Can one be Covenantal in theology, that is, believe the New Covenant community is spiritually Israel and as such is already experiencing in this age the promises of the prophets to Israel, and yet still maintain in some way ethnic Israel is unique? Let us consider how the term "Israel" is used.
The word is used in many ways in the Scriptures, yet all the uses are interrelated. It means "He who has struggled with God". Ultimately, God is the one who has the right to answer the question as to who or what is Israel. He determines who or what is Israel, not man or men's traditions. Here is a provisional list of some of the uses of the word in the Scriptures.
1. The man Jacob Genesis 32:28
2. Jacob's Physical Descendants Gen. 46:8; 48:28; Ex.1:7 (The Jewish People)
3. All Old Testament Believers Ex. 12:38,47-49; Dt. 23:8 (Both Jews and Gentiles) Nu. 15:13-16; Ruth 1:16
4. The Land Josh. 11:16; Jud.19:29 1 Sam. 13:19; Mt.2:20
5. The Northern Kingdom Is.7:1, 9:12
6. Citizens of the North Is. 9:14; Jer. 3:11,17
7. The Spiritual Remnant among the Jewish People? Rom. 9:6? 11:1? 11:26?
8. All Who are in the Messiah Eph. 2:11-19; Rom. 4:12-17; (A continuation of #3, that Rom. 9:6,7,8,24-26 is, all believers, the Church) Rom. 11:17; Gal.3:29, 4:21-31
9. Modern Ethnic or Political Israel Is. 19:24-25; Acts 1:6 (maybe?) (Jews and Gentiles!?) (Israel is certainly one of the nations of Rev. 7:9!)
10. The Messiah Himself Mt. 2:15; Is. 49:3-6; Gal. 3:16
There are then a number of possible Scriptural meanings of "Israel". But, is there a most ultimate meaning of the word Israel? There is -- it is the Messiah Himself (#10), for all the promises of God have their `yes' in Him (2 Cor. 1:20). Jesus is the ultimate seed of Abraham, (Gal. 3:16)
And if Messiah has the supreme right to the name Israel, then all who are in Him also have that right, since we are joint heirs with Him (Rom. 8:17) Indeed this is what Jesus gained in Redemption, "that the blessings given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles" (see Gal. 3:14). God can raise up sons of Abraham from the stones, if He wills. (Mt. 3:9) What else can Ephesians 2:11-22 mean? We are clearly told that Gentile Christians formerly had been excluded from citizenship in Israel (v. 12) and now, through the Messiah, are now fellow citizens (v. 19). If Gentile believers are no longer excluded from citizenship in Israel, that means they are included in citizenship in Israel. It's that simple. How can anyone deny that this is the clear and obvious meaning of the text?
But what of the Jewish people? If all who are in Jesus Christ are spiritually Israel, does that mean God has replaced the Jewish people with the Church and is finished with them? Of course not! There can be several meanings to the word "Israel" which can exist simultaneously, and there can be some overlapping of these meanings. The Church has a right to one of the connotations of the word "Israel". The Church has become an enlargement of and progression from "All Old Testament Believers" (#3), and it includes now, as it even included then, all who share in Israel's faith, both Jews and Gentiles. In essence then, the Church doesn't replace Israel, rather it expands Israel, that is the Believing Israel of #3 above.
Remember, Old Testament Israel (#3) included the physical descendants of Jacob (#2), but went beyond it and also included Gentiles (such as Ruth) who were willing to join themselves to the people of God. Today Gentiles who believe in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, have in essence converted to New Testament Judaism. This is what Christianity really is, New Covenant Judaism. It is the same today, in a sense, as it was in the Old Testament. All who believe become, in a sense, part of Israel, the Holy Congregation of the people of God. Both Jews and Gentiles relate to God on the basis of the same New Covenant. (The denial of this truth leads to one of two errors: one which seeks to bind again Jewish believers to the particulars of Mosaic Law, rather than to the moral principals of the Law which bind all believers today and the second which sees a separate way of salvation for the Jewish people.)
We must see the unity of the purpose of God, to glorify the Son. I contend that the Jewish people, the Messianic Jewish believers, the Church, and perhaps even the Modern state of Israel too, (numbers 2,7,8, and 9) will all be brought together under the Messiah, together with the whole earth (Col. 1:20; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Eph. 1:22; Isaiah 11:9). Until the Jewish people return to Messiah, there is yet a certain incompleteness to Spiritual Israel (#8), the Church. Therefore the Jewish people should be of great importance to the Church, as indeed should be the whole missionary enterprise. The mission of the church must always include the preaching of the gospel to the Jewish people, indeed it begins there.
Then what of the promises to the Jewish people? Does the Church take over the promises in such a way as to exclude the Jewish people from them? No! The promises of God are still valid for the Jewish people, yet only experienced by those who believe. The coming of the Messiah and the concomitant salvation he brings can only be received by faith. This is the most ultimate and most sacred Hope of Israel! Unbelief and rejection of God and His Covenant means forfeiture of the promises which are part of the Covenant. This was the case in the Old Testament, and this is still the same today. God does not change. The promises have been expanded to include the all in the Church, even Gentiles, but this does not mean they are no longer for the Jewish people. But the Jewish people must come to Messiah Jesus to have access to them, they must rejoin the faith community of Spiritual Israel.
What of the promise of the Land? This is a sticky issue. The land promises are also expanded to include all believers. Jesus promised that "the meek shall inherit the earth" (compare Ps. 37:11), and in doing so he expanded the promise that God's people would inherit the land of Israel. Paul says that the promise to Abraham should be understood as to inheriting "the earth" (Romans 4:13). Does this contradict the idea that the Jewish people should specifically inherit the land of Israel? God has changed the order of things and brought the fulfilment of the promises to Israel in a glorious expanded way. The Temple in Jerusalem is no longer the center of the worship of the true God in all the earth. And therefore Israel as a geopolitical-political entity is no longer the center of God's kingdom and blessing (John 4:21-24). Does this mean the Jewish people no longer have a right to the land? Does this aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant cease to be? The New Covenant promise is an expansion and fulfilment of the land promise, not a negation of it. Yet Israel is in the land in a state of unbelief, and belief and obedience were always the conditions for dwelling in the land. How can it be that the modern state of Israel exists, then? Perhaps God in His mercy has brought the people back in order to preserve them and also as a means of facilitating the hope of Romans 9-11 that the Jewish people should return to faith. The modern state of Israel can then be seen as part of the providential preservation of the Jewish people working toward the fulfillment of Romans 11. Certainly if the Jewish people are to be restored to faith as a people, one could argue that as a people they also need to dwell in a specific location.2 There are moral, historical, and political reasons arguing for Israel's right to exist, yet the Jewish people can in no way claim, while still in unbelief, any Biblical right to possession of the ancient borders. When they come to faith as a people again, so will the surrounding Gentile nations, and I believe in Messiah's peace all the current border issues can finally be settled. But most basically, the land promise is realized in the final state when all believers inherit the earth. If one fails to understand that the land Old Covenant land promises were the down payment on a renewed Earth, the restoration of Paradise lost, one is missing the most important meaning and purpose of the promised land. The ultimate experience of this promise certainly includes physical children of Abraham who believe, along with all other believers!
Is ethnic Israel still properly called Israel? Certainly no one would deny the name Israel to Jewish believers in Jesus. But what about those Jews who don't believe? Can they still truly be called Israel? Paul used this appellation of the Jewish people, even in unbelief. Romans 11:25 states, "Israel has experienced a hardening in part...", clearly using the name "Israel" to describe Jewish non-believers. Could it be that the continued existence of the Jewish people in spite of centuries of oppression and attempts at annihilation is a witness to God's faithfulness, sovereignty, and mercy?
We need to avoid errors in two extremes. Some would deny Gentile New Covenant believers the right given to Gentile Old Covenant believers (!), that is, the right to the name "Israel" and full and absolutely equal status as part of the people of God. These have claimed that the Church and Israel are two separate peoples of God and have nothing to do with each other. According to this view, God has two separate peoples and two separate plans.3 This view essentially denies full glory to Jesus and the gospel. In effect it says the salvation which has come in the Messiah is only a plan, not the plan and all who believe are not the recipients of all blessings, just some! (But see 1 Peter 1:3-12; Eph. 1:3!) Those of the other extreme have claimed that God is finished with the Jewish people as a people (though not as individuals) and say the Church has replaced the Jewish people and become the only true Israel.4 In such a theology the Jewish people themselves are denied any use of the name Israel!
Neither extreme is correct. The first extreme fails to see the centrality of Jesus in the meaning of Israel and the second fails to see the continuation of the Jewish people in the purpose of God as a people who are still heirs to the Covenants as taught by Romans 9:4 and 11:28-29. Good theology must be Biblical rather than a polemical overreaction to error.
We need to affirm the Biblical position that all believers are grafted in to the tree of Israel, whether they are natural or "wild" branches, and that God can, and will, graft in once again the natural branches, the Jewish people (Romans 11:11-24). Gentiles need to recognize that they have been grafted into Israel, and therefore have a certain kinship with the Jewish people. Jews are no less Jewish for believing in Jesus. Jews do not become Gentiles when they come to Jesus (quite the opposite!), rather all who trust in the Jewish Messiah and serve Him are part of that Spiritual tree rooted in the Patriarchs.
How do these "Israels" relate to one another? First, recognize there is a fundamental unity in the purpose of God. Spiritual Israel is the congregation of witness, the "Holy Priesthood and Royal Nation" (Compare Ex. 19:6 and 1 Peter 2:9) which brings the light of God and blessing of Abraham to the world. Those who follow the Messiah are part of this community, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. We must recognize that all glory goes to God and that all creation serves Him. This means that whatever our understanding of Israel, it must have the Glory of God at heart. Secondly, as the Rabbis have said, "the world was created for the sake of Messiah". Therefore Israel, too, is for the sake of Messiah. In the Messiah are found all who trust in Him, both in the Old and New Covenants (numbers 3, 7, and 8). The Israel of "All Believers" will only be fully realized when the fullness of both Jewish and Gentile believers comes and ethnic Israel is restored to faith. In order for God to be glorified the Messiah must be exalted. In order for Messiah to be exalted, His Body, All Believers, the Church, is being blessed and is prospering. In order for the church to fully prosper, the Jewish people must be restored to faith and join in the missionary enterprise (Romans 11:12). In order for them to be restored, they must, of course, be preserved. I would argue that in order for the Jewish people to be preserved, the Nation of Israel needed to be created and needs to exist. We must stand for the continued existence of the state of Israel and for a just expression of that existence.5
The fate of ethnic Israel and Spiritual Israel, the Church, are bound up together. The church is to make Jewish evangelism a priority and must stand by the Jewish people for the glory of God. We must look with hope and expectation for the glorious day when the natural branches are grafted in and "all Israel will be saved." In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and the place of his rest will be glorious (Isaiah 11:10).
1 This is a provisional statement written as part of a process of theological development. It is tentative in nature and subject to further revision.
2 See John Owen's commentary on Hebrews, Volume 1, 443-455 (2nd edition, 1812).
3 This is the essence of the Dispensational teaching regarding Israel and the church.
4. I would accuse some of those in the Covenantal camp of this position, though they rarely put it quite this way. Older reformed theologians are much more positive towards ethnic Israel because they were not reacting against the errors of dispensationalism mentioned above! See our section quoting Calvin, Hodge, Murray, Vos, etc.
5 An additional reason for Christians to be concerned for the Jewish people is that Christians have an ethical duty to uphold the cause of oppressed peoples (Amos 2:7). Historically, few have been so oppressed as Jesus' own ethnic group, the Jews. The Palestinian Arabs have also suffered injustices. They have been mistreated by their own Arab brothers and are not always treated fairly in Israel. They have also committed injustices themselves. The Messiah is the ultimate solution to this conflict.