Vol. 9, No. 1
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Our purpose herein is to explain from the biblical text the origin and application of the term "Israel," distinguishing between former Israel and the Israel of God today. We need to know who we are as the children of God respecting the biblical term "Israel." We need to have a proper and biblical concept--that is, God's view--of the Israel of God today, distinguishing between racial or political entities and the true people of God.
God renamed Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and the son of Isaac, with the name Israel. Respecting the name Israel, it was applied to the descendants of the man that God renamed from Jacob to Israel. In the last dispensation of time, the Gospel or Christian Age, God through his inspired penmen applied the name Israel to Christians, though most of them are not literal descendants of Jacob renamed Israel by God.
First, meet the man formerly called Jacob and renamed by God with the name Israel. Jacob (with the help of his mother, Rebekah) used trickery to acquire his brother Esau's blessing from their father, Isaac. Formerly, Jacob had persuaded the famished Esau to swap his birthright for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25:29-34). Fearing for his life at the hands of his vengeful brother Esau, Jacob fled north from Beersheba in extreme southern Canaan to the Haran in the extreme, northwestern edge of the Fertile Crescent, north of the Euphrates River. Jacob distanced himself from his angry brother by about 550 miles.
After 20 years, God instructed Jacob to return to Canaan (Genesis 31:3, 13; 32:9). In was in the course of Jacob's return that he wrestled with a mysterious heavenly visitor and his name was changed to Israel (Genesis 32:24-30). The name change from Jacob to Israel was God's doing (Genesis 32:28; 35:10; 2 Kings 17:34).
Especially names in Bible times had important meanings; the name Jacob means: "to seize by the heel; figuratively, to circumvent (as if tripping up the heels); also to restrain (as if holding by the heel)" (Biblesoft's). According to McClintock and Strong, the etymology (or history) of the word Jacob means "to bite the heel." Jacob received his name because he held on to Esau's heel when they were born (Gen. 25:26; Hosea 12:3). Esau remarked later in life that Jacob's name, which meant that he was a deceiver, especially fit Jacob (Genesis 27:36).
The name Israel means: "having power with God, or God's fighter" says the New Unger's Bible Dictionary or "prince with God" says Nelson's Bible Dictionary. The definition in Smith's Bible Dictionary corresponds to the event that led to Jacob's name change: "the prince that prevails with God." The name Israel is a compound word meaning "to prevail" and a shortened reference to God.
Second, meet the descendants of the man God renamed Israel who were called in Scripture by the name Israel. The name Israel passed on to the descendants of the man that God renamed Israel. Jacob or Israel moved to Egypt at the invitation of his son Joseph, who was second highest ruler in Egypt at that time. Many years later and after the Exodus from Egypt, the descendants of the man Israel were known as Israelites or Israel (Exodus 16:31; Joshua 3:17; 7:25; Judges 8:27; 1 Samuel 1:9).
Much later, after the death of King Saul, the ten northern tribes made Saul's surviving son, Ish-bosheth, their king and took the name Israel for themselves (2 Samuel 2:8-9). However, the southern two tribes made David their king and were known as the nation of Judah (2 Samuel 1:4-7, 10-11). After the death of Ish-bosheth, David became king over Israel and Judah, and the nation was again known simply as Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-5).
Still later, after the death of King Solomon and his son Rehoboam became king, the kingdom split again into the ten northern tribes called Israel and the southern two tribes called Judah (1 Kings 12:20). The two kingdoms continued as separate realms known respectively as Israel and Judah (Hosea 4:15; Micah 1:5; Isaiah 5:7). "The kingdom's [i.e. Israel's] duration was 254 years, from 975 to 721 B.C." (Fausset's). Assyria conquered Israel and deported its prominent survivors (2 Kings 17:5-6, 23; 18:11). About 134 years later, Babylon conquered Judah and deported its prominent survivors (2 Kings 24:10-25:21) (Fausset's).
Eventually, the captivity of Judah in Babylon ended two years after Persia conquered Babylon. Jews who returned to Judah and Jerusalem after 70 years of Babylonian captivity resumed use of the name Israel (Zephaniah. 3:13-14; Malachi 2:11; Acts 1:6; 2:22; Romans 10:1). However, God again expunged Jerusalem of the Jews or Israelites through the conquering Roman army in A.D. 70 (Matthew 24:1-35). For 200 years after, Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem; there was no more Israel.
Many Jews immigrated to Palestine following World War II. The United Nations portioned part of Palestine for the Jews in 1947. The United Nations recognized political Israel in 1948. The contemporary nation of Israel has no relationship to biblical Israel other than that many of them may be descendants of former Israel; but, without the genealogical records destroyed in A.D. 70, the Jews have at best localized family trees to try and ascertain their ethnicity or from what tribe they descend. Political Israel today is not associated with scriptural prophecy or fulfillment, and is not especially favored by God more than other nations.
Now, meet the people of God today who Scripture refers to as Israel today. Not everyone who is a physical descendant of the man named Israel is part of God's Israel under the New Testament. "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Romans 2:28-29). "...For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel" (Romans 9:6).
B.W. Johnson makes an outstanding remark regarding Romans 2:28 when he writes: "He is not a Jew, in the religious sense of one of God's chosen people, who is one outwardly alone." Burton Coffman applies the principle of Romans 2:28-29 to Christian conduct, so very true, of course: "...[T]here is...real danger in supposing that mere outward compliance with the Lord's commandments, any or all of them, removes the need for true and genuine spirituality and devotion which are always the hallmark of authentic Christian faith." The Christian Church commentator Don DeWelt verbalizes the astonishment of Jews among the apostle Paul's readers of Romans 2:28-29: "As shocking as it may sound, being a Jew is not a matter of outward form, nor circumcision a mere physical rite, for God recognizes a man as a Jew from the condition of his heart" (46). Albert Barnes further emphasizes the message intended by Paul in Romans 2:28-29: "It was to be an internal, spiritual work, and not merely an external service." Adam Clarke gives the sense of Romans 2:28-29 when he says Israel or a Jew under Christianity is "[a] true member of the congregation of God."
Robertson comments respecting Romans 9:6: "For not all those out of Israel (the literal Jewish nation), these are Israel (the spiritual Israel). This startling paradox is not a new idea with Paul. He had already shown (Gal 3:7-9) that those of faith are the true sons of Abraham. He has amplified that idea also in Rom 4. ...He now shows how this was the original purpose of God to include only those who believed." Lipscomb, likewise, distinguishes in Romans 9:6 between fleshly descendants of Israel and spiritual Israel: "All those who were of the family of Abraham after the flesh did not belong to his true family, and were not the children of the promises." Regarding the same verse, B.W. Johnson also discerns between physical Israel and spiritual Israel when he writes "...there is a wider, greater Israel than that of the flesh. ...There is an Israel according to the promise as well as according to the flesh." Matthew Henry observes: "Many that descended from the loins of Abraham and Jacob, and were of that people who were surnamed by the name of Israel, yet were very far from being Israelites indeed, interested in the saving benefits of the new covenant. They are not all really Israel that are so in name and profession. It does not follow that, because they are the seed of Abraham, therefore they must needs be the children of God..."
In the New Testament, Israel represents those who are saved, irrespective of their ancestry or ethnicity (Romans 11:26). Christians are "the Israel of God" today (Galatians 6:16). Barnes correctly notes that this phrase refers to "[t]he true church of God; all who are his true worshippers." Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary makes a beautiful summary of this verse and New Testament teaching about spiritual Israel by noting that the Israel of God is "not the Israel after the flesh (1 Cor 10:18)...but the spiritual seed of Abraham by faith (Rom 2:28-29; Gal 3:9,29; Phil 3:3)." Adam Clarke concurs by stating that the Israel of God refers to "[t]he true Christians, called here the Israel of God, to distinguish them from Israel according to the flesh."
The Israel of God today is the fulfillment of prophecy and identified as the church (Hebrews 8:10). The Israel of God is comprised of Jews and Gentiles, but neither all Jews nor all Gentiles. Coffman observes: "Although said to be made 'with the house of Israel,' this new covenant has a much wider application than the old, the new Israel being in no way limited to the physical descendants of Abraham (Gal. 3:29, etc.); and yet, significantly, Israel is not excluded."
Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry made the same distinction between fleshly Israel and spiritual Israel. John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus, distinguished between mere physical ancestry and spiritual Israel; "And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham" (Matthew 3:9). Though the first century Jews fancied themselves through ancestry to be the Israel of God, our Lord rejected that notion; "I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father. They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham" (John 8:38-39).
In conclusion, name changes and especially names chosen by God for his people have significant meanings. Formerly, Abram's name was changed by God to Abraham (Genesis 17:5). Likewise, God changed the name of Abram's wife, Sarai, to Sarah (Genesis 17:15). In the New Testament, Jesus Christ renamed Simon with the name Cephas (John 1:42). God renamed Jacob with the name Israel.
The physical descendants of the man called Israel wore the name Israel. However, not the physical descendants of the man named Israel, but the spiritual people of God today are Israel. In other words as Adam Clarke writes regarding Romans 9:6: "The Gentiles were included in the Abrahamic covenant as well as the Jews; and therefore the Jews have no exclusive right to the blessings of God's kingdom." Not national or racial Israel today, but Christians are God's new Israel.
There is still another name change in which people living today need to be intensely interested. God, who renamed Abram, Sarai and Jacob determined to give his people a new name in the last dispensation of time (Isaiah 62:2; 65:15; Acts 11:26). You can wear the new name Christian by repenting of sin and by being immersed in water for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 4:16). In addition, erring Christians can wipe clean the name Christian from the tarnish of sin by repenting and praying (Acts 8:22).
Barnes, Albert. Barnes' Notes. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Biblesoft's New Exhaustive Strong's Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, 1994.
Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke's Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.
Coffman, James Burton. The James Burton Coffman Bible Study Library. CD-ROM. Abilene: ACU P., 1989.
DeWelt, Don. Romans Realized. CD-ROM. Joplin: College P., 1959.
Fausset's Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1998.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. New Modern Edition. CD-ROM. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Johnson, B.W. People's New Testament. St. Louis: Christian Publishing, 1891. CD-ROM. Austin: Wordsearch, 2004.
Lipscomb, David. A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles Romans. J.W. Shepherd, ed. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1986. CD-ROM. Austin: Wordsearch, 2005.
McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2000.
Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Nashville: Nelson, 1986.
New Unger's Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody P, 1988.
Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman, 1985. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Smith, William. Smith's Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Austin: Wordsearch, 2003.