What should we think about the Jews as a chosen people?
In modern society, the claim that one race is above another is called racism. What is the origin of the Jewish people’s belief that they are the chosen people, and how is it presented in the Bible? Further-more, what effect has this belief had on the Jewish people collectively, on Israeli policies toward others, and on the response of other groups toward Israel?
There are few concepts in religion that are more emotionally loaded and misunderstood than the claim that the Jewish people are God’s “chosen people.”1 In an era during which equality is a major issue, such a claim seems obsolete and offensive. As Jon Leven-son observes, “Few religious doctrines have attracted more virulent criticism than the idea of the chosen people. Over the past several centuries alone, both Jews and non‑Jews have judged this key tenet of classical Judaism to be undemocratic, chauvinistic, superstitious in short, retrograde in every way that matters to the progressive mind.”
Indeed, this idea of “chosenness” has been said to be the root of anti‑Semitism and to have spawned The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery that originated in czarist Russia and alleges a Jewish plot to achieve global domination. Furthermore, those who are calling for peace in the Middle East view this concept of chosenness as being inherently divisive and detrimental to attempts at reconciling the opposing factions in the conflict. For many religions this is an outdated concept, referring now only to a broken covenant relationship with God that has been superseded by more recent revelations. How then are we to under-stand the Jewish claim to chosenness in the twenty‑first century?
Because God’s Word is everlasting and does not change, it is the only sure standard upon which we can gain an understanding of Israel, the Jewish people, and the Middle East conflict—no matter what the latest cultural opinion polls say.
According to divine revelation, Israel did not choose for itself the burden of being a chosen people. Nor was the application of the term intend-ed to stir enmity or to imply that the unchosen are the enemies of God. Rather, God’s intent was to produce humility and generate a servant people who would represent Him before the world and ultimately be the means to blessing all nations who come to the God of Israel through the Messiah of Israel (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8).
Israel as the Chosen People in the Past
The Old Testament explains the concept of chosenness and affirms national (or ethnic) Israel as a chosen people. It provides the basis for Israel being afforded this special status as well as the purposes for Israel’s chosenness. As we consider what the Old Testament says, we can gain a better understanding of Israel’s special relationship with God and its unique role in the world.
As we seek to understand Israel’s status as a chosen people, we must first consider the biblical teaching of election. In doing so, we must make a theological distinction between indi- vidual election and national election. Individual election extends to any person and results in the salvation of that individual. By contrast, national election concerns only Israel and does not result in spiritual salvation (which only individual election can do) nor the physical deliverance of every member of the nation. Its aim is to guarantee that God’s purpose(s) for choosing the nation will be accomplished and that the elect nation will always survive as a distinct entity. These purposes include an elect remnant of Israel obtaining national salvation (Rom. 11:25‑27), experiencing physical restoration in its promised land (Ezek. 37:25‑26), and realizing its role as a blessing to the nations (Zech. 8:23). This national election of Israel is the basis for its status as the chosen people.
It is a common misconception that the Jewish people’s chosenness was based on some virtue they possessed or status they had achieved. In fact, they were chosen by God before they existed as a people or a nation. Scrip-ture reveals that Israel was chosen as a nation in the time of Abraham (see Gen. 12:2; 18:19)—before the birth of his sons Isaac and Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel). It was God’s choosing of the seed of the Patriarchs that made them the chosen people before this people or nation existed.
The unconditional nature of Israel’s election is emphasised in Deuteronomy 4:37: because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants [seed] after them; and He brought you out of Egypt with His Presence, with His mighty power (NKJV). In this verse, Moses stated that the basis of Israel’s election was God’s love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with whom He had made a covenant, and He chose their descendants on the basis of that covenant relationship.
In Deuteronomy 7:6-8:1, Israel is declared to be “a holy people,” not because of any innate righteousness on their own part, but because God has chosen them (7:6). God’s choosing set Israel apart from other nations. She was God’s own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth (7:6; cf. 26:18). Moreover, in Deuteronomy 7:7‑8, Moses said that the basis for Israel’s election was not due to its size (v. 7), for it was smaller than other nations, but because God loved Israel and established a covenant relationship with her founding fathers (v. 8). Because of this covenant relationship, God delivered Israel from Egypt (Ex. 3:6‑10) and set her above the other nations (Deut. 10:15). As a result, the people of Israel were obligated to obey God’s commandments (Ex. 19:6) and to circumcise their heart (Deut. 10:16), which was a spiritual sign of personal faith and individual salvation.
While Israel was chosen on the basis of God’s love, there were multiple purposes for God’s election of Israel. We find the primary purpose stated at the outset of God’s revelation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:6: You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. While Israel’s status as “a holy nation” was based on her election, the purpose for her election was to be “a kingdom of priests.” Even though Israel had a priestly tribe (Levi), the nation collectively was to serve as a priesthood. The historical function of a priest was to represent man to God. Therefore, just as the tribe of Levi represented Israel before God, Israel was to represent the Gen-tile nations before God.
Another purpose for Israel’s chosen status was so that she could be the recipient and recorder of God’s revelation. It was for this reason Israel received the Mosaic Law (Deut. 4:5‑8; 6:6‑9; Rom. 3:1‑2). Yet another purpose for her chosenness was so she could serve as a witness for the one true God. In Isaiah 43:10‑12, Israel was chosen to proclaim to the Gentile nations that YHWH, the God of Israel, is the one and only true God and Savior, and therefore all who seek salvation must find it exclusively in Him.
A final purpose for Israel’s chosen-ness was to produce a lineage for the Messiah (Rom. 9:5; Heb. 2:16‑17; 7:13‑14). He would be born of the seed of Abraham and of the lineage of David (Mt. 1:1), bringing salvation first to Israel (Acts 3:26; Rom. 1:16) and then to the nations (Acts 13:47; Titus 2:11).
Just as national Israel’s chosen-ness had a purpose, there was also a divinely designed program that would support and perpetuate the promises made to her as a chosen people. This program consists of the four biblical covenants made by God to Abraham and his descendants after him. These covenants begin with the Abrahamic covenant, the wellspring of the other three covenants and the basis on which the Messiah came to bring redemption to Israel (Lk. 1:54‑55, 68‑73). The three promises in this covenant of a land, a seed, and a blessing (Gen. 12:1‑3; 22:17) became the basis for three separate covenants: the land covenant (Deut. 30), the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7), and the new covenant (Jer. 31-33).
These covenants were unconditional (“I [God] will…”) and unending (“forever”) and form the basis for God’s preservation of the Jewish people through time, their return to the land of Israel, the future rule of Messi-ah, and Israel’s future physical restoration and spiritual blessings in the kingdom of God. Due to the chosen people’s national sin (idolatry and defection from God—see Isa. 30:1, 9‑14; 31:6‑7), they did not experience the fulfilment of all the provisions promised in these covenants—and those that they did experience were temporary. This lack of fulfilment has made some people wonder whether Israel’s past rejection of God and His Messiah has cancelled their chosen status and replaced them with another chosen people (the church).
Israel as the Chosen People in the Present
Proponents of covenant theology teach that to a lesser or greater degree, God’s biblical covenants to Israel are now being fulfilled in, by, or through the church. Their view of God’s covenants controls how they interpret the nature, extent, and application of the biblical covenants made with national Israel. Some covenant theologians argue that these covenants were made with the church from the very beginning (elect Israel = the church in the Old Testament). Others concede that the covenants were originally made with national Israel but contend they have now been transferred to the church. As for national Israel, all that was promised either has already been fulfilled or has been forfeited through Jewish unbelief. Even covenant premillennialists, who see a future for ethnic Israel, believe that Israel will ultimately be amalgamated into the church.
This view, popularly stated, asserts that Israel was a chosen people in the past but was disinherited by God due to the people’s rejection of their Messi-ah. Therefore, the church has replaced Israel under the new covenant and has become the new chosen people. Replacement theology maintains that because the church is the new Israel and has spiritually inherited Israel’s covenants, modern Israel and the Jewish community have no special relationship with God that constitutes chosenness.
Is this, in fact, what the New Testament teaches? Should we make a theological distinction between Israel in the past and Israel in the present? What are the practical and political consequences of such a theological position? To answer these questions, we must look more closely at the four unconditional covenants God made with Israel in the past and determine if their legal language could allow for God’s promises to be cancelled and transferred to a different entity.
An Overview of the Biblical Covenants in the Present
In the New Testament, the term “Israel” is used a total of 73 times, with the vast majority of instances referring only to national ethnic Israel. The three exceptions are Romans 9:6, 11:26, and Galatians 6:16; however, a strong case can be made for these also referring exclusively to ethnic Israel. Based on the New Testament usage of “Israel,” we can conclude that the church is never called a “spiritual Israel” or “new Israel.” The term “Israel” is either used of the nation or the people as a whole, or of the believing remnant within it, but is never used of the church in general or of Gentile believers in particular.
For that reason, we can know that national Israel continues to be God’s chosen people. Whether or not the people are functioning within the purpose of their chosenness, if they exist as a distinct ethnic people, the covenants that were unconditionally promised to them must in some sense continue to operate in the present time. An overview of this present function of the covenants will help us realise this fact.
First, the biblical covenants were made exclusively with the Jewish people, designated as Israel. This is stated in Romans 9:4‑5. In that passage, not only is the emphasis on their ethnic identity (“fathers…flesh”), but on their present possession of these covenantal promises as well. If the writer, the apostle Paul, had understood that the rejection of Messiah by national Israel (as represented by its leaders), which had occurred 20‑plus years earlier, had caused it to forfeit these promises, he would not have used the present tense in that statement. This demonstrates that the New Testament under-stood Old Testament “elect Israel” as ethnic (no Gentiles included), distinguishing it from the church, which is inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles.
Second, the content of these covenants, which are legal contracts, must be interpreted literally if they are to be fulfilled as originally given in the context of a particular people (the Jewish people) and a particular place (the land of Israel). Since, as stated above, these covenants were made exclusively with Israel as an ethnic and national people, they must be fulfilled with them alone. This is not to say another entity (the church) could not participate in them (under the new covenant, cf. Eph. 2:11‑22; Rom. 11:17‑24), but that their fulfilment must take place as originally intended. In contract law, both parties must unambiguously understand the terms of the contract before agreeing to them. This is called “a meeting of the minds.” Israel could not have under-stood God to have promised her something that would be fulfilled by another people (the church). God could not have intended something different than what He promised without stating it or letting the people continue in their misunderstanding. This would constitute deception, rendering the contract null and void, and God has told Israel that He cannot lie but will always do what He has promised (Num. 23:19).
Third, the covenants God made with Israel are eternal and are not conditioned by time. The eternality of the covenants is stated variously as “forever” (Gen. 13:15; Ex. 32:13; 2 Sam. 23:5) or “forever and ever” (Jer. 7:7; 25:5; cf. Ps. 48:14) or “everlasting” (Gen. 17:7‑8,19). While the basic Hebrew term used here (‘olam) may have the sense of undefined time, the one defining it in context is God, who is called “God the Eternal” (El ‘olam—Gen. 21:33) and has an unlimited view of time with respect to the fulfilment of His legal obligations (Ex. 15:18; Deut. 32:40; Ps. 90:2).
While, as stated above, nothing over time can change the terms of the covenants (literal fulfilment with Israel), fulfilment can be delayed or postponed. The fact that a covenant is made at a specific point of time does not mean that all the provisions of the covenant must go into effect immediately. Some can, but others may not—even for centuries. For example, Abraham was promised a son through Sarah but had to wait 25 years before that promise was fulfilled. Other provisions were not fulfilled until later in Jewish history, such as the deliverance from Egypt, which was also part of the covenant (Gen. 15:13‑16). Finally, other provisions are still future and have not yet been fulfilled, such as Israel’s ownership of and settlement in all of the Promised Land (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 23:31; Deut. 11:24; Jos. 1:4; 13:1). Under the present condition of Israel’s discipline for disobedience, fulfilment must wait until that time in the future when Israel repents as a nation at the coming of the Messiah (Zech. 12: 10-14:11; Mt. 24:30‑31; Acts 3:19‑ 26; Rom. 11:25‑27).
Fourth, God’s covenants with Israel are unconditional, which means their fulfilment is totally dependent upon God. Even though these covenants include conditional aspects, these aspects are not the basis by which the covenants will be fulfilled. While Israel’s failure to meet the conditions within these covenants has resulted in divine discipline, the covenant promises cannot be abrogated (Jer. 30:11; Rom. 11:11‑15). This fact was clearly stated in Scripture to assure Israel that even when it was exiled to foreign lands on account of divine judgment, God would still fulfil His promises by regathering Israel to the land and restoring her relationship to Him (Jer. 29:14; cf. Deut. 30:4; Ezek. 11:17; 36:24; 37:21,25; 39:28). There is no clearer statement of this fact than in Psalm 89 with respect to the Davidic covenant (esp. verses 3-4, 28-29, and 30-36).
In addition, God has guaranteed the fulfilment of the covenants to Israel not for their sake, but for the sake of His own reputation (Ezek. 36:16‑32). For this reason, Israel’s present disobedience has not changed the past promises, for God has not changed, the chosen people (Israel) have not changed, and the chosen place (the land of Israel) has not changed. Final fulfilment for Israel will be within “God’s kingdom program [which] was the outworking of His eternal and unconditional covenants with Israel.”
The Operation of the Biblical Covenants in the Present
All four biblical covenants are not only still in effect, but also still operative at the present time. The church does indeed have a relationship to these covenants, but it is not the relationship that is described by covenant theology. Today, Israel is a scattered nation, but still a nation. Just as Israel remained distinct in Egypt, the Jewish people have remained distinct throughout the church age. No other nation that lost its national homeland and became dispersed for centuries has ever survived as a distinct entity. Rather, wherever those nations were scattered, they intermarried and disappeared into a melting pot. Not so with the Jews, whose distinctive history is still easily traceable. The fact that the Jews have continued to survive as a people—in spite of so many attempts to destroy them—shows that the Abrahamic covenant (inclusive of all the other covenants) is still operative.
The land covenant revealed that the land would be desolate (Isa. 6:11; 33:8) and that a final worldwide regathering would follow a similarly worldwide dispersion (Deut. 4:25‑31; 30:1‑9; Jer. 33:10‑22; Ezek. 36:3‑24).
While the final regathering is still future, the global scattering is a present fact and has been so since AD 70. Within the confines of the church age, there has been no truly independent government in the land since AD 70 until recently. It has been overrun many times and ruled by many powers (Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, and Britons), but always ruled from somewhere else, especially under Arab occupation (Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Amman, etc.).
Though the land was renamed Palestine by Hadrian in the second century AD, there never was a Palestinian state with a Palestinian government. The first time an independent government was set up in the land since AD 70 was in 1948 with the state of Israel. This modern return to the land is in keeping with the promise of the land covenant. Therefore, the history of the land of Israel reveals that the land promises have and are being fulfilled—demonstrating that the land covenant is still working itself out with the chosen people. Never in history has Israel possessed, dwelt in, and settled in all of the Promised Land. However, the land covenant guarantees that someday it will (Ezek. 37:25‑26; 45:1‑8; 47:13‑23).
The Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:8‑16) offered four eternal promises: a house (vv. 11,16), a throne (vv. 8,13,16), a kingdom (vv. 12,16), and a descendant (vv. 12,13,14‑15). The fact that Yeshua the Messiah, the son of David (Mt. 1:1; Lk. 1:32; cf. Rev. 5:5), is David’s eternal descendant and is now seated on a throne at the right hand of God (Ps. 110:1) shows that this covenant is still functioning. Messiah is not currently ruling from the Davidic throne over the physical kingdom of Israel (note that the throne of David was on earth and the throne of God is in heaven), but the very fact Messiah has yet to sit upon the throne of David to rule over Israel confirms that the status of the chosen people has been maintained.
As for the promised kingdom, God stated this provision in 2 Samuel 7:10. It is evident from Israel’s present experience in the Middle East conflict that this promise has not yet been fulfilled but will be in the future (Jer. 33:14‑17,19‑22). Therefore, this covenant must remain in operation until its fulfilment.
The new covenant (Jer. 31:31- 33:26) was made between God and Israel as the means to the fulfilment of the covenantal promises. The major feature of this covenant was Israel’s national salvation, inclusive of every individual Jew. This covenant was signed and sealed by the shed-ding of Yeshua the Messiah’s blood. While this provided the basis for individual Jewish salvation, the national salvation of Israel awaits a future fulfilment, with Israel’s national repentance and acceptance of Yeshua when He comes to bring national redemption and restoration (Zech. 12:10-13:1,8‑9; 14:4; Acts 3:19‑21; Rom. 11:25‑27). While the church has a relationship to this covenant, this is a uniquely Jewish covenant and there-fore can only be fulfilled by a future national salvation of Israel. However, its present outworking, witnessed in the individual salvation of a Jewish remnant and their indwelling by the Holy Spirit within the church (Rom. 1:16‑17; 9:27‑29; 11:1‑5; 10: Acts 2:1‑4), gives assurance that the promised national salvation (Ezek. 36:24-32) will take place.
In addition, the fact that the Abrahamic covenant is still operational is confirmed by the fact that the blessings and curses promised in Genesis 12:3 continue to be experienced by the world’s nations based on their relation-ship to Israel. Those who have opposed or oppressed Israel have fallen, and those who have harboured and protected Israel have risen. This ongoing blessing or judgment of the nations affirms the continual function-ing of the Abrahamic covenant during this era of the new covenant.
Still the Chosen People
Some have been confused by the fact that the Jewish people are in partial possession of the Promised Land yet are not in a spiritual relationship with God, per the conditions stated within the covenants. This confusion is removed when we recognise that the prophets spoke of two international returns: the first a regathering in unbelief in preparation for judgment (Ezek. 20:33‑38; 22:17‑22) during the tribulation (Mt. 24:15‑21), which will be followed by a second regathering in faith in preparation for the blessings of the Messianic age (Isa. 11:11‑12; Ezek. 36:22‑24). The restoration of the Jewish state is a fulfilment of the prophecies that spoke of a regathering in unbelief in preparation for judgment. The fact that prophecies are being fulfilled with the modern state of Israel shows that Israel continues to remain God’s chosen people.
As we have seen, the biblical covenants contained two types of promises: physical and spiritual. The physical promises were, and still are, limited to Israel and will be fulfilled only by Israel, which is an aspect of chosen-ness. Another aspect of chosenness is that the spiritual blessings of these covenants would be mediated by Israel to the Gentile world. By faith, Gentiles can become partakers of the Jews’ spiritual blessings, but they are not takers‑over, as replacement theology teaches. All the spiritual benefits are now being shared by the church (comprised of both Jews and Gentiles), but the still‑future fulfilment of these covenants with regard to Israel indicates they remain in operation today and Israel is still the chosen people. In the final analysis, despite Israel’s present discipline and the problems posed by the Middle East conflict, Israel continues to be the chosen people because the world has not yet experienced the international peace, prosperity, and blessing that the Jewish people were chosen to bring to mankind (Isa. 2:2‑4; 60:5‑14; Zech. 8:23).
This article is based on a on a on a chapter the author wrote What Should We Think About Israel?, an excellent book excellent by Randal Price, published this this year by Harvest House Publishers. The text was slightly edited to better fit the format of this magazine.
If you loved this article be sure to check out the source in edition 33 – Ariel Magazine