The Role of National Israel in the Plan of God

Reprinted from eParousia #4, May, 2003

In the last issue of eParousia, we looked at the various views of the Millennium - Amillennialism, Postmillennialism and Premillennialism. One's position on the millennium often stems from one's ecclesiology - what a person believes is true about the church. In this issue I thought it would be good to examine the underlying theological viewpoints which undergird these various views. Namely, who is Israel? What is the Church? What is God's plan for Israel? Is there a future for national Israel? For answers to these questions, we'll need to examine the Scriptures.

There are two main views concerning the role of the nation of Israel in God's plan. One view holds that Israel was God's chosen people, but has now been set aside because of their disobedience and rejection of Christ. Israel was judged in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, and the Church has replaced Israel as the new people of God. The Church inherits the blessings promised to Israel in the Old Testament, and these blessings are not to be understood literally, but spiritually. This view has been called Replacement Theology.

The other position believes that, though Israel was judged and set aside by God for their disobedience and rejection of the Messiah, this judgment is not permanent. The Church has a role to play in the plan of God, but it is not as a replacement for Israel. Rather, Israel does have a future in the plan of God, and the promises given to Israel will be fulfilled in Israel. This view is part of what has been called Dispensationalism.

Amillennialism and Postmillennialism are based on replacement theology. Since Israel no longer has a role in God's plan, there is no need for a future 1000-year kingdom where Israel will be the chief nation on earth. Premillennialism, however, believes that God's promises to Israel, as of yet unfulfilled, will be fulfilled to Israel in a future time called the Millennium. The question for us is, "What does the Bible teach?"

GOD'S RELATIONSHIP WITH ISRAEL

First of all, we must recognize that God has a special place in His heart for Israel and Jerusalem. In Deuteronomy 7:6 we read, "For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth." God calls Jerusalem the "apple of His eye" in Zechariah 2:8. For a reason known only to God, He chose Israel to be His people, to reflect His glory, and to receive His blessing, and He chose Jerusalem as His dwelling place. It was God's eternal plan that Israel would be the conduit for His blessing and grace to spread to the entire world.

God's relationship with Israel is based on covenants. The Old Testament speaks of several covenants that God made with His people, Israel. The foundation of all of these covenants is the one made with Abraham, called the Abrahamic Covenant. Genesis 12 gives us the first encounter with the covenant:

Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen. 12:1-3)

Was this a temporary covenant that one day would be set aside? No. The Scriptures clearly state that this covenant (promise) from God is "everlasting" (Gen. 17:7-8). The Abrahamic Covenant involves three elements: A land, a nation, and a blessing. These three aspects of this covenant are enlarged in subsequent covenants, called the Palestinian (or land) covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the New Covenant. These covenants are also stated to be eternal covenants.

Over and over God promised to give the Promised Land to Israel "forever" (Gen. 13:15; Ex. 32:13; Is. 60:21; Ezek. 37:25). God promised David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne. God says that this throne will be established "forever" (2 Sam. 7:12-16; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; Ps. 89:35-37; Is. 9:6-7; Luke 1:32-33). And the New Covenant is called an "everlasting covenant" (Heb. 13:20). God has made it very clear what He intends to do.

All of God's promises to Israel, which began with the Abrahamic Covenant, will finally be fulfilled in a future kingdom. As God states through the prophet Ezekiel:

"And My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them. And they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons, and their sons' sons, forever; and David My servant shall be their prince forever. And I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever" (Ezek. 37:24-28).

We must note that all of these covenants were with the nation of Israel. Even the New Covenant is specifically stated to be "with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (Jer. 31:31). God never made a covenant with the Church. Rather, the church now shares in the New Covenant. The New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus in the upper room with His disciples, is the same New Covenant spoken of in the book of Jeremiah, and the only covenant mentioned by the New Testament.

Paul, when speaking of the Church's relationship to Israel, never says that the Church has usurped Israel's place, or replaced Israel as the covenant people of God. Rather, Paul speaks of us as being "grafted in" (Rom. 11:17), "brought near" (Eph. 2:13), "descendants of Abraham" by faith (Rom. 4:16), "heirs" of Abraham's promise (Gal. 3:29), and as "sharing" in Israel's blessings (Rom. 15:27). Because of God's grace and his plan to extend His blessing to all peoples, we have been included with the Jews into the New Covenant.

HAS GOD REJECTED HIS PEOPLE?

But, you may ask, "Didn't God reject the Jews because of their disobedience?" I'm glad you asked. Some had asked this same question of the apostle Paul, and his answer was unequivocal: "May it never be!" (Rom. 11:1). Indeed, the 11th chapter of Romans is Paul's treatise on the role and future of Israel in God's plan of redemption. Rather than teaching replacement theology, the apostle Paul reasserts what was the clear teaching of the Old Testament - God is not through with Israel, and He has a grand plan for their future.

To summarize Romans 11, Paul tells us that God has not finally rejected His people, Israel. Rather, because of their disobedience, God has given them a "spirit of stupor", a "partial hardening". They have been broken off from the root, but will be grafted in again. During this time of Israel's blindness, the gospel has gone to the Gentiles in order to make the Jews jealous. We Gentiles, the wild olive tree, have been grafted into the root of the natural olive tree (Israel). Once the "fullness of the Gentiles" has come in (to salvation), then "all Israel will be saved." Regarding Israel, Paul states, "For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29). That is, God's covenant with Israel in the Old Testament has not been revoked. Israel will inherit the blessings promised to them and one day in the future they will be grafted back in and "all Israel will be saved."

Paul is merely repeating what God had already said in the Old Testament. He has promised to never cast off Israel:

Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day, And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name: "If this fixed order departs From before Me," declares the LORD, "Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease From being a nation before Me forever." Thus says the LORD, "If the heavens above can be measured, And the foundations of the earth searched out below, Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done," declares the LORD. (Jer. 31:35-37)

I just looked out my window here in Central Florida and saw the sun. I guess God still has plans for Israel.

SALVATION OF ISRAEL

Throughout the Old Testament God promised that one day salvation would come to Israel (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:24-28, 37:21-28; Hosea 3:4-5; Joel 3:16-21; Zech. 10:6-12, 12:10). Though they had rebelled and sinned against God, He would one day have compassion on them, and bring them to salvation. Paul knew his Bible, and this is what he is speaking of in Romans 11.

KINGDOM RESTORED TO ISRAEL

One of God's promises in the Old Testament was the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. He had allowed them to be conquered again and again because of their disobedience. But, consonant with their future national salvation would come a restoration of their kingdom as well. Again, there are a multitude of verses that promise this restored everlasting Kingdom (Jer. 23:5-6; Ezek. 37:24-28; Dan. 2:44; Amos 9:11-15; Obad. 17-21; Zech. 14:9-17).

The New Testament also reiterates the restoration of Israel's kingdom. When the Angel Gabriel came to Mary, and told her that she was to have a child by the Spirit of God coming upon her, he said of this child: " He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end." (Luke 1:32-33). What would these words have conveyed to Mary? Undoubtedly that her son would rule the nation of Israel, as her ancestor David did.

Later in His ministry Jesus promises his twelve disciples that, "…in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Mt. 19:28). What could this mean except a restoration of the Kingdom to Israel?

In His Olivet Discourse recorded in Luke 21, Jesus spoke of the coming destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the dispersion of the Jews. He said, "… and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled" (Luke 21:24). This is a prophecy of the destruction by Rome of literal Jerusalem and its subsequent domination by Gentile powers. However, a time limit is placed on this domination by the word "until". Jesus says that one day the domination will end. What can this refer to but the restoration of Jerusalem to Jewish rule?

And finally, after the resurrection of Christ, His disciples ask him a pressing question: "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" It would have been simple for Him to say, "No. You don't understand. My kingdom is spiritual, not physical." But how did He answer His disciples? He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority…" (Acts 1:6-7). Had they misunderstood? Hardly. Jesus in no way diminishes their hopes of a restored kingdom; rather He says that the restoration of the kingdom to Israel will come in God's own timing.

CONCLUSION

Replacement theology does a disservice to the Church, Israel and the Word of God. The substitution of the Church for Israel runs counter to the expectations of the prophets, the expectations of Jesus' disciples and the clear teaching of both the Old and New Testaments. If God will not fulfill His promises to Israel, what guarantee do we have that He will fulfill His promises to the Church? Has God rejected Israel? May it never be!

 

This article was originally published through eParousia, Sola Scriptura's monthly end-times e-newsletter.

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