1 ”I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.
2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.
4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.
5 I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. John 15:1-6 (NKJV)
The answer to the question in this title is something hotly debated in Christian circles, and yet it is a debate that should be dead and buried in my opinion, because the answer is as clear as the nose on your face. So who is the Israel of God, you ask? Quite simply it is the same One who is the True Vine spoken of in the opening text, namely Jesus Christ. It is at this point that, if you run to Google to test what I’ve said, you will find yourself opening a can of worms that you may never have realised was even there. It shouldn’t take long before some learned scholar from the likes of Dallas Theological Seminary, attempts to convince you that Israel is always national Israel, and whoever disagrees is at the very least a “replacement theologian”, and at worst the spawn of Satan himself.
If you are someone like myself, who is now returning to this article via a scenic Google led trip through the heart of this debate, you will be acutely aware at how those on both sides of the argument begin to put solitary words (such as “kai” used in Gal 6:16) under the microscope, to highlight how their opinion who Israel is, is the correct one. You will undoubtedly have also been led through numerous other verses of Scripture, interpreted in seemingly opposite ways, until you are left none the wiser to the answer. Or at least how it can be determined positively. If that is you, welcome back from your trip, and now experience the delightful simplicity of allowing the Bible itself to offer you the interpretation you seek.
When seeking to understand the Scriptures, there is undoubtedly much benefit in having a sound grasp of the historical context, and a good grasp of the original languages. However if we consider these things to be the greatest key to understanding God’s Word, of which many theologians today actually do, then we may find ourselves on shaky ground. The reason being that our knowledge of history is highly subjective, reliant upon the knowledge offered by other sinful men, and is likely to change dramatically with the next historic discovery. And considering we no longer have the complete and original autographs of Scripture intact, along with the fact that the original language is no longer used today, we have similar problems as a result. So although these methods are undoubtedly helpful and necessary tools in theology, it would be foolish of us to deny their shortcomings, and our need to have a greater method of interpretation as our foundation, on which we are able to build using the tools aforementioned.
Just as with any method of interpretation, this method of interpreting the Scriptures has its own presuppositions. Yet the wonderful thing is, they are presuppositions that are not only clearly backed up in Scripture itself, they also help us to cast aside interpretations that may otherwise seem quite reasonable to us. Before I conclude this post by showing you how I come to the answer I did at the outset, I will highlight a few of the presuppositions I’ve mentioned, in order to show how I have drawn the conclusion I have. Regardless of where you might stand yourself, I would ask that you would consider these things when drawing your own conclusions too, that is of course if you agree they are correct.
1. Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14), and as such is the One who is able to interpret what He has said. In other words, regardless of the human author attributed to writing the text, it is God Himself by way of His Holy Spirit, who is the Author of ALL Scripture (2 Tim 3:16).
2. Jesus Christ is not only the Word made flesh, but He is also the Creator (John 1:3, Col 1:16), who is the Beginning and the End of all things (Rev 1:8). He is not a bystander waiting for the truth to be revealed, but He is the Author of all truth, creating all things and knowing the end from the beginning.
3. Jesus Christ in not simply a Character within the Scripture, but He is the focal point and the core of ALL Scripture, from beginning to end. Whilst it is true that Jesus Christ as fully Man entered His creation at a specific point in history as the Lamb to be slain for the sins of the world, as fully Divine His foreknowledge pre-exists even the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). Nothing has taken Him by surprise, even in the fall of man in Adam, to the way He was rejected by those descended from Jacob in the flesh. For this reason, the whole of the Scripture, both New and Old Testaments, point to Him as the focus of it all (Luke 24:44-45).
4. Because of the all encompassing way in which Christ is the embodiment of the whole of Scripture, and because in His Divinity He is eternal, immutable and all knowing, this truth can be applied to our understanding of Scripture itself. We can see it as ONE whole, with ONE author, and without contradiction, even if in our fallen state we have to strive to achieve this goal. The bottom line being that, if in our efforts to seek the true meaning of the Biblical text we fail to see Jesus Christ and His Kingdom front and centre, then the chances are that our interpretation is to be found wanting.
5. My last point is something that is most likely to be a bone of contention with regards to the subject of this post, and it is that the ultimate truth conveyed by Scripture is of a spiritual nature and not a mortal one. The natural is what we see and experience first, which then passes away to bring in the spiritual reality (1 Cor 15:42-49). We learn from Scripture that what is mortal cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:50), because it is a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). What this means in reality, is that if we continue to look for the ultimate truth of Scripture in this mortal world, we are looking for it in a different place than where Scripture reveals it to be.
One of the primary arguments of dispensationalism, whose system of interpretation distinguishes between Israel and the Church, is that many of the promises made by God to Israel in the Old Testament remain unfulfilled, and therefore there must be a future point in time where those promises are fulfilled in the earth. Without going into unnecessary detail, the conclusion of this system seems to be that the Church cannot inherit the promises of God made to Israel, because God is faithful to His promises, and therefore the Church cannot simply replace Israel in the grand scheme of things. This is one of those things that, whilst at first glance may seem to be a reasonable conclusion to make, when allowing the Scripture to interpret its own meaning as I’ve laid out above, it is found to be a conclusion built upon faulty foundations. In fact, to some degree or another (depending on the type of dispensationalism held to), that system of interpretation transgresses every single one of the points I’ve outlined previously with regards to our understanding of Scripture.
There are so many facets to this subject that this post could be expanded into a book without much effort at all, but for the purpose of this post I just want to wander through the Scriptures a little to show clearly how Jesus Christ really is the true Israel of God, the One to Whom all the promises of God are made. As I’ve pointed out above, the main objection dispensationalists seem to have with regards to this claim, is related directly to the promises of God made to Israel in the Old Testament. Therefore it’s this matter that I will try and address by highlighting what the Scripture itself has to say concerning these matters, bearing in mind there is ONE Scripture and ONE Author of Scripture, whose Personal interpretation we seek, not our own (2 Pet 1:20-21).
The first proclamation of the Gospel (proto evangelion) came at the fall of man into sin. Speaking to Satan God said:
15 And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” Genesis 3:15 (NKJV)
There is unanimous agreement within Christianity that this promise speaks of Jesus Christ and His victory over Satan at the Cross. It was a statement of fact spoken by God to Satan with Adam and Eve (of whom we all descend), as witnesses. It was then necessary that this Seed was to descend from the woman at some point in history, which we see in the birth of Jesus Christ unto a Virgin. Hence He is the Seed of the woman, but not of the man (Adam), but God.
The lineage that would produce the prophesied Seed was later seen in the life of Abraham. It is he that God revealed Himself to, and who believed the promise God made to him that he would be made a great nation, and through him all families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). Also it was revealed to Abraham that the covenant God made with him and his descendants would not be established through his firstborn son Ishmael whose mother was a slave, but rather the promised son Isaac who God had promised that would be the fruit of Abraham and Sarah his wife (Gen 17:19).
On account of the righteousness accredited to Abraham because he believed God, the promise God made to him was then passed on to Isaac, just as God had spoken to Abraham. For it was to Isaac God said:
3 Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father.
4 And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed;
5 because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” Genesis 26:3-5 (NKJV)
As Isaac grew, in accordance to the word prophesied by God over his wife Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. The eldest named Esau and the younger named Jacob. And in accordance with that same prophecy, the covenant was not established by God with the firstborn Esau, but to the younger son, Jacob. This was confirmed by Isaac himself who passed on the blessing of Abraham his father to Jacob before sending him away to find a wife in Padan Aram (Gen 28:4), and by God also whilst on his journey (Gen 28:13-15).
Something that is crucial but often missed in relationship to Israel of the Bible, is that it is entirely different to every other nation upon earth. Unlike a nation being defined by the geographical location the residents are to be found, what defines Israel as a nation is from whom they are descended. For the blessings of Abraham came to this earth through one man chosen by God, and that man was Jacob, who became Israel by the Word of God (Gen 32:24-30). Therefore it is essential that, if anyone is to be considered a native of Israel in the flesh, they must be descendants of Jacob.
Fast forwarding through history, the descendants of Jacob (Israel) became a great nation whilst being held captive in Egypt for four hundred years, just as God had said. Then under the leadership of Moses, God led the children of Israel out of Egypt, towards the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was during this journey through the wilderness that Israel was given the Law of God via Moses as mediator at Sinaii. And it was there that the children of Israel entered into a covenant with God, whereby they would reap blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience.
7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.”
8 And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.” Exodus 24:7-8 (NKJV)
15 ”See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil,
16 in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them,
18 I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess.
19 I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;
20 that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.” Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (NKJV)
If we are to allow the Scripture to guide our understanding then, we can see that the covenant that the children of Israel entered into with God at Sinaii, made the inheritance of the promises of God made through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, conditional according to obedience. In other words, all who were descended from Israel at that time were offered the opportunity, through perfect obedience to God’s Law, to inherit the same blessings bestowed upon Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However all who transgressed God’s Law had no reason to expect the blessings, but rather the curses of the Law according to their disobedience. What can be seen according to the testimony of Scripture that followed, is that not one descended from Adam has ever been declared by God to be worthy of the blessings according to their obedience to God’s Law (Dan 9:11, Rom 3:23). This makes it perfectly clear that, contrary to the claim of dispensationalism, God is not obliged to fulfill His promises to the children of Israel at all, for all have transgressed His commands and nullified those promises according to the covenant made through their forefathers at Sinaii.
Another interesting claim of dispensationalism is concerning the promised land itself. Obviously what is written above shows the blessing of living in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are withdrawn from all flesh and blood descendants of Israel (Jacob) because of disobedience. However is there truth to the claim of dispensationalism that somehow God was not completely faithful to His promise made to those who initially entered the promised land under the leadership of Joshua? Whilst I’m sure you would find many today who would disagree with him, but let us listen to the words spoken by Joshua himself, and shown to be inspired of God by being included in the canon of Scripture itself. Concerning the inheritance of the land Joshua said this:
43 So the LORD gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it.
44 The LORD gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers. And not a man of all their enemies stood against them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand.
45 Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass. Joshua 21:43-45 (NKJV)
Not only this, but at the end of his life, Joshua once again confirmed the faithfulness of God according to His promises, and then continued to prophesy that God would remove them from the land because of disobedience:
14 ”Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth. And you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one thing has failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spoke concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one word of them has failed.
15 Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all the good things have come upon you which the LORD your God promised you, so the LORD will bring upon you all harmful things, until He has destroyed you from this good land which the LORD your God has given you.
16 When you have transgressed the covenant of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed down to them, then the anger of the LORD will burn against you, and you shall perish quickly from the good land which He has given you.” Joshua 23:14-16 (NKJV)
So where does that leave us in our search for truth concerning Israel? We are left with a whole heap of promises to Israel, yet all of those promises being made null and void because of sin. But here is the crucial part that needs to be understood, what would happen if One Man, a natural descendant of Israel was completely righteous in His ways, and faithful to the commandments of God? Would it not be a rightful conclusion that He alone, on account of His obedience, would be the rightful Heir to those promises made to the children of Israel? Well as we know from the text of the Old Testament Scriptures, a Faithful Servant was prophesied through Isaiah. See if His description reminds you of anyone:
1 ”Listen, O coastlands, to Me, And take heed, you peoples from afar! The LORD has called Me from the womb; From the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name.
2 And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword; In the shadow of His hand He has hidden Me, And made Me a polished shaft; In His quiver He has hidden Me.”
3 ”And He said to me, ‘You are My servant, O Israel, In whom I will be glorified.’ Isaiah 49:1-3 (NKJV)
6 Indeed He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” Isaiah 49:6 (NKJV)
8 Thus says the LORD: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, And in the day of salvation I have helped You; I will preserve You and give You As a covenant to the people, To restore the earth, To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;
9 That You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’ To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ “They shall feed along the roads, And their pastures shall be on all desolate heights.
10 They shall neither hunger nor thirst, Neither heat nor sun shall strike them; For He who has mercy on them will lead them, Even by the springs of water He will guide them.
Isaiah 49:8-10 (NKJV)
Sound familiar yet? Or maybe a few more hints just to be sure:
3 He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
4 Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. Isaiah 53:3-5 (NKJV)
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
9 And they made His grave with the wicked– But with the rich at His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.
11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. Isaiah 53:8-11 (NKJV)
6 For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this. Isaiah 9:6-7 (NKJV)
To be perfectly honest, I would not be prepared to call a man my brother in Christ who would be prepared to deny the fact that these texts were speaking of Jesus Christ, who as God says through Isaiah, ‘You are My servant, O Israel, In whom I will be glorified.’ And with these verses in mind, read what the apostle Paul wrote concerning the reason for the giving of the Law in relation to the promise of God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:
16 Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.
17 And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect.
18 For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise.
19 What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Galatians 3:16-19 (NKJV)
Now with the fact established that Christ alone is the Faithful Servant Israel, sole rightful Heir to the promises of God made to Abraham and his Seed, are there any who are to be fellow heirs with Him according to the testimony of God? Well it doesn’t take long to get to that answer:
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:26-29 (NKJV)
So who is the Israel of God in Gal 6:16? It is now and always has been the Son of God Himself, Jesus Christ. He alone is the True Vine of John 15:1-6, and the Olive Tree spoken of in Romans 11:16-24, and those who share in the nourishment of His blessings are merely branches, broken off because of unbelief, and grafted in on account of faith. With these things in mind, the accusation made by those who oppose dispensationalism of being “replacement theologians” is show to be the straw man that is is, for no-one, neither Jew nor Gentile, shall ever replace the Israel of God!