What is the New Testament view of the Israel of God? What determines whether a man is a real son of Abraham?
To the Jew it was most important that he could prove he was a son of Abraham, for "to Abraham and his seed were the promises made." Gal. 3:16. The Pharisees were certain of being part of the Israel of God because they could trace their physical descent back to Abraham. John the Baptist declared that they were resting on a false confidence. ". . . think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father," he warned them, "for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." Matt. 3:9. Mere physical descent would give them no claim on God and no right to be included in the Israel of God.
Again, the Pharisees said to Jesus, "Abraham is our father." John 8:39. But Jesus denied their confident claim, saying, "It ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham." John 8:39. Jesus categorically denied that they were children of Abraham.
When Zaccheus showed by his works that he had the faith of Abraham, Jesus declared, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham." Luke 19:9, R.S.V. Jesus was not saying that Zaccheus was saved because he was a physical descendant of Abraham—for there were many Jews in Palestine who were not saved. Jesus was saying that Zaccheus' faith constituted him a real son of Abraham. The Lord could have said to him, as he said to the repentant woman, "Thy faith hath saved thee . . ." Luke 7:50.
Again, Jesus greeted Nathanael with the salutation, "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" John 1:47. The word "indeed" signifies a true, or real, Israelite. Jesus therefore declared that a real Israelite is a man "in whom is no guile." According to Psalm 32, the guileless man is not a sinless man but the man who honestly continues to confess his sinfulness and who finds forgiveness at the hand of a merciful God. St. Paul cites Psalm 32 and shows that this guileless man (the Israelite "indeed") is the man who is justified by faith (see Rom. 4:1-8).
The clear teaching of Jesus about the real Israel of God is found also in the Epistles of His great apostle. Could words be clearer than the following?
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. Rom. 2:28, 29.
Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed by called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. Rom. 9:7, 8.
. . . even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. Gal. 3:6,7.
And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. Gal. 3:29.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. Gal. 6:15,16.
Christ the Seed of Abraham
God made promises to the seed of Abraham. The Jews are still waiting for God to carry out His promises to them, and more amazing, many Christians are now waiting for God to carry out His promises to the Jewish nation as the seed of Abraham. This is what happens when people read the Old Testament without the light and interpretation of the New Testament.
Now let us get two simple facts straight once and for all:
1. God made promises to Abraham's seed (Gal. 3:19).
2. Christ is the Seed of Abraham. ("Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of One, And to thy Seed, which is Christ.") This is why Christ is called the Mediator of the covenant. It is only by Him, in Him and through Him that God carries out any of His promises to Abraham.
The Seed of Abraham is Jesus Christ. It includes all who are in Christ and excludes all outside of Christ. So the apostle affirms, ". . . if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Gal. 3:29.
When the apostle declares, "And so all Israel shall be saved . . . " (Rom. 11:26), he is certainly not teaching us that every member of the Jewish race will be saved. But the seed of Israel shall be saved — that is to say, all those who are in Jesus Christ — and not one shall be lost.
Neither Jesus nor Paul are speaking in mere allegories when they tell us who are the children of Abraham. They are telling us who are real children of Abraham. Abraham was justified by faith and therefore became the father of Israel. All who are justified by faith are real children of Abraham (Gal. 3:8). The Seed of Israel is Jesus Christ. He is also the "King of the Jews." If a man is related to Jesus Christ, who can deny that he is a real Jew according to the Scriptures? For those who believe in Jesus Christ are born again (1 John 5:1), and they actually partake of the nature of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:4).
The Judaizers at Galatia were contending that the Gentiles had to become children of Abraham by means of certain changes in their flesh. The apostle Paul did not dispute the necessity of Gentiles becoming part of the Israel of God. Indeed, "all Israel shall be saved," and only Israel — for as Jesus said, "salvation is of the Jews." John 4:22. The apostle refuted the wrong method of trying to incorporate the Gentiles into the Israel of God. His message was clear: Abraham was justified by faith, and every Gentile who is justified by faith becomes a son of Abraham (Gal. 3:8). The promises were made to the seed of Abraham, and Christ is that Seed. Therefore, all who are truly baptized into Christ are in Christ and are part of Abraham's seed (Gal. 3:28, 29). Those who have become new creatures by faith in Jesus and walk according to the rule of faith are "the Israel of God." Gal. 6:15,16.
Gentiles who believe the gospel become "fellow heirs" with the faithful Jews. They do not make up a separate body, but they become "fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel ..." Eph. 3:6. The Gentiles, "being a wild olive tree, were graffed in among them [the Jews], and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree . . . " Rom. 11:17. Once "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise," the Gentiles are "made nigh by the blood of Christ." Eph. 2:12, 13. Being now children of Abraham, part of the commonwealth of Israel and partakers of God's promises to Israel, believing Gentiles make up "the house of Israel" to whom the new covenant promise is given:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people . . . Heb. 8:10.
The Israel of God are all those who are in Jesus Christ, the Seed of Abraham, the King of the Jews, the One to whom the promises were made. And in Jesus Christ all national distinctions are broken down. ". . . there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek . . ." Rom. 10:12."... ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Gal. 3:28. "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism . . ." Eph 4:4,5. Therefore, in the things of the gospel any national distinctions deny the reality of the atonement of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:14-17) and are a Judaizing perversion of the New Testament message.
There are some who take pride in their literal interpretation of the things of prophecy, especially Old Testament prophecy. No sound Bible scholar will deny that the Bible should be read in its historical-grammatical sense or that "literal wherever possible" is a good rule. But many prophecies of the Old Testament cannot be taken with strict literalness. The stone of stumbling to both houses of Israel was not a literal stone but Jesus Christ. Malachi's Elijah was not literally Elijah but John the Baptist. Many more examples could be given, but our point is this: How would we know the true interpretation without the New Testament? Does not the gospel determine our use of the Old Testament?
The New Israel
Just as the Bible presents an old covenant and a new covenant, so it presents an old Israel and a new Israel. The old Israel was constituted under the twelve tribes named after the twelve sons of Jacob. When Jesus chose twelve apostles, He was taking steps to constitute the Christian church. Yet why did he deliberately choose twelve apostles? And why did the apostle James1 address the church as "the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad"? James 1:1. It was because the New Testament church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles, constituted the new Israel of God.
When Christ died on the cross, national distinctions were ended. The old national religious economy was as extinct as the old covenant. Henceforth the Christian church, founded on the teachings of the twelve apostles, would be the new Israel, the inheritor of all the promises and responsibilities of Israel of the Old Testament.
The following chart illustrates how the New Testament church has become the new Israel:
Holy nation — Ex. 19:5,6
Holy nation — 1 Peter 2:9; Matt.21:43
Kingdom of priests — Ex. 19:5,6
Kingdom of priests — 1 Peter 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6;Rev.4:4;5:10
A peculiar treasure — Ex. 19:5,6
A peculiar treasure — 1 Peter 2:9
God's people — Hosea 1:9,10; Rom. 9:6-8
God's people — 1 Peter 2:9
A holy people — Deut. 7:6
A holy people — 1 Peter 1:15,16
A people of inheritance — Deut. 4:20
A people of inheritance — Eph. 1:18
God's tabernacle among Israel — Lev. 26:11
God's tabernacle among Israel — John 1:14
God walked among them — Lev. 26:12
God walks among His people — 2 Cor. 6:16-18
Twelve sons of Jacob
Twelve tribes scattered abroad — James 1:1
Christ married to His people — Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:14; Hosea 2:19; Jer. 6:2; 31:32
Christ married to the church — James 4:4; Eph. 5:23-33; 2 Cor. 11:2
Abraham was justified by faith (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). Just as Abraham had two sons — Ishmael and Isaac — so there were always two classes of Jews. Not all were true sons of Abraham. The prophets frequently referred to the faithful remnant, who were the real children of Abraham.
Finally, at the time of the apostles there was a saved "remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom. 9:27; 11:5). This remnant were those who welcomed their Messiah and were justified by faith in Jesus. God's word had not failed (Rom. 9:6). These alone were the lineage of Isaac, and the rest were counted as Ishmaelites — illegitimate children. All Israel — that is, all who were justified by faith — would be saved according to God's promise, which could never fail (Rom. 11:26). And all from among the Gentiles who would believe on Christ and be justified by faith would become children of Abraham. There is one way of salvation, one body, one faith, one baptism. Christ is the Seed of Abraham. The promises of God are by Him, to Him, through Him and in Him. He is the Elect One (Isa. 42:1), and the chosen people are those who are chosen in Him (Eph. 1:4).
For all the promises of God in Him are "yea", and in him "Amen", unto the glory of God by us. 2 Cor. 1:20.
1 From ancient times the Epistle of James was classified as one of the "catholic epistles" — meaning that it was written to the church in general and not to a particular segment of believers.