This article first appeared as a blog post on the Reformed Free Publishing Association's website and is part of a series on this subject by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor laboring with the Limerick Reformed Fellowship in the Republic of Ireland.
The Bible and Israel (6)
Recently, the modern nation of Israel celebrated seventy years since it was established. Moreover, the United States has just moved its embassy to Jerusalem in order to recognize it as Israel’s capital city. But do such political moves have anything to do with the Bible? Are they the fulfilment of prophecy? Many Christians of a premillennial dispensational persuasion believe that they do. In addition, many in the premillennial dispensational camp argue that it is the Christian’s duty to support the nation of Israel as God’s people.
In this series of blog posts, we have argued vigorously from the word of God that the unbelieving Jews in modern Israel are not the people of God. Rather, anyone of whatever ethnicity, whether Jew or Gentile, who believes in Jesus Christ is a true child of Abraham and a genuine, spiritual Jew (Rom. 2:29; Phil. 3:3). To that clear teaching of the New Testament the modern premillennial dispensationalist retorts, “But is not Israel a nation forever?”
Is Israel Not a Nation Forever?
Premillennial dispensationalism in an effort to promote a Jewish kingdom after the “church age” (the church age supposedly ends with the rapture) refers us to the Old Testament. However, we should note that the New Testament is the authoritative interpretation of the Old Testament. Some premillennial dispensationalists have complained that this approach to scripture causes the New Testament to “restrict” or “oppress” the Old Testament, but that is an absurd argument.
The New Testament clearly teaches that the Old Testament period was a time of types and shadows, while the New Testament, with the coming of Christ, is a time of fulfilment: “Let no man judge you in meat or in drink or in respect of an holy day. . .which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:17). The whole book of Hebrews teaches us that the sacrifices, the tabernacle, the temple and its furniture, the feast days, and indeed all other aspects of Old Testament worship have been fulfilled in Christ. This should give us pause when we seek to interpret Old Testament passages about temples, feast days, and sacrifices!
I will illustrate with an example from Amos 9:11, “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen. . .” If you read that passage without the light of the New Testament, and if you insisted on taking it literally (literalistically), what would you make of it? Would you come to the conclusion that it means that in the New Testament age the Jews and Gentiles together will form one people of God or one church, and that believing Gentiles will not need to be circumcised or keep the law of Moses to be saved? Well, that is exactly how James interprets it at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, an interpretation approved by the delegates (Peter, Barnabas, Paul, etc.) and the Holy Spirit himself (Acts 15:14–19, 28)! Only a fool would suggest that James took a totally irrelevant passage to prove a controversial point and twisted it to give it a meaning it never had in Amos' prophecy. A humble believer must say to himself: “Clearly, my understanding of the Old Testament is flawed and carnal. I will learn from this example about how to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New. And I will pray to God to grant me light.”
But perhaps the premillennial dispensationalist insists that his position is correct by quoting the clearest passage on the perpetuity of Israel's nationhood: “If those ordinances (the sun, moon, and stars) depart from before me, saith the LORD, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me forever. Thus saith the LORD: if heaven above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the LORD” (Jer. 31:36-37).
What a wonderful promise; but pause for a moment. Have we not learned already who the seed of Israel is? The seed of Israel is centrally Christ, and therefore the seed of Israel includes all who belong to him and believe in him (see Galatians 3:16, 29). The seed of Israel has nothing to do with carnal, unbelieving Jews, whether in Jeremiah’s day or in our day.
Does Jeremiah mean, therefore, that the state of Israel, as a political entity, is under the eternal blessing of God, and will always be a nation? Can we then apply this to that state in the Middle East, whose current prime minister is Benjamin Netanyahu? Can the dispensationalist appeal to this text to prove that we should support the modern state of Israel? (Notice that I am not making a political point, but a theological and exegetical one).
First, what does the text mean by “nation”? The Hebrew word is goy, the plural of which, goyim, means the Gentiles. A nation would appear to be a distinct people with a head or a people with a king. Second, how did God keep this promise in a way to satisfy the most literalistic premillennial dispensationalist? Israel only became a nation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19; before that Israel was a company of slaves. At Mount Sinai, God declared Israel to be a peculiar treasure (Hebrew: segulah; Greek: Laos periousios) and a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Hebrew: goy qadosh; Greek: ethnos hagion) (vv. 5–6).
What about Israel’s subsequent history? Was Israel a nation when the ten tribes were carried away into captivity; was Israel a nation when the remaining two tribes were carried into Babylon for seventy years; was Israel a nation when she existed as a plaything for the nations from the decree of Cyrus to the time of the Roman empire, and when no Davidic king ever sat on the earthly throne in Jerusalem again; was Israel a nation when she was destroyed in AD 70; and was Israel a nation from AD 70 to AD 1948/1967 (when the Jews were scattered among the nations); and is Israel a nation today?
Third, as we noted above, the promise of Jeremiah 31:36-37 is made explicitly to the seed of Israel, and not to the corporate entity known as Israel. The seed of Israel includes all those, whether ethnic Jew or ethnic Gentile, who believe in Jesus Christ, and excludes all ethnic Jews (and all ethnic Gentiles) who reject Jesus Christ. Since the Jews who returned to Israel in AD 1948 were unbelievers, Jeremiah 31 has nothing to do with them.
But what of the nationhood of Israel? In which people is this promise fulfilled if not in the unbelieving Jewish state in the Middle East? And is there a king to sit on David's throne? The New Testament tells us that Jesus is the son or seed of David and that he sits on David's throne: “the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Premillennial dispensationalists are fond of asserting that this prophecy will be fulfilled in a future millennial reign, but that is impossible, for Luke 1 promises an everlasting kingdom, not one limited to a mere millennium. Besides that, Peter teaches in Acts 2 that Jesus Christ is already sitting on the throne of David in heaven (Acts 2:30, 33–36).
Jesus indicates the identity of the nation to whom God makes the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 when he warns the Jews of his day in Matthew 21:43, “Therefore I say unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” And we do not have to look too far to discover which nation that is: it is the church, the church of Jesus Christ, made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, who are the seed of Abraham, the children of God, the Jews of the New Testament. Peter writes to the church in these words: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people. . . which in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9–10), but the holy nation is the name given to Israel in Exodus 19:5–6. Unashamedly, Peter applies that name to the church! The church is the holy nation, and since the church will never be destroyed, in her and not in the modern post-1948 state of Israel, the promise of Jeremiah 31 is fulfilled. Titus 2:14 is also instructive: Paul designates the churches in Crete as the “peculiar people” for whom Christ died, the name taken from Exodus 19:5 (Greek: laos periousios)!
It must not escape our notice either that the subject of Jeremiah 31 is the new covenant, which God promises to make with “the house of Judah and the house of Israel” (v. 31). The promise of the new covenant is twofold: first, God promises to write his law in the hearts of his people (that is, he promises regeneration); and second, he promises to forgive his people’s sins: “I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more” (v. 34).
Christ fulfilled the new covenant, which has nothing to do with earthly Israel, land promises, or a temple. In Matthew 26:28 he explains, “For this is my blood of the new testament (or covenant), which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” In 2 Corinthians 3:6 Paul explains that he and his apostolic colleagues are “ministers of the new testament” (or covenant). The chief difference between the old and new covenants, according to 2 Corinthians 3, is that the old covenant was external (“tables of stone” [v. 3]), while the new covenant is internal (“in fleshy tables of the heart”), which fits with God’s promise to write his law on the hearts of his people. Second Corinthians is a letter written to a largely Gentile church, and yet Paul applies the promises of the new covenant to the church, not to the Jews, whom he describes as blinded with a veil over their hearts so that they cannot understand the gospel of the scriptures (see vv. 14–15). Moreover, the book of Hebrews applies the new covenant blessings to the church, not to apostate Israel (Heb. 8:6–13). In fact, the church of Jesus Christ, which enjoys the knowledge of God and the forgiveness of sins, is the house of Israel.
Are there then no promises to the political entity known as Israel? The answer is an unequivocal “No.” Will Israel as a political entity ever rebuild her temple and worship God as she did in the Old Testament? That is very unlikely, but even if she does manage to build a temple in Jerusalem and institute a priesthood, offer sacrifices, and celebrate the feasts, it will be just another sign of Israel's apostasy from God. If the sacrifices of the wicked were abominable to God in the Old Testament (Prov. 15:8; 21:27), how much more abominable would the recommencing of animal sacrifices be in the future after the one, only sacrifice of the Son of God? And yet there are many premillennial dispensationalists across the globe, many of them politically active, who hope and pray for such a day!
All the promises of God are in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). All the promises of God were made to Christ, as the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). Therefore, there can be no promise of any kind for any unbeliever outside of Jesus Christ. The calling of the Jew, as the calling of the Gentile, is to repent and believe in Jesus Christ and join the church of Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free, where there is no difference (Gal. 3:28). “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be upon them and mercy” (Gal. 6:16).
For they are the Israel of God!