ARE CHRISTIANS ‘SPIRITUAL JEWS’?
BY DANIEL L. SEGRAVES
Question Posted: What are your views on the Biblical doctrine of Christians as “spiritual Jews”?
A confusion of the church and Israel re sults from failure to strictly rely on a literal hermeneutic*, and it results in a blurring of the distinctions between dispensations, a confusion of the covenants, and a
denial of God’s future dealings with the nation Israel. The roots of this point of view reach back into church history to Origen’s alle gorism (“spiritualizing” scripture, e.g., the church is Israel), Augustine’s The City of God (asserting that the millennium is fulfilled in the present church age and failing to see any future for the Jewish people), and the amillennialism of the Roman Catholic Church.
A literal interpretation of Scripture, however, reveals a clear distinction between the church and Israel.
I Corinthians 10:32 is pivotal to understanding the distinction between Jews, Gentiles, and Christians: “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God. ”
Here three clearly distinct groups are seen: (1) the Jews; (2) the Gentiles; and (3) the church of God.
A careful study of the use of the word “Jew” in Scripture will reveal it was originally a nickname or abbreviation for those of the tribe of Judah. But its use soon expanded to include all those of the Hebrew
race. Mordecai, of the tribe of Benjamin, was a Jew (Esther 2:5). Hebrews and Hebrewesses are known as Jews in Jeremiah 34:9. In Ezra 4:12, descendants of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi are called
Jews. The implication is strong, however, that the term reaches out to include some representatives of all twelve tribes.
“So the priests, and the Levites, and some of the people, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinims, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities ” (Ezra 2:70).
“And offered at the dedication of this house of God an hundred bullocks, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs; and for a sin offering for all Israel, twelve he goats, according to the number of the tribes of
Israel ” (Ezra 6:17).
“Also the children of those that had been carried away, which were come out of the captivity, offered burnt offerings unto the God of Israel, twelve bullocks for all Israel, ninety and six rams, seventy and seven
lambs, twelve he goats for a sin offering: all this was a burnt offering unto the LORD” (Ezra 8:35).
Throughout Ezra and Nehemiah these are called Jews. Throughout the Book of Esther, all Israelites in the kingdom of the Medes and Persians are called Jews.
Thus the word “Jew” came to be a synonym for “Israelite.” This is reasonable in view of the fact that Judah was in the greatest sense the leading tribe. It was that tribe through which the Messiah would come.
It was the tribe which always led in battle. When the northern tribes rebelled against the house of David, Judah retained its loyalty.
But with the rejection of the Messiah by the nation of Israel at large, and with the continued persecution of the early believers by the Jewish leaders, there came a gradual shift in the meaning and significance of
the word “Jew.”
Throughout the gospels and the Book of Acts, both the godly and the ungodly who were physically descended from Jacob were called Jews.
“Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans ” (John 4:9).
“And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
“And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name [was] Bar Jesus ” (Acts 13:6).
“And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome.) and came unto them” (Acts 18:2).
“And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus ” (Acts 18:24).
“And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so ” (Acts 19:14).
“But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people ” (Acts 21:39).
A clear shift is seen in Romans 2:28-29:
“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. ”
This passage is often misinterpreted to mean that Christians are “spiritual Jews.” This is not the point at all.
There is no Scripture in the entire New Testament which suggests that Gentile Christians become “spiritual Jews” or “spiritual Israel.” Such an idea begins quickly to confuse the hermeneutical principles concerning the dispensations, the covenants, and ethnic division. The logical outgrowth of this erroneous interpretation is to deny the nation of Israel any future in God’s dealings and to reinterpret all the Old Testament prophecies having to do with Israel as referring in some spiritual way to the church.
Actually, the Romans 2:28-29 passage reveals that physical ancestry alone is not enough to qualify one to be a true Jew (Israelite). Sincerity of heart must be coupled with physical descent.
This is what is meant by Paul’s statement in Romans 9:6: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.” In other words, not all who are physically descended from Israel are actually true Israelites. True Israelites are those who have both physical and spiritual descent.
This clarifies Paul’s statement in Romans 11:26: “And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. ” This is a prophecy yet to be fulfilled in God’s future dealings with Israel. It certainly does not mean that every physical descendant of Israel who has ever lived will be saved, nor even that all of them living at the time the prophecy is to be fulfilled will be saved. What it does mean is that all the physical descendants of Israel who are living at that time and who have a true heart after God, responding in faith to the Messiah, shall be saved. These will be those who, from faith, call on the name of the Lord; they are the remnant. (See Joel 2:32.)
That God has always had a true remnant within the nation of Israel is evident. Asaph wrote, “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart” (Psalm 73:1). The statement of God’s goodness to
Israel is qualified by the phrase “to such Various Uses of the Word “Jew” as are of a clean heart.” Not all of national Israel could be described by these words. They were thus excluded from the blessing Asaph had in view.
Paul said, “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). The “Israel of God” in this New Testament sense refers to believing Israel, Jews who had embraced Jesus as their Messiah. No doubt Paul added this blessing in view of the nature of the Book of Galatians. In it he had dealt firmly with Judaizers, Jewish professing Christians who wanted to
require Gentile believers to keep the Law of Moses as a condition of salvation. Paul’s unequivocal rebuke of these erring Jews must have prompted him to wish to reassure the sincere Jewish believers of his love for them.
In his letter to the church at Smyrna, the Lord Jesus said, “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). This seems to be a similar
statement to that made by Jesus in John 8, where He declared to Jews, Abraham’s seed, “If God were your Father, ye would love me … Ye are of your father the devil … ” (John 8:42, 44; See also vv. 31, 33, 37-41).
A key, then, to understanding the implications of the word “Jew” is to closely examine the context. The following chart will illustrate this:
Various Uses of the Word “Jew”
The tribe of Judah or the two tribes of the southern Kingdom—II Kings
The tribe of Benjamin—Esther 2:5.
Hebrews and Hebrewesses—Jeremiah 34:9.
Jesus, of the tribe of Judah–John 4:9.
A sorcerer and false, prophet-Acts 13:6.
Sceva, a chief priest-Acts F 19:14.
Paul, of the tribe of Benja min–Acts 21:39.
As distinguished from Gentiles-Romans 1:16.
The tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi-Ezra 4:12.
All of the converts to Christianity prior to Acts 10 were Jewish, with the possible exception of some proselytes (Acts 2:10). These retained their Jewish identity. The Gentiles converted beginning with Acts 10
retained their Gentile identity.
And yet Paul wrote that in Christ, there are no racial, social, or sexual barriers: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Obviously Christianity does not erase sexual distinctions: men are still men and women remain women. Neither does it negate social status: those who were converted as bondmen remained bondmen; those who were freemen remained freemen (I Timothy 6:1-2; I Corinthians 7:20-24). It follows, therefore, that conversion does not erase the ethnic distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews are physically still Jews;
Gentiles are physically still Gentiles.
The point of Paul’s statement is that “in Christ Jesus” all are one. That is, the Jew has no advantage over the Gentile; the man has no advantage over the woman; the freeman has no advantage over the bondman. As someone said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”
It is obvious, in certain cases, that both the terms “Jew” and “Gentile” carry negative connotations. In these cases, both terms refer to unregenerated members of both ethnic groups.
For example, Paul wrote, “Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands ” (Ephesians
2:11). In Romans 2:24 he wrote, ‘For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written. ” Again, in I Corinthians 10:20, Paul declared, “But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. ” In the same book, he said, “Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led” (I Corinthians 12:2).
The word “Jew,” or derivations of it, are used in the same sense, speaking of unregenerated members of the Jewish race. Paul, himself a Jew, warned Titus that he should “not give heed to Jewish fables, ” an obvious reference to the Jewish oral traditions. (See Titus 1:14.) He also refers to Judaism, as distinguished from Christianity, as “the Jews’ religion. ” (See Galatians 1:13-14.)
In I Corinthians 10:32, then, the term “Jew” refers to unregenerated members of the Jewish nation. The term “Gentiles” refers to the unregenerated members of all nations other than the Jewish nation. The
term “the church of God” refers to all who by one Spirit have been baptized into the one Body of Christ, regardless of their ethnic background, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. (See I Corinthians 12:13.) This was the mystery discussed by Paul in Ephesians 3:2-6.
The mystery in the Old Testament was never that Gentiles would One day come to the Messiah through the redeemed nation of Israel. The mystery was that in Christ the ethnic distinctions would be dissolved an both the both the Jew and Gentile would be “of the same body” and “fellow-heirs.”
In the future dealings of God with the nation Israel, Gentiles will come to the Messiah through the redeemed nation. (See, for example, Revelation 7:4-14 and Isaiah 60:3.) But this will be separate and
distinct from the church, in which Jew and Gentile stand on equal footing. Though the Gentiles will have opportunity for redemption, the nation of Israel will still retain distinct privileges and status. The barrier between Jew and Gentile will not fall.
There is no clearer explanation of the oneness of Jew and Gentile in the church than that found in Ephesians 2:11-19. Notice carefully what is and what is not said in this passage.
What is not said:
*That Gentiles are “spiritual Jews.”
*That Gentiles are now part of the commonwealth of Israel.
*That Gentiles are now partakers of the covenants of promise (those with eschatological implications).
What is said:
*That Gentiles are now “made one day come to the Messiah nigh” by the blood of Christ.
*That the “middle wall of partition” between Jew and Gentile is broken down (an obvious reference to the wall that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the areas of the temple reserved for the Jews. But the
breaking down of this wall did not make the Gentiles into Jews any more than it made the Jews into Gentiles).
*That the “law of commandments contained in ordinances” was abolished (an obvious reference to the ceremonial law, which was distinctively Jewish and included all non-moral commandments given uniquely to Israel, and which were predictive in nature of the coming Messiah).
*That in Christ both Jew and Gentile are made “one new man.”
*Both Jew and Gentile are reconciled to God by the cross.
*Both Jew and Gentile have access to the Father by the same Spirit.
*Gentiles are no more strangers and foreigners.
*Gentiles are fellow citizens with the saints.
*Gentiles are members of the household of God.
While a quick reading of this passage might seem to suggest that believing Gentiles have become part of national Israel, a careful study will reveal this is not the case. The most accurate Scriptural statement which can be made is not that believing Gentiles become “spiritual Jews” (a term that appears nowhere in Scripture), but that believing Jews and Gentiles together are made “one new man,” and a new man that is, spiritually, neither Jew nor Gentile. (See Galatians 3:28.)
The proper use of the truth seen in I Corinthians 10:32 will determine whether any specific Scriptural passages is to or about Jews, as a nation, or Gentiles (sometimes called “heathen” or “the nations”), or
the church. If the passage concerns the nation of Israel, it should not be interpreted as referring to the church. If it refers to the church, it should not be interpreted as referring to the nation of Israel. Obviously, if it refers to the heathen nations, it should be interpreted neither as having to do with the nation of Israel nor the church. Nor should statements referring to the church be interpreted as referring to unregenerated peoples, whether Jewish or Gentile.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY THE APOSTOLIC STANDARED, DECEMBER 2002, VOLUME 35, NUMBER 12, PAGES 4-8. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.