What about Israel?

What should Christians think about ethnic Israel?  What does the coming of Christ mean for God’s relationship to the natural descendants of Abraham, and where do we as Gentile Christians fit into the picture?  Classic dispensationalists argue that we are two separate people.  According to them, the church age is a parenthesis in God’s plan of redemption, a time when his purpose for Israel has been suspended until the millennial kingdom.  Therefore, we must “rightly divide” the Scripture so as to relate Israel passages to ethnic Israel and church passages to the church.  For some dispensationalists, this division between the two peoples of God will endure through eternity, with the church inheriting the new heaven and redeemed Israel inheriting the new earth.  Covenant theologians have traditionally maintained the opposite view: the church has replaced Israel, and the Old Testament promises made to Israel are now fulfilled spiritually in the salvation that the church receives in Christ.  For many covenant theologians (but not all), there is no longer any significance for ethnic Israel in God’s plan of redemption.

I think both approaches are wrong.  My view is neither that Israel and the church are separate nor that the church has displaced Israel as the people of God.  It is, rather, that believing Gentiles become God’s people by being incorporated into Israel.  Conversely, ethnic Israelites who do not believe in Jesus the Messiah have been cut off from the covenant people.  However, ethnic Israel as such still holds an important place in God’s plan of redemption, for there is a coming day when the partial hardening will be lifted from them and “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26).  Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, particularly regarding the image of the tree, the broken branches, and the grafted branches, gives a hermeneutical key to the rest of Scripture on this subject.

Therefore, when I read the Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel (e.g., Isa. 11:11-16), I try to understand them first as their original hearers would have understood them.  There can be no doubt that they would have understood “Israel” to refer to ethnic Israel, and thus I see the Old Testament hope relating to a future salvation for ethnic Israel.  And yet, there are also prophetic images of the Gentiles being part of this final redemption (e.g., Isa. 2:1-4).  And what the New Testament makes clear is that the Gentiles would be incorporated into Israel as true Israelites (not bound to the Mosaic Law, however, for the old covenant passed away with the inauguration of the new covenant).  Therefore, I also believe it is legitimate for us to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New, that is, with the understanding that the promised restoration of Israel includes the gathering of the nations, incorporated into a restored Israel, to Israel’s Messiah. 

The fact that Israel as a nation still exists and has preserved its culture, language, and heritage despite being hated and persecuted for centuries, is a testimony to the providential favor of God.  Though they are now, for the most part, covenant breakers, God has not fully and finally rejected his people.     

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9 Responses to “What about Israel?”

  1. Ali Says:

    I just bought the three views book on the Millennium and was wondering about the place of Israel. I tentatively agree with you, but I’m open to other positions. I guess my reservations have to do with the variety of people seen in Revelation among the redeemed – to bundle them all into a single grouping called Israel seems a contradiction. However, it’s not insurmountable if Israel is considered a synonym for redeemed humanity as opposed to one “ethnic group”. In fact, the huge variety of people who call themselves Jews today may be a foretaste of the huge variety in eternity.

    I’m also curious about is the prophecies in Ezekiel about the temple being restored. How does that fit in??? Any thoughts?

  2. fenderpooh Says:

    I don’t believe Ezekiel’s vision of the temple means that a literal temple will be rebuilt in the millennium. There are some clues in Ezekiel’s text itself that indicate this in addition to the New Testament teaching. For example, Ezekiel’s temple has a river flowing out of it that gives life to the world, and I think this is obviously a figurative way of representing the renewal of creation flowing outward from a restored Jerusalem, where God dwells with his people.

    The New Testament teaching about Jesus replacing the temple (John 2) and there being no need of a temple in the new creation (Revelation) indicates to me that, once the locus of God’s presence has gone from a building to a person (Christ), there is no going back. Also, those who believe in a rebuilt temple in the millennium also tend to argue that sacrifices will be offered at this temple. I simply cannot square that idea with the book of Hebrews. Why would we go back to the ceremonies of the Mosaic Law after Christ the fulfillment has come? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

    This discussion exposes a potential weakness in my hermeneutic. In my post I said that the references to Israel being restored should be understood to refer (at least) to ethnic Israel because that’s what the original hearers would have understood. But then when it comes to Old Testament prophecies about renewal of the sacrificial system, I have to balk at the idea because of the clear teaching of the New Testament. Perhaps I am being inconsistent. Or perhaps there is some underlying rationale that I am working with, but I just have not been able to articulate it yet. If you share my view on this, Ali, why don’t you try to make that argument for me?

  3. fenderpooh Says:

    Oh, I just thought of something regarding the book of Revelation. You are right to point to the vast international multitude that is mentioned there, but there is also the image of the 144.000 from the twelve tribes of Israel. My understanding of the book is that these are complementary images. They refer to the same group of people (believers) but from different angles. So, from one perspective, the redeemed are a vast international multitude, but from another perspective, the redeemed constitute the fullness of Israel. This is exactly what you would expect if incorporation into Israel is the means of salvation for the Gentiles.

  4. fenderpooh Says:

    Okay, Ali, I’ve been doing some thinking, and I think I have an argument that may defend my hermeneutic. The New Testament teaches that the Mosaic Covenant has passed away. Therefore, all things uniquely bound up with the Mosaic Covenant must be seen as having been fulfilled in Christ. This would include the temple (though not built in the days of Moses, it does represent an old covenant reality that replaced the tabernacle), the sacrifices, the priesthood, the food laws, the Jewish holy days, circumcision, etc. When the Old Testament prophets speak of a coming day when one or more aspects of the Mosaic covenant will be renewed (e.g., Ezekiel’s temple), we should understand these things fulfilled spiritually in Christ and his Kingdom. The prophets were using images that were accomodated to their hearers and the specific dispensation in which they lived. These prophecies do not indicate that, in the millennium, Israel will revert back to the Mosaic covenant.

    However, Israel as a people transcends the Mosaic covenant. They existed before the covenant was given, and they continue to exist now that it has passed away. Israel is a transdispensational people, and it is specifically with Israel and Judah that the new covenant is made to replace the old one (Jeremiah 31:31). The fact that the New Testament expands the meaning of “Israel” (in a few passages) to include the incorporated Gentiles does not change the fact that it is still Israel that is renewed. Part of the renewal of Israel includes bringing the glory of the nations into her borders in obedience to her Messiah.

    Therefore, I conclude that it is in keeping with the New Testament’s teaching to interpret Old Testament references to the restoration of Israel as having (at least partial) reference to ethnic Israel, therefore causing us to look for a coming day when Israel as a whole will turn to Christ. But this does not entail that OT references to the restoration of aspects of the Mosaic covenant should be interpreted literally. The prophetic images of a restored temple, a purified priesthood, and sacrifices that are pleasing to the Lord, are all fulfilled in Christ and in the new people he creates.

  5. Ali Says:

    Hmmm, I understand what you are saying, but I’m not so sure that the prophecies in Ezekiel can be so easily explained.

    First of all, according to Hebrews 9:24 says the holy places were copies of the true things (also Hebrews 8:5). I’m aware that this doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a temple in heaven (though that is the language used in Revelation) but I must confess I have always read it that way. Whatever the case, the temple is not merely part of the Law if it has a corresponding “true thing”.

    Is it possible that the temple is part of the millennial kingdom minus the sacrifices etc? But then, of course, Ezekiel refers to the offering of sacrifices…

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think it’s too easy to just consider Ezekiel’s prophecies as spoken in terms understood by Israelites of the time. If you take that tack, then other prophecies regarding the Millennium in the Old Testament have no force either. I understand what you are trying to avoid (the reinstating of the sacrificial system) but I’m not convinced that you can just symbolise those parts of the prophecy away. Take Ezekiel 44. How does the punishment of the Levites square with sins being forgiven in Christ? Even if the priesthood etc. are symbolic, I don’t see how the punishment can be.

    No, I dont know the answer, but I’m not happy with yours. I can see why the classic dispensationalists opted for the division between Israel and the Church…I don’t agree with that either, though.

  6. Ali Says:

    By the way, I like your take on the 144 000 and the multitude. I’m happy to accept that explanation.

  7. fenderpooh Says:

    Hebrews 9:24 and 8:5 don’t give me any trouble. The argument the author is making is simply that the Mosaic covenant, with its priesthood and temple, is not ultimate. It had to be superseded by a better high priest, establishing a better covenant, and offering his own blood in the heavenly sanctuary. It has nothing to do with the rebuilding of a literal temple during the millennium.

    Now, let me respond to this statement:

    “Whatever the case, the temple is not merely part of the Law if it has a corresponding ‘true thing’.”

    I don’t see that as a problem either. The Mosaic Law itself is a time-bound, culture-specific expression of God’s eternal law. The commandments (especially those traditionally assigned to the “moral” category) correspond to something true that transcends them. The Sabbath commandment in particular is grounded in something bigger than itself, namely, God’s rest on the seventh day of creation (Exodus 20:8-11). But the command to sanctify the Sabbath day has passed away with the Mosaic Law, giving way now to the fulfillment of Sabbath rest in Christ (I am not a Sabbatarian, obviously). I see something similar happening with the temple.

    You mentioned that, given my hermeneutic, OT prophecies specifically about the millennium become hard to sustain. I agree. And that’s why I rest my case for the millennium primarily on Revelation 20. Because God’s revelation is progressive, I see the NT providing us with greater nuance than does the OT. So there is nowhere we can go in the OT to demonstrate a millennial kingdom, but we do get hints that we can draw out once we have read the NT. For example, OT prophecies about a renewed Israel defeating her enemies (Isaiah 11:14) does not sit easily with the eternal state, but it doesn’t quite belong in this age either. It likely refers to the millennium, when God’s redeemed people will rule with Christ over the rest of surviving humanity.

    As for Ezekiel 44 and the punishment of the Levites, a cursory reading of that passage made me think that Ezekiel was referring to the exclusion of unfaithful Levites from the blessing that he was speaking of. In other words, the Levites who bear their punishment are the ones who led Israel astray and were, in part, responsible for their exile (contemporaries of Ezekiel). Those Levites will have no share in the coming renewal of Israel, but the faithful will. Thus, there will be punishment of them in the millennium, but it is a punishment that consists of their exclusion from the blessing of it.

  8. Ali Says:

    I think we’ll have to disagree. My take is that Revelation 20 shows that the many OT prophecies fit into the Millennium and therefore can be taken literally. To then go ahead and interpret other OT prophecies as merely symbolic seems to be denying the possibility that there is another peice of the jigsaw missing that we haven’t figured out yet.

    I’m not convinced of your interpretation re. Ezekiel 44 either, though I appreciate you only had a cursory look. How can the Levites be punished in that way unless they are resurrected? And they wouldn’t be resurrected as part of the Millennium unless they were part of the redeemed… Unless they Levites who are punished because of their ancestors. Doesn’t fit.

    My preference is to say, “I don’t know how that fits” instead of interpreting them symbolically, because I cannot think of an OT prophecy that has not at least one very literal fulfilment and a pretty literal fulfillment following. Even the Sabbath fulfilment is not as symbolic as you need to be in order to interpret the OT prophecies the way you are suggesting. So, I’ll just mull over it, and perhaps just find out when it happens! 🙂

  9. fenderpooh Says:

    I don’t want to prolong this unnecessarily, but what I meant about Ezekiel 44 was that the unfaithful Levites (contemporaries of Ezekiel) will be excluded from the Millennium precisely because they will not be resurrected to inherit the Kingdom. And that will constitute their punishment.

    Let me sum up my part of this conversation by laying out a general idea about language and meaning that affects the way I interpret the Bible. The meaning of language consists of both its sense and its referent. It is important to distinguish between these two things, because a single referent could have many senses, and a single sense could have multiple referents. Sometimes it is inappropriate to use language that refers to the same thing if its sense is incorrect. I know that is confusing, so let me give an example.

    Let’s say President Bush was going to make a personal appearance at a local event, and my responsibility was to publicize the event. If I went around saying, “Barbara Bush’s son will make a personal appearance at such-and-such event,” I would be technically correct, but surely that’s the wrong way to put it. The phrase “Barbara Bush’s son” has the same referent as “The President of the United States,” but it has a very different sense. So, when interpreting language, we need to take both sense and referent into account.

    When I approach the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, I begin by looking for sense, not referent. I think the nature of the literature demands that we approach it that way. I begin by trying to imagine how the various images would have communicated to the audience of the day. How do the visions of restoration answer to the particular problems the people were facing? For example, Malachi chastised the priests of his day for their failure to honor the Lord. And then he spoke of a coming day when the messenger of the covenant would purify the sons of Levi, thereby purifying their worship. The sense of these prophecies is that God is going to reverse the failure of the people so that his name will be honored. But how exactly will it be fulfilled? Now we’re talking about referent. It is only after I have tried to grasp the sense that I begin to imagine the referent, and here I must go to what the New Testament teaches. According to the NT, the Levitical priesthood, along with its sacrifices, has passed away, having been superseded by Christ. Furthermore, in Christ all of God’s people have become priests. Could it be that the purifying of the sons of Levi spoken of by Malachi has its fulfillment in the whole of the new covenant people who worship God in purity through Christ? I think so. An over-literal interpretation seems to deny the very substance of the New Testament teaching about the shift in redemptive history that has occurred in Christ.

    In my view, Old Testament prophecies are not blueprints for the future. They are impressionistic portraits of a glory (and judgment!) to come, clothed in the language and images that resonated with their original hearers, delivered largely in poetic form. Certainly, some prophecies have a strikingly literal fulfillment (Zechariah 9:9), and I will probably be surprised at others that will as they unfold. But the New Testament makes clear that in Christ fulfillment has come in many ways different from what was expected.

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