The usage of these three terms at times confuse the Bible reader. Do these words in their strict sense refer to exactly the same thing (or people)? Perhaps, this brief writing will help a bit.
The word is thought to derive from a word meaning “to transverse, or pass over.” This word would include Abraham and those that crossed over from Mesopotamia with him. This word would also include all who came through Abraham such as Ishmael and his offspring, and Isaac and his descendants. All Israelites are Hebrews, but not all Hebrews are Israelites. By the way, circumcision was not just for the Israelites, but for all Hebrews (Genesis 17:23).
The word “Israelite” refers to those that descended from Israel (literally one who has power with God), who is also known as Jacob (cf. Genesis 32:28). Remember, it was from Israel, that the twelve tribes sprang, that inherited the promised land. All twelve tribes were Israelites. Israelites came through the seedline of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In about 975 B.C. Jeroboam led a revolt. The kingdom of twelve tribes was split. The northern kingdom of tribes at this point is referred to as “Israel.” The southern kingdom becomes known as “Judah,” named after its chiefest tribe, Judah.
After the period of Babylon captivity, which ended in 536 B.C., God’s people are reunited into one kingdom again. Such was foretold of (Ezekiel 37). [Note – There were not 10 missing tribes – Isaiah 10:22; Jeremiah 23:3; 2 Chronicles 11:16; 30:1,6,18; Ezra 6:17; 8:35; Ezekiel 37:16-17; Luke 2:36; Acts 4:36; 26:7 etc.]. The term ‘Israel’ is again primarily used for all the descendants of Israel (Jacob).
The word “Jew” does not appear in the Bible before the divided kingdom. The word denotes someone from the tribe of Judah, or the southern kingdom. Judah (which consisted mainly of the tribe of Judah and Benjamin though others also joined them – 1 Kings 12:21; 2 Chronicles 11:13-17, 23; 2 Chronicles 15:9). In the strict sense all Jews are Israelites, but not all Israelites are Jews.
After captivity the term frequently is used interchangeably with the term “Israelite” to refer to all of the twelve tribes.
Perhaps this short lesson will help. However, let us remember that the terms “Jew” and “Israel” are sometimes in the New Testament used to designate God’s chosen people today – the church (Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 6:16 cf 1 Peter 2:9 cf Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19; Exodus 19:5-6). Earthly lineage is not what counts. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ`s, then you are Abraham`s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29). “Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16).