Merriam-Webster defines New Israel as “the Christian fellowship of believers: the Christian Church.” This definition would be disputed by many evangelical believers and scholars. Is the church really the new Israel? And, if so, what is to become of the old Israel? What about Jewish believers today? The relationship of Israel and the Church has been debated for centuries and probably will continue to be a source of controversy until the Lord returns. With the Holocaust still fresh in our collective memories, the charges of anti-Semitism often come up in the discussion as well.
There are several distinct approaches to the issue of Israel and the Church, and it is our hope that this article may give some clarity and charity to the topic as well as answer the question about New Israel.
Classical dispensational theology proposes a radical difference between Israel (the Jewish people) and the Church (New Testament believers in Christ). Looking at Israel and the Church as two trees, God planted and tended to Israel, but she bore no fruit, so God cut down the tree leaving the stump and roots intact. He then turned His attention to a new tree, the Church. Currently, the Church is bearing fruit, and, when her time is complete, the Church will be raptured and transplanted to heaven. The old stump of Israel will sprout again. God will cultivate her, and she will finally bear fruit. The Church does not replace Israel, nor is the Church considered a “new” Israel. In this theological construct, there is no “new” Israel, only Israel and the Church—two separate entities.
Continuing the tree analogy, replacement theology agrees that Israel bore no fruit. But, instead of cutting her down and leaving the stump and roots intact, God uprooted and destroyed her. In her place, He planted a new tree—the Church—who took over all the functions and promises of Israel. In this view, the Church is the New Israel.
While these two views seem to be the most common, they do not exhaust all the options. When the biblical evidence is carefully examined, it appears that, instead of cutting down the tree of Israel, God simply removed the unbelieving branches and then grafted in new Gentile branches (Romans 11:17–20). Right now, the Gentile branches are much larger and thicker than the Jewish branches; however, God is not finished with the Jews, and one day we expect to see them come to Christ en masse. God has not rejected ethnic Israel (Romans 11:1). The church has not replaced Israel, but Gentile believers have become a part of Israel in this sense—it is believers in the Jewish Messiah who are true Israel, whether they be Jew or Gentile. There is no “new” Israel, simply a continuation of Israel and a distinction between believing and unbelieving Israel.
Does the claim of replacement theology that the Church is the New Israel amount to anti-Semitism? It seems that the charge of anti-Semitism would only be appropriate if those who hold to replacement theology were opposed to Jews because they are Jews. Generally speaking, they are not. They simply believe that the Jews as an ethnic people have forfeited their special position because the majority have rejected Christ. A true anti-Semite would oppose all Jews, whether or not they are believers. (For instance, in Nazi Germany, Jews who were Lutheran pastors were forced out of the ministry and out of the church because of their ethnicity, regardless of their Christian faith.)
The Bible has always condemned unbelieving Israel in the strongest possible terms. Look at some of the terminology used by the Old Testament prophets—Hosea 4:15, Jeremiah 3:6, and Amos 2:6–8, for example. The apostle Paul speaks of unbelieving Jews who oppose the gospel this way: “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!” (1 Thessalonians 2:14–16). But Paul was not an anti-Semite (he was a Jew himself), and he also wrote, “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Romans 9:1–5).
There is no “New Israel.” The Church has not become a new Israel, nor has it taken the place of old Israel. Simply put, followers of the Jewish King, believers in the Jewish Messiah make up true (not new) Israel. If those followers are Gentiles, then they have been grafted in and given citizenship in Israel—that is, they have been made part of the people of God. Today, the majority of Jesus’ followers are Gentiles while the majority of Jews are not His followers; however, we do expect that to change one day as God will once again move within the hearts of ethnic Israel. Even now, we see more and more ethnic Jews take their place in true Israel as subjects of the King. Incidentally, these believers are not welcome to return to Israel as citizens, as they are not considered bona fide Jews by the Israeli government. Perhaps these Jews, if anyone, should be considered New Israel.