Origin of the Myth that the Church is "spiritual Israel"

When some of the early church leaders saw Jerusalem destroyed in the second Jewish revolt (A.D. 132-135) and the Jews excluded from Jerusalem upon penalty of death, they reasoned that the nation of Israel was apparently beyond any hope of recovery. Tertullian wrote:

"The Jews are scattered wanderers, excluded from their own land of Judea; this shows how they erred and forsook their calling, and how Judaism has been, therefore, superceded by Christianity" (The Apology).

These Gentile converts saw the condition of Israel, destroyed and seemingly beyond any hope of recovery, and reasoned that they would never be restored, in spite of the clear Revelation from God that ethnic Israel has not been cast away. Tertullian was not alone in this belief, as witnessed by the words of Justin Martyr in his conversation with the Jew Trypho:

"For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even at the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us" (Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew, Chapter 82).

These men ASSUMED that God had cast away Israel. Their false belief was not based on the Scriptures but instead on what they saw and reasoned had happened.

Noted church historian W.H.C. Frend observes that with this second fall of Jerusalem, "all hope of a restored Temple and Holy City now faded, and the Jews were thrown on to the defensive. The reference of the prophecies to an earthly restoration of the Jewish kingdom and Messiah in the form of a deliverer from Rome rule had to be abandoned" (Frend, "The Old Testament in the Age of the Greek Apologists A.D.130-180," Scottish Journal of Theology, 26).

Because the early Gentile Christians did not believe that national Israel would be restored they were left with a problem. How could they explain the following verses:

"And I saw another angel ascending from the east...Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel" (Rev.7:2-4).

According to their ideas the reference to "Israel" here could not be speaking of a restored nation of Israel so they reasoned that these verses must be in respect to the Church, which is His Body. They assumed that God had forever cast away national Israel, and the church had taken her place. Cyprian stated his belief that "the Jews, according to what had been foretold, had departed from God, and had lost God's favor while the Christians succeeded to their place" (Cyprian, Treatise 12-Three Books of Testimony Against the Jews).

So we can see that some of the people in the early church put what they saw with their eyes ABOVE what the Scriptures actually say. That explains how the false teaching that the Church is "spiritual Israel" came into existence. Over time the following verses were misinterpreted in order to attempt to justify this mistaken view:

Galatians 6: 16

" For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:15-16).

Preterist Dr. Kenneth Gentry writes: "Let us survey the Scriptural evidence for the Church's being the continuation--or better, the fruition--of Israel...Christians compose 'the Israel of God' for we are a 'new creature' regarding which 'circumcision availeth nothing' (Gal. 6:16)" (Bahnsen & Gentry, House Divided, 168-9).

To answer this idea I will quote dispensationalist Dr. Donald K. Campbell: "While some believe that 'Israel of God' is the church, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. First, the repetition of the preposition ('upon' or 'to') indicates two groups are in view. Second, all the 65 other occurances of the term 'Israel' in the New Testament refer to Jews. It would thus be strange for Paul to use 'Israel' here to mean Gentile Christians. Third, Paul elsewhere referred to two kinds of Israelites--believing Jews and unbelieving Jews (cf. Rom. 9: 6)" (Walvoord & Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary; New Testament, 611).

In the epistle to the Romans Paul speaks of a group of people who fit perfectly into the category of the "Israel of God": "God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew...Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace...Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded" (Ro.11:2,5,7).

Dr. Gentry also writes: "Christians individually considered and the Church as a collective body are called by distinctively Jewish names: 'For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God' (Rom.2:28-29)" (Ibd., 168).

When we examine the context of these verses we can see that in the previous verses Paul is contrasting the Jews with the Gentiles (vv. 10-14). At Romans 1:21-32 Paul speaks exclusively of the Gentiles then beginning at Romans 2: 17 and ending at 3: 3 he speaks exclusively of the Jews according to the flesh. Then he sums up his argument, and by his summation there is no doubt that he had two different groups in view:

"What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin" (Ro.3:9).

Also, an examination of the immediate context proves that Paul is speaking of the Jew according to the flesh: "But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?" (Ro.2:29 - Ro.3:3).

Speaking of "Jews" Paul asks, "For what if some did not believe?"Here he must be referring to the Jew according to the flesh. If he was referring to Christians he would not say that some of them did not believe. We can see that Dr. Gentry takes verses out of context in a failed attempt to prove that the Church is "spiritual Israel" and that Christians are "spiritual Jews".


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