THE ISRAEL OF GOD – a consideration of so-called “Replacement Theology”

In his book “The destiny of Israel and the church” Derek Prince stated: “Essential truth is usually simple, and the truth is, Israel is Israel, and the Church is the Church” (p. 15). A few chapters further on he wrote, “Up to this point we have been considering Israel and the Church as if they were two separate entities, but this is not really accurate” (p. 123). Evidently, “the simple truth” is not that simple after all!

Dispensationalism is established upon an erroneous distinction between the church and Israel. Based on this assumption it suggests that the present “church age”, (which they interpret as the dispensation of grace), will end with the rapture of the church, at which time God will resume his dealing with Israel, which will include the rebuilding of the temple and the reinstatement of the priesthood and sacrifices required by the Law of Moses. Because dispensationalism does not recognize the church of Christ as the faithful remnant of Israel through which God’s promises are fulfilled, it has a futuristic expectation of the fulfilment of God’s promises which undermines the gospel by holding out a false hope for the salvation of Israel apart from the opportunity to be saved from their sins in this present age. It alleges that the Kingdom of God was offered to Israel, but because it was rejected by the Jews it had to be postponed; hence God established the church for the salvation of individuals from among the Jews and Gentiles. Thomas Ice states it thus: “Israel could have obtained her much sought after messianic kingdom by recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. We all know the sad reality – the Jews rejected Jesus. As a result, the kingdom is no longer near, but postponed” (Cited by Don K. Preston in article “Replacement Theology” 2002). In this view God’s purposes are not fulfilled through the church – the church is merely a parenthesis (or afterthought) in God’s dealings with Israel, a mystery completely unforeseen in Old Testament prophecy. Contrary to this insistence on a separate purpose for Israel and the church Paul states in his epistle to the Ephesians that it was God’s purpose before the creation of the world to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:9-10).

There are several serious implications to the Dispensational teaching: It implies that God’s original purpose in sending Jesus as the Messiah failed because he did not bring about their national emancipation, (ignoring the fact that the real enemy that had to be defeated was sin and death) and that if the Jewish leadership had accepted Jesus as the Messiah the atoning sacrifice of the cross would not have been necessary and he would have set up an earthly kingdom reigning from Jerusalem. It implies a regression to what Paul describes as “weak and beggarly elements” and to the things that were merely shadows of the reality that we now have in Christ and the re-erection of the barriers between Jews and Gentiles that were broken down through the cross. Its interpretation on the book of Revelation can only lead to the conclusion that the successful evangelising of the world will be accomplished only after the church has been removed from the world, through the testimony of 144000 Jews in seven short years and without the power of the Holy Spirit since the Spirit will have been removed with the church. John Wilkinson describes it in this way: “…the Jewish nation is shunted to a siding until the times of the Gentiles run out, to allow the express train to pass, stopping here and there to pick up the Church, and then the Jewish nation will take her place on the main line of the Divine plan, stop at all stations and pick up the world” (Israel My Glory p. 134).


Some of the early Church Fathers suggested that after the majority of the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah God was completely finished with the Jews and was now revealing his grace to the Gentiles. Some went as far to suggest – contrary to the apostle Paul – that God was so completely finished with the Jews that they (and their future generations) were a people cursed by God beyond recovery. Eg. Hilary of Poitiers (291-371): “Jews are a perverse people accursed by God forever”, and St. John Chrysostom (347-407): “Jews are abandoned by God and for the crime of deicide there is no expiation possible.”

In response to this distortion that God has rejected Israel (meaning unbelieving Israel) Dispensationalism contends that God has not finally rejected Israel, but that His purpose for them has been put on hold, as it were, to be resumed after the church age (or dispensation) is completed with the “secret rapture” of the church. Oddly, while contending so vociferously against Replacement theology this view advocates that God has indeed, at least temporarily, replaced Israel with the church.

Both of these positions are in fact distortions. Paul made it clear that the unbelieving Jews had not stumbled beyond recovery, but rather that their disobedience resulted in God’s mercy being revealed to the Gentiles which in turn created the opportunity for them (the Jews) now (i.e. in this present age) to receive God’s mercy (Romans 11:31). The gospel is God’s salvation to everyone who believes (Jew and Gentile). Paul himself, once a Pharisee who not only rejected Christ, but persecuted the church, testified to receiving this mercy and being grafted back into God’s holy nation Israel through the revelation that Jesus is indeed the promised Saviour and Messiah. It is erroneous to think that the church replaced Israel since the first followers of Jesus were all Jews with Gentiles only being included later. The church, rather, represented the faithful and redeemed part of Israel. Tens of thousands of Jews believed the gospel in the first century and in every century since. God’s “dispensation” with Israel, (i.e. his dealing with Israel) did not end nor was it suspended. His dealing included both the judgment of AD70 but also his continued grace through the gospel for the salvation of those who believe. His dispensation with Israel continued through the transition from the old covenant into the new and better covenant which he made with Israel. God’s purpose was not thwarted by the rejection of the Messiah and therefore postponed. It was always his purpose to save both Jews and Gentiles in exactly the same way – through the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. This is not replacement, but inclusiveness – moving from the particular to the universal.

The charge is often made that by suggesting that the promises made to the fathers have been fulfilled in the church one is “robbing Israel” of her promised blessings. Since our thinking on this would not alter whom God has chosen to bless it is a silly notion, but it does have implications for our understanding of the gospel. If it is true that we are “robbing Israel,” it follows that Jews who are saved now and are part of the church are in fact being deprived and excluded from the so-called promises to Israel. If the blessings are indeed only obtained through believing in Christ now (as we avow), and the way in has been opened to all (Jew and Gentile) then no-one is being robbed – rather they forfeit what was promised to them by failing to take hold of it by faith. Paul, preaching to the Jews said, “we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus” (Act 13:32-33). In other words the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham is not future but now, in Christ. With regard to the idea that the church, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, has “robbed” unbelieving Israel of the promised blessings, it should be noted that Esau, the first born of the twins, may have suspected Jacob of “robbing” him of his inheritance. For a single meal Esau sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears (Hebrews 12:16). Like Esau, unbelieving Israel “rob” themselves of the blessing of redemption and eternal life, by forfeiting it by their own rebellion and unbelief in Jesus the Messiah.

The transition from the old covenant to the new covenant certainly involved the replacing of many things: The authority of the Sanhedrin was replaced with the authority of the apostles of Jesus Christ. The old covenant made at Mount Sinai, which excluded most people from drawing near to worship God, was replaced with the new and better covenant by which all people may enter into the presence of God. The temple was replaced with Christ himself as the cornerstone of the new temple made with living stones – which are those who believe and are filled with his Spirit. The sacrifices of the old covenant were replaced with the once for all atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The earthly city of Jerusalem has been replaced with the heavenly Jerusalem of which the earthly city was only a shadow. The Levitical Priesthood has been replaced with Jesus Christ, the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, and with the priesthood of all believers. Lastly, this present world will be replaced with the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness.


The meaning of “church” in the Bible, taken from its Greek root, is a synonym for the assembly of Israel. The Strongs reference (G1577) gives the definition of ekklēsia as follows: a calling out, that is, (concretely) a popular meeting, especially a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both): – assembly, church.

According to the Law of Moses people were to be cut off (excommunicated) from the assembly of Israel for a variety of transgressions, such as failing to observe the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14), or failing to observe the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-30). Defiance of the Law of Moses and rebellion against the authority instituted by God was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). The book of Numbers relates an incident in which part of the assembly of Israel rebelled against the leadership instituted by God. In chapter 16 of Numbers it refers to the entire assembly of the people of Israel (verses 19 and 22), but in verse 21 Moses commanded the people to separate themselves from “this assembly”, (referring to the assembly associated with Korah’s rebellion). This assembly included 250 prominent men who were leaders of the congregation and members of the governing council (the Sanhedrin). The Lord said that he would show who belongs to him and who is holy (or who is the Israel of God). In other words there was a division in Israel – between Korah’s assembly/church who rebelled against the leaders whom God had appointed and the rest of the assembly/church. The Lord showed who had his approval by an act of divine judgement, cutting off the unfaithful part but sparing the rest.

Moses prophesied concerning Jesus, the Messiah, who would appear in the future; “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.’ The LORD said to me: ‘What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account’” (Deuteronomy 18:15-19).

When the apostle Peter preached to the Jews he paraphrased this to say that “anyone who does not listen to him (Jesus) will be completely cut off from among his people” (Acts 3:23). Jesus is the appointed head of the church (i.e. assembly of Israel) and anyone who rebels against his authority is cut off from the covenant people. However, the apostle Paul taught in Romans 11 that those who are cut off from Israel on account of their rebellion against Christ have not been cut off beyond recovery and may be grafted back if they repent and believe. Jesus himself warned that if they do not believe in him they will die in their sins and remain cut off for eternity (see John 8:21-24 and Matthew 8:11-12).

During the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant many Jews who refused to believe the truth and so be saved were cut off from Israel while many Gentiles who believed were grafted into Israel. This was not, however, the casting off of the whole nation, but the cutting off of “some branches” (unbelieving Jews) which were replaced by other branches (believing Gentiles) that were grafted into the same tree. Paul warned the Gentile believers against falling into the trap of pride and conceit as they too would be cut off if they do not continue in God’s kindness:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either (Romans 11:17-21).

Contrary to Dispensational teaching, the unbelieving natural descendants of Israel, (including Gentile converts to Judaism), are cut off from God’s holy nation while they persist in their rejection of Jesus Christ and that is precisely why Paul wrote: “…not all who are descended from Israel are Israel”. Furthermore, believers in Jesus who were once regarded as uncircumcised foreigners by birth and were excluded from citizenship in Israel are grafted into the Israel of God through faith in Jesus Christ (see Romans 11:13-24; Ephesians 2:11-22 and 1 Peter 2:7-10).

Ironically, the Jews who believed in Jesus were excommunicated from the synagogue (the church that had become apostate). Even before Jesus was crucified, the gospel of John records that: already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue (John 9:22). But Jesus encouraged his disciples to persevere even if their fellow-Jews no longer considered them to be Jews because of their faith in Christ:

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:8-10).

In the light of the new covenant the apostle Paul taught that circumcision in the flesh counts for nothing unless they are reconciled to God through faith in the Messiah and circumcised in their heart by the Holy Spirit. This was not a new or foreign concept for Israel, as the prophet Jeremiah had said the same thing (see Jeremiah 9:25) and Moses himself pointed ahead to a spiritual circumcision of the heart done by the LORD, “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Paul taught that those who are only circumcised outwardly are not true Jews (see Romans 2:28-29). In other words, it is not natural birth, nor outward circumcision, that makes one part of God’s holy nation. The prophet Isaiah also said that foreigners who are faithful to the God of Israel will be counted among his people Israel (see Isaiah 56:3 see also Psalm 87:1-6). Clearly, the Israel of God was, and still is determined not by natural birth, but by faithfulness to the God of Israel. Men judge by outward appearances but the LORD judges the hearts of all people. It was in that context that Paul addressed Gentiles who had been included in God’s holy nation through faith in Jesus the Messiah:

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you [Gentile believers] to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God (Galatians 6:12-16).


The term Israel has come to designate various things. In the context of the Bible it refers to the ancient Kingdom of Israel that existed in Biblical times and to the people who are descendants of Abraham through Isaac and members of the covenant that God made with Abraham. This includes converts to the faith of Israel who worship the God of Israel. However, belonging to the covenant people also assumed faithfulness to the covenant. In the New Testament Paul uses the phrase “the Israel of God.” Can such a term justifiably be used of those who do not believe in, or are unfaithful to the God of Israel?

“Israel” was the name given to Jacob following his mysterious encounter with a man with whom he wrestled for the entire night, refusing to let go until the man blessed him. The name Israel means He strives with God or prince of God, for he prevailed with God in prayer until he received the blessing (see Genesis 32:22-32). After Jacob was called “Israel” he came to symbolize those who are born again of the Spirit of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The natural descendants of Jacob are involved in a struggle with God in that he appeared among his people in the form and likeness of a man – Jesus Christ. As was prophesied by Isaiah, God became flesh and made his tabernacle among us, but he also became “a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” – and a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem – because they did not recognize the time of God’s coming to them (see Isaiah 8:13-17). But they did not stumble beyond recovery and those who prevail in their struggle with God who appeared as a man become the Israel of God.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah) is born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 5:15).

At the time of Christ there were various groups all claiming to represent the truth and all having different ideas of what it meant to be the people of Israel. The Sadducees were closely related to the temple and priesthood. The Pharisees emphasized the importance of scrupulous personal observance of the Torah for the whole nation. The Essenes withdrew themselves to the desert, regarding the temple and priesthood as thoroughly corrupted while the zealots believed that they had to use force to liberate the nation from foreign oppression. Only two main streams emerged after the desolation of AD70. The one assembly, established by Yochanan Ben Zakkai claimed to be of the root of Abraham and Moses and guardians of the faith of Israel. The other is the church of Jesus Christ, the redeemed assembly of the faithful worshippers of Israel scattered among the nations which is sustained by the nourishing sap from the olive root (Romans 11:17).

Some Dispensationalists will concede that the church is a “spiritual Israel” but in reality it is only that part of Israel, to which believing Gentiles have been added, that can be called “the Israel of God.” Contrary to the central teaching of Dispensationalism the faithful church/assembly of Jesus Christ, that belongs to God because they have been purchased by the blood of the Lamb, is the Israel of God.


The coming of God’s Anointed King who would establish the kingdom of God throughout the world was the highest expectation of the nation of Israel and the climax of the history of mankind. The prophet Isaiah spoke of this great King, a descendant of King David, who would be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” He would establish the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem and would reign over the whole earth with justice and righteousness (Isaiah 9:6-7). Concerning this great expectation the LORD said that it would be too small a thing for him to only restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back a remnant of the faithful of Israel, but that he would also be a light for the Gentiles and his salvation would reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).

However, Scripture also reveals that his kingdom would not immediately overthrow all rebellion. David prophesied that the nations would conspire against the Messiah and that the kings of the earth would take their stand against him (Psalm 2:1-2) and Daniel revealed that the Kingdom of God is established concurrently with the earthly Gentile Kingdoms (Dan 2:35). The kingdom of God is the reign of God from heaven upon this earth. Although it is established in this present world, it is not of this world. In spite of the predicted rebellion against the kingdom of God the prophet Isaiah also said that the word of the LORD would go forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth and that many peoples would walk in his paths (Isaiah 2:3-4).

It was revealed to Daniel that the Messiah-King was destined to come 483 years after King Cyrus issued his decree for the exiles to return from their captivity to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (Daniel 9:24). Jesus came at the expected time, but since they do not acknowledge him as Messiah, the Rabbis teach that because the appointed time for the Messiah’s coming has passed we can hasten his coming by our meritorious deeds: Eg. The Talmud teaches in Sanhedrin 97b: “All the predestined dates [for redemption] have passed, and the matter [now] depends only on repentance and good deeds.” This is quite contrary to the teaching of Scripture that stresses the fact that we will never be deserving of God’s grace.

Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver wrote in Where Judaism differed p.85: “As a Messianic movement Christianity failed, as have all such movements in Jewish history and in the history of other peoples. The new order of things, the Kingdom of God, which was expected hourly, did not materialize. It has not materialized in the two thousand years which have elapsed since that time.”

Has the Messiah been born in Israel? Has God’s Anointed King been installed on Zion according to the prophecies of King David (Psalm 2)? Has the word of the Messiah gone forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? Has the kingdom of God come? Or has the word of God failed?

The apostle Paul answered this question by showing that it is not physical descent that constitutes the descendants of Abraham, but faith in the promise of God. Those who failed to recognize the time of God’s coming were cut off from Israel and are no longer regarded as the Israel of God.

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring (Romans 9:6-8).

The good news for Israel and all the peoples of the world who seek justice and righteousness is that two thousand years ago the Anointed King, descended from King David, was born into this world and announced that the kingdom of God was at hand. But according to the wisdom of God, those who are self-righteous, proud and rebellious towards the kingdom of God remain blinded to the glory of his Messiah. The rebellious remain in spiritual darkness failing to recognize the coming of the kingdom of God because it does not conform to their temporal expectations and ideas.

The apostle Peter wrote about the certain judgement that awaits ungodly men who refuse to submit to the kingdom of God: First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men (2 Peter 3:3-7).

When sceptics are told that the kingdom of God has already come and the word of the LORD has gone forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth with the good news that Jesus is Lord (i.e. He reigns), they consider it to be an anticlimax. In their spiritual blindness things appear to carry on the way they always have. But we should remember that ungodly scoffers mocked Noah throughout his lifetime as he built the Ark and they were eventually destroyed very suddenly in their rebellion and unbelief by the great flood.

The hope of Israel is not in a future appearing of the Messiah but in a present returning to God through faith in Christ. There is no redemption for the descendants of Israel, (nor for any other peoples), unless they acknowledge that Jesus the Messiah has come, that He is Lord and trust him now for their salvation.