The relationship between Israel and the church is a complex one. Interwoven among the theological issues are the obvious political implications. Let me make several points that might help us to better understand those who see the covenantal promises given to Israel being transplanted to the church. First, in the Gospels we find the life of national Israel being recapitulated in the life of Jesus. The obvious place to start is with Matthew. Just as Joseph was sent into Egypt to preserve the family of Jacob (i.e. Israel), so Joseph the human father of Jesus was sent into Egypt to protect his Son. As Israel was brought out of Egypt, so we have a new exodus in Jesus (“Out of Egypt I called my Son” in Hosea 11:1/Matt. 2:15). A massacre of infants is associated with both events: Pharaoh in his attempt to kill Moses the perceived deliverer and King Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus the future king of the Jews. Jesus experiences a testing of His faith as a Son in the wilderness for forty days, just as Israel experienced the temptation to doubt in God’s fatherly provisions in the wilderness for forty years. As Jesus was led by the Spirit, so Israel was led by cloud by day and fire by night. The Sermon on the Mount given on a mountain parallels the giving of the Law to Israel on Mount Sinai.
Second, Isaiah speaks of a servant of the Lord upon whom God will place His Spirit and who will not falter until He brings justice into the land (Isa. 42:4). He will be pierced for our transgressions (Isa. 53:5). Most evangelical theologians see in Jesus the fulfillment of these prophecies concerning the servant. But Isaiah also refers to this servant as Israel (Isa. 44:1). The question has sometimes been asked, Is the servant Jesus or Israel? Perhaps one can argue that it is a reference to Jesus as a kind of Israel—one who is a perfect representative of Israel.
Third, we need to keep in mind that certain conditions (i.e. faith) must be satisfied for one to experience the blessings of the divine covenants. For many proponents of replacement theology, Israel’s failure to satisfy their end of the conditions led to these covenantal promises being fulfilled in Jesus, who is the faithful Israel. All those who enter into a new covenant relationship with Jesus will inherit these promises, just as those who were members of national Israel had under the old covenant (e.g. Matt. 21:43). This would make the church a “new” or “spiritual” Israel. Jesus’ choosing of the twelve disciples, in parallel to the twelve tribes of Israel, seems to be a clear indication of this.
But this is where the theological divide occurs. Opponents of replacement theology see these conditions as requirements that specific generations must meet in order to experience the covenantal blessings. But in terms of God’s promises to Israel as a whole, they are understood as being unconditional. This is how passages like Romans 11 are interpreted. Specific generations of Jews have missed out on the blessings poured out at the first coming of the Servant of the Lord. But this does not nullify God’s promises to Israel as a people group, for as Paul writes, the calling of God is irrevocable. No matter how we interpret the details of this text, one thing is for sure: there is hope for Israel, for one day “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).