Does Israel in the Bible really mean Israel?

When we read about Israel in the Bible, what does it mean for us today?
About a third of the world identify themselves as Christian, but Israel is 0.7% of the world. Even if you were to count all the Jewish people in the world, it is still only 2%, so when the Bible talks about Israel all the time, is God really only talking about this tiny minority of his people? Many Christians read prophecies concerning Israel and songs about Israel as if they were about all of his people – Christians included. Most of us read the Bible as if it’s talking to us today, and that when God says “Israel” he really means “us”. And there are good reasons to think this way.

We know that God’s heart was ALWAYS for all the nations.

The very reason he created Israel at all was in order to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:2). The plan was always to embrace all nations into his presence (Psalm 22:27, 67:4). Isaiah has a great way of putting it: in chapter 5, verse 26:

“He will raise a signal for nations far away, and whistle for them from the ends of the earth; and behold, quickly, speedily they come!”

Yes, God was always longing to bring all of his children to worship him. But we can see in Isaiah 11:12 that there is a distinction between the nations that he whistles for and the people of Israel –

“He will raise a signal for the nations AND will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”

God shows his desire to call Jewish people back to be together again. And this he has done, in 1948 when the State of Israel was re-established and Jews came from the four corners of the earth back to the Promised Land.
But wait – he also whistles for all the peoples of the earth to come – are we all supposed to go to Israel? Or is it a metaphor for coming into salvation? And if so, is he also speaking metaphorically about re-gathering Israel? Are we supposed to read these things literally or figuratively?

Perhaps the answer is both.

The people of Israel were kicked out of the land of Israel in 70 AD by the Romans, who renamed the area “Palestine”, in reference to the historical enemies of Israel[1]. Jewish people were scattered far and wide across the globe, and Israel, it seemed, no longer existed. For centuries, those who loved Jesus and the word of God struggled to understand how all those words about Israel could be true, since Israel was long gone, and showed no sign at all of reappearing. The church fathers settled on the explanation that all the promises relating to Israel should now be applied to all believers.
But there are two problems with this thinking: firstly, not only did God give many promises to the people of Israel, he also gave curses. The church has never been quite so excited to claim those for herself! And secondly, the people of Israel did not cease to exist. In fact, you and I are in the privileged position in history to know that Israel HAS reappeared, just as the promises in the Bible said that it would, and the Jewish people are back in the land that was promised to them. Moreover, it’s clear from Scripture that when the Messiah comes again, it will be to the land Israel, and that it will be full of Jewish people when he returns. (Ez 20:40-44, Matt 23:37-39, Zech 12:10-14, and many more.)
So clear are all the promises and prophecies concerning the future of Israel that when the events of the Reformation, the invention of the printing press and Bible translation all combined to produce a more Biblically literate body of Messiah, expectation that Israel would be reestablished grew exponentially.

So how should we understand the concept of Israel when we read it in the Bible today?

God’s character does not change, so if he deals with the people of Israel in a certain way, then we can learn truths about him for our own lives. Sometimes God can speak to us very directly and personally through a passage that was initially written to the people of Israel, because his word is alive and active. But also, it’s good to try to read the Bible as if it really means what it says. Many times when God talks about Israel, he really means Israel! Try reading Romans 11 aloud, saying “the church” every time the word “Israel” is written. You’ll soon see it makes no sense! Israel in the Bible usually means Israel. But far from excluding non-Jews from God, understanding this basic truth can turn our whole Bible-reading adventure into a more technicolor experience as we see his faithfulness in action, watching history and prophecy unfolding before our very eyes as he continues to deal with his people Israel.
He is faithful to his promises to Israel, faithful to his word, and faithful to all believers. What a joy to see his word in action!
[1] The country was called Palestine at that time, but it should be noted that the general region had been to referred to as Palestine for hundreds of years before this date, see Herodotus’ Histories (Beloe, W., Rev., Herodotus, (tr. from Greek), with notes, Vol.II, London, 1821, p.269) and Aristotle (Meteorology, Webster tr. II:3)

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