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 (1)
The belief that Israel is a nation before God forever is one held almost fanatically by many professing Christians, especially Christians of a premillennial dispensational persuasion. In fact, to deny that the modern “State of Israel” (as she is called) located in the Middle East is the people of God is heresy in some circles. Reformed Christianity teaches unashamedly that the church (made up of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ) is God’s chosen people. In some circles, that teaching will be labelled today as “replacement theology" (the belief that the church replaces Israel), “supersessionism” (the belief that the church supersedes Israel) or simply anti-Semitism (hatred for the Jews).
Nevertheless, the question concerning Israel’s status is not a political or a social question, but a theological, biblical, and exegetical question. Neither the U.S. Department of State, nor the U.K.’s Foreign Office, nor the European Parliament, nor the United Nations General Council decides who Israel is; that question must be determined from the word of God.
While the world has its view of Israel, reflected, for example, in its preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, the Christian is interested in the Israel of God: “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). In this series of blog posts, we want to explore that question.
Israel: A Concise History
The name “Israel” first appears in Genesis 32:28 when the name of the man Jacob was changed to Israel. The nation or the people of Israel, therefore, derive their name from him. The origin of the people of God must be sought earlier, of course, in Abraham, who is the great father of Israel (and Jacob’s grandfather). Before that, God’s people were found (after Adam, Eve and Abel) among the descendants of Shem, as opposed to the descendants of Cain (Gen. 4:16-5:32).
The first mention of the land that should later be called Israel is in Genesis, where Abraham was promised the land of Canaan as his everlasting possession (Gen. 12:7; 13:15). Many Christians still believe that the people of Israel (the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc.) still possess an inalienable, divine right to the land. However, this betrays a gross misunderstanding of the significance of the land, a significance that even Abraham himself understood.
Abraham himself never possessed the land, “no, not so much as to set his foot on,” as Stephen puts it in his memorable sermon (Acts 7:5). Neither Isaac, nor Jacob, nor Jacob’s sons, nor his grandsons ever possessed the land, except for a small plot of land in which some of the patriarchs were buried. After the death of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons), the people of Israel did not occupy the land. Instead, they languished in Egyptian slavery for some four hundred years. Not until the time of Joshua did possession of the land begin, and not until the time of David and Solomon did the Lord give all the land to the twelve tribes, and even then they did not possess it for very long.
After the reign of Solomon, ten tribes split from Judah and existed as a separate kingdom for some two hundred years. These ten tribes were taken captive by the Assyrians and never restored. Some one hundred and fifty years later, Babylon took the remaining two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) captive and destroyed Jerusalem, which remained a heap of rubble for some seventy years.
Therefore, Israel possessed the land in its entirety for only about a handful of centuries. This is a far cry from everlasting possession, if we take God’s promise to mean that Abraham and his children would be physical possessors of that plot of land in the Middle East forever, which, as we shall demonstrate, was never God’s promise to Abraham, nor did he expect it, and it is certainly not the promise of God to the modern, secular state of Israel today.
After the return from captivty, Israel as a nation never possessed the land again. Various nations (Persia, Greece, Egypt/Syria, and Rome) governed Israel during the so-called “intertestamentary period.” During that same time, when Rome rose to power, the Herods, who were descendants of Esau (and not descendants of Jacob) ruled over Israel, but even the Herods were appointed by Rome and were answerable to the Caesars. Israel, therefore, did not have her own king.
By the time Jesus Christ came into the world, Israel was a miserable vassal state of the mighty Roman Empire. A generation after the resurrection of Christ (70 AD), Jerusalem was again destroyed, and the Jews were scattered to the four corners of the earth. During that whole period no descendant of David ever sat on David’s earthly throne (the last Davidic king was Zedekiah), although in God’s covenant mercy the line of David itself was preserved until the coming of Christ.
After AD 70, when Israel’s nationhood effectively ceased, the Jews remained scattered throughout the nations retaining their distinct identity as religious, ethnic Jews. We certainly admit that the Jews have been mistreated in history, even in nominally Christian countries, for the Christian church has a shameful, anti-Semitic history. Nevertheless, as awful and shameful as the persecution of the Jews is, which every right-minded Christian certainly condemns, we have no right to allow a natural sympathy for the Jews (or for any other people or ethnic group), or a rightful condemnation of such horrors as the Holocaust, to cloud our judgment on the subject of biblical interpretation.
In 1948 Israel’s nationhood was re-established, internationally recognized as an independent country by the United Nations. In 1967, having defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Israel annexed Jerusalem making it her capital city, although politically Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s modern capital is in dispute, many nations viewing Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Recently, the U.S. government officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, which is politically but not theologically significant.
Many Christians regard Israel’s restoration as highly significant in God’s prophetic calendar, and even as a sign of the second coming of Christ. Others expect a mass conversion of ethnic Jews and even the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, which has lain in ruins since 70 AD or for some 1,948 years. As we shall demonstrate, not only do Reformed Christians not expect the temple to be rebuilt, but we also abhor the concept of a rebuilt temple, which would be further evidence of the rejection by the Jews of the cross of Jesus Christ.
Again I say, if God’s promise to Abraham was the everlasting possession of an earthly landmass, how miserably God’s promise failed! Happily, however, that was not God’s promise to Abraham, for God’s promise can never fail (Rom 9:6). God’s promise to Abraham was richer, better, and more glorious than a measly plot of land in the Middle East: it was the possession of the new creation in Christ with all the saints of God (Rom. 4:13). Abraham understood it and rejoiced in anticipation of it (John 8:56; Heb. 11:13-16). Many Christians of premillennial dispensational persuasion, with their eyes fixed on the political events of the Middle East, have missed it. Let the modern Jews and Arabs fight over a plot of land in the Middle East (and let the world attempt in vain to broker peace between the warring factions), but all true children of Abraham, including Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ, look forward to the possession of a better, heavenly inheritance.
To that we turn next time, D.V.
Rev. Martyn McGeown (Larisa)
Pastorates: Missionary-pastor in Limerick, Ireland for the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland - 2010; Providence PRC (Hudsonville, MI), Sept. 2021Website: www.prca.org/current/news/churches/usa-canada/providence-prc-hudsonville-mi
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