Israel Of God (3)

In part 2 we looked at the covenant of grace.


The New Covenant

With Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension the promise which God made to Adam and repeated to Abraham remains, but the circumstances have changed. We who live on this side of the cross view things differently because we live in the days of fulfillment. In biblical terms, we live in the “last days” (2 Pet 3:3; James 5:3; Hebrews 1:2; Acts 2:17).

The entire function of the Old Covenant was to direct attention upward to heavenly realities (Exod 25:9; Acts 7:44; Heb 8:5) and forward in history to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The old signs, Passover and circumcision along with the other bloody sacrifices and ceremonies have been replaced. Yet we still live in covenantal arrangement with God, and the bloody pictures of Christ have been replaced with unbloody signs (reminders) and seals.

Just as God made a covenant with Abraham, he promised a New Covenant to come later (Jer 31:31). He made this New Covenant in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20). The Lord Jesus consciously and specifically established “the New Covenant.” The Apostle Paul said he was “a servant of the New Covenant” (2 Cor 3:6) . How can this be if there is but one Covenant of Grace? The New Covenant is new as contrasted with Moses, but not as contrasted with Abraham.

This is the point of Galatians 3:1–29; 4:21–31, and 2 Corinthians 3:7–18 where Paul says that the glory of the Old Covenant was fading but the glory of the New Covenant is permanent. The message of Hebrews chapters’ 3–10 is that the Old Covenant (under Moses) was preparatory to the New Covenant. The fundamental theme of Hebrews 11 is that Abraham had a New Covenant faith, that is, he anticipated a heavenly city and to the redemption which we have in Christ (Heb 11:10). There’s more on the New Covenant here.

Israel Defined: Jacob Have I Loved

There was, therefore an Israel before the Old Covenant. Israel was the name given to Jacob. The first time the word “Israel” appears in Scripture, as the conclusion to the story of Jacob’s wrestling match (Gen 32:21–30). After spending the night wrestling with an anonymous man, and “when the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob” (v.25), Jacob demanded a blessing from him. In turn, the wrestler renamed Jacob as Israel, which he defined as “wrestles with God and men.”

Thus, in the history of salvation, all those who stem from the Patriarch Jacob are, in a broad sense, “Israel.” Only two chapters later the term “Israel” is used to describe the place and name of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (34:7). At Paddan Aram, God again blessed him and named Jacob, “Israel” (35.9-10) and repeated the Abrahamic promise to be a God to Abraham and to his children.

All this might seem to support the notion that, Israel means, “those physically descended from Jacob.” Except that Jacob is not the beginning of the story. Before there was an Israel there was Abraham and his miracle son, Isaac (Rom 9) and before Abraham, Jesus says, “I AM” (John 8:58). It was to Abraham, that God promised, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Indeed, Jesus taught the Jews in John 8, that it was he who made the promise to Abraham (John 8:56). Remember too that the first fulfillment of that promise did not come by “the will of man” but by the sovereign power of God when he allowed Sarah to conceive in her old age. These will be important facts to remember when we come to Paul’s answer to the question, who is the Israel of God?

Israel My Son

In the Exodus from Egypt, God constituted the children of Jacob collectively as his “son.”

This is what the LORD says: is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son’ ”
(Exod 4:23).

This is not just casual speech, but a very deliberate description of the national people. The sons of Jacob are not God’s Son by nature, but, as it were, by adoption. Moses denies that there was any quality inherent in Israel which made the sons of Jacob worthy of being called the people of God.

The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other people, for you were the fewest of all people. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh, King of Egypt (Deut 7:7)

According to this passage, there are two reasons for God’s choosing of Israel, His undeserved love and His Covenant promise to Abraham.

Israel Astray

Israel was not, however, God’s natural Son. That much was evident in the wilderness, in Canaan and finally in the ejection when God changed the name of his “son” Israel to “Lo Ammi, not my people” (Hos 1:9–10)

God disinherited his adopted, temporary, national “son” Israel as a national people precisely because God never intended to have a permanent earthly, national people. After the captivity, they had largely fulfilled their role in the history of salvation. As a sign of this fact, the Glory-Spirit departed from the temple. This is because their chief function was to serve as a type and shadow of God’s natural Son, Jesus the Messiah (Heb 10:1–4).

Next time: Jesus the Israel of God

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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