Who is Israel?
Chapter One – The Problem
Historically, the Christian Church has always understood that in Old Testament times the Israelites or the Jews constituted Israel, but that from the time of the crucifixion of Christ, the Christian Church constituted Israel. For hundreds of years the Christian Church taught that the Old Testament was the time of physical Israel and the New Testament was the time of Spiritual Israel.
It was never taught in the Christian Church that the Jews were still the chosen people of God, until relatively recent times. Therefore the question naturally arises: is the new understanding correct? Has the Christian Church being teaching error all this time?
The purpose of this study (in seven parts) is to determine the following: are the Jews God’s chosen people today, or, is the Christian Church God’s chosen people today? Is Israel a physical entity in the world today, or, is it a spiritual entity? Do the prophecies refer to a physical restoration of Israel in Palestine? Or do the prophecies refer to a spiritual restoration of Israel followed by a physical restoration in the New Earth?
Understanding these issues and related issues is vital for not only correctly understanding the Bible, but also for understanding how the question who is Israel, impacts current affairs, the domestic politics in many nations and the relations between all the nations of the earth.
There is a short answer and a long answer to these questions. And because these questions are somewhat controversial but also vital questions, we need to exercise all the care we can. Therefore the long answer is the appropriate method to deal with this question who is Israel or who are God’s people today?
God’s Mission Statement
The long answer requires that we journey back in time to the assembling of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. Here we need to ask another, and the question is this: what was God’s purpose for Israel? Or what was God trying to achieve by entering into a covenant relationship with Israel?
If one went into the main office of a company or a corporation, one would almost certainly see a mission statement on the wall. The purpose of the mission statement is to state what the role and purpose of the business is all about, what they are trying to achieve and/or how they are trying to achieve it etc. etc.
God has given us just such a mission statement about the role and purpose of Israel, and how he was going to achieve the goals set forth for Israel. God announces His mission statement just before He enters into the covenant relationship with Israel at Mt Sinai:
Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. Ex. 19: 5, 6.
If we carefully dissect this mission statement we can clearly see what the purpose of Israel was, and how it was to be achieved. Firstly, they were to be a kingdom of priests. Now, what is the purpose of a priest? Answer: the purpose of a priest is to teach others about God. So, the purpose of Israel, as a kingdom of priests was to teach the rest of the world about God.
Secondly, they were to be a holy nation. They were to be holy because God is holy: “…be holy because I am holy” (Lev.11:44). They were to be God’s representatives in the world therefore they had to reflect God accurately. The holy character of Israel would greatly facilitate their role as priests. The people of the world would have observed that there was something different about them, and they would have been attracted to them, and they would have wanted to be like them.
Thirdly, all of this was to be achieved because they kept the law – the holy nature of Israel was to be achieved by keeping the law. If we accept that the biblical definition of sin is the transgression of the law, then the keeping of the law must be the opposite of sin – holiness. Therefore, by the keeping of the law Israel would achieve what God desired of them – holiness.
So the question that naturally follows is this: Did Israel achieve what God desired of them? Did Israel fulfil their God given destiny? Or perhaps we could ask this question: Did Israel fulfil any of the plans that God had for his people? Or did Israel partially fulfil what God wanted? Or did they fail completely?
Hard Hearts and Stiff Necks
If we look at what happened at Mount Sinai, we see immediately that Israel did not get off to a good start. After the terms and conditions of the covenant were read to them they confidently exclaimed that they would keep them. They never considered that this would be a problem for them – they were confident in their own ability.
Just a few days later, after proclaiming their loyalty and allegiance to God, they were having a pagan style party, dancing around the golden calf and worshipping an idol. What was the problem here? Why did Israel fall so quickly and why did they fall so far? The answer is because they did not have proper insight into their spiritual condition or the nature of sin. Scripture tells us that:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jer. 17:9.
The evidence before Israel, of God’s care and compassion was enormous. Freed from soul destroying slavery – miraculously feed with manna when hungry – miraculously provided with water when thirsty – plus many more miracles and evidences of God’s love. All of this was acknowledged for a fleeting moment and then it vanished, because the human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. This is why we find God lamenting the condition of Israel in these terms:
O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever! Deut. 5:29.
The Bible tells the same story in many different ways, therefore this problem with the heart is also expressed in another way, this time using another part of human anatomy – the neck. The Lord instructed Moses to say unto the people:
…thou art a stiffnecked people… the Lord said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people… Ex. 33:3, 5.
People with stiff necks are not able to turn to the left or the right – they can only go in one direction. But if Israel is going to fulfil its divine destiny then Israel will have to change. The neck will have to be turned – and the heart will have to be softened. The problem is, the sinful human heart is most reluctant to change. In addition the degree of change required is enormous – from a nation of slaves (which is a symbol of sinfulness) to a nation of holiness. But God kept reminding the Israelites that change was what He wanted:
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. Deut. 10:16.
We can learn a lot from these words and the Israelites were supposed to learn a lot too. Here we see the concept of circumcision introduced in a symbolic or spiritual manner. The Israelites are being informed here, that something about their hearts needs to be cut. In other words, there is need of radicle heart surgery. There is need of change, of revival and reformation. And if this change takes place the stiff necked problem will also be solved. The people will be able to ‘turn’ – change direction, start afresh, and begin a new life, what the New Testament calls being ‘born again.’
But the hearts of the people were hard. The palmist tells us that, the reason why the generation of Israelites, that experienced the exodus from Egypt, never entered the Promised Land was because their hearts were hard:
Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest. Ps. 95:8-11.
The Israelite generation that left Egypt, could not enter the Promised Land because their hearts were hard. And because their hearts were hard, they did not have the faith required to enter the land. They were shut out because of their spiritual condition. The Israelite nation could not go in until all those with hard hearts perished in the wilderness.
However, just because the new generation successfully entered into the Promised Land that does not mean that the problem was solved. The history of the Israelites was one of apostasy followed by revival and reformation, and then apostasy again. There were times when the hard hearts softened and the stiff necks turned, but then the hearts would harden and the necks would stiffen again. Unfortunately there was more apostasy than revival and reformation.
The Remnant Understood
Nevertheless, there was always a small minority that understood what God wanted. During the great apostasy in Elijah’s time, Elijah thought he was the only one left. But God assured him that he had 7000 faithful who had not bowed the knee to Baal.
King David was another who understood. After realising his great sin in acquiring Bathsheba as his wife he wrote:
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Ps. 51:6-10.
And in the same Psalm David revealed that he understood what the true purpose of the animal sacrifices were:
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Ps. 51:16, 17.
David knew that the purpose of the rituals and ceremonies of the religion of the Israelites was to break open the hard heart and change the direction of people’s lives. The purpose of their religion was to produce the long desired holy nation.
Others also knew. The Book of Isaiah begins with the prophet lamenting the spiritual condition of the people. Isaiah points out that, the people were uselessly performing the rituals and ceremonies of their religion. The reason why their religious observance was useless was because, the purpose of the religious observance was not being realised. After pointing out the problem Isaiah then informs the people what their religion was supposed to achieve – what God really required of His people:
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land. Isa. 1:16-19.
God is not unreasonable. He specifically says I am able to be reasoned with. This is an open invitation from God to commune with Him. God is saying, if you are willing I will teach you how to open your heart, and when it is open I will cleanse it for you. This invitation with all its ramifications was open to all the Israelites in Old Testament times.
The prophet Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah. Micah backed up Isaiah, when he said:
Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? Micah 6:6-8.
Micah reiterates that the sacrifices are not what God really wanted. What God really wanted was “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” In other words, God wanted a change of heart. But Micah says something extremely interesting in relation to what God really wanted. He said, God has showed you, God has revealed to you, what is good and what God really required of his people. In other words, the people should have understood – which means that they were without excuse for not understanding.
In the New Testament the change of heart that God wants is called being ‘born again’ or the new birth. When Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus that, man had to be born again, and Nicodemus’ reaction was to exclaim, “How can these things be?” Jesus said to him, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things” (Jn.3:9, 10). Jesus was reprimanding Nicodemus for being a leader of the people, but being ignorant of what God really wanted for his people. In other words, Jesus was saying to Nicodemus that he ought to know these things. And if Jesus said he ought to know, this must mean that it was possible to know.
However, in Old Testament times very few took up God’s invitation to reason together, therefore very few were taught ‘what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee.’
By the time of Jeremiah the people’s hearts were so hardened that God saw that the only solution was to put them back where he originally found them. God allowed them to go back into captivity because there was no other remedy:
Moreover all the chief of the priests, and the people, transgressed very much after all the abominations of the heathen; and polluted the house of the Lord which he had hallowed in Jerusalem. And the Lord God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy. Therefore he brought upon them the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man, or him that stooped for age: he gave them all into his hand. 2 Chron. 36:14-17.
The reason the people had to go back into captivity was because the hard hearted/stiff necked problem was not solved. Jeremiah was the prophet sent to the people to explain why God was destroying what He had built, what the problem was, and what God required of his people:
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings. Jer. 4:4.
And Jeremiah added:
…all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart. Jer. 9:26.
The Israelites did not listen to Jeremiah, and God’s fury came forth like a fire and destroyed the nation. When the Israelites came back from their 70 year captivity in Babylon, they were now known as the Jews – and something was accomplished – they never apostatised in the direction of idolatry again. However, the hard hearted, stiff necked problem caused them to fall into another ditch, from which they never escaped.
Instead of blaming themselves for their apostasy they blamed the nations around them. They reasoned that, the Gentile nations had seduced them into idol worship. Therefore, in order to preserve themselves from idolatry they had to sever all contact with the idolatrous nations around them. They did this by introducing laws that forbad contact with Gentile people. They built a wall around themselves from which they would not go out, and the Gentiles were not allowed to go in.
But this was contrary to the role that God wanted Israel to fulfil. He wanted them to be the light of the world – the salt of the earth – the example that the people of the earth would aspire to. He wanted them to be the evangelists of the world, teaching all nations and preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah.
The divine destiny of Israel was to be a great and glorious one. Isaiah prophesied that the temple in Jerusalem would become a place of worship for all the peoples of the earth. Isaiah also spoke of the Gentile nations flocking to Jerusalem and bringing their riches with them and depositing their wealth there, for the use of God’s work. Zechariah spoke about how easy the work of evangelism would be, because the righteous example of the Israelites would so impress the people of the world that, they would deliberately seek out the Israelites to teach them about God:
Thus saith the Lord of hosts; It shall yet come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities: And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts: I will go also. Yea, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD. Thus saith the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you. Zech. 8:20-23.
However the divine plan could not wait forever. Finally, God gave the Israelites 490 years to achieve the goal. We find this 490 year period of grace in the prophecies of Daniel:
Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. Dan. 9:24.
Jesus knew about this 490 year prophecy because the same prophecy pointed forward to the beginning of His ministry. Therefore, when He was baptised and his ministry officially began the first thing He said was: “the time is fulfilled” (Mk. 1:15). Also when Peter thought 7 times was enough to forgive his brother Jesus corrected him and said that 70 times 7 was the correct number of times – 70 times 7 equals 490 (see Matt. 18:22). In other words, if God could give the nation of Israel 490 years of grace, then you too Peter, can forgive 490 times.
As the time for the arrival of the Messiah drew near, there was a palpable sense of urgency in the messages sent to Israel. In an effort to wake up the Israelites to the overwhelming crises soon to break upon them, John the Baptist used very strong language:
Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. Lu. 3:7, 8.
Not many preachers would call their congregation ‘vipers,’ but John is doing this to contrast the spiritual condition of the people with the goal that God has always desired for Israel. What is the opposite of vipers? Answer: ‘fruits worthy of repentance.’ It was a lack of ‘fruits worthy of repentance’ that, was causing the people to be vipers. In other words, they were acting like snakes. There was no change of heart in the lives of the people. Their hearts were still hard and their necks were still stiff, after hundreds and hundreds of years.
And this hard hearted/stiff necked condition of the people, all through their history, is confirmed by the very last prophet sent to Israel. It is said of Stephen that he was, “full of faith and power” and he “did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8). Under the influence of the Holy Spirit Stephen was an irresistible advocate for the fact that the Jews had crucified their Messiah. In order to silence Stephen, the religious leaders accused Stephen of blasphemy. Stephen was arraigned before the highest court of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. When he was asked to defend himself, Stephen reviewed the history of Israel beginning with Abraham. However, when Stephen began to review the history about what happened at Sinai focusing on the disobedience that began there, he was not able to continue with the rebellious history of Israel. Stephen saw the rage that was rising in his audience. Both Stephen and his audience knew where this story has going to end – the disobedience and rebellion that began at Sinai was going to end with the disobedience and rebellion at the cross – the murder of their own Messiah. Stephen knew he was not going to be able to finish the story, so he changed tack and he got in the words that needed to be spoken. He wanted the assembled leaders of the Israelites to know why the disobedience and rebellion at Sinai led directly to the crucifixion of Christ. This is what Stephen said:
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it. Acts 7:51-53.
There is much to consider in these words of Stephen. Firstly please note that the stiff necked/hard hearted problem persisted from Sinai to the Cross. In other words, the stiff necked/hard hearted condition was the prevailing spiritual state of the Israelites throughout their entire history.
Secondly, we find in these words the definition of the stiff necked/hard hearted condition. It is defined as ‘resisting the Holy Spirit.’ So we need to acknowledge that, throughout the whole history of the Israelites, they were resisting the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, Stephen accuses them of being the descendants of those who murdered the prophets in the past. The prophets were sent to reprimand, exhort and encourage the people to get out of the stiff necked/hard hearted condition, but the truth of their words and the convicting power of the Spirit was stifled by murdering the messengers.
Fourthly, Stephen managed to enunciate his main point. Which was that, these present-day stiff necked and hard hearted Israelites are exactly the same as their fathers, because they too, have murdered the most important of all the prophets – their own Messiah.
And Stephen’s accusations proved to be true and accurate, because the enraged Israelites, ignoring due legal process, seize him, thrust him out of the city and stone him to death. Thus, perpetuating a pattern of behaviour, that persisted throughout the history of Israel.
Unfortunately, the Israelite venture as the solution to the world’s problems, failed at its beginning (Sinai) and it failed again at its end (Calvary). What would God do next, to ensure that the divine plan would be fulfilled?