By Dr. Tony Garland
Q. Are Gentile Believers part of Israel? I am busy with your teaching on the covenants and finding it very informative. I would just like to ask you the following:
- Are we as "gentile Christians" part of Israel (Rom 11:17)?
- Do any of the promises made to Israel as a nation apply to us, for example Deuteronomy 28 (I've often heard this one used by prosperity teachers although they never read past the fourteenth verse).
Are Gentile Christians Part of Israel?
A. Regarding your first question, I would say that "no" we are not "part of Israel" as gentile Christians. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians today make up the "Church" the "body of Christ" or "one new man" which Paul discusses in Ephesians 2. We, as Gentiles, were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12), but now we have been brought near through Christ. But notice that we are not said to be "part of Israel" or a "new Israel." Instead, both Jews and Gentiles are said to be joined into a new spiritual body, the one new man (Eph. 2:15). Another evidence that we are not "part of Israel" is found by carefully examining Paul's use of the term "Israel" in Romans 9-11, and especially chapter 11. There, it will be found that "Israel" still refers to Jews. Especially note the following in chapter 11:
- Gentiles are continually being saved, whereas Israel has been blinded in part (Rom. 11:25).
- Paul distinguishes between the "fullness of Gentiles" that are grafted in the process of being saved vs. "all Israel" which will be saved yet future (Rom. 11:26).
- Paul says that "Israel," concerning the gospel, are enemies, but concerning the fathers they are beloved (Rom. 11:28). If Gentile believers are "part of Israel," how can Israel be enemies of the gospel? Clearly, Paul uses the term "Israel" consistently to always describe Jews: either unbelieving Jews (as here) or Jewish believers (Rom. 9:6 cf. Gal. 6:16).
Notice that Paul knows nothing of the imprecise New Testament interpretation so prevalent in our time which applies the term "Israel" to Gentile believers. In different passages, Paul distinguishes several categories, all involving those of Jewish descent from the man Jacob (who is Israel):
Believing Jews, the "Israel of God," the true Jews (Rom. 2:28-29) who are Jewish by physical descent and trust in Christ.
Unbelieving Jews (Israel in Romans 11), the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9; 3:9) who are not considered to be true Jews (Rom. 2:28-29). They are physical descendants of the man Israel ("of Israel" but not considered to be true Israel in that they lack faith. They are "of Israel," but "not Israel" because they lack the faith of Father Abraham (Rom. 9:6). In limited contexts, to make a point, they are said to not be "Israel" or "Jews" in the sense that they failed to accept Messiah Jesus and have rejected the faith.
The Church, the "one new man" (Eph. 2), the "body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:13) made up of both Gentile believers and the Israel of God—believing Jews. Here, believing Gentiles and Jews are grouped on an absolutely equal basis. Careful interpretation will show that the term "Israel" is never used of this group, even though "true Israel" the "true Jews" (having faith) are incorporated into this group along with believing Gentiles.
What can be confusing is that although believing Gentiles are considered to be "sons of Abraham" by faith (Gal. 3:7,29; Php. 3:3), they are never called "Israel." A distinction is made between being blessed as part of the Abrahamic covenant—rooted in the promises to Abraham—which included blessings for "all the families of the earth" (wherein Gentile believers are found) and blessings for the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob/Israel—the Jews. In an analogous way to the way that Ishmaelites and Edomites are "sons of Abraham" physically, but not Israel, believers are spiritual sons of Abraham, but not Israel.
Robert Saucy puts it well:
"Abraham's seed," therefore, is not necessarily equivalent of a Jew or a member of the people of Israel. God's promise to Abraham encompassed both "a great nation" and "all peoples on earth" (Ge 12:2-3). Both of these groups, therefore, share the fulfillment of that promise in the salvation of God without being merged into each other. It is significant that when the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise is related to the Gentiles, it is specifically this statement about "all nations," not any reference to the "great nation" or Israel, that the apostle uses as OT support (Gal. 3:8). Again, there is sharing, but not identity...
For additional clarity on this, I suggest listening to my course on Romans 9-11, especially chapter 11 which shows the important distinction between the olive tree rooted in the promises to the fathers (e.g., the Abrahamic covenant), the natural branches (Jews) and the wild branches (Gentiles). Some of the natural branches (unbelieving Jews) are broken off from the olive tree and wild branches (Gentile believers) are in. Notice that the wild branches are not grafted into the natural branches which remain in the tree (Gentiles are not joined 'into' Israel). They are grafted into the root—that which produced and nourished the natural branches (the promises). A failure to appreciate this distinction leads to confusion because it leads to confusing Gentile believers with Israel and requires inconsistent exegesis of passages like the end of Romans 11 where Israel very clearly means non-believing Jews. (A common interpretive error made in regard to the olive tree illustration of Paul is taking the "root" to be Israel. But notice that that natural branches which remain—Jewish believers—are nourished by the root. The natural branches which remain are the true Israel and are not nourished in Israel (a logical impossibility) but in the root which consists of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.)
Regarding your second question, "Do any of the promises made to Israel as a nation apply to us, for example Deuteronomy 28..."
While there are principles in Deu. 28 which apply in general (e.g., God will bless a nation which is devoted to Him and follows His will, He will turn away from a nation—such as ours—which forsakes Him), the context of the passage is very clearly specific to the nation Israel. It includes curses which make absolutely no sense when applied to Gentiles (believers or otherwise). For example, the promise of worldwide scattering in judgment of disbelief: yet Gentiles (non-Jews) have always been scattered all over the world.
Whereas all scripture is written for our learning (Rom. 15:4), it is not all written specifically to us—and this is the case in Deuteronomy 28. Both the blessings and curses stated there apply to Israel, as the phrase "wandering Jew" and history abundantly prove.
Concerning the blessings which come to believing Gentiles, this is best understood by studying the relationship between the New Covenant (given to Israel in Jeremiah 31) and the Church. I can suggest several excellent online resources on this which illuminate some of the subtleties involved:
- What is the Relationship of the Church to the New Covenant? by Andy Woods.
- Dispensationalism, The Church, and the New Covenant DBSJ 8 (Fall 2003).
May God bless you as you seek to properly understand and apply the distinctions which are made in Scripture in relation to God's continuing purpose for Israel and the Church.
 Robert L. Saucy, Israel and the Church: A Case for Discontinuity in John S. Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), p. 254.