As you probably know, Hurricane Matthew recently wrought devastation in the Western-Atlantic. In its aftermath, Christians have claimed that this was divine punishment against America. The argument? God curses any who curse Abram/Abraham (Genesis chapter 12, verse 3); national Israel are Abraham's descendants, yet Obama criticised their settlements in Palestinian territories and was therefore cursed.
This touches on an important question—is the Israel of Scripture to be equated with the modern Israeli state? Does God have two distinct people (Israel and the Church), with two distinct plans (saved by ethnicity and saved by Christ)?
What does biblical Israel actually mean?
Author/theologian John Stott presents four possible meanings of 'Israel'.
First, Israel was Isaac's son, originally named Jacob.
Secondly, this name gets applied to the 12 tribes descending from Israel: the Old Testament nation, through whom God revealed His promises and sent Jesus.
Third, Israel then comes to mean the people of Jesus, who are referred to as the true, descendants of Abraham regardless of ethnicity.
Fourth, many today extend this to the nation of Israel. In this view, God promises a physical, earthly kingdom for his people, fulfilled in the modern state.
The biblical view
So, cognizant that we can do meagre justice to the question here, which view is correct? Certainly those from the introduction claim it is option four— the ethnic Israeli nation are unequivocally God's chosen people.
Yet Scripture seems to teach that relationship with God is dependent not on ethnicity, but on faith, specifically faith in Christ (option three).
This is evident even in the Old Testament. From the beginnings of the promise to Abram (Genesis chapter 12), God stipulates that through him "all people on earth will be blessed". Yet Old Testament Israel limited this to themselves, so the prophets incessantly warned that Abrahamic lineage would not guarantee eternal relationship with Yahweh.
For instance, Amos (chapter 3) prophesied against Israel, saying they would be treated exactly the same as other nations—they would be judged and receive God's wrath despite their nationality.
New Testament fulfilment
Then John the Baptist appears, warning the Jewish leaders not to claim Abraham as their father (not all ethnically Jewish are true Israelites), adding that God could raise children of Abraham from stones (hinting Gentiles are included in true Israel) (Matthew chapter 3, verse 9).
Jesus Himself then continues this idea. When commending the Gentile Centurion's faith, Christ explains that a diversity of Gentiles will be at the Messianic banquet with Abraham, while many physical descendants will be excluded (Matthew chapter 8, verses 11-12).
In John chapter 8, verses 39-59 Jewish leaders once more assert that Abraham is their father. Yet Jesus replies they are not God's children (they are Satan's), as they rejected Christ. He further claims that Abraham's true offspring must do what Abraham did—see Christ's day and rejoice.
According to Jesus then, being a true child of God is tied entirely to faith in Him. He is the way, and none come to the Father except through Him (chapter 14, verse 6). He declares this to Jewish people, indicating that ethnicity contributes nothing to status with God.
Paul then explicates the promises made to Abraham, teaching that these were fulfilled not in a nation, but in Christ: "Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many, but referring to one... who is Christ" (Galatians chapter 3, verse 16).
Likewise Paul teaches that "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring... it is not the children of the flesh who are God's children, but the children of the promise" (Romans chapter 9, verses 6-8).
This is because, like Abraham, people are saved exclusively through faith (chapter 4, verse 3). This is equally applicable to both the ethnically Jewish and Gentile, as Abraham is father of all believers (verses 9-16).
Paul then further elucidates that Jesus removes divisions between Israel and Gentiles, writing that He "made us both one" and "reconciled us both to God in one body through the cross...through Him we both have access in One spirit to the Father" (Ephesians chapter 2, verses 11-22).
This does not mean that God abandons ethnic Israelis. There are Jewish believers in Christ (Paul himself is an example), and one day many Jewish people may turn to Christ (Romans chapter 11). We must repudiate anti-Semitism; the church has not replaced Israel, it has joined the natural olive tree.
Yet there is only one tree, one people of God, one plan, one way of salvation—faith in Christ as saviour of all nationalities: Abraham's true seed through whom all peoples are blessed. National Israel is not above reproach, and must be held to human rights standards, for there is no special nation or distinction between ethnicities. All who are united to Jesus, by grace alone through faith alone are the true children of God.
Let me conclude with some final thoughts from Paul: "There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; for the same Lord is Lord of all" (Romans chapter 10, verse 12) and "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians chapter 3, verse 28).
Haydn Lea is an Associate Pastor in Queensland, and is currently studying his Master of Arts (Theology). He has been a member of the Royal Australian Air Force since 2007, and is now training to be an Air Force Chaplain. He is married to Shamsa Lea, and loves distance running and studying Theology.
Haydn Lea's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/haydn-lea.html