How Israel Became the Church
The name “Israel” is almost 4,000 years old. It is the name God gave to Jacob, the Hebrew patriarch (18th century before Christ). Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, with whom God made an unconditional covenant (Gen 12, 15).
The covenant promise of God was to bless Abraham and his seed. Yahweh would multiply Abraham’s offspring immeasurably. When God made the promise to the 100-year-old man, the man believed God. This faith pleased God, and it was credited as righteousness for the man, before God (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3, 5, 9, 11, 22). It is impossible to please God without faith (Heb 11:6).
Yahweh renewed His covenant promise to Isaac and then again to Jacob. God loved Jacob, but He hated Jacob’s twin brother, Esau (Mal 1:3; Rom 9:13). This teaches us that not everyone in Abraham’s family experienced favor with God. Abraham’s son with Hagar, Ishmael, was not favored. Later, the Apostle Paul would write, “Not all Israel is Israel (Rom 9:6).” This means there is a difference between ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel (Gal 4:21–31).
The blessing of God falls on one Man in human history. His is the singular seed of Abraham (Acts 3:25; Gal 3:16), with whom God would be pleased (Mt 3:17; 17:5). That Man was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world (Jn 16:28; 1 Tim 1:15).
The genealogies of Jesus Christ are recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. They connect the Messiah with Abraham and all the way back to Adam, the first man. This is important, along with the identity of Jesus being the singular seed referenced (Gal 3:16). All of the promises of the covenant and God’s blessing are in Christ (2 Cor 1:20; Eph 1:3). The Apostle Paul wrote, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:29).”
So, we see the promise made to Abraham was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Before Jesus’ incarnation (Jn 1:14), some Jewish people trusted the Word of God, and they anticipated the coming Messiah. They were saved by grace through faith, as we are saved in the same way (Eph 2:8–9). After Jesus’ first advent, the scope of believers broadened. The concentration of believers were Hebrews, but it expanded to include all nations. Jesus referred to them as “other sheep” that must be brought into His fold (Jn 10:16). This is called, “the Gentile inclusion (see Acts 15).”
Just as ethnic Israel was set apart from the unbelieving Gentile nations, so Christ’s church, the Israel of God (Gal 6:16), would be a holy nation set apart from the world (1 Pet 2:9). Hence, we see there is nothing distinctively different from Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. Jesus Christ is building His church (Mt 16:18), just as He had nurtured the remnant, spiritual Israel within the ethnic nation of Israel (Rom 9:6; 11:5).
The Israelites and later the Christians would be believers in the revealed Word of God. Just as there were Jewish believers and unbelievers, there were would be Gentile believers and unbelievers. The catalyst, who always distinguished believers from unbelievers, was the Holy Spirit. This is true, today. If one does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ (Rom 8:9). Stated another way, he who does not have the Son of God, does not have eternal life (Jn 3:36; 1 Jn 5:12).
God chose ethnic Israel to reveal His eternal purposes to the world (Eph 3:11). The Law came through Moses (Jn 1:17). God was good to Israel, but Israel sinned against God, just as Adam had done so in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3). What was required was a faithful covenant partner. Ethnic Israel failed at faithfulness, but Jesus Christ succeeded, being faithful and true (Jn 1:17; Rev 3:14; 19:11).
Conceived in the womb of His mother, Mary, by the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20), Jesus was without sin (Heb 4:15). We see the true identity of Israel in Isaiah 49:3. Israel is the man prophesied to come, who would gather His people Israel (Is 49:6). It is analogous to a head (Christ) with its body (the church). Hence, we see again that Israel and the church are synonymous terms. They both refer to the people of God (Ps 23; 100:3), those of His own choosing (Rom 11:5; Eph 1:4–5; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Pet 2:9).
Christ laid down His life for His church (Jn 10:11, 15), and He did so in a demonstration of His love (Rom 5:8; Eph 5:25), for those His Father had given Him before the foundation of the world (Jn 6:37; 17:2, 6, 24), whose names were written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 13:8; 17:8). Christ came into the world at God’s appointed time and in the circumstances ordained by God (Gal 4:4). He came to save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21).
God chose a people for salvation (2 Thess 2:13). He did so under the terms of the eternal covenant (Heb 13:20), a covenant of grace, in which God would perform every requirement necessary to extend His mercy (Rom 9:15–16), while maintaining His righteousness. God is just, and He is the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:26). God has granted faith (Phil 1:29) to those He appointed to life (Acts 13:48).
Those living before Christ shared the same faith as those living after Christ. It is a common faith passed down to all the saints (Jude 3), in every generation. Obviously, we have much more knowledge of who Christ is and what He had done for our benefit than those before Christ. Believers and unbelievers, today, should pause to consider that fact. How much more responsible is this generation, to know Christ and Him crucified?
In summary, we have considered the history of Israel and how it morphed into the church after Christ. Still, nothing changed other than one ethnic nation expanded into a gathering of God’s people out of every nation, to be added to Christ’s church (Rev 5:9). Thus, there is neither Jew nor Gentile distinctions in Christ church (Gal 3:28). We are all one in Him.
In conclusion, seeing no real difference in how God gathered His elect from ethnic Israel and then from all nations, we confess Israel to be the church of the Old Testament, and we confess the church to be the Israel of God in the New Testament.
It is right to say, therefore, “Israel never became the church because it was the church.” We can also say, “The church never replaced Israel because it is the Israel of God (Gal 6:16), His beloved from every nation tribe, and tongue (Rev 5:9).
Spokane Valley, Washington
January 13, 2021