Is Israel Israel?
How does Scripture help us make sense of the relationship between the modern state of Israel and the Israel of the Bible?
As horrific and heartbreaking images flow from the Middle East, images of terrorism, war, and the profound human suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians, many within the Church have rightly been driven to prayer. But such difficult times also generate conversations among believers about the people and places involved in today's news headlines, and specifically how all of this is connected to God's word and work.
Especially in times when those decades-old tensions spill over, I find myself concerned about confusion I hear when some Christians today speak about the modern state of Israel. I would suggest this confusion is connected to a central question: “How does Scripture help us make sense of the relationship between the modern state of Israel (i.e., Israelis) and the Israel (i.e., Israelites) of the Bible?” Or to put it more simply, “Is Israel today the Israel of the Bible?” I would argue from God's word that the answer is both “yes” and “no”.
Why does this topic matter? For a number of reasons. First of all, it can affect how we read Scripture by imposing from outside the biblical text a grid that often colors our interpretation of particular passages. Second, this confusion can tempt disciples of Jesus to speak and act in the cultural/political sphere in a way that unnecessarily distracts from or hurts our gospel witness. Third, and worst of all, confusion in this area can detract from a healthy understanding of the centrality of Jesus Christ.
I trust that such concerns will be better appreciated after I provide some brief, biblical answers to a number of questions that commonly arise around this topic (please see the NOTES below for a more in-depth explanation of each point). Here are several of those questions:
1. Wasn't the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948 the fulfillment of biblical prophecy? The New Testament doesn't contain any such prophecies, and most Old Testament verses offered to support this contention are not predictions of a 20th century return, but a 6th century (before Christ) return, sometime after the Babylonian exile. Because these ancient prophecies often described both geographical and spiritual restoration in a compressed way (often fulfilled over hundreds of years), some of these passages can be understandably confusing at first.
2. Wasn't that particular area of land promised to Abraham and his descendants forever? The New Testament reveals that like many divinely-ordained elements from the Old Testament (e.g., sacrifice, priests, Temple, Sabbath)(many of which were described as "forever"), Christ not only has fulfilled and will fulfill, but also universalizes this promise of land. Because of our Jesus-centered hope through the gospel, both Jews and Gentiles can now dwell forever in the ultimate embodiment of God's place of blessing: "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." (2 Peter 3:13; cf. Revelation 21:1)
3. Aren't the Jewish people God's chosen people? While these descendants of Abraham were chosen by God to play an important role in salvation history (through what we now call the 'old covenant'), the New Testament reveals that the label of "chosen" ultimately belongs to both Jews and Gentiles under the new covenant; those whom Paul describes as "one new man in place of the two" (Ephesians 2:15); all those whom God calls to himself through grace, by faith (Romans 9:24-25). But ancient Israel wasn't simply a picture of a new people to come. Gentiles are in fact like branches grafted into an already existing tree of chosen Israelites; again those saved (and to be saved) through grace alone, by faith alone (Romans 11:11-32).
4. Are you saying the Church has replaced Israel, and therefore, the Jewish people no longer have any special status? It's more accurate to say Israel is fulfilled in the Church. Through the new covenant in Jesus, the original, covenantal people of God can finally become what God intended them to be all along. Just as Israelite animal sacrifices pointed to the fullness of "the Lamb of God" who was to come, Jesus (John 1:29), so too did Israel itself point to the Jew/Gentile fullness of the people of God that was to come through Jesus. But this doesn't mean God is finished with the Jewish people. As Paul made clear in Romans 11, though a majority of Jews have and continue to exhibit a hardness of heart toward the gospel, one day, a revival will bring a majority of Jews into the blessings of Christ (the very blessings promised to their ancestors).
5. But isn't a restored, political Israel necessary for key end-times events to take place? No relevant New Testament passage includes or require a political/national Israel or realities like a restored Temple in Jerusalem. This thinking derives from confusion about how the Old and New Testaments use prophetic and apocalyptic language, as well as a misunderstanding of Jesus' words to his disciples about what was to come in a section of teaching often called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:1-51; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-36). In short, apart from a future revival among Jews that will lead them to embrace Jesus as Messiah, Scripture simply does not present literal Old Testament institutions or locations as having any future significance to God's plan in Christ. Rightly understood, it's clear such things have already served their eternal purpose.
So if we return to our main question, "Is Israel today the Israel of the Bible?", it should now make sense that the answer is both "yes" and "no". Yes, the Jewish people today are the ancestors of ancient Israel, and therefore some of them (be sure to read Romans 9:6-7) are heirs to the promise that God would indeed deliver these descendants of Jacob (Romans 11:26-27). Of course, this already happened (and continues to happen!) among a Jewish "remnant" (Romans 11:5). But according to the Apostle Paul, a fuller realization of this promise is still to come. Furthermore, we must also answer, "no". The secular State of Israel today should not be understood as the continuation of Old Testament Israel. That means, in terms of their corporate identity as Israelis (in contrast to their Jewish identity as individuals), we should be careful when it comes to bestowing upon them a special, spiritual status.
While this spiritual, biblical clarification could have political implications for those who may need to disentangle these matters of identity, the far more important implications of these truths are twofold: first, God's new covenant people (both Jew and non-Jew) can deeply rejoice that "all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]" (2 Corinthians 1:20); that the entire story of Scripture is our story; that we are the fullness of God's eternal purpose, "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23), we "on whom the end of the ages has come." (1 Corinthians 10:11). Second, horrific and heartbreaking images coming out of Israel and the Palestinian territories today should not only inspire us to pray for a quick and just resolution to the political situation, but even more so, for a powerful and lasting transformation in the hearts of Palestinians and Israelis. As our brothers and sisters who live there know (both in Messianic Jewish congregations and Palestinian, Arab-speaking churches), Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is our only hope for real change, and thus, the only hope for these painfully polarized peoples and lands. May we continue to pray to that end.
1. Wasn't the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948 the fulfillment of biblical prophecy? Those who believe that was the case offer a variety of verses to support the contention; verses like Isaiah 11:11-16, 66:7-8; Jeremiah 3:18, 16:14-15, 24:6; Ezekiel 36:24-28, 37:1-14; Amos 9:14-15. But when you go back and study passages like these, especially in light of the broader Old Testament context (as well as the New Testament context), it's fairly clear such verses address Israel's return to the land after the Babylonian Exile, not in the 20th century. The ministry of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel was centered on both God's judgment of exile (carried out by Babylon in the early 6th century BC), but also a promised restoration (that began 70 years later, according to Jeremiah 29:10 (cf. Daniel 9:2)). Even Isaiah (who served in the 8th century BC) spoke ahead of the people's return from exile by means of the Persian king Cyrus (Isaiah 44:44-48). What can be confusing about these promises of restoration is that they also speak of a fuller spiritual restoration, often connected with the Messiah. Since that spiritual revival was only partially realized in the restoration associated with people like Ezra and Nehemiah, some think another restoration to the land must be meant. But God's timing for the Messiah return was already set for many centuries later, according to the "weeks" of Daniel 9:24-27. And the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus fulfilled prophecies like these, prophecies of spiritual restoration through the Messiah (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8). The order of events in such passages was correct (i.e., geographical, then spiritual restoration), but the timing of these things was not always obvious. That being said, some of those prophecies do contain elements that have not yet been fulfilled. But they too will be fulfilled, and in Christ, when he comes again.
2. Wasn't that particular area of land promised to Abraham and his descendants forever? The simple answer to that question is... "yes"! That promise first appears in Genesis 13:15, but is repeated many other times in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 17:8; 48:4; Exodus 32:13; Joshua 14:9; 2 Chronicles 20:7). But the Hebrew word olam ("forever", "everlasting") can also mean, "perpetual" or for "a long time". Both the immediate and broader contexts of any given verse help us make sense of what is meant by the term. For example, when the boy Samuel was given over by his mother to the priests at the Tent of Meeting, it's clear that her statement "he will dwell there forever" (1 Samuel 1:22) did not mean that the boy would never leave that location or would somehow never die. It simply meant he would live and serve there until he grew up. In the same way, many features of the Old Testament story are described with the same word, "forever", but were later fulfilled or became obsolete in Christ. Examples include the priesthood of Aaron and his sons (Exodus 29:8-9) in light of the perfect priesthood of Jesus (Hebrews 7), and the requirement of Sabbath observance (Exodus 31:16), which was merely a shadow of the substance that belongs to Christ (Colossians 3:16-17). In the same way, in Christ (the Jewish king who is Lord of all!) the promise of land has been universalized. This is why, for example, Jesus universalized Psalm 37:11 in Matthew 5:5, with "land" becoming "earth". Similarly, this is why Paul universalized the covenant of Genesis in Romans 4:13, describing "the promise to Abraham and his offspring" in these terms: "that he would be heir of the world". So just as Canaan-bound Israelites weren't looking to return to Eden (the original place of God's blessing), faithful Jewish disciples like Peter and John did not look forward to a prosperous future in a liberated Holy Land. Instead, "according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." (2 Peter 3:13; cf. Revelation 21:1) On that note it's important to remember that through the Old Testament prophets God often described future blessing for Israel in language and with imagery they could understand, but that wasn't always fulfilled literally. For example, verses like Ezekiel 37:25 and Malachi 4:5, seem to predict the appearances of both a resurrected David and (a returned?) Elijah. But the New Testament is clear that these prophecies point to Jesus himself, and John the Baptist, who is said to have come "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17; cf. Matthew 11:14). A "spirit and power" fulfillment (rather than a woodenly literal fulfillment) often makes the best sense of so many of those Old Testament prophecies describing God's people dwelling in a place of Messianic blessing (e.g., Isaiah 65:17-25).
3. Aren't the Jewish people God's chosen people? While Abraham's descendants through Isaac were designated as inheritors of Abraham's blessing (Genesis 21:12), it isn't until Exodus 19 that we hear this clear, 'chosen people' language: "...you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (vs. 5b-6a) But according to the opening words of Exodus 19:5, this arrangement was conditional: "...if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be...". If this distinct people were going to experience the blessings of being God's "treasured possession among all peoples", they would need to be faithful to the covenant God was making with them at Mount Sinai (Leviticus 26:3-13). But does that make God's original promise to Abraham conditional as well? Not at all. If any generation of Israelites turned away from Yahweh, God could raise up other descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to fulfill his word to their forefather (just as he suggested he would do with Moses in Exodus 32:7-10). But better still, wonderfully, this question also points us to Jesus. In Galatians, Paul makes it clear that the ultimate fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham would come through just one descendant of Isaac and Jacob: Jesus! The apostle writes in Galatians 3:16, "Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ." It is this astounding truth that enables Paul to say a few verses later, "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 offspring, heirs according to promise." (3:28–29) Paul affirmed this truth in a number of places: that those who believe are the true children of Abraham, regardless of physical lineage (Romans 4:12, 16-21, 9:8; Galatians 3:7). In the same way, "...not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring..." (Romans 9:6–7). Therefore, in Christ, the full number of God's chosen people includes both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 9:22-26), for on the cross Jesus died "that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two" (Ephesians 2:15).
4. Are you saying the Church has replaced Israel, and therefore, the Jewish people no longer have any special status? It's biblically clearer to say, not that the Church replaced Israel, but that Israel is fulfilled in the Church. In the Old Testament, by God's grace Israel became the first redeemed, covenantal people of God. But under and through the Law, Israel was not able to fulfill their priestly calling as God's people (Exodus 19:5-6) and enjoy the blessing promised to their forefather Abraham. But the prophets spoke of a new day to come when God would make "a new covenant" with his people, but "not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt" (Jeremiah 31:31-32; cf. Hebrews 8). Just as the Old Testament predicted (Amos 9:11-12), the New Testament is clear that this new covenant includes more than just Jewish believers in the Messiah. It includes "all the Gentiles who are called by my name" (Acts 15:12-17, where James quotes Amos 9:11-12). Again, it is only through Jesus, the true Israel (cf., Matthew 2:15, where Jesus fulfills Hosea 11:1), that both Jew and Gentile are able to become a new covenant people of God (the "olive tree" of Romans 11:11-24). Just as Israelite animal sacrifices simply pointed to the fullness of "the Lamb of God" who was to come, Jesus (John 1:29), so too did Israel itself point to the fullness of the people of God that was to come through Jesus. This is why Peter can address his largely Gentile audience (1 Peter 1:14, 18; 2:10; 4:3-4) as those who have fulfilled God's calling for Israel (compare 1 Peter 2:9 with Exodus 19:5-6). But this doesn't mean God is finished with the Jewish people. In terms of a special status, Paul indicates in Romans 9:4-5 that the unique heritage of the Jewish people remains an incredible blessing to be cherished (cf. Romans 3:1-2). But that heritage is more than a museum relic (i.e., something from the past to be appreciated today from a distance). As Paul goes on to say in Romans 11:29, "...the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." What does this mean? It means that even though "a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in", in the end, "all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:25–26). I believe this indicates that one day, in contrast to the majority of Jews who have exhibited (and sadly continue to exhibit) a hardness of heart toward the gospel, a revival will bring a majority of Jews into the blessings of Christ (the very blessings promised to their ancestors).
5. But isn't a restored, political Israel necessary for key end-times events to take place? The short answer? No. Some point to verses in Revelation to argue for the role of an end-times Israel. Some examples: a list of the twelve tribes in Revelation 7:1-8, or to the "temple" and "holy city" in Revelation 11:1-13; or the battle at "Armageddon" in Revelation 16:12-16. But when one is consistent in interpreting the symbolic numbers and images of the book, it makes much more sense that these Old Testament images are instead used to describe the wordly and demonic opposition experienced by new covenant believers, whether Jew or Gentile. This was true for Revelation's first readers, and continues to be true for Christians today. Trying to read such symbol-rich passages through a purely literal lens simply raises too many questions (e.g., "Why are Dan and Ephraim omitted from the list of tribes in chapter 7:4-8?", "How can armies gather at "Armageddon" when there is no such place in Israel with that name?"). The symbolic language of Revelation also helps us interpret Old Testament passages that speak of a final assault against Israel before the Day of the Lord (e.g., Zechariah 12-14). As was expressed earlier, through the prophets, God often described future blessing for Israel in language and with imagery they could understand. But these prophecies were not always fulfilled literally. In keeping with Revelation's approach, with the Church in mind, Paul speaks of the "Jerusalem above" (Galatians 4:26), and the author of Hebrews talks about how his readers' faith has brought them "to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Hebrews 12:22). If God's new covenant people in the Church are this new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2, 9, 10, where the "Bride" of Jesus is visualized as a holy city), then these prophecies of a 'close of the age' assault by worldly forces fit far better with Revelation's depiction of the antagonism of and God's final victory over the world system (Revelation 11:15). But what about the need for another Temple to be built in Jerusalem, one which some believe the Antichrist will desecrate? This idea primarily derives from a misunderstanding of Jesus' words to his disciples in a section of teaching often called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:1-51; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-36). Since it's clear in these passages that Jesus and his followers were talking about the Temple that existed in their day (Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6), and that, according to Jesus, the "generation" in which he prophesied would "not pass away until all these things take place" (Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32), we can rest assured that the very destruction about which he spoke was the destruction that occurred at the hands of Roman forces in 70AD. Thus the "abomination of desolation" (Mark 13:14) is most likely a description of the pagan sacrifices offered on the Temple mount by Roman commanders after they had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple (as described by the Jewish historian Jospehus in his Jewish Wars, Book 6, Chapter 6)(cf. Luke 21:20, where this "abomination" becomes "Jerusalem surrounded by armies"). This accords with Jesus' repeated emphasis at the end of his ministry on coming judgment against the Jewish people. As he told the religious leaders, "I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits" (Matthew 21:43); and in Matthew 23:38, "See, your house is left to you desolate." Thus, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans marked the end of political or national, old covenant Israel. With the people-forming, nation-establishing convenant of Exodus 19:5-6 in mind, this tragic reality of First Century judgment also lines up with how the writer of Hebrews speaks about the implications of Christ's finished work: "In speaking of a new covenant, [God] makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." (Hebrews 8:13)