The apostles of Jesus Christ were taught by Him to read the Scriptures in a way that none of them had ever read the Scriptures before. In a phrase, Jesus taught them to read the Scriptures according to the spirit and not according to the flesh.
This new way of reading the Scriptures caused the apostles to understand the people of God differently. When reading according to the flesh, the people of God were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When reading according to the spirit, the people of God were those who followed Messiah. At first, the apostles understood this to mean Jews who followed Messiah, but in time they came to see that Gentiles could follow Messiah and be included in the people of God, too. In retrospect, this was an obvious conclusion, for why would you read the Scriptures according to the spirit, but limit their application to people according to the flesh. Old attitudes die hard in the human mind, however, and so this understanding took a little longer to change.
What distinguished old Israel (that is, the people of God according to the flesh) from new Israel (that is, the people of God according to the spirit) was, as said above, faith in Christ. Here, therefore, we see cases where believers – rather than physical descendants of Abraham – are regarded as God’s nation:
In Matthew 19:28, Jesus says tells His apostles that they will sit on the thrones for the twelve tribes of Israel. That is, as the physical nation had its patriarchs (Judah, Levi, Benjamin, and the rest), so spiritual Israel would have its patriarch (Peter, James, John, and the rest).
In Matthew 21:43, Jesus tells the rulers of Israel that God’s rule would be taken away from them and given to “another people.” Who were those other people? People who put faith in Christ.
In Luke 22:30, Jesus makes a point similar to the one He made in Matthew 19:28.
In Romans 8:28-29, Paul explicitly distinguishes Jews of the flesh (“outward Jews”) from Jews of the spirit (inward Jews).
In the third chapter of 2 Corinthians, Paul contrasts the exceeding glory of the new covenant when compared to the glory of the covenant that preceded it. This evokes Haggai 2:9, which otherwise some might have interpreted to mean that the Messiah would have more “stuff” than Solomon, but actually meant that Messiah would have spiritual, not earthly, trappings.
In Galatians 6:16, Paul blesses “the Israel of God.” This references those who no longer trust in circumcision, but rather in Christ Himself.
In Philippians 3, Paul uses the term “circumcision” to refer to Israel, distinguishing the “true circumcision” from the “false circumcision.” Of course, believers constituted “the true circumcision.” Those who gloried in the flesh were the “false circumcision” – or we could say “false Israel” or “the false people of God.”
The epistle to the Hebrews is obviously addressed to believers – not merely physical Hebrews.
In James 1:1, he addresses his letter to “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” – that is, those who believe in Christ and who are spread all over the Mediterranean world.
In 1 Peter 2:9-10 Peter takes Old Testament expressions and applies them to believers: “a chosen race,” “a royal priesthood,” “a holy nation,” “a people for God’s own possession, and “the people of God.” In the Old Testament, these terms had been applied to the physical descendants of Abraham; here, Peter is apply to those who believe in Jesus.
In Revelation 2:9 and 3:9, the expression “those who say they are Jews and are not” is obviously an allusion to this concept of distinguishing physical Israel from spiritual Israel.
Physical Israel is an earthly and therefore temporal identity. By contrast, spiritual Israel is a heavenly and therefore eternal identity. (See 2 Corinthians 4:18.) The apostles the Scriptures in the way they were ultimately intended to be read. It took Jesus Christ Himself, however, to bring that understanding.
Related post: Scriptures on Christ as Moses
The purpose of this blog is to proclaim Jesus Christ in terms familiar to those who read the Bible, and to help others become more familiar with the Bible. For those unfamiliar with the Bible, see the blog A Nonchurchgoer’s Guide to Jesus and His Kingdom.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB, unless otherwise noted. (In the NASB New Testament, quotations of the Old Testament are rendered in all capital letters in order to make them easier to identify.)