Are Gentile Christians Spiritual Jews?
Is it true that Gentile Christians become spiritual Jews and that the Church is spiritual Israel?
Without a doubt, in Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, just as there is neither male nor female and neither slave nor free (see Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11). And without a doubt, as far as our salvation, Paul wrote, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Romans 10:12–13)
At the same time, Christian males are not females and Christian females are not males. In other words, even though we are equals in the Lord and there is no caste system or class system, our distinctives are not blurred and the categories of male and female still exist.
But is it the same with Jews and Gentiles who follow Jesus? Do the distinctions and categories still exist, even though we are equals in the Lord? Or do Gentiles become spiritual Jews when they become Christians? And, more broadly, does the Church become spiritual Israel?
It would seem that one passage in Paul’s writings would settle the issue without debate.
Maintain Your Identity, Whether Jewish or Gentile
I’m speaking of 1 Corinthians 7, where he gave these instructions:
each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (1 Corinthians 7:17–20)
So, as far as salvation is concerned, circumcision and uncircumcision are nothing. But as far as our identity as Jews and Gentiles, a believing Jew should not become a Gentile and a believing Gentile should not become a Jew.
What is Paul Saying About Being a Real Jew?
“But,” many readers will say, “you forgot about Romans 2, where Paul made explicitly clear that the true Jew was one who was circumcised in heart, not body. So, a Gentile Christian is a spiritual Jew after all.”
There Paul wrote, “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Romans 2:28–29)
In the larger contexts of Romans 1-2, it would seem that, having demonstrated in the previous verses (beginning in Romans 1:18) that both Gentile and Jew were slaves to sin, he is telling Jewish readers that merely being circumcised does them no good. What matters is obedience.
This is reflected in many English translations that insert the words “only” and “merely,” as here, above. But since those words are not in the Greek (although I believe they are reflected in the Greek), let’s leave them out entirely. And let’s say that Paul stated that an uncircumcised Gentile who kept God’s commandments was a real Jew while the circumcised Jew who did not keep the commandments was not a real Jew.
Even if that was his point (which I do not believe), he was simply drilling a spiritual point home rather than making a statement about categories.
Aren’t “Real Men” Those Men Who are Men From the Heart, Not Just Superficially?
He was not saying that Gentile Christians were actually spiritual Jews and that non-believing Jews were no longer Jews. (I’ll demonstrate this beyond a doubt in a moment.)
It would be like your pastor making an announcement at a service one Sunday and saying, “Listen up, men! We’ve got a special men’s conference next month, and you don’t want to miss it. Men, you need to be there!”
He continues, “And while I’m talking to the men, let me say this. If you spend all your time building your muscles in the gym but you don’t take care of your kids, you don’t put your wife first, you can’t keep yourself sexually pure, you’re not a man at all. Men, are you listening? So be at the men’s conference!”
Obviously, he was making a point, namely, “This is what a real man is all about.”
But the fact that he referred to men numerous times before and after making his point indicates that “men” means “men” and “man” means “man.” So, “You’re not a real man. Men, are you listening?”
In the same way, in the very next verse in Romans following 2:29, Paul asked this question: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.” (Romans 3:1–2)
So, Jews are still Jews; the circumcised are still the circumcised. Nothing has changed. Paul was just making a spiritual point.
Every Time the New Testament Refers to Jews, It Refers to Ethnic Jews
If you will take the time to look up the verses in question, you will see that every single time Paul refers to “Jews” or “the circumcision” in Romans, he is referring to literal Jewish people, not Gentile Christians. In other words, even if he was making a spiritual point that a Law-keeping Gentile was more of a Jew than a Law-breaking Jew, he was not making a doctrinal statement that Gentile Christians become Jews or the reverse.
So, look up these verses, representing every reference to “Jew” (Greek Ioudaios) in Romans: 1:16; 2:9-10, 17, 28-3:1; 3:9, 29; 9:24; 10:12. You will see that before and after he makes his spiritual point in 2:28-29, every time he references “Jew” he means a physical, natural Jew. Every single time.
Then, look up these verses, representing every reference to “circumcision” (Greek peritome) in Romans: 2:25-3:1; 3:30; 4:9-12; 15:8. Once again, outside of the spiritual point Paul is making in 2:28-29 (which, for the record, I still believe is speaking of the distinction between two Jews, one obedient to God’s Law and one disobedient), the people of the circumcision are physical, Jewish people. Every single time.
If you want to dig deeper, look up more than 180 references to “Jew” in the New Testament, and you’ll find that, not one time are Gentile Christians referred to as Jews. To the contrary, they are sometimes specifically addressed as Gentiles (as in Romans 11:13, “I am talking to you Gentiles”) meaning, “people of the nations.” There’s nothing derogatory about it.
It’s the same with the term “circumcision,” which the New Testament uses more than 30 times. Other than making a polemical, spiritual point (as in Philippians 3:3), it refers to the Jewish people, always and only.
If you don’t have the time to look up all the references, fear not. I did the work for you on a recent Line of Fire broadcast. The Word really is quite clear!
Distinct and Yet Unified
So yes, both Jews and Gentiles are saved through faith in Jesus the Messiah. And yes, both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus are equally loved by the Father and have equal standing in the Body. And yes, Gentile Christians become fellow citizens with the people of Israel (Ephesians 2:11-22) and partake in the spiritual riches of the Jewish nation (Romans 11:17-18).
But Jews don’t become Gentiles and Gentiles don’t become Jews. The Word is clear.
What about the Church becoming spiritual Israel? I’ll tackle that question in another article.
If you’d like to do a deep dive into these subjects, along with learning some of the uncomfortable truths about Church history, check out my book Our Hands are Stained With Blood.
It is the truth that sets us free.
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is Why So Many Christians Have Left the Faith. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.