Tomb of Abraham in Hebron, Israel. Photo Credit: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com
Someone recently asked me, “Who are the real children of Abraham? Are all the children of Abraham ‘Israel’? Do the promises contained in the covenants apply to those of the flesh or to those of faith?” Here’s how I responded to my friend…
I believe that throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, “Israel” refers consistently to the ethnic, physical descendants of Abraham. “Gentiles” is a broad term for all non-Jews. Sometimes, it speaks of the godless pagans. At other times, it simply refers to the non-Jewish people groups of the world and would be synonymous with “Greeks” and “the nations.” Context in each passage will easily determine if it carries a negative, spiritual connotation of godlessness (Eph. 2:11; 4:17; 1 Thess. 4:5; 1 Pet. 2:12; 4:3) or is a simple statement of non-Jewish ethnicity (Rom. 1:13; 9:24; 11:13).
In the Old Testament, people could only be in right relationship with God by believing in God as Savior, and participating in the Mosaic covenant. The law was never a means to salvation; it was God’s holy measuring stick to convict people of their sin, and then for those who believed, it became the outward expression of one’s faith in the one true God. Gentiles were required to proselytize or convert over to Judaism in order to become a full member of the covenant community. Remember, the church was a complete mystery at this point and had not been revealed, nor did it even exist (Matt. 16:18; Rom. 11:25; Eph. 1:9; 3:3-6; 6:19; Col. 1:26-27).
Contrary to the teaching of some, the New Testament continues to maintain a distinction between Jew and Gentiles. People will often look at a passage like Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek” and conclude that all distinction has been removed, and that the church is the new or true Israel. But this simply is not the case.
In the present era, the Jew/Gentile distinction is diminished, but it is never lost. In a similar way, male/female and slave/master distinctions may look different under the new covenant, but they are never abolished. We must not press Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:9-11 so far as to eliminate all distinction. These passages speak of spiritual equality, not functional equality. In fulfillment of his covenant promise to Abraham, God still maintains a distinction and has a future plan for ethnic Israel. See for example:
Acts 13:45–46 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.
Acts 14:2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.
Romans 9:24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Romans 11:11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.
Romans 11:25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
1 Corinthians 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,
Galatians 2:14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
I believe this is the point of Jesus’ statement in John 10:16 also: And I have other sheep [Gentiles] that are not of this fold [Jews]. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
In what way, then, are Gentiles the children of Abraham? According to Romans 4, all who believe in Christ are children of Abraham according to faith. Paul as a Jew could call Abraham “a forefather according to the flesh” (Romans 4:1). But down in verse 11, he says Abraham becomes “the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well.”
Using a classic Hebrew figure of speech, where a child resembles his father, Paul is saying that even non-Jews can call Abraham father when we imitate the same kind of faith that he exhibited by grace alone in Christ alone. So, it may be a silly Sunday School song, but there really is theological truth in the song, “Father Abraham, had many sons…I am one of them, and so are you…”
Sometimes, the terms “circumcised of heart” and “children of Abraham” speak of a spiritual reality and refer to both believing Jews and Gentiles in a figurative sense. But, and this is important: the Bible never uses the technical term “Israel” to refer to the church.
Nor do I believe these expressions remove or transfer God’s promises away from Israel (which he made in the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants). Through the New Covenant, his blessings spill over and now affect believing Gentiles too. But God would never revoke the promises he made to the Israelite nation.
Jeremiah 31:35–36 “Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.’ ”
All glory be to God!