Israel in biblical prophecy
What is the role of Israel in biblical prophecy? The question assumes urgency in view of continuous presentation in some circles that the present-day state of Israel has a definite role defined in prophecy. Such presentations abound in an array of publications, in movies such as Left Behind, and in public preaching.
To answer the question decisively, it is essential that the entire Bible be understood regarding Israel in prophecy, in particular what Jesus and the New Testament writers taught about the Hebrew predictions concerning the restoration of Israel.Only when we see the whole picture of Israel in both Testaments do we have the biblical standard of truth by which we can judge the idea that the Jewish people and Palestine are supposed to be at the center of Bible prophecies. If we make the Old Testament the fi nal teaching of God, we are bound to apply the prophecies as if Christ has not yet come, as if the New Testament has not yet been written. For Christians, the New Testament has the final word.
The novelty of a literalistic interpretation
In 1868, in Plymouth, England, John Nelson Darby1 began to argue that an absolutely literal application of Israel’s end-time prophecies to the modern Jews was the only valid principle of prophetic interpretation. Consequently, Darby began to divide the Bible into arbitrary sections that applied either to Israel or to the church, no matter what the consequences were in dissecting the Bible that way. Lewis Chafer, who systematized Darby’s hermeneutic of literalism, even asserted that “the only Scriptures addressed specifi cally to Christians are the Gospel of John, the Book of Acts, and the New Testament Epistles.”2 Thus John Walvoord’s claim, “The book [of Revelation] as a whole is not occupied primarily with God’s program for the church.”3 Darby’s theology assumed that the church of Christ has no part in God’s covenants with Abraham, David, and Israel. He saw the Christian church with its gospel of God’s grace merely as an “interruption” of God’s original plan with Israel, as an “intercalation” unforeseen by Israel’s prophets. That theory demands, however, that all believers in Jesus Christ must fi rst be secretly raptured away from the world to heaven, so that God can continue His program with Israel in the time of the end. That’s why Darbyism, and its modifi cations in modern dispensationalism, is called “futurism.” Even when some dispensational theologians begin to propose drastic revisions, the futurism concerning Israel and a secretly raptured church remains central to their eschatology. The essence of futurism is the expectation of a future theocracy for Israel in Jerusalem during a future Jewish millennium. How do dispensationalists justify their dichotomy between Israel and the church of Christ?
Charles C. Ryrie, an influential spokesperson for dispensationalism, states in his popular book Dispensationalism Today, “Since consistent literalism is the logical and obvious principle of interpretation, dispensationalism is more than justifi ed.”4 Here we learn that the principle of literalism in prophetic interpretation belongs to the very essence of dispensational thought. However, Ryrie justifi ed literalism, not from the Bible, but by human logic! The question should be asked, Is the “logic” of absolute literalism the correct principle for applying Bible prophecies? Shouldn’t the Bible, as the Word of God, provide its own principle of interpreting prophecy?
To find the Bible’s own principle of interpretation, we must ask, How do Christ and the New Testament writers apply Israel’s covenant promises and prophecies? Shouldn’t Christ be our fi nal Interpreter of Israel’s prophecies? The crucial point is this: If a Bible interpreter is a Christian believer, he or she is obliged to accept the Old and New Testaments together as one organic revelation of God to humanity. The Old Testament is not the last word of God! When God fi nally spoke through His Son, the testimony of Jesus constituted God’s final and defi nitive revelation about Israel and His plan of salvation. By His divine authority, Christ determined who belong to the true Israel of God and the characteristics of Israel as the new-covenant people of God.
There is no justification for adopting the philosophy of absolute literalism in prophetic interpretation because Jesus Christ did not do that. Jesus gave the term Israel a new meaning by creating a body of Christ-believing Israelites who would inherit the covenant promises. This requires a theological application of Israel, not a literalistic one. In his book Understanding Dispensationalists, Vern S. Poythress correctly warns against a restricted literal view of Scripture: “Grammatical-historical interpretation is only one moment in the total act of interpretation.”5 For the Christian, Jesus is the authoritative and final interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures! The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with an emphasis on this theological unity of God’s revelations to Israel and to the church: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1, 2, NIV).
Does the New Testament dissect Israel and the church?
Does the New Testament teach that God has two different purposes and destinies for a national Israel and the church: one raptured to heaven while the other remains on earth? Did Christ really offer Himself to the nation of Israel as the Messianic King to establish the earthly kingdom that was promised to David, and did He ever postpone His kingdom for some two thousand years because His kingdom depended on acceptance by the Jewish people? Furthermore, does the book of Revelation teach that God’s covenant promises will be fulfilled in a Jewish nation during a future millennium, during which the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, that animal sacrifi ces will be reinstituted in “commemoration” of the death of Christ, and that all nations will then acknowledge national Israel as the favored people of God? Is God’s covenant with Israel really Israel-centered?
The testimony of Jesus
Jesus announced that God had sent Him for the purpose of gathering both Jewish and Gentile believers to Him as the true Shepherd of Israel: “ ‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one fl ock and one shepherd’ ” (John 10:16, NIV). Jesus referred here to Isaiah’s promise of Israel’s restoration: “The Sovereign LORD declares—He who gathers the exiles of Israel: ‘I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered’ ” (Isa. 56:8, NIV). Even the dispensationalist New Scofi eld Reference Bible 6 acknowledges that Isaiah predicted the gathering of Gentiles that “are not of the Jewish fold” (on John 10:16, note 1:1140).
As the God-sent Messiah, Jesus came primarily to gather Israel to Himself (Matt. 12:30). But His goal was not limited to national Israel. He announced: “ ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to myself’” (John 12:32, NIV). To fulfi ll this global mission, Jesus chose twelve apostles, who in their chosen number, twelve, clearly represented the twelve tribes of Israel. By ordaining the Twelve as His apostles (Mark 3:14, 15), Christ constituted a new body of Christ-believing Israelites. This Messianic Israel He called “my church” (Matt. 16:18, NIV). In the ordination of the Twelve, Christ founded His church as a Messianic Israel, with its own structure and authority. He endowed her with “the keys of the kingdom” (v. 19) and even appointed His twelve apostles to be judges over “the twelve tribes of Israel” in the future age (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30).
When the Jewish leaders ultimately rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus, Christ made this solemn declaration: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matt. 21:43, NIV). Christ announced here the ending of the theocracy or God-rulership for national Israel. But Jesus did not postpone the theocracy for thousands of years. To His apostles He said, “ ‘Fear not, little fl ock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ ” (Luke 12:32, KJV). When God and Christ together transferred the kingdom to the Messianic Israel, how then can a Christian still assume that God has an obligation to fulfill His kingdom promises to a national-political Israel? The New Testament does not present God as walking backward!
Jesus recognized a faithful remnant of Israel that believed in Him as the God-sent Messiah. Frederick Bruce correctly concluded, “Jesus’ calling of disciples around Himself to form the ‘little flock’ who were to receive the kingdom... marks Him out as the founder of the new Israel.”7 Thus the keynote of Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom was not postponement but rather fulfi llment in Himself as the Messianic King.
Christ constituted His church not as a body beside the Israel of God, but as the faithful remnant of Israel that inherits the covenant promises. The apostolic church fulfi lled the predicted “remnant” of Israel. Jesus distinguished between a natural and a spiritual or true Israelite. When Nathanael recognized Jesus as the Messiah of prophecy, Christ said of him, “ ‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false’ ” (John 1:47, NIV). When Jesus visited the home of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, who accepted Jesus as the “Lord,” Christ declared, “ ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham’ ” (Luke 19:9). Jesus stressed that faith in Him as Israel’s Messiah was the decisive factor for belonging to the Israel of God. When a Roman centurion approached Christ with full trust in His divine authority to heal his servant, Jesus was astonished and said, “ ‘I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith’ ” (Matt. 8:10). He then added these words of profound prophetic signifi cance: “ ‘I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their [that is, Jewish] places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ ” (Matt. 8:11, 12). Apparently, Jesus did not dissect Israel and His church into separate covenant peoples, with different destinies. Christ was looking primarily for the Israel of faith, but He accepted also believing Gentiles. Thus He gathered followers from both Jews and Gentiles into one spiritual fl ock, into the Messianic remnant people who will inherit the covenant promises of Abraham and Israel on a worldwide scale of fulfillment. The idea of two separate peoples of God was foreign to Jesus because He was sent by God as the Second Adam for all humankind (see Rom. 5:12–21). Vern S. Poythress sums it up well: “There can be only one people belonging to God, because there is only one Christ . . . the corporate unity of the people of God derives from their common representative Head.”8
Paul’s theology of Israel and the church
Around A.D. 53 Paul wrote a pastoral letter to the church in Rome. In this significant epistle he gave special attention to the relationship between Jews and Christians, namely, in Romans, chapters 9–11. He had heard that the Christian community in Rome was experiencing an emerging hostile attitude from Gentile Christians toward Jews and Jewish Christians. Paul rejected such an attitude of anti-Judaism. In Romans 9–11 he recognized that there were different ethnic backgrounds of Jews and Gentiles within the church, because he addressed one special faction, “I am talking to you Gentiles” (11:13, NIV). He warned them not to “boast” or to be “conceited” about some alleged superiority or prerogative from God (11:18, 25, NIV). He stressed that all people are disobedient to God and thus stand in the same need of faith in Christ as Messiah, and of standing in the right covenant relation with God. He explained this right relation: “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the ‘stumbling stone’ [quoting two Messianic prophecies from Isaiah]” (Rom. 9:30–32, 33, NIV).
Clearly, for Paul the decisive issue in God’s covenant with Israel is faith in Jesus as the righteous Messiah and representative of all humanity. Gentiles have no other covenant with God than God’s covenant with Israel. Jesus made His new covenant with twelve Jewish believers. He based it on His self-sacrifice as the fulfi llment of the sacrifi ces of the old covenant. Thus “Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22, NIV).
In Romans 11 Paul portrays the continuity of God’s covenants by a single olive tree for both Israel and the church. His symbolic description of the “engrafting” of Gentiles as wild olive branches into the covenant tree of Israel vividly illustrates the theological unity of God’s covenant with Israel and with the apostolic church. Through faith in Christ, Gentiles are being incorporated in Israel’s olive tree, and share in the “supporting” root of Abraham (11:18). The humbling lesson for both Jewish and Gentile Christians in this picture is that God does not show favoritism (see Rom. 2:11). Paul therefore warns the Gentile believers: “Do not be arrogant, but be afraid” (Rom. 11:20, NIV). Paul’s pastoral burden is not some sequence of dispensations but the present responsibility of Gentile Christians to relate the gospel properly to the Jews, so that all believing Jews and all believing Gentiles will be saved by faith in Christ. It is crucial to learn from Romans 9–11 that there is no true conversion than that which results from preaching the gospel of Christ. Paul stressed this explicitly in Romans 10: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. . . . 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’ [Joel 2:32]” (Rom. 10:9, 12–13, NIV).
Paul’s quotation of Joel 2:32 proves that he views the church of Christ as the historical fulfi llment of Joel’s prophecy of a faithful remnant of Israel in the last days (Joel 2:28). Earlier, Peter had indicated on the Day of Pentecost that Joel’s prophecy was visibly fulfi lled in Christ-believing Israel or the apostolic church. Paul now emphasizes the same condition of faith for all Israel: “If they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23, NIV). Here Paul distinguished between a natural and a believing Israel. In this he only continued the traditional distinction of Israel’s own prophets. Paul states explicitly: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6, NIV). If we lose this basic distinction of a natural and a believing Israel in our application of the term Israel for the endtime prophecies, we do not apply our Christocentric hermeneutic and deny our Christian faith. To literalize the name Israel to ethnic Jews only is a serious theological error that misrepresents the will of God and devalues the decisive mission of Christ. The one olive tree in Paul’s metaphor implies that Jews will not come to the kingdom of God by preferential treatment. Like the Gentiles, Israelites enter the kingdom only through justifi cation by faith in Christ. Therefore we are not to wait for an apocalyptic miracle to happen for the Jewish people seven years after the “fulness of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:25, KJV) has been raptured out of the world!
Paul concludes his counsel to the divided church in Rome with a challenging outlook on the triumph of God’s plan to save both the Israelites and the Gentiles by way of a surprising interdependence. One New Testament scholar summed it up: “God grants no mercy to Israel without the Gentiles, but neither does he do so to the Gentiles without Israel.”9 Paul places the salvation of ethnic Israel in a dynamic interrelation with the salvation of the Gentiles. This mutual dependence reveals an amazing vision of God’s faithfulness to His covenant promise to Israel, in spite of her faithlessness.
The primary purpose of Paul’s counsel to the church in Rome is to end the arrogant attitude among Gentile Christians toward their Jewish fellow believers, and to instill in them rather a sense of responsibility for ethnic Israel. >Gentile believers should realize that the ingrafted church is called to provoke Israel to exercise faith in their Messiah for their salvation. Paul mentions his own efforts to that effect, stating, “I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (Rom. >11:13, NIV). Paul thus practiced his belief that the gospel was to be offered all the time “fi rst to the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16; 2:9, 10, NIV). By way of the gospel ministry all Jews who believe will be saved. Paul emphasizes this gospel way of salvation when he states explicitly, “and so [houtôs, ‘in this manner, so,’] all Israel” will be saved (Rom. 11:26). In other words, all Jews will be saved in the same manner as all Gentiles: by faith in the crucifi ed and risen Lord as Israel’s Messiah. Paul did not say “and then all Israel will be saved,” as if to suggest a sequence of different dispensations. He rather stressed the present opportunity and sacred duty of the church. Notice how he emphasized this present calling of Gentile Christians by repeating the word now in his concluding words of Romans 11, “Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you” (Rom. 11:30–32, NIV; emphasis added).
We need to remember that there is only one olive tree in Paul’s metaphor, meaning one Savior, one people of God, and one way of salvation for all! Paul’s perspective on ethnic Israel in Romans 11 is one of hope and assurance that still many—“the fulness of”—Israelites will return to their covenant God through faith in Christ. But this will occur in Paul’s perspective only by means of Christcentered and Spirit-fi lled Christians who demonstrate the wonderful mercy of God in reaching out to all Jews with the love of God in Christ. Then the experience of the fi rst Pentecost will be repeated and thousands of Jews will return to their own Messiah. This promised return to their covenant God does not include for Paul a restored theocracy in Palestine. He says nothing about Israel’s physical return to the land of Palestine, nothing about the restoration of an earthly Davidic kingdom, nothing about national reinstatement as the people of God in the land of the forefathers. Paul saw something infi nitely better for Israel: reconciliation with God through Christ and the assurance of a more glorious inheritance.
One glorious inheritance
Among the prophets of Israel, Isaiah stands out as the one who extended his vision to global and cosmic proportions. Not only did Isaiah envision the influx of countless Gentiles into the Israel of God in the last days (2:1–4; 56:3–8; 60:3–14; 66:19–23), he predicted that “.. . ‘all mankind will come and bow down before me,’ says the LORD” (66:23, NIV). Placing this vision in a larger perspective, he prophesied, “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind . . . for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy” (Isa. 65:17, 18).
Here the prophet unites heaven and earth as one glorious inheritance for the Israel of God. This eschatological outlook advances the hope of Abraham. By faith Abraham had already looked forward to inherit the Promised Land. However, he did not look for some human conquest of Palestine or for a rebuilt Jerusalem. “He [Abraham] lived in tents. . . . For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9, 10, NIV). To Abraham and his believing descendants was promised, not Palestine in its present condition, but a heavenly country with a heavenly city. In short, they looked beyond Palestine to a new heaven and a new earth, and to a new Jerusalem. Hebrews says of those Israelites in the past: “They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16, NIV). The comforting assurance for all Hebrew Christians is that they will inherit the same heavenly inheritance that was promised to Israel’s patriarchs. Hebrews 11 concludes with the broad perspective of the ultimate unifi cation of all God’s people: “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they [Israel] be made perfect” (11:40, NIV).
The true church will live together with the Israel of God in one and the same Holy City on a new earth. In Revelation 21 and 22 God’s covenant with Israel fi nds its perfect fulfi llment in the New Jerusalem on the new earth. Both Israel and the church are then united in their worship of the Creator- Redeemer and of the Lamb of God as one harmonious community. That city of God has twelve gates on which are written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 21:12). The city has walls with eternal foundations, on which are written the names of the twelve apostles of Jesus (21:14). That grand vision of John only reinforces the apostolic gospel message that Israel and the church constitute an indivisible unity for all eternity.
Jesus had invited all Jews to attend His coming Messianic banquet in the kingdom of God. He warned them, however, that ethnic origin by itself was no guarantee for divine acceptance: “ ‘I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’ ” (Matt. 8:11, 12, RSV; cf. Luke 13:28, 29).
These words of Christ teach two solemn truths: (1) Gentile believers in Christ from east and west will share in Israel’s eternal destiny; (2) both Jews and Gentiles who reject Christ will be disinherited from the covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All God’s people will sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and be united in the New Jerusalem as one fl ock under one Shepherd. Together they will sing “the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb” (Rev. 15:3, NIV) in grateful praise to God the Father and the Lord Jesus. No New Testament passage teaches a future Jewish millennium.
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1 John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) was born in London, England, to Irish parents. He is widely known as the father of modern dispensational theology.
2 “Dispensationalism” in Bibliotheca Sacra 93 (1936): 406, 407.
3 John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1967), 203.
4 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 97.
5 Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 91.
6 The New Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1967, is not to be confused with the Scofi eld Reference Bible, which was edited and annotated by Cyrus I. Scofi eld and fi rst appeared in 1909, then revised by the author in 1917. Dr. Scofi eld had no involvement with the New Scofi eld Reference Bible.
7 In J. D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 588.
8 Poythress, 43.
9 H. N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 360.