Are Christians/Gentile believers “spiritual Jews” or “Israelites?” – Part I
“My congregation’s leader teaches that Gentiles who believe are all “spiritual Jews and Israelites.” Is that true?“
In order to determine if Gentile believers are “spiritual Jews” or “spiritual Israelites,” let’s first examine some terminology. We need to know what makes a person a Jew so that we can understand what a “spiritual Jew” is.
Here are several definitions:
- “Hebrew – a name applied to the Israelites in Scripture only by one who is a foreigner (Gen. 39:14, 17; 41:12, etc.), or by the Israelites when they speak of themselves to foreigners (40:15; Ex. 1:19), or when spoken of an contrasted with other peoples (Gen. 43:32; Ex. 1:3, 7, 15; Deut. 15:12). In the New Testament there is the same contrast between Hebrews and foreigners (Acts 6:1; Phil. 3:5).”
- “Israel – the name conferred on Jacob after the great prayer-struggle at Peniel (Gen. 32:28), because “as a prince he had power with G-d and prevailed.” (See JACOB .) This is the common name given to Jacob’s descendants. The whole people of the twelve tribes are called “Israelites,” the “children of Israel”(Josh. 3:17; 7:25; Judg. 8:27; Jer. 3:21), and the “house of Israel” (Ex. 16:31; 40:38).This name Israel is sometimes used emphatically for the true Israel (Ps. 73:1: Isa. 45:17; 49:3; John 1:47; Rom. 9:6; 11:26).After the death of Saul the ten tribes arrogated to themselves this name, as if they were the whole nation (2 Sam. 2:9, 10, 17, 28; 3:10, 17; 19:40-43), and the kings of the ten tribes were called “kings of Israel,” while the kings of the two tribes were called “kings of Judah.”After the Exile the name Israel was assumed as designating the entire nation.
- “Jew – the name derived from the patriarch Judah, at first given to one belonging to the tribe of Judah or to the separate kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 16:6; 25:25; Jer. 32:12; 38:19; 40:11; 41:3), in contradistinction from those belonging to the kingdom of the ten tribes, who were called Israelites. During the Captivity, and after the Restoration, the name, however, was extended to all the Hebrew nation without distinction (Esther 3:6, 10; Dan. 3:8, 12; Ezra 4:12; 5:1, 5).Originally this people were called Hebrews (Gen. 39:14; 40:15; Ex. 2:7; 3:18; 5:3; 1 Sam. 4:6, 9, etc.), but after the Exile this name fell into disuse. But Shaul was styled a Hebrew (2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5).
- There are three names used in the New Testament to designate this people,
(1.) Jews, as regards their nationality, to distinguish them from Gentiles.
(2.) Hebrews, with regard to their language and education, to distinguish them from Hellenists, i.e., Jews who spoke the Greek language.
(3.) Israelites, as respects their sacred privileges as the chosen people of G-d.”
According to the above definitions, the people of the 12 tribes (i.e. the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), are collectively referred to in the New Testament as “Jews,” “Hebrews,” and “Israelites.”
Now let’s take a look at a short family history of the Jewish people. Recall that Abraham had several sons, including Ishmael and Isaac (Genesis 16:16, 17:18-21, 25:1-6). Isaac had two sons named Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:21-26). Jacob was renamed “Israel” by G-d (Genesis 32:28). Jacob/Israel had 12 sons (Genesis 35:22-26), who were the 12 patriarchs of Israel (Acts 7:8). One of these patriarchs was Judah (Genesis 35:22-23), from whom the word “Jew” is derived (see the definition for “Jew” above). Eventually the word “Jew” referred to all of the Israelites (i.e. the 12 tribes who were descended from Jacob – see the definitions above).
So a “Jew” is a physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which is why G-d is sometimes referred to as “the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (see Matthew 22:32, Luke 13:28, 20:37, Acts 3:13, 7:32, for example). Jewish-ness is based on a person’s physical ancestry, and therefore a Jew can never become a non-Jew.
A “Gentile” is a person who is not a Jew. Gentile-ness is based on a person’s physical ancestry, and therefore a Gentile can never become a Jew in a physical sense. They can, however, become “Jews” in a religious and covenantal sense, meaning that according to the Jewish Halacha (interpretations and applications of Written Torah) it was established by Jewish authorities that Gentiles can be adopted into the Jewish family through an authorized conversion by a Jewish beit din, or religious court. At the same time it is interesting to note that Gentiles who converted to Judaism are never called “Jews” in the Bible, but instead they are called “converts” or “proselytes” (for New Testament examples see Matthew 23:15, Acts 2:10-11, 6:5, 13:43).
In the New Testament, the word “Israel” most often refers to the land or the people of Israel as a whole (made up of Jews, and whether they believed in Yeshua or not makes no difference on validity of Israel or Jews), but we will see that it sometimes refers specifically to Jewish followers of Messiah. We will also see that the word “Israel” never refers to the Gentiles believers.
Now, notice that a spiritual person is under the control of the Spirit:
“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of G-d, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: “For who has known the mind of the L-rd that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Messiah. Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly–mere infants in Messiah.” (1 Corinthians 2:13-3:1)
“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)
In the first passage above, Shaul (Paul) said that a person who does not have the Spirit (i.e. person who doesn’t know G-d intimately) cannot understand the spiritual truths found in the scriptures. A spiritual person can understand these truths. But then Shaul said that the Corinthians were worldly and were mere infants in Messiah, and he could not address them as “spiritual.” In other words, they were followers of Messiah, but they were not yet under the control of the Spirit to any great degree. In the second passage above, Shaul spoke of restoring believers who have sinned. Shaul said, “you who are spiritual” should restore a believer (who is not yet as spiritual) who has sinned. The implication is that being “spiritual” essentially means that we are mature enough in Messiah that we are being led by and controlled by the Spirit.
If a Jewish person is led by the Spirit, then he is a spiritual Jew. If a Gentile person is led by the Spirit, then he is a spiritual Gentile.
Part of the confusion about Gentiles becoming “spiritual Jews” comes from several passages in the Bible which refer to Gentile believers as “children of Abraham”:
“Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring –not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.” (Romans 4:16)
“Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that G-d would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:7-9)
“If you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)
These passages tell us that whether we are Jews or Gentiles by birth, if we have faith in Yeshua then we are considered to be children of Abraham and heirs according to the promise. But recall that Abraham’s first child was Ishmael, and according to various scholars as well as both Jewish and Arab tradition, Ishmael was the ancestor of much of the Arab world (Jewish Virtual Library). Notice that Ishmael was a child of Abraham, yet Ishmael was not a Jew. In fact, the Ishmaelites were enemies of the Jews (e.g. Psalms 83:1-6). Similarly, Isaac’s first child was Esau, and Esau was the father of the Edomites who were enemies of the Jews (Genesis 25:21-26, 29-30, 36:1, 36:43, Numbers 20:14-21, 1 Samuel 14:47, 1 Kings 11:15-16, 2 Kings 8:21-22, Psalms 83:1-6, etc.). So being a child of Abraham does not make a person Jewish, but instead it is being a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that makes a person Jewish or an Israelite (as we saw above).
If the Bible said that Gentile Christians are considered to be children of Jacob then they would have reason to be called “spiritual Jews” or “Israelites”, because only the descendants of Jacob/Israel are Jews/Israelites. But the Bible never calls Gentiles “children of Jacob,” and the Bible never says that anyone is a “spiritual Jew,” and in fact we will see that the Bible specifically says that Gentiles/Christians share in (not “take over”) the Jews’ spiritual blessings. The Gentile believers have inherited the spiritual promises of Abraham by faith, but they have not inherited the physical, material, or national promises that G-d made to Abraham and his physical descendants through Isaac and Jacob (i.e. the Jews).
In other words, Gentile Christians have inherited the spiritual promises made to Abraham, but they have not inherited the physical and national promises that G-d made to Abraham’s physical descendants. Despite what some well-meaning people believe, the Church has not “replaced” Israel, and the Church is not the “new Israel,” and the Church is not a “continuation” of Israel, and Gentile Christians are not “spiritual Jews.”
Here’s another passage which has confused some people:
“A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” (Romans 2:28-29)
In order to properly understand any passage of Scripture, it is important to look at the context and determine to whom the passage is addressed. If we go back eleven verses and look at Romans 2:17, we can see exactly to whom Shaul was speaking:
“Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the Torah and brag about your relationship to G-d” (Romans 2:17)
From Romans 2:17 down into Romans chapter 3, Shaul was speaking to Jews. He was not speaking to Gentiles or about Gentiles in any way. Shaul was specifically speaking to Jews when he said, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, … a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly.” In other words, Shaul was saying that a true Jew is one who is not only Jewish outwardly (by birth), but one who is Jewish outwardly and has the inner circumcision of the heart. Shaul was speaking specifically to Jews, and he was distinguishing between “spiritual” Jews and the so called “unspiritual” Jews (that is Jews who do not acknowledge G-d, do not repents from their ways and do not live by His Torah). None of this has any bearing on Gentiles.
Another source of confusion is when the New Testament seems to say that there is “no difference” between Jews and Gentiles:
“That if you confess with your mouth, “Yeshua is L-rd,” and believe in your heart that G-d raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same L-rd is L-rd of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the L-rd will be saved.”" (Romans 10:9-13)
“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Messiah. For we were all immersed by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
“You are all sons of God through faith in Yeshua the Messiah, for all of you who were immersed into Messiah have clothed yourselves with Messiah. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Yeshua the Messiah.” (Galatians 3:24-28)
“Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Messiah is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:9-11)
People sometimes interpret these passages to mean that all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles have been erased. But notice that in Romans 10:9-13 (above), Shaul was saying that Jews and Gentiles are all saved and justified in exactly the same way. There is no difference in the way that Jews and Gentiles are saved. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 (above), Shaul was saying that Jews and Gentiles (or “Greeks”) all enter the body of Messiah in exactly the same way. In Galatians 3:24-28 (above), Shaul was saying that Jews and Gentiles all receive justification in exactly the same way. In Colossians 3:9-11 (above), Shaul was saying that Jews and Gentiles grow in spiritual maturity in exactly the same way. In other words, Shaul was saying that the principles of faith apply to every believer, whether we are Jews or Gentiles. However, notice that there are still differences between Jews and Gentiles, even in the body of Messiah. For example, if Shaul was teaching that all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles have been erased, then he was also teaching that all distinctions between male and female have been erased as well (see Galatians 3:24-28, above). Yet Shaul himself taught that there are distinctions between male and female believers (see 1 Corinthians 11:3-15, 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Titus 2:1-5).
Furthermore, in most of the above passages Shaul mentioned those who are slaves and those who are free. Notice that if Shaul was teaching that all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles have been erased, then he was also teaching that all distinctions between slave and free have been erased. Yet in other passages Shaul specifically taught that the distinctions between slave and free within the body of Messiah continue to exist (see Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10). Since there are definite distinctions between male and female and between slave and free within the body of Messiah, this shows that in the above passages Shaul was not trying to teach that all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles have been erased within the body of Messiah.
Again, the Bible does not teach that Gentile believers (Christians) are “spiritual Jews”, “spiritual Israelites” or “Israel”, and it also does not teach that the Ekklesia (the Body of Messiah composed of both Jews and Gentiles) is Israel or has replaced Israel (even though Israel is part of it). Of the 83 times that the word “Israel” appears in the New Testament, only 3 of those passages (Romans 9:6, Romans 11:26, and Galatians 6:16) tend to be used by some people to prove that the “Church is the new Israel.”
Some scripture quotes used are from NIV. Some content is based on works of D. Root. Some definitions from Easton Bible Dictionary.