Five Israels

November 2, 2023
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“For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel…”

Romans 9:6 

The Apostle Paul’s words in Roman’s 9:6 are staggering. And the implications for our lives can be equally disturbing. For the Christian to understand Romans 9:6 is important considering the Israeli/Hamas war and our own want for victory and freedom.  

First, vocabulary…because everyone loves vocabulary. 

The name Israel is used five different ways in the Bible. Context MUST be understood to know to which Israel an author is referring. In Romans 9:6, the Apostle Paul references three different Israels. First, Israel is the man who had descendants. Israel, formerly named Jacob, is the grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac. Second, Israel can refer to the those physically descended from Israel. “I am of Israel.” Third, Paul introduces some other, at this point mysterious, designation of “true” Israel that is not necessarily connected to physical descendancy.  

A fourth use of Israel refers to the physical land – the geopolitical country. The fifth meaning of Israel is the northern Kingdom after united Israel split in two. Who doesn’t love five meanings for one word!  

Recall that the Apostle Paul was born Jewish. He speaks as “one of them.” And not just one of them but one who excelled as one of them (Philippians 3:2-6). He was an All-Israeli Israelite, a Jew of Jews. Until he met Jesus. Everything changed. His Judaism that he clung to with vigor was wrong. His life’s mission was wrong. His education missed it. His “Israelism” was wrong. When he met Jesus, he began to understand that just because one is physically descended from Israel does not mean one is truly Israeli.   

Finding pundits talking today about the physical rights to physical land in the Israeli/Hamas war is easy. Many will point back to the physical split between Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Abraham, the father of the Jews, had two sons, Ishmael by his handmaiden, Hagar, and Isaac by his wife Sarah. Isaac’s son is Israel. So, today, the “physical” descendants of Ishmael and Isaac/Israel war over physical land (I put “physical” describing descendants in quotes because even establishing clear descendancy can be tricky.)  

But Paul declares that not all those physically descended from Israel are actually Israel. Consider the fuller context of Romans 9:6-8, 

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 

Paul distinguishes between children of the flesh, physical descendants of Israel, and children of the promise. He says that only children of the promise are true Israel. So, it is possible to be physically descended from Israel the man and not be a part of true Israel.   

What is the promise? 

The promise refers to a covenant Yahweh made with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. In that exchange, Yahweh, God our Father, made a promise to Abraham that in him and through him all the nations to come would be blessed. That is an obnoxiously grandiose promise that in ONE person ALL the people of creation would be blessed. How would this work? Abraham’s blessing would be carried on through his descendants. As his descendants spread more people would have access to the blessing. 

The miraculous birth of Abraham’s son, Isaac, is a key event in the continuation of God’s covenant plan. Abraham and Sarah were well beyond the years of having kids physically. Nevertheless, Yahweh intervened spiritually. Sarah was with child. Isaac was born when she was 90 years old (Genesis 21:1-8). The promised blessing was always going to be enjoyed spiritually in the overflow of a love relationship with the Promise Giver. 

Abraham’s people, future Israel, were supposed to model faithfulness to God’s promise to the world. Through their example, millions of people and individual nations would surrender to Yahweh and become a part of His family. Unfortunately, Israel’s history, as a physically descended nation, of modeling God’s promised life is horrible. They were Israel but they were not Israel.  

The pinnacle of Israel’s not being Israel is seen in their rejection of Jesus. Jesus was born of Abraham physically and spiritually. He was the ultimate fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise that in Abraham all people would be blessed. The blessing-promise is made possible because of Jesus.  

So, in John 8:39 when the Jews declare that Abraham is their father Jesus says no. “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deed of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill me, a man who has told you truth which I heard from God.” Staggering. If they were true descendants of Abraham, they would celebrate Jesus. But they killed Him. Israel was not Israel.  

The Apostle Paul, a Jew of Jews, an Israeli of Israel, had his eyes opened. Israel was not about physical descendancy but about belief in Jesus through the promise of Abraham/Isaac. So, he could boldly declare, “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).  


Access to the promises of Abraham, to the family of Abraham, has been made available to all people, not just physical Israel, through faith in Jesus Christ. To not have faith in Jesus is to not be a descendant of Abraham.  

The implications are staggering. According to Abraham, Jesus, and Paul if one does not believe in Jesus as the fulfillment of Abraham then one is not true Israel. Therefore, if Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, does not confess Jesus, then he is not Israel. If national Israel rejects Jesus, then they are not Israel.  

This revelation stunned Paul. If his cursing could be used to draw Israel to Jesus, he would wish himself accursed. He grieved deeply over Israel’s spiritual blindness and lost everything he had for the purpose of trying to win the Jews (Romans 9:1-5). 

But what about the implications of this on Christians?  

How close are we “Christians” to falling into not-Israel’s error? What makes you Christian? Because your parents. Because you have gone to church for years. Because you were baptized? Because you read the Bible? All of those are possible works one can do and not be Christian. For just as Paul writes that not all Israel is Israel, not all Christians are Christians.  

Everyone of us is susceptible to the Israel error. May we be convinced by the indwelling transformative work of the Holy Spirit that we are children of our Father, brothers and sisters of Jesus. May we not fall prey to the institutional forces of religion that want to make our faith about anything other than intimacy with God that ignites LIFE!  

This. Is. LIFE…in the overflow.    

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