The Seven Israels

Today as I write this, it is remembrance day.  104 years ago to the day, the guns stopped firing in World War 1, and nations laid down their weapons for peace.  While the peace didn’t last and was temporary, it reminds us of a peace that does last, and the gospel that brings us eternal peace.  

One of the biggest misunderstandings that hindered believers in the past, and still hinders some today, from finding peace with their fellow believers is the issue of Israel.  There was a gulf between the Jew and the Gentile which only the gospel was able to span.  Paul called that revelation a “mystery” which doesn’t mean something mysterious we don’t understand, but rather something that was hidden or a secret, but later revealed.  

The idea of Israel begins with one man in scripture, and develops to be many things, but it ends up including all the Gentiles.  Nobody would have seen that coming, hence why it was a ‘mystery’, a secret.  Today we sit on the other side of that revealing.  We know that there are many ways the word Israel can be used, and its always important to be clear about what you mean, when you use the word Israel.  

Here are seven ways Israel is used in language.

  1. Israel was a person.  Jacob wrestled with God because he was distressed over his future and his family’s future, and he would not let God go until he was blessed.  God changed his name to Israel, one who wrestles with God.  All of us are called to wrestle with God too.  See Genesis 32:28
  1. Next, the biological descendants of Jacob began to be called the “children of Israel” or Israel for short.  This included all his twelve sons, their wives, an all those with them, slave and free.  So Israel came to be the descendants of Jacob as a people.  They came to be called Israelites.  A great example is Pharoah’s statement… “I will not let Israel go.”  See Exodus 5:2
  1. As Israel entered the land of Canaan a nation was established, this became the biblical undivided nation of Israel.  This nation was initially a theocracy – ruled by God, and that was how the Lord intended it.  Later they wanted a king and it became a monarchy, with Saul as the first king, but he failed them badly.  In 1 Samuel 24:19-21, Saul admits to David that he knows the Lord has delivered to him the nation of Israel, and asks him to promise to be kind to his descendants after him, which David does.  The third usage of Israel refers to a biblical nation.
  1. Later the nation was divided in civil war during the time of King Rehoboam.  Two of the tribes went on to be called Judah, from where we get the name Jews, and the word Jewish.  The other ten of the twelve tribes were called Israel, but were not representing all of Israel, but a majority of it.  The nation of Israel now turned away from God.  A number of kings of Judah were described as evil, like Ahaz for example who walked in the ways of the kings of Israel.  He wasn’t counted as Israel, but he was copying Israel.  See 2 Kings 16:2-4
  1. It gets much more interesting in the New Testament where we see that Christ is Israel.  Straight away in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is being compared to Israel.  Matthew 2 quotes Hosea 11 where it says “out of Egypt I called my son.”  Israel initially came out of Egypt as a nation, but now it is Christ who comes out of Egypt as a baby.  Back in Exodus 4:23 God told Pharaoh to “let my son go.”  So we see this example of how Jesus is the true Israel of God.
  1. Then just as the descendants of Jacob became Israel, so we the believers in Jesus have also become included in Israel.  And we find out that there was never a separation between Jew and Gentile in God’s mind.  HIs plan was for one flock all along. (John 10:16)  Paul saw it and wrote about it most clearly saying that the church is the “true Israel” and that includes true jews of faith, and true gentiles of faith, it is not a rejection of either, but an inclusion of both in Christ.  In his letter to the Galaatians (6:16) Paul writing to non Jewish believers says that all who walk in Christ are the Israel of God.  
  1. And finally…. we have the modern political nation of Israel today which occupies more or less the same historic land that the historic nation of Israel did.  The historic nation was a theocracy based on the law, and later after the civil war a divided nation, but still with a temple, priesthood and sacrifices.  The modern nation of Israel is a democracy with a prime minister, and mostly secular, but with rabbinic Judaism practised by some.  Mosaic Judaism (temple/sacrifices/priests) is no longer a reality.

In summary, it’s good to be clear that the word Israel is used in many different ways.  When we see an Old Testament prophecy referring to “Israel”… don’t assume it must be speaking of the modern democratic political and mostly secular nation labelled Israel.  It makes much more sense that it speaks of Christ and the Church, as the majority of prophecies do.  

On this remembrance day, let us quote Paul in concluding, and remember that Christ “is our peace, who has made the two groups one (Jews & Gentiles) and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” (Eph 2:14)