J.C. Ryle Challenges You on the Meaning of ‘Israel’

J.C. Ryle

The great 19th century theologian and Anglican Bishop John Charles Ryle issued a simple challenge that has never been satisfactorily answered.  Below is the question in bold and the context in which it is found:

The word ‘Israel’ is used nearly seven hundred times in the Bible.  I can only discover three senses in which it is used. First, it is one of the names of Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes; a name specially given to him by God. Secondly, it is a name given to the ten tribes which separated from Judah and Benjamin in the days of Rehoboam, and became a distinct kingdom.  This kingdom is often called Israel in contradistinction to the kingdom of Judah. Thirdly and lastly, it is a name given to the whole Jewish nation, to all members of the twelve tribes which sprung from Jacob, and were brought out of Egypt into the land of Canaan.  This is by far the most common signification of the word in the Bible.  It is the only signification in which I can find the word ‘Israel’ used throughout the whole New Testament … What I protest against is, the habit of allegorising plain sayings of the Word of God concerning the future history of the nation Israel, and explaining away the fullness of their contents in order to accommodate them to the Gentile Church.  I believe the habit to be unwarranted by anything in Scripture, and to draw after it a long train of evil consequences.  Where, I would venture to ask, in the whole New Testament, shall we find any plain authority for applying the word ‘Israel’ to anyone but the nation Israel?  I can find none.  On the contrary, I observe that when the Apostle Paul quotes Old Testament prophecies about the privileges of the Gentiles in gospel times, he is careful to quote texts which specifically mention the ‘Gentiles’ by name. The fifteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is a striking illustration of what I mean.  We are often told in the New Testament that, under the gospel, believing Gentiles are ‘fellow heirs and partakers of the same hope’ with believing Jews (Eph. 3:6).  But that believing Gentiles may be called ‘Israelites’, I cannot see anywhere at all.[1]

Ryle seems to have overlooked Messiah being referred to as Israel in Isaiah 49:3.  Messiah is Israel in that He represents the Israelites in fulfilling God’s expectations and is a light to the Gentile nations (Is. 49:6).  This point is only even mentioned out of intellectual honesty and it hardly undermines Ryle’s message.

What New Testament verses may we turn to in attempting to answer Ryle’s challenge?  Perhaps Romans 9:6 will do?  The verse reads:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed.  For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel. (ESV)

If one is given to reading this verse removed from those surrounding it and with presuppositions then it could be taken to mean that this latter Israel includes Gentiles.  Though there is nothing in the Text that would allow for this rather significant leap.  The latter Israel refers to Israelites who were not only Jews outwardly with an outward circumcision but inwardly as well with a circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:28-29).

What about all Israel in Romans 11:26?  The problem with this example is that the previous verse makes a clear distinction between Israel and the Gentiles.  This distinction should not exist if Israel is meant to include the Gentiles.  The phrase all Israel is then referring to the Jews to be saved after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Zech. 12:10-14; Rom. 11:25).

Surely though the reliable Israel of God found in Galatians 6:16 is enough to silence Ryle?  Let us examine the verse to be certain:

And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

The rule is to be a new creation in Jesus Christ and not whether one is circumcised (Gal. 3:14-15).  Therefore, those who walk by this rule here are all saved Galatians.  In addition to them there is the Israel of God.  The very use of kai (and) above indicates a differentiation between groups.  The Israel of God cannot refer to the Body of Christ as a whole or it would not be spoken as being in addition to.

In writing his epistle to the Galatians, Paul was addressing the problem of certain Judaizers who were teaching that obedience to some of the Mosaic laws were necessary for salvation (notably circumcision).  Galatians 6:12-13 is a good example of this and speaks of Judaizers who did not even keep the law themselves.  They are hypocrites promoting a gospel of works and thus one different from the authentic (Gal. 1:6-7).  In light of the narrative concerning Jews who did not know God, it is easy to understand what the Israel of God refers to: Jews who did know God.  Galatians 6:16 also fails to answer Ryle’s challenge.

The verses that I looked to simply could not rise to meet the challenge.  Perhaps there are others?  Is J.C. Ryle mistaken?  Can even one example of Israel found in the New Testament be applied to anything other than the nation Israel?  Like Ryle, I can think of none.

[1] J.C. Ryle, Coming Events and Present Duties: Being Sermons on Prophetical Studies (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007), 125–127.


  1. Straight to the jugular. Thank you Matt for such a concise article. Well done.

  2. Thank you, very helpful.

  3. J.C. Ryle’s challenge is interesting, but I doubt that it’s ultimately meaningful.

    What I mean is: There is no action we’ll take differently, if we hold that the Church is “the Fulfillment of Israel” or not.

    The one likely exception to that statement is that if we do not hold that the Church is “the Fulfillment of Israel” we’ll be more prone to erroneously think of modern political state called Israel as being the same thing as the “Israel” of the Bible.

    It isn’t. But whether we think of the Church as “the Fulfillment of Israel” or not, that false-equivalence error can be seen to be an error, and can be avoided.

    (I shouldn’t have to say, but probably do need to say: The fact that the modern political state isn’t a prophesied reinstatement of the kingdom of Solomon doesn’t mean we should treat it badly, deny its right to exist, uniquely single it out for disproportionate criticism in international fora, or indulge fallacious moral equivalence between its self-defense efforts and the efforts of terrorists, of whatever pitiable origin, to slaughter children in schoolhouses and commuters on buses.)

    Consider Romans 11: Does the “olive tree” represent Israel, or not? I mean, into what were the believing Gentiles “grafted?” And from what were the non-believing Jews “broken?”

    The “family of God,” probably; inasmuch as the difference between a “contract” and a “covenant” is that the former is a one-time transaction but the latter makes the transactors into family members. We forget sometimes that in ancient times the best way to ensure that you did not go to war with your neighbor was not a signed treaty, but by adoption or intermarriage: By becoming family members, two parties made any violence between them a violation of the taboo of assaulting one’s own family.

    And this means that “the family of God” is, from a covenantal perspective, synonymous with “the household of God” and “the tribe of God” and ultimately “the nation of God” or, with the Son of David of the tribe of Judah at its head, “the kingdom of God.”

    But “the household of God” is…what? According to Paul, it’s the Church (1 Tim 3:15). And of course it’s also “the kingdom” of the Son of David: When David says he desires to build a “house” for God (a building) God replies, “no, I’m going to build a house (a dynasty) for you.” (2 Samuel ch. 7, see also Isaiah 22 where the al bayith or chief steward’s dynastic title is “he who is over the house.”)

    So the Church is the kingdom of the Son of David, Jesus Christ, whose rule is the fulfillment go God’s promise to David that a descendant of his would rule forever, that his “house” would not fail. But over what did David and Solomon (the first “Son of David” and prophetic type of Christ) rule? Over Israel.

    And Israel was the adopted “tribe of God,” adopted through covenant, becoming members of God’s family.

    So any person prior to Christ who said “God’s tribe” or “God’s family” or (prior to the Exile) “God’s kingdom” would certainly have been speaking of Israel, or at least of Judah (the portion which had not separated from the Son of David).

    And through the covenant and by the Spirit of Adoption, the Gentiles (and with them, the scattered descendants of the lost northern tribes) are grafted into (or back into) that same family tree, crying “Abba, Father” as children of God.

    So the whole thing is familistic, not in a narrow Western Culture “nuclear family” kind of way, but in that tribal and Semitic kind of way where all your fourth and fifth cousins are collectively called your “brothers,” and the eldest male of your tribe is the “patriarch,” the “high father.” (I’m amused when Westerners, unfamiliar with this tribal cultural perspective, insist that all biblical references to “brothers of Jesus” must refer to children of Mary and Joseph. Acts 1 gives us the definitive rejection of that notion, wherein Mary, the eleven, the 3-4 women who’d been at the crucifixion, and “the brothers of Jesus” collectively number 120 persons! Did Jesus have over a hundred “brothers?” Whether or not Mary was a “perpetual virgin,” I think we can safely assume she wasn’t perpetually in labor!)

    The Gentiles are included into that family. The blood children of Abraham through Issac and Jacob had already been included into the same family earlier.

    And that family, from Jacob’s or Moses’ time onward, gets called “Israel.”

    What can we conclude from all this?

    We can conclude: Anything which is true of “Israel” as a result of the Israelites’ adoption into the Family/Tribe/Household/Nation/Kingdom of God will also be true of the Church.

    After Pentecost, the only ways in which it will be meaningful to distinguish between Israel and The Church will be in areas which aren’t relevant to their having been adopted into the Family of God.

    But what are those areas? Whatever they are, they aren’t significant. Israel was a people of no particular importance, except that God chose them. And likewise the people of the Church, people of every nation and tribe, are of all kinds, having nothing in common other than that which unites them: That they are “sons in the Son.”


    I reiterate: The distinction exists, in Paul; naturally enough, because he is concerned with the Messianic promise that somehow, “all Israel,” not just the Jews who are unbelieving but even the lost tribes, “will be saved” and reunited in the family of God. So it is understandable that he would use the words Israel and Jacob in various ways, none of which correspond to the Church.

    But for us?

    Everything about Israel that pertains to being the Family of God must be true of us, if Christianity is true. And things about Israel which don’t pertain to that, aren’t interesting.

    • Matthew Ervin says:

      “And things about Israel which don’t pertain to that, aren’t interesting.” Something that matters to God isn’t interesting to the Christian? I encourage you to move your perspective to be in line with His.

      In general, the distinction matters a great deal because the Body of Christ has a role in making Israel jealous so as to bring them to salvation (Rom. 11:11). God’s promises to Israel were so significant that they still apply to those Jews described as enemies of the Gospel (Rom. 11:28-29). Paul even asks and answers to what advantage there is in being a Jew in Romans 3. The apostle taught that the Body even owed physical blessings to the Jews for bringing us the Savior (Rom. 15:27).

      I appreciate the sentiment of the Body of Christ as God’s people are similar to Israel. And in many many respects that is true. There are promises to the Jews through unconditional covenants that do not apply to the Christian per se. The land provision in the Abrahamic Covenant and the Promised Land Covenant being the most notable.

      For your further reading: http://appleeye.org/2014/03/27/the-jews-were-supposed-to-return-to-the-land-in-disobedience/




      Thank you for reading and blessings.

      • Matthew,

        Two items you offer, in reply to my prior opinion, aren’t actually addressing what I said.

        But the third item, which reminded me of what I already believe, does point out an error in what I was saying…and I accept that correction, and revise my earlier statement.

        The items which don’t really apply were:

        1. “Something that matters to God isn’t interesting to the Christian? I encourage you to move your perspective to be in line with His.” This addresses a straw-man, not what I actually said. (Although I’m certain that was unintentional on your part.)

        What I said was:
        1. Consider what was true about Israel prior to Christ (Family of God, called-out ones, ekklesia in the Septuagint; and,
        2. Consider what is true about the Church once Christ came (Family of God, called-out ones, ekklesia in Koine;
        3. Israel prior to Christ and the Church after Christ are the same, as shown by 1 & 2;
        4. Other ways in which they aren’t the same, don’t matter to God.

        So when you say, “Something that matters to God isn’t interesting to the Christian? I encourage you to move your perspective to be in line with His,” you are acting as if I grant that the things which distinguish pre-Christ Israel and post-Christ Church do matter to God. But I was not granting that at all (see #4). So your rhetorical question was misplaced: Of course something that matters to God ought to be interesting to a Christian; but I was saying that the stuff which distinguished pre-Christ Israel from post-Christ Church didn’t matter. (And thus wasn’t interesting.)

        The second item also didn’t really apply, for a different reason: You contrasted Israel after Christ with the Church after Christ, and correctly stated that that contrast mattered because “the Body of Christ has a role in making Israel jealous so as to bring them to salvation (Rom. 11:11).”

        True enough, but not something my original post addressed, and not something I would deny. I was saying that the Family of God before and after the Incarnation were both still the Family of God — Paul’s “olive tree.” You’re saying that a group of people who’re no longer “in the olive tree” because of unbelief are different from the group of people who still are, and I grant that! …but it in no way contradicts my assertion that the group of people in the “olive tree” prior to the Incarnation are, in their “olive-tree-ness,” the same as the group of people in the “olive tree” after the Incarnation.

        It is the final point you make, which really hits home.

        For I certainly believe that “the calling is irrevokable”: There are promises made to the seed of Abraham after the flesh, regarding the land, which God did not retract. I have always believed that.

        But, now that you have reminded me of it, I see that that is the one thing (so far as I know) in which Israel prior-to-Christ and the Church in Anno Domini are different in a way that matters.

        For the Gentiles of the Church have no particular ownership title to “the land” which is the type of the Church and of Heaven. The Children of Israel did and do.

        So, in the end, ya’ got me. There is a distinction, which matters to God (inasmuch as He made it a subject of promise) between the Family of God prior, and the Family of God post.

        And I have always held as much. But I overlooked it, when saying that there was no difference that mattered between pre-Christ Israel and post-Christ the Church.

        Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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