adapted from Appendix I of “The Controversy of Zion and the Time of Jacob’s Trouble” by Dalton Lifsey
Much of the debate and division within the Church over the issue of Israel is the result of differing definitions. Therefore we must appropriately define Israel.
Is Israel a people or a place? An ethnic group, or an institution? Is it a catch-all phrase or does it imply specificity? Are there distinctions to be made? The answers to these questions invariably set our proverbial course and determine our destination. I see three fundamental categories concerning the term itself. The relationships between them necessitate clarification, but once stated they can free us to develop them in detail individually. They are each equally valid in their distinctions, but ultimately inseparable in the greater biblical narrative, as we will see:
1) Israel refers to a Man: In the book of Genesis the patriarch Abraham had a son named Isaac who then had a son named Jacob. Jacob’s name was changed from Jacob to “Israel” by God. He had 12 sons who made up the 12 tribes of the Nation “Israel.”
2) Israel refers to a People: There are two terms here: (a) Israel “of the flesh” and (b) Israel “of the promise.” In other words, Israel refers to all ethnic Jews and Jews who through “the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5) and faith in Christ have been saved and are a part of “the Church,” who in other language are known as the Bride of Christ.
3) Israel refers to a Land: The Land of Israel refers to Jewish tenure in a specific geographic location in the Middle East in the past, present, and future. It encompasses: (a) the ancient homeland of the Jews prior to AD 70, (b) the modern State that was established in 1948, and (c) the future restored Nation that will be established at the end of the Age upon Jesus’ return.
It’s worth noting that though a distinction between the man, the people, and the Land does exist on one plane, they are still theologically inseparable. There is an “indivisible union between territory and people” clearly set forth in the Bible that we must affirm. Israel’s past, present, and future (to varying degrees) are all connected to the Land given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who then bequeathed it to his twelve sons. It is impossible to sever these paramount biblical realities from each other. To the Jew the issue of the Land is an issue of Covenant which is (rightly) considered an issue of God’s character. They are all inextricably connected to one another. The word “Israel” spoken to the Jew means both “the man, the people, and the Land.” They are all integral “subplots” of the same unified “narrative.”
The underlying message of this book revolves around Israel as people and Land. In this Appendix we’ll explore the biblical definition of Israel the people and subsequently Israel the Land.
DISTINGUISHING ISRAEL OF THE FLESH FROM ISRAEL OF THE PROMISE
Many argue that the Old Testament understanding of Israel is completely irrelevant to Christianity. Unfortunately for those that do, the predominant author of the New Testament and apostle from which we glean most of our doctrinal understanding of salvation would not agree. The apostle Paul takes up the question of the definition of Israel the people in the first eight verses of Romans 9. This text is foundational:
“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the Covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” (vv. 1-8)
There are three propositions Paul makes in these verses which bear tremendous relevance for our topic: First, Paul is travailing in sorrowful intercessory prayer for the salvation of unbelieving Jews according to the flesh; that is, according to their ethnicity (vv. 1-3). The implication he makes is that ethnic Jews, whether saved or not, are still relevant to the Church, precious to the Lord, and the object of apostolic concern. Second, all these ethnic Jews—saved or unsaved—are Israelites (v. 4). The implication here is that one broad definition of Israel is simply “individuals who are Jewish as well as the corporate solidarity of them all.” Third, not all who are Israelites ethnically “belong to Israel” salvifically. Paul then is clarifying that Jewish ethnicity alone is not sufficient grounds for salvation (“the promise”). Ethnicity is relevant and warrants attention, study and understanding, though it doesn’t constitute the basis of a Jewish person’s salvation, (quite a necessary distinction).
Romans 9:1-8 forces us to distinguish between what Paul termed the Israel “of the flesh” and the Israel “of the promise.” Using alternate language to stress the same distinction he writes that we’re to differentiate between “children of the flesh” and “children of the promise” (v. 8). In other words, there are Jews who are born of the flesh as sons of Abraham, and there are Jews who are born of the Spirit who are sons of God; or, sons of “the promise.”
So when someone would say “Israel” to Paul he would respond with something along the lines of, “Are you referring to the Christ-denying Jews alienated from God in unbelief and rebellion for whom I have great sorrow and anguish, or are you referring to the regenerate remnant from within that hardened and apostate people who love the name of Jesus like I do?”
This fundamental distinction must be discerned. Israel as a people has two categories of definition: “Israel of the flesh,” and “Israel of the promise.”
THE APOSTOLIC PERSPECTIVE ON ISRAEL OF THE FLESH
The Israel “of the flesh” was a great theological and historical dilemma in the first century. The Jewish Messiah was rejected by the Jewish nation. The implications of this are staggering. Art Katz writes:
“The fact that Israel could reject her own promised Messiah and Deliverer according to her own scriptures has got to be one of the greatest anomalies and contradictions of the history of mankind…Even more significant is the question of God’s apparent failure: How could God and His Word fail? (Romans 9:6)”
Explaining what he calls “the apostolic heart” concerning the Church’s relationship with unbelieving “Israel of the flesh,” Katz goes on to expound upon Paul’s spiritual and emotional burden over the anomaly of the Jewish rejection of Jesus and the apparent failure of the Word of God concerning Israel’s election and national destiny:
“The same apostolic man whose heart is grieved over Israel and its lost condition, and who wishes that he himself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his Jewish kinsmen [Romans 9:1-2], is as grieved over the question of God’s honor and the truth of His word. Paul’s jealousy for the glory of God, His name, His honor, and His faithfulness to His word makes him to grieve over the unsaved condition of his kinsmen; this is the apostolic heart. He is grieved that Israel’s failure to recognize their Messiah would appear to be a demerit against God; and that the people who were appointed and called sons, and who were given the privileges of adoption, the covenants, the promises, the glory, and the ministry of the Temple are bringing, by their unbelief, a reproach against God and a blasphemy against His name.
But if God’s word fails, then God is no longer God; for God is eminently the God of the word, the God of the word of the covenant, and the God of the word of promise. If He cannot keep the word that He Himself gave, then that is the end of God as God. This is the great enigma. How could God’s word have failed? Can God fail? Can God’s word fail? These are the great, theological problems that Paul had to answer for the Church in Rome and, by extension, all the churches in every generation. He is thrust, therefore, into an uncanny and precarious place, and has got to wrestle his way through.”
Any definition (or view) of “Israel” that is out of character with this “apostolic heart” of grief displayed in Romans 9:1-5 and that does not provoke in us the same emotional turmoil and intercessory fervor that we see exemplified in the life, theology, and ministry of the apostle Paul, let us be sure, is worth abandoning.
THE NEW TESTAMENT USE OF THE WORD “ISRAEL”
Despite Paul’s passion for “the hope of” the “salvation of all of Israel,” many Christians wish to write “Israel” out of the story of redemption by suggesting that in the New Testament the word has been “redefined.”
I agree however, with Barry Horner and those quoted below:
“In the New Testament, ‘Israel’ is used seventy-three times, eleven of which are found in Romans. ‘Israelite(s) is used four times. Regarding the Synoptics, Mayer declares that, ‘Israel stands for the people and the land (Matt. 20:1; 21:1).’ Concerning Paul’s overall usage, and after consideration of Romans 2:29; 9:6; 1 Cor. 1:18; Phil. 3:3, Burton concludes that, ‘there is, in fact, no instance of his using ‘Israel,’ except of the Jewish nation or a part thereof.’”
While the raw biblical data is clear, many still argue that the word “Israel” has been “redefined” (N. T. Wright’s language) with the coming of Jesus so that it does not in any way refer to the Jewish people of history or their Promised Land. For example, Robert Strimple says:
“The true Israel is Christ: He is the suffering Servant of the Lord, the one who is wonder of wonders—the Lord Himself!…Yes, Israel was called to be God’s servant, a light to enlighten the nations and to glorify God’s name. But since Israel was unfaithful to her calling and failed to fulfill the purposes of her divine election, the Lord brought forth His Elect One, his Servant, His true Israel.”
Interestingly John Stott, a proponent of this “redefinition” and “replacement,” affirms that this perspective cannot be substantiated in the Old Testament or in Jesus’ ministry as they cannot be found there. Commenting on the book of Ephesians (where, he says, the alleged “replacement” of Israel can be found) he writes:
“What neither the Old Testament nor Jesus revealed was the radical nature of God’s plan, which was that the theocracy [national-ethnic Israel] would be terminated, and [replaced] by a new international community, the church; that church would be ‘the body of Christ’…”
All of the various views of redefinition and replacement are based on illegitimate philosophical presuppositions that have been imposed upon the Scriptures and fail to harmonize with the straightforward manner in which the writers of the New Testament used the word “Israel.”
Most specifically, when placed beside a passage like Acts 13:23 where Paul declared that, “God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised,” it’s fairly difficult to argue without entering the realm of the truly heretical, that Israel here connotes Christ, the Gentiles, or God.
Furthermore, the Apostle Peter’s address at Pentecost is addressed to the “men of Israel” and “the house of Israel,” thereby utilizing both the definition of the Land itself and the Jewish people within it.
Those who promote the replacement and redefinition of Israel in the New Testament suggest that the redefinition of Israel in terms of the Jewish people also changes the way we view the everlasting promise of Land. For example, below is Anthony Hoekema’s explanation of the New Testament redefinition of the meaning of Genesis 17:8 concerning the promise to Abraham:
“From Genesis 17:8 we learned that God promised to give to Abraham and his seed all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, but in Romans 4:13 Paul speaks of the promise to Abraham and his descendants that they should inherit the world—note that the land of Canaan in Genesis has become the world in Romans….”
“Granted that Abraham ‘would inherit the world,’” writes Horner, “it is strange logic that concludes that this prospect would necessarily eliminate distinct national identity for Israel, especially since the original promise of Genesis 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:18 indicated that Israel, as a Nation and through its seed, would bring about blessing to the families of the earth, that is, to the Gentiles (Galatians 3:8). This promise never indicated that there would be a final blending, an absorption whereby Israel would lose its national identity, nor did subsequent confirmations of this promise.”
THE CHURCH’S IDENTIFICATION WITH ISRAEL
When we see the biblical definition of “Israel” in terms of God’s election of the Jewish people and their Land we can then rightly understand the nature of the Church. This is why the nature of the Church as declared in the New Testament was so often articulated concerning her identification with Israel.
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:11-13)
Paul taught that Gentile Christians have been brought into the “commonwealth of Israel” from whom we were once “alienated” because we were “strangers to the Covenants.” “True Christianity is not the “successor” (let alone replacement) of Israel’s faith; it is its continuation and completion (Eph. 2:11-19). We need to remember that the age concludes with Israel’s Messiah returning to them! The mourners in Zechariah 12:11 are the Jewish inhabitants of the land of Israel at the national conversion prophesied in both Old and New Testaments (Hos. 3:5, Rom. 11:25-27). What a challenge in the unity of this faith, to bring back the lost sheep of the house of Israel to conclude the age by a demonstration of the reality and glory that flows out of the root from which they have been broken off and to which Gentiles, who were “far off,” have been grafted in. Remember that believing Gentiles have been brought into Israel’s covenants and promises! Modern-day Jews have been the victim of an inadequate and truncated gospel, promulgated by a Church that is herself suffering an impoverished gospel, and which can be remedied, in part, by a critical identification with Israel and her destiny as being to a large degree her own!”
This is why Paul begins his explanation of the definition of the Gospel in the book of Romans by explaining it in its relationship to the Jew:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)
The apostle was declaring a divine order and an inspired pattern that was to be understood by the Gentile Church in Rome. Both the order and the pattern still stand, though many Replacement Theologians suggest this was a temporary pattern that was terminated soon after.
The order doesn’t exclude the Gentiles from salvation. However, it does put “the Jew” in a place of priority because of the special place within the heart of God for this people bound to Him through an irrevocable Covenant. If one takes issue with this special place that Israel holds in the heart of God, as his “holy race,” they must take their concerns up with God, as it was He that elected them. Consider the phrase “holy race” from the passage below in its context to Israel’s abominable sin and flagrant rebellion against God:
“The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations…For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives… so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of …the officials and chief men has been foremost.” (Ezra 9:1-2)
The implications of this phrase being couched within this episode of Israel’s sin are staggering. The unholy people of Israel are a holy race. Because of their virtue, obedience, and righteousness? No! Because of the election of God. They are to be considered a holy race because of the “scandalous specificity”  of the sovereign election of their father Abraham, and because of the sure word of prophecy guaranteeing that at the end of the Age, at the “appointed time,” “all Israel will be saved.” This is why Paul said of them:
“As regards the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29)
Passages like these are stripped of their plain meaning if “Israel of the flesh” has been redefined and replaced by the Church. If Israel as a distinct national entity is irrelevant to the New Testament, then why is Paul so burdened to tears in Romans 9, so fervent in prayer in Romans 10, and so hopeful in Romans 11 concerning Israel’s present apostate condition and future glory? And why would he refer to them as “beloved” “enemies” and beneficiaries of “irrevocable gifts and callings” if they’re redundant to God’s redemptive purposes?
Thus it is critical that we affirm the historical, unconditional, irrevocable election of the Jewish people and their Covenanted Land; an issue that is clearly set forth in the Old Testament and firmly upheld in the New. It is also essential to observe that the Jews are a “holy race” regardless of their present spiritual condition (as seen in Ezra 9:1-2).
Though we may find the reality of election offensive to our natural reasoning (especially in its unconditional nature), the Scriptures are clear in saying that this is the way in which God has determined to display His glory among the nations. He has ordained that through the specific election of “the nation Israel (the least of all peoples), Zion (a tiny hill), a stable (the birthplace of Messiah), and Calvary (a garbage dump)” the “greatest revelation of Himself” would be given. Over this issue there are no grounds for equivocation: a God who elects is central to the Christian faith.
In summation, “Israel” refers to (1) the Land of Israel and to ethnic Jews who have been (2) brought to saving faith in Jesus or who have (3) been hardened in unbelief. The New Testament allows for no other definition.
 Genesis 21:1-3; 32:28; 35:10; 49
 Horner, Future Israel, chap. 9.
 Art Katz, The Mystery of Israel and the Church, chapter 3, accessed March 2011, http://articles.ochristian.com/article13959.html/.
 As outlined so beautifully in a section of Scripture like Isaiah chapters 60 through 66.
 Acts 28:20
 Compare Romans 10:1 with Romans 11:11-12 and 11:25-28.
 Horner, Future Israel, chap. 9.
 R. B. Strimple, “Amillennialism,” Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell L. Bock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 87-88.
 John Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984), 118.
 See Acts 2:22 and 36.
 Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, rep. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 281-82.
 Horner, Future Israel, chap. 9.
 Art Katz, “Identifying with God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” Art Katz Ministries (website), accessed March 2011, http://artkatzministries.org/articles/identifying-with-god-as-the-god-of-abraham-isaac-and-jacob/.
 For example, William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1, chap. 1-8 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House,1980), 117.
 Art Katz, “K – 188 The Scandal of Specificity;” Art Katz Ministries (website), audio sermon, accessed April 2011, http://artkatzministries.org/audio-messages/the-scandal-of-specificity/.
 See Psalm 102.
 Romans 11:25-28