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.