you attempt to loose it, as you have so ably demonstrated. Well done.

  3. Patrick says

    Very, very good article, thanks for sharing it!

    Another thought to contribute to this: The Church Fathers read the Old Testament as the symbols, shadows and types (“typos”) of the reality that was to come – which was the Messiah. That is, the Old Testament promised and portrayed the coming true reality through models or blueprints of the reality which was to come (read: Melito of Sardis, circa 190AD, “On Pascha” for this “promise/type – fulfillment” motif).

    Thus, Adam was the first human but he was also a type of the true human (who would be faithful) that was to come – the Messiah. Eve was a true companion to Adam and was taken from his side through his sleep and awakening, but she was only a shadow and type of the true companion to come taken from the side of the true human through His sleep of death and resurrection – the Church, the Body of the Messiah. Moses was a lawgiver but he was only a symbol and type of the true lawgiver to come – the Messiah (that is why the voice from heaven said, “this is my beloved son, LISTEN TO HIM” – see Deuteronomy 18:15 for the parallel of this). Joshua, which is the name “Jesus” when translated to Greek (see the LXX), would lead the children of Israel into the promised land – he was only a symbol and type of the true military leader who would lead His people in conquest of sin (the passions) and death (corruption) and into the land of promise – the Messiah. David, the King of Israel, was only a shadow, a symbol and a type (typos) of the true King to come – the Messiah.

    In the same way, Israel was only a shadow, symbol and type of the true and faithful Israel to come – the Messiah.

    Whereas the shadow or type always failed because they were only a shadow of the reality, they still, nevertheless, faithfully pointed to the reality that was to come which has now been fulfilled in the Messiah.

    This is how our ancient Fathers and the early Christians read the scriptures and we would do good to adapt this ancient understanding as our own today. To understand the Old Testament in this way makes it come alive with meaning for us because this is how God intended it to be understood from the beginning – as a shadow, promise, type (OT) and fulfillment (Messiah) motif.

    The earliest Christians only had the Old Testament scriptures to read and this is how they read them. As Augustine of Hippo said, “the new is hidden in the old and the old is reveled in the new”.

  4. star says

    You know, I started to write this huge comment explaining why I really really appreciated this post. Instead I’ll just say this: this post was a BLESSING to me and an answer to prayer. I’ve been accused of being brainwashed (by christian family members) for certain views I hold in relation to the topic discussed. I’ve literally been in tears over issues I feel God has placed on my heart and see other christians don’t want to concern themselves with. Its been very confusing for me. Its exactly like Ed said in his above comment: “Trying to reconcile the political state of Israel with God’s chosen people has caused so many Christians to focus on the wrong thing.” I am not orthodox (yet), and up till now I’ve been lost, very very lost in my protestant spiritual upbringing. So much so I gave up going to church and never though’d I’d find another until “researching” orthodoxy. I’m glad you felt compelled to write about this today, and I’m glad I was able to stumble upon it. I am off to study your footnotes. You have helped me immensely. (sorry for the wall of text lol)

  5. Karen says

    Thanks for this very excellent explanation and commentary.

    I have one tiny grammatical quibble. I believe the proper expression is “suffice it” (meaning, it is sufficient) not “sufficed.” :-)

  6. V. Rev. A. James Bernstein says

    I address briefly this issue and come to A DIFFERENT CONCLUSION than do you. Though no doubt THE CHURCH is Israel and is where Salvation is to be found now and forevermore, St Paul does speak of the unbelieving Jews as Israel – “blindness has in part happened to Israel.” He writes that God continues to love and provides an assuredness of future hope for the Jews. His referring to them in Scripture as Israel can be reinterpreted to force fit a paradigm that makes Israel ONLY the Church – but I believe it is forced and not what St Paul – or the Apostles – believed.

    I quote a portion of a sermon from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware below that confirms this view. My book “Surprised by Christ” from pages 95 – 99 “The Mystery of Israel’s Blindness” follows:

    “How two peoples can be referred to as “God’s people” becomes clearer in Romans 11. Paul says of the Jewish people:

    “I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall?
    Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to
    jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. . . . For if their
    being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will
    their acceptance be but life from the dead? . . . For I do
    not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this
    mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that
    blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness
    of the Gentiles has come in. (Romans 11:11, 15, 25)

    As I understood it, Paul was saying Christians should not be
    proud in their belief, because in some mysterious way God has
    permitted, even perhaps caused, Israel’s blindness as a nation in
    order to accomplish a greater blessing for the Gentiles (see Romans
    9:17–23; 11:7, 8).

    Then, speaking of the future, Paul says this condition of
    Israel’s blindness will continue “until the fullness of the Gentiles
    has come in” (Romans 11:25). In saying this, Paul assumes
    the continued existence of Jews as a distinct people, and divine
    destiny and providential guidance for them even until Christ’s
    return. He speaks of a future time in which, after the “fullness”
    of Gentiles become Christian, an awesome event will take place.

    The event is described in the next verse, “and so all Israel will be
    saved” (Romans 11:26).

    It is evident from the context that the Israel spoken of is
    the Jewish people and not the Church. This passage has been
    interpreted to mean, not that literally every individual Jew will
    become a Christian, but that the people as a whole will come
    to faith in Christ. Just as the Jewish nation previously rejected
    Christ (though individual Jews accepted Him), so in the future
    the Jewish nation will accept Christ (though there will be some
    individuals who won’t).

    Years later, I read a sermon by a prominent spokesman for
    Orthodox Christianity, Bishop Kallistos Ware, entitled, “Has God
    Rejected His People, the Jews?” In the sermon, Bishop Kallistos
    focuses on Romans 9—11 and concludes by saying:

    Let us all inscribe these words of St. Paul upon our hearts
    indelibly in letters of fire. Never for one moment let us
    forget the incalculable loss which Christianity has suffered
    through the early separation between the Church and
    the Synagogue. Let us long, as Paul does, for the ending
    of that separation, and let us keep steadfastly in view his
    confident expectation that, willingly and by their own
    free choice, the Jewish people as a whole will eventually
    accept Christ as God and Savior. And, until that happens,
    let us never by deed or word show the slightest disrespect
    or hatred for the people of Israel. They are still God’s
    Chosen People. Anti-Semitism, in all its expressions, is the work of
    Satan. I beg you, then, to make your own St. Paul’s ‘great
    sorrow and unceasing anguish,’ and I ask you also to hold
    fast to his ultimate hope that ‘all Israel will be saved.”

    • Seraphim Hamilton says

      Bless Father,

      It is certainly permissible within the Church to believe that the Jewish people will eventually be converted to Christ, as long as one confesses that God’s promises have been accomplished and fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ, who is the true Israel. As for myself, I believe that all nations, including the Jewish nation, will eventually bow their knee unto Christ (before the Second Coming), but this is likewise a theologumena. The Fathers differed among themselves about how Romans 11 is to be interpreted. I find the most consistent and satisfying interpretation to be one that sees 11:26-27 as referring to the Church, so I disagree respectfully with His Eminence. I have posted a fuller commentary on Romans 11 here:

      In short, St. Paul defends his statement in 11:26 with a quotation from Isaiah 59, which he has already cited in the letter, back in Romans 3:14-15 which leads to his exposition of the faithfulness of the Messiah in 3:22 for the benefit of all who are “in Christ.” When I began my study of Romans I initially agreed with the usual scholarly view that Israel in 11:26 refers to Israel according to the flesh- but was persuaded otherwise by scholars such as N.T. Wright, who has a depth exegesis of Romans 9-11 in his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

      • Ben Marston says

        In the Book of Daniel it states that the prophecies that he made that pertained to the end of time and the Nation of Israel were sealed until the end. This means that the understandings that we have from the past are flawed, for the meaning of the prophecies has been hidden till the end. The fact of the recurrence of national Israel and the fact of Jerusalem being back in the hands of National Israel, suggests in what manner the prophecies of Daniel were sealed until the end.

        • Seraphim Hamilton says

          Hi Ben,

          St. Paul in Hebrews 1:2 says we are living in the “latter days.” In Hebrew, the “latter days” is simply the opposite of “In the Beginning.” In other words, it’s talking about the eschaton. Moses has structured the Pentateuch so that it has an eschatological focus, and Genesis 49 and Numbers 24 associates this with the arrival of the Messiah. Daniel 2 picks this idea up so that the fourth kingdom (Rome) is undone by the arrival of the kingdom of God which is a stone “cut without hands” which fills the whole Earth. Isaiah 2 says that in the latter days the nations will stream to Zion- check out the billions of Gentiles worshiping Israel’s God and see the proof that we live in the “latter days.” :)

          The innovation in New Testament eschatology is the idea of inaugurated eschatology. Instead of the age to come bursting in all at once, it is inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus and progressively spread and actualized by the Church, until the Lord returns to bless His People’s work at the Second and Glorious Coming. The issue with identifying the Jewish people with Israel is the issue I explained in the article: the New Testament teaches that Israel’s restoration transpires in Jesus’ resurrection and the triumph of the Church. The messianic task is the restoration of Israel. If Israel was left unrestored, Jesus is not the Messiah.