Who is true Israel? Is it the physical nation fighting for its existence in the Middle East, or is it the spiritual entity we know as the church. And if its the church, which one?
The name “Israel” first appears in the Bible in Genesis 32:28 After a night of wrestling with the heavenly visitor (who I personally believe to be Christ Himself) Jacob prevails in his efforts and his name is changed from Jacob, the deceiver or supplanter, to Israel, meaning he will rule. Jacob has prevailed with God and overcome.
At the time of this event, Jacob was reluctant to face Esau after 20 years of exile and was quite simply terrified of him. His former deception of his father and claim to be Esau was now playing on his conscience and he desired God’s blessing and forgiveness before proceeding. So the ‘Angel’ asks Jacob his name, to which he truthfully replies ‘my name is Jacob’. In this he was confessing his guilt, and God then knew he was a changed man, so gave him a new name that celebrated so to speak his victory over sin, self and his night of wrestling in prayer, the ‘Angel’ saying “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
Israel, as a name therefore represents spiritual victory over sin.
This is significant as it tells us God’s purpose for His people. That is, to live in victory over sin, to show forth God’s true character to the world.
In Exod 4:22,23 Moses is instructed on how he is to speak to Pharaoh in order that Israel’s descendants may be freed from slavery. God says to Moses “and thou shalt say unto Pharaoh ‘Thus saith the Lord,Israel is My son, my firstborn and I say unto thee let My son go to serve me…”
This is the first time Israel is used in a corporate sense for the entire nation. Before it applied only to an individual, but here we see it being applied to his descendants. First to a victorious man, then to his people.
Did Israel live up to that name? What was God trying to accomplish in establishing Israel in the first place? Was it not that He would have a people to represent Him on the earth? Before God had His champions, but all failed. Sin interposed and no longer was any of God’s chosen able to fulfill the true destiny that God intended for them. Adam failed over appetite. So did Noah. Abraham also, but God was determined to establish a people after His own heart and show the gentiles His law, His mercy and grace and power. Interesting that Adam, Noah, and Israel all failed on points of appetite. (Gen 9:20,21; Exodus 16:27-29.)
It wasn’t until Jesus came on the scene in person that the title “Israel” in it’s truest spiritual sense and power could be rightly bestowed. And Mathew in particular showed this time and time again how Jesus was the fulfillment of the OT prophecies which may have originally applied to the nation, but now, according to Mathew’s inspired writings, applied in fact to Jesus. Examples are Hosea 11:1 ; Isaiah 41:8,42:1-3 .
Jesus Himself proclaimed Himself as the true vine, in fulfilment of Ps 80:8 which applied to the nation.
So now the mantle and authority once bestowed upon the nation has been given to Jesus. Jesus is the essence of true Israel. He only has the right to bear the name for He only has prevailed with sin and overcome. Jesus walked over the same ground that Israel walked, but came through victorious. In His temptations in the wilderness, it was appetite that came under particular scrutiny.
What Paul does in Romans and other writers in the NT however is extend that idea and show how the name Israel also now applies to Jesus’ descendants, just as it did to Jacob’s descendants. Peter also showed this when he compared the church to Exodus 19:6.(1 Peter 2:9).
So as Paul says, immediately after saying that Jesus is the ‘seed’ of Abraham, Gentile converts in Galatia were now also Abraham’s seed because they are Christ’s. They are also heirs according to the promise.
This is not ‘replacement ‘ theology. It is merely a revelation of who true Israel always was and who Israel is now. It is those people, of whatever nation kindred tongue and people, who by faith in the mercy grace and power of God overcome sin and receive Christ’s righteousness and forgiveness as a gift and are willing to share that gift with the lost. True Israel was always exclusively those who “as princes had power with God and men and prevailed”.
Thus the unfulfilled covenant that Jeremiah speaks of and repeated in hebrews, “I will place My laws in their hearts and in their minds I will write them” applies to the church, not a resurgent nation. All Israel will be saved, but the descendants of Jesus, not flesh and blood descendants of Jacob.
And the prophecies that most believe apply to the nation, apply to the church. For example, Armageddon is not the world arrayed against the nation of Israel, but the unsaved world (those who have accepted the mark) arrayed against the remnant who have refused the mark, and are under the sentence of death. Those who keep the commandments of God, (and thus have gained that victory over sin) and have the faith of Jesus. Rev.12:17; 14:12.