The word Israel appears 70 times in the New Testament and 68 of 70 times it is clearly speaking of the Jewish people or the land of Israel. Only 2 times could it possibly be understood to mean anything else (That is if you want it to mean something else). The two places in question are Romans 9:6 and Galatians 6:16. They are often quoted to spiritualize the meaning of the word "Israel" and in varying degrees hand over the future blessedness of Israel to the Church (with a few Jews mixed in of course). I believe this is precisely backwards to the New Testament. I contend that Israel means ethnic and geographic Israel in both Old and New Testaments.
This is what the passages say:
"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." - Romans 9:6-8
The question presented in Romans 9:6 is that if those who descended from Israel ethnically--that is, according to the flesh--are not all Israelites then what makes an Israelite an Israelite or what makes a Jew a Jew? Some think that this opens the door is for spiritualizing the term Israel to mean the believing Church and thus removing the glorious promises from Israel and giving them to the Church.
"For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God." - Galatians 6:15-16
The question presented by Galatians 6:16 is to ask if there is a special Israel of God that is distinct from the nation as a whole. There are certainly two Israel's in the new testament, but they are both Jewish. One is simply the believing remnant and the second is the national and corporate whole. The way these passages are often interpreted is to spiritualize Israel as meaning the Church. I disagree with that interpretation and put forward this theses: all believing Jews are a part of the church, but not all of the church is Israel. This is a technical distinction and I want to un-pack it for the sake of understanding what God is going to do with the corporate and national unbelieving whole of Israel.
We will deal with Romans 9:6 first. Here is the whole passage of Romans 9:1-13 so we get a sense of context:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 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. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 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. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Perhaps the first thing I notice about verse 6 is that it is answering verses 4-5. Since Israel possesses these things contained in verses 4-5 by the national election of God then how can they be rejecting their Messiah at this present time? Verse 6 is clearly answering the objection raised by bringing into the question the thought that God's word guarantees the salvation of each individual Jewish person by virtue of their Jewishness or their possession of Abraham as a relative. By differentiating between what the promises actually state and what is common thought among 1st century Jews is huge here. It was clear in Jesus' day that many Jews believed that they were safe from the wrath of God because of their ethnicity (Matt 3:9; John 8:39-47), but God didn't promise that Jews would be saved because they are Jewish, He promised they would be saved if they trusted in him and since he was preeminently revealed to them they have been give the greatest blessing and opportunity to believe (the advantage of the Jew in Rom 3:1-3).
It is clear in scripture that to this day not one Jew has been saved for being Jewish. Each and every Jew who has been saved has been saved because they trusted in the living God who was revealed to them. Israel remains an ethnic and geographical term, there are those ethnically Jewish people like Paul who trust in the Messiah and it is they who are "the Israel within Israel". The believing Jews are the Israel that is connected to the blessings of verses 4-5 and these are believing due to the principal of individual election expressed in verse 11 and expressed in the whole of Romans 9:1-23.
Paul is bringing his readers back to center to clarify what the promises actually say. He says Israel possesses these things nationally and ethnically, but they are not saved apart from faith in Christ and there is no promise in the whole of scriptures that would lead us to believe otherwise. I may digress for a second to give a little background on what they believed about national restoration. They have the massive promises of Isaiah 35, Jeremiah 30-33, Ezekiel 36-39, Amos 9, Zechariah 12-14, etc, but these are eschatologically oriented promises, they are centered around the final years of history and the 2nd advent of Christ.
The Jewish messianic hope was not entirely false since these prophecies include them and are certain to occur in the future, but they were missing a large part of the picture. They were missing the priestly ministry of Christ to atone for sins (Isaiah 53, Daniel 9:24) and they were missing the global purposes of God to redeem people from every tribe, nation, tongue, and people (Genesis 17:4; Isaiah 49:6, 52:13-15, 60:3). That been the mission of the church (Jew and Gentile) for the last 2,000 years. The priestly ministry of Christ and the mission of God for the nations has preceded the eschatological expectation of the Jewish people, they had not seen what the scriptures clearly portrayed of Messiah as the merciful high priest at the first coming of Christ and so they disbelieved him. The prophets do promise that the national corporate whole will be saved, but not by virtue of their Jewishness (4,000 years of history demonstrates this as well as their future trial [Jer 30:7; Ezekiel 38-39; Isaiah 5; Daniel 12:1; Matthew 24:21]), but by their trust in Christ. The eschatological blessings prophesied to Israel only comes to "the survivors"(Isaiah 4:2; 10:20; 66:19) and those who survive are those who are "written in the book" (Daniel 12:1; Revelation 13:8) and God by His sovereign power will convert them at his appearing (Isaiah 35:2, 59:20-21; Isaiah 63:1; Jeremiah 30:21, 31:6; Ezekiel 37:27, 39:29; Zechariah 12:10, 14:3-3; Romans 11:26-27).
Back to the main point of Romans 9:6. Paul follows verse 6 with verses 7-9 saying "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 children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said, 'About this time next year I will return, and Sarah will have a son.'" It was necessary for Isaac to be the 'offspring' because Isaac is the one that God promised to Abraham (Gen 17:15-21). Ishmael was Abraham's son, but Isaac was a child of promise even more a child of Abraham's faith (Romans 4:16-25).
Paul clarifies this even further in case we were to argue that Ishmael and Isaac had different mothers and were treated differently because of it. Paul goes on and uses Isaacs children as an even clearer example of the point of verse 6 in verses 10-13 saying, "And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, 'The older will serve the younger.' As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'” There is a different principle of election at play here than simply a national corporate election.
Both Jacob and Esau are Isaac's children, both from Rebekah, both Jewish, but one was loved and one was hated.
Think about this, one was love and the other one hated, but both are Abrahams physical descendants. These are the examples that Paul uses to open up what verse 6 means. This is not referring to the gentiles becoming Jews, nor is it a reference to the Church as being spiritual Israel. Paul is simply stating that no one gets into the fold go God by virtue of their Jewishness, on the contrary those who are in the fold are there by God's purpose of election. Romans 9:6 mentions 2 different Israels, but neither of them are gentile believers or the corporate whole of the church. Both are ethnically Jewish, but the latter is Jewish ethnically and believing in Jesus the Messiah. Thus the meaning of Israel is consistent throughout the rest of Romans 9-11 and the New Testament.
Israel does not spiritually refer to the Church, but to the actual people ethnically. The "Israel within Israel" is simply the ethnically Jewish people who believe in Jesus the Messiah. The distinction between the former and latter Israel is spiritual, but it is still within the boundaries of an ethnic group. It is two spiritual realities being expressed within the same people group. I've taken the long way of saying Israel is an ethnic and geographical term in the New Testament. So by saying "Not all who have descended from Israel are Israel" or that there is an "Israel within Israel" is not to redefine Israel, but to constrain what it actually means to be the Israel that is connected to the national and corporate promises of God.
I believe the next passage I'm going to look at actually helps to interpret Romans 9:6. Galatians 6:16 in it's context of 6:11-16:
"11 See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God."
Paul is writing to the believers in Galatia and is encouraging them to trust in the cross of Christ and not in the physical rituals such as circumcision which only change the outward appearance, but not the heart. He says, "far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." Paul doesn't boast in his Jewishness, nay Paul is sobered by the reality of Romans 9 that in the midst of his disbelieving kinsmen he is yet found in the mercy of God. Paul refuses to boast in circumcision or Jewishness though he could. He instead boasted in the grace of Christ in the cross. He goes on to say, "neither circumcision counts for anything, not uncircumcision, but a new creation." Again while not renouncing his Jewishness, he is far from boasting in it. Instead he says the evidence is in a new creation.
And now we get to verse 16 which says, "And for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God." There are two distinct groups being mentioned here, first those who live by the aforementioned rule of boasting in the cross and this other group "the Israel of God." This is not to say that the Israel of God doesn't walk by this rule, but it is to say that there is a distinction made between those Jews who are seeking to make a show of gentile flesh by having them circumcised and the "Israel of God" who lives as Paul does by boasting only in the cross of Christ. Paul here is fighting an anti-Jewish view that could arise from his anti-Judaizer teachings. He makes a clear distinction between Jews who want outward expressions of faith only and not the "Israel of God" who are Jewish believers in the cross who prefer the interior health of the heart over circumcision or any level of "justification" through the law. John Calvin may be an odd man to quote on this point, but in his commentary on Galatians he says, "Circumcision was a disguise before men, but regeneration is a truth before God." I've not heard it said better.
"Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16 is a genitive expressing a couple important things. That Israel is God's possession or that God is the source of this Israel. Jesus' statement to the Jews in John 8:47 is relevant here, he said, "Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” Likewise in John 10:26 Jesus says to the Jews again "you do not believe because you are not among my sheep." These are ethnically Jewish people that he is speaking to, but they are not from God nor are they his sheep. There is the ethnic whole, but then there is the Israel of God, those Jewish souls who believe in Messiah and are completed as Jews possessing his righteousness and life by faith. This is how Galatians 6:16 brings great clarity to Romans 9:6, I would word the two verses together this way "Not all who are descended from Israel are the Israel of God." So again, the term Israel is referring to those who have an ethnic and geographic connection to the Jewish people. Within in those who have an ethnic connection to the Jewish people are those who are of God, those who are "born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." (John 1:13).
In closing I should express that I believe that those who trust in Christ are grafted into the commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:12), and that we are Abraham's offspring according to the promise (Galatians 3:29), and that in the Church there are Jews and gentiles who both have equal standing before God in the grace of Christ. I believe we share in their redemption, promises, and that the latter Israel of Romans 9:6 and the Israel of God in Galatians 6:16 are both a part of the Church, but I believe the technical distinction should be made that the Church is not spiritual Israel. There are many verses that bring gentiles into the blessedness of the New Covenant, but these two verses are not them. This is important to know, from this we realize that there are living prophetic promises to the national and corporate whole of Israel particularly Isaiah 35, Jeremiah 30-33, Ezekiel 36-39, Zechariah 12-14, and Romans 9-11. These indicate strongly that God will cause the remainder of the unbelieving national whole to go through unprecedented trial and most importantly to believe in their Messiah at his appearing. We should read these with the ethnic and geographic parameters of the word Israel in mind so that we do not miss what God is doing in the world and through history.
I'll conclude with the Apostle's desires in Romans 11:25-27,
...I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
That very same Israel that has been hardened in verse 25 is the very same Israel and Jacob that will finally be redeemed at the Lord's appearing in verses 26-27. We have great reason to hope for Jewish salvation and much cause for prayer over the Jewish people. While international anti-semitism is at an all time high I like to boldly say that they still matter, they are still promised a future, and our relationship to the Lord of the covenant must be of such quality that they would be made jealous of Christ in us and seek after him today.
The Church does not replace Israel, rather the gentile church participates in the covenantal blessings along with believing Israel and together they are to provoke the unbelieving national whole to jealously.
The usage of the word Israel in the New Testament:
Matthew 2:6, 20, 21, 8:10, 9:33, 10:6, 23, 15:24, 31, 19:28, 27:9, 42;
Mark 12:29, 15:32;
Luke 1:16, 54, 68, 80, 2:25, 32, 34, 4:25, 27, 7:9, 22:30, 24:21;
John 1:31, 49, 3:10, 12:13;
Acts 1:6, 2:22, 36, 3:12, 4:10, 27, 5:21, 31, 35, 7:23, 42, 9:15, 10:36, 13:16, 17, 23, 24, 21:28, 28:20;
Romans 9:6, 27, 31, 10:19, 21, 11:2, 7, 11, 25, 26; I would also include the term Jacob to be very helpful in 11:27
1 Corinthians 10:18;
Hebrews 8:8, 10;
Revelation 2:14, 7:4, 21:12