A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth


Israel in the Scriptures

This article originally appeared in Basileia: A Journal of Theology for Worshiping Churches, Issue 5 (Winter, 1987), published by Christian Life College, Mount Prospect, Illinois.

This study examines the different ways in which the term "Israel" is used in the Bible. Topics covered are these:

In the practice of the worshiping churches,1 the praises of Israel are used extensively, and in combination with distinctive New Testament worship practices, are deemed appropriate as an expression of the faith of the Christian believer and of the church as a whole. The worship of such churches is characterized by extensive use of the Psalms and other Old Testament Scriptures in contemporary musical setting. Worship practices include clapping (Psa. 41:1), lifting the hands in prayer (1 Kings 8:22; Psa. 141:2; 1 Tim. 2:8), or lifting the hands in blessing (Psa. 68:5-6; 134:20). Additional features may include standing for portions of the worship period (Psa. 134:1; 135:2; Neh. 9:5), bowing or kneeling (Psa. 95:6), or dancing (Psa. 149:3).2

But these externals point to a deeper reality. Consistent with the faith of Israel at its most spiritual level, true worship is understood not as ritual nor as the celebration of doctrinal rectitude, but as obedience expressed through audible praise and adoration in the presence of the Lord (Psa. 119:171-172). "To obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam. 15:22); what the Lord requires is not ceremony alone, but a humble walk in his presence (Mic. 6:6-8). This humility before the Lord includes the vocal offering of praise and worship. "0 Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Thy praise. . . . The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, 0 God, Thou wilt not despise" (Psa. 51:15, 17). As it is with the mouth that confession is made resulting in salvation (Rom. 10:10), so it is the mouth which expresses the contents of the heart (Matt. 12:34). These biblical principles are foundational for the life of the worshiping churches, in which believers seek to "continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to his name" (Heb. 13:15).

The Church in Continuity with Israel

The philosophy and practice of the worshiping churches are based upon a theology which refuses to grant a sharp dichotomy between the covenant people of the Old and New Testaments, but sees the covenant relationship, proclaimed by God's spokesmen in Israel and completed in Jesus Christ, as essentially the same relationship of love and trust between a God and his people (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 14:11; Rev. 21:3). In its most basic sense, worship is the celebration of the covenant.

Can such a theology be sustained against the contention that a literal interpretation of Scripture requires a clear distinction at all points between Israel and the church of Jesus Christ? Such a distinction is one of the hallmarks of contemporary dispensationalism, which numbers within its ranks some of today's ablest expositors of Scripture. We quote only one spokesman for this point of view:

Dispensational theology grows out of a consistent use of the hermeneutical principle of normal, plain, or literal interpretation. This principle does not exclude the use of figures of speech, but insists that behind every figure is a literal meaning. Applying this hermeneutical principle leads dispensationalism to distinguish God's program for Israel from his program for the church. Thus the church did not begin in the OT but on the day of Pentecost, and the church is not presently fulfilling promises to Israel in the OT that have not yet been fulfilled.3

The object of this brief study is to examine the Bible's own use of the term Israel, in order to show that a sharp differentiation between Israel and the church cannot be sustained at all points. We believe in particular that such a distinction will not stand theologically when the issue is the historic purpose of God in raising up a people who will be "to the praise of the glory of his grace" (Eph. 1:6). [ Return to index of topics ]

Israel as a Political Term

The name Israel does have a national or political meaning in the Bible, but this usage is restricted to a relatively brief period. Israel was the name for the kingdom of David and Solomon, and more especially the name for the northern kingdom established by the revolt of Jeroboam I after Solomon's death. At the time of the revolt, the cry went out, "To your tents, 0 Israel! Now look after your own house, David!" (1 Kings 12:16). Throughout the history of the divided monarchy, Israel and Judah were distinct political entities. In the great judgment speech of Amos, for example (Amos 1-2), condemnation of injustice in Israel is paralleled by pronouncement of judgment upon Judah (2:4) as well as Syria, Philistia, Phoenicia (Tyre), Edom, Ammon and Moab. In the Bible, the northern kingdom is sometimes called Joseph (Amos 5:15) or Ephraim (Hos. 10:11, 11:8, etc.) Likewise by foreigners it was sometimes known by names other than Israel; it was called Bit Hu-um-ri-a ("House of Omri" or "Land of Omri") by Assyrian rulers for a century of more after the death of that powerful king (1 Kings 16:23-24).4

After the 200-year history of the northern kingdom of Israel was brought to an end with the capture of Samaria by the Assyrians (ca. 721 BC), the name Israel was never used to describe a political entity until the establishment of the modern secular state of Israel in 1947. With the assimilation of the northern tribes into their surrounding cultures, and with other peoples forcibly relocated into the area by the Assyrian rulers, the southern kingdom came to carry the banner of "Israel" in the religious sense, and the covenant and prophetic traditions of the northern tribes were preserved for inclusion in the Scriptures through Judah and Jerusalem.

As a political unit, however, the Davidic kingdom continued to be known as Judah, the name of its major tribe. This name was also used for the Hasmonean kingdom during that 100-year era when the Jews enjoyed independence once again, prior to the absorption of the Jewish nation into the Roman Empire after Pompey's exploits of 63 BC. The term Judea, which designates the area around Jerusalem in New Testament times, is derived from the name Judah. So is the term Jew (Greek Ioudaios), applied either to Judeans in particular (as in the Gospel according to John) or to adherents to the Mosaic faith in general. [ Return to index of topics ]

Meaning of the Name Israel

These considerations suggest that the term Israel is not used in the Bible in primarily an ethnic or national sense. The name Israel (Hebrew yisra'el) seems to be constructed of elements that may be translated "let God contend" or "he persists with God."5 As a name it was first given to the patriarch Jacob in connection with his struggle with the mysterious nocturnal visitor at Penuel, an event recorded in Genesis 32:28. The name Israel is here assigned to Jacob because, as the man explained, "You have striven with God and with man and have prevailed." As the father of the twelve sons who gave their names to the Hebrew tribes, Jacob gave his name Israel (originally "sons of Israel," as in Gen. 42:5, 46:5) to the people who, under Moses, would enter into covenant with the Lord at Sinai.

Biblical etymologies sometimes defy modern logic, but in this case the name Israel appears singularly appropriate for the descendants of Jacob. God chose his people to contend in his behalf, to "declare his glory among all nations" (Psa. 96:3), "to proclaim Thy name through all the earth" (Exod. 9:16), and to be the channels of his blessing to all peoples of earth (Gen. 12:3). To Israel was given a special relationship in which the Lord God was truly known. "He declares his words to Jacob, his statutes and his ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation" (Psa. 147:19-20). On the other hand, this knowledge rendered Israel especially responsible for its obedience to the Lord. In God's name Amos declared, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2).

Throughout the history of ancient Israel it was frequently the case that the Lord had to contend with his own people because of their disloyalty to the covenant. Note, for example, the Lord's "controversy" or covenant lawsuit (Hebrew riv) against Israel as proclaimed by Hosea (4:1- 3):

"Listen to the word of the Lord, 0 sons of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness (loyalty) or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed."

These words are clearly an indictment of Israel based on its violation of the Decalogue. Isaiah similarly records the Lord's "lawsuit" against his .people based on their failure to "know" the Lord, that is, to remain in the covenant relationship (Isa. 1:2-3).6 Elsewhere in the prophetic literature we are reminded of the extreme condemnation in Ezekiel 23 and similar passages in which the Lord exposes the spiritual harlotry of his covenant partner. In fact, the writings of the prophets of Israel fundamentally cluster around such indictments. The basic form of prophetic utterance seems to be the judgment speech or indictment occasioned by Israel's violation of the covenant and its stipulations.7

Despite Israel's failure to obey the Lord and to remain faithful to the covenant, the fact remains that it was only through Israel — or through a prophetic minority within Israel — that the word of God was communicated and handed down until it came to take the form of the Scriptures as we have them. The New Testament in several places affirms the special role of Israel as the channel of God's truth and his plan for man's salvation. Speaking to the Samaritan woman, Jesus Christ asserted that "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). Encountering the Syrophoenician woman, he suggested that the "children's bread" (the demonstration of the power of the kingdom of God) is not to be indiscriminately distributed, but is to be dispensed first to the Jews (Mark. 7:27). The apostle Paul declared that the Jews have the advantage, in that "they were entrusted with the oracles of God" (Rom.3:2). Because of this special role of Israel as a people who have dealt — even contended — with God's revelation of himself, both judgment and honor will be dispensed "to the Jew first, and also to the Greek" (Rom. 2:9-11). [ Return to index of topics ]

Israel as a Theological Term

It is evident, then, that when we speak of Israel as the custodian of the truth of God, we are using the name with a theological, rather than ethnic or political, meaning. Israel was constituted a people through the event of the exodus from Egypt and the ensuing covenant with the Lord at Sinai. It was through the deliverance from Egyptian bondage that the Lord called his people into the covenant as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:4-6). The Scriptures inform us that people of other national groups came out of Egypt in the exodus, along with the descendants of Jacob (a "mixed multitude," Exod. 12:38), so that the assembly of those who made up the covenant people already had the potential of being an ethnic mixture. In fact, reading the Old Testament historical books, especially during the period of the establishment of the monarchy, we note the occasional mention of individuals who, while not ethnic Israelites, are evidently worshipers of Yahweh (Jehovah) God. An obvious example is Ruth the Moabitess. Ittai the Gittite, a Philistine, likewise refused to return to his own nation but swore "as the Lord lives" to remain David's servant (2 Sam. 15:20-21). Obed-edom the Gittite, also a Philistine originally from Gath, provided a temporary shelter for the ark of God at his residence between Kiriath-jearim and Jerusalem, and as a result enjoyed unusual prosperity (2 Sam. 6:10-11). His name means "servant of (the god) Edom," possibly a Phoenician divinity, indicating that he came from a family not originally worshipers of Yahweh. Araunah the Jebusite, a member of the Canaanite population of pre-Israelite Jerusalem, offered to give his threshing floor, oxen and equipment so that David could erect an altar for sacrifice according to the command of the Lord (2 Sam. 24:18-25). In an earlier period, we recall that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, was a Midianite priest who converted to the worship of the God of Israel (Exod. 18: 10-11). The Lord's openness to the inclusion of those not ethnically Israelites in the covenant community is exemplified in the command of Moses in Deuteronomy regarding the Feast of Tabernacles:

When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place which he will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, in order that they may hear and learn and fear [i.e., worship] the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law (Deut.31:11-12).

Conversely, not all blood descendants of Jacob were faithful to the covenant, nor indeed were all citizens of the short- lived political state known as Israel, which included within its scope various national and religious groups which had been subjugated by the Israelite rulers. In fact, most nominal "Israelites" were unfaithful to the covenant in the deepest sense, and even before the time of the Babylonian exile the prophets understood that only a remnant would cleave to the Lord (Isa. 10:21, 46:3; see also Jer. 23:3, 31:7, Ezek. 6:8, 14:22). It was this remnant of Israel, not the entire nation, which received the word of God and transmitted it to successive generations. As someone has aptly said, when it comes to the religious perspective of the Hebrew nation, the Bible is actually the "minority report." If the prophets are not to be accused of exaggeration, the majority of the nation were, throughout the period of the Hebrew kingdoms, worshipers of the ba'alim and other false divinities. Or, if not worshiping false gods, they practiced the false worship of the true God, substituting sacrificial ritual and traditional festivity for spiritual worship and obedience to covenant principles; such that the Lord declared, through Amos, "I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream" (Amos 5:21,23). It is clear that the Bible never equates the nation of Israel as a whole with the true people of the Lord .

The designation Israel, then, is chiefly a religious term. Although in the Bible the name can refer to Jacob and his descendants or to the northern kingdom established by Jeroboam, for the most part Israel refers to the covenant people, the worshipers of Yahweh. This worshiping Israel is the Israel addressed in the covenant pronouncements: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!" (Deut. 6:4). Usually, it is this Israel to whom the prophets speak in the name of the Lord, whether they be prophets associated with the northern kingdom (Amos, Hosea) or those functioning in Jerusalem and Judah (Isaiah, Jeremiah) or in the community of the exiles (Ezekiel). For the prophets of Israel were the spokesmen for the covenant, and this covenant of the Lord with the tribes of Israel was the focus of a religious community — a church, if you will — which transcended the boundaries of the Hebrew kingdoms and embraced all worshipers of Yahweh God regardless of national affiliation.8 Even the prophecies of the restoration of Israel to its land often envision a reality greater than the reestablishment of a national identity; in these prophecies a worshiping community is pictured coming "with joyful shouting to Zion" (Isa. 35:10), in the day when the Lord "will raise up the fallen tabernacle of David" (Amos 9:11). [ Return to index of topics ]

Israel in the New Testament

Against this background we can understand the meaning of the term Israel, or the question of true Jewishness, in the thought of the New Testament writers. For the apostle Paul, it is inward faith which defines Jewishness, rather than external features. In Christ Jesus, there is "neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal. 3:23), since all believers are a "new creation," called "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:15-16). In 1 Corinthians 10:18, Paul qualifies Israel as "Israel according to the flesh," and in Romans 9 he seems to argue for a spiritual Israel, the true people of God made righteous by faith. Since the real Israel is constituted by faith, "they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel" (Rom. 9:6). "That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but children of the promise are regarded as descendants" (Rom. 9:8). This thought is reinforced by Paul's concept of the chosen or elect, as expressed in Romans 10 and 11. Those who have sought to establish their own righteousness based on the law (10:3) are not God's elect but rather "a disobedient and obstinate people" (10:21). The elect are those who have sought "the righteousness based on faith" (10:6), and who by faith have responded to "the word of Christ" (10:17). The elect are thus a remnant within Israel together with those Gentiles who have called upon the Lord: "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord is the Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon him" (10:12). The chosen have always been only a portion of the Hebrew nation — in Elijah's day the "seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Ba'al" (11:4). The distinction between national Israel and the elect is clear in this passage:

In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. What then? That which Israel is seeking for, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened (11:5-7).

We see, then, that for Paul the concept of Israel as the elect people of God is essentially a spiritual or theological concept.

The view of the apostle Peter was similar, though expressed more in terms of worship than of spiritual identity. Addressing Christian believers,9 he used language reminiscent or the Lord's address to Israel in the Sinai covenant: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession" (1 Pet. 2:9). As Jesus had declared, the worship of God's new people is "worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24); "you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5).

The emphasis on a "worshiping Israel" is found also in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Here the author contrasts the provisional, materially-oriented rituals of Israel's past with the spiritual worship of the New Covenant: "For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched" (Heb. 12:18), that is, a literal Sinai. "But you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant . . ." (Heb. 12: 23-24). In this context a literal Zion is clearly not intended, any more than a literal "new Jerusalem." This is symbolic language expressive of the new reality of Christian worship.

The image of a worshiping church as the new Jerusalem is carried forth in the Revelation to John. The Revelation is the great worship book of the New Testament, laced throughout with expressions of praise and adoration emanating from the elders, the living creatures, the angels, a multitude of heavenly worshipers. At the climax of John's vision he sees the new Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, presented as the focus of God's covenant with men:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and he shall dwell among them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be among them" (Rev. 21:2,3).

The application of the covenant formula, "they shall be his people," indicates that the church, the bride of Christ, an assembly drawn "from every tribe and tongue and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9), has now appeared as the fulfillment of the scriptural conception of the covenant people of the Lord. That this is the clear intention of New Testament teaching is shown by Paul's earlier use of the new Jerusalem as an image of the church, in contrast to the earthly Jerusalem as an image of contemporary Judaism. The present Jerusalem, like Hagar the slave girl, is in slavery with her children. "But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. . . . And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of the promise" (Gal. 4:26,28). As we have seen, for Paul this means, not that Israel has been superseded by the church, but that the church, comprising the descendants of Abraham by faith, has become the true "Israel of God."

On the basis of a thorough examination of the use of Old Testament Scriptures by the authors and preachers of the New Testament, C. H. Dodd concluded that the early Christian church considered itself in spiritual continuity with the Israel of old:

From as early a stage as we can hope to reach (presupposed already by Paul) the primitive Christians were aware that they belonged to the new "Israel of God," which had emerged, as the prophets had always said it would, out of judgment and disaster. It was the true ecclesia, or people of God, by definition single and unique, one in all the earth. . . . If then the whole episode of the beginnings of Christianity is to be understood, as the first Christians understood it, in the light of prophecy, what happened was that the existing Jewish community ceased to represent the true Israel of God, as the embodiment of his purposes for mankind, and its place was taken by the Christian ecclesia.10 [ Return to index of topics ]

The True Israel

In our study we have seen that the theological reality of Israel in the Old Testament is something which goes deeper than outward features such as genealogical descent or national identity. The New Testament theologians recognize this in their claim that it is faith in God through Jesus Christ which constitutes the true Israel as the people of God. Any interpretation of Scripture which insists that the biblical portrayal of Israel has nothing to do with the church of Jesus Christ is taking Israel in a sense other than that contemplated in the majority of biblical texts. Neither the modern state of Israel nor the Judaism of New Testament times and subsequent eras can be equated with the religious community of Israel as portrayed in the Psalms, the prophetic writings, or the covenant documents of the Old Testament. The real successor to the religious thrust of Israel is the church of Jesus Christ, when it discovers its true perspective on praise and worship. "For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus . . ." (Phil. 3:3).


 1 As used in this article, the expression "worshiping churches" refers to those churches which utilize in public worship the full range of New Testament vocal gifts, as well as features of Davidic worship described in the Psalms and other Old Testament sources.

 2 In the recovery of the fulness of biblical worship, there is no question of a restoration of Old Testament sacrificial practices. Although it is seldom admitted, the sacrificial cultus was a provisional phenomenon in the worship life of Israel, and it did not go to the heart of the faith of the Old Testament. (Space does not permit an elaboration of this point.) The Old Testament sacrifices are a preview or a picture of the sacrifice of God's own Son in atonement for sin. With the revelation of Jesus Christ as "the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29), the picture was replaced in the experience of God's people by the reality.

 3 C. C. Ryrie, "Dispensation, Dispensationalism", in W. Elwell (ed)., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, (1984), p. 322. See also C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), pp. 44-45, 137-138.

 4 J. B. Pritchard (ed.), The Ancient Near East (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 194, quoting a building inscription of Tiglath-pileser III.

 5 See G. L. Archer, "Israel," in Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 863; F. Brown, S. R. Driver and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), p. 975.

 6 Such passages occur frequently in the prophetic literature and have been the subject of scholarly investigation. See for example, H. B. Huffmon, "The Covenant Lawsuit in the Prophets," Journal of Biblical Literature lxxviii (1959). pp. 285-295.

 7 This is brought out particularly by C. Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, trans. by H. C. White (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967).

 8 See especially M. Noth, "The Laws in the Pentateuch: Their Assumptions and Meaning," in The Laws in the Pentateuch and Other Studies, trans. by D. R. Ap-Thomas (Edinburgh and London: Oliver & Boyd, 1966), pp. 20- 36. Noth contends that the name Israel, first applied to the sacral confederacy of the twelve tribes, continued to be used in this sense during the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to describe the religious confederacy which overlapped the political entities. Therefore, this sacral covenant community "must have been a tangible entity alongside the state of Israel, with its own actual functions; if so, it could only have been the continuing institution which had borne the name 'Israel' in the pre-monarchic period" (p.33).

 9 For the argument that the Epistle is addressed not only to Jewish Christians but primarily to Gentile converts, see B. C. Caffin in The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), vol. 22, pp. vi-viii and ad loc.; W. C. van Unnik, "Peter, First Letter of," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982), pp. 761-762.

10 C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-structure of New Testament Theology (London: Fontana Books, 1965), pp. 112, 113.