Eschatology and the Middle East

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips May 26, 2002

Our question tonight deals with the nation of Israel and current events in the Middle East: “Is there any eschatological significance” to all this? Eschatology deals with things at the end, and so the question is whether or not the political entity of the nation Israel is directly bound up with the Second Coming of our Lord. A majority of Evangelicals believe that it is, and their zeal for support of Israel on this basis seems to have a real influence on our nation's policy.

The Old Testament promises of a land in Palestine for God’s people go back to Abraham, in Genesis 15:18-21. There is no question that the Old Testament frequently describes Israel's salvation in terms both of future offspring and a promised homeland. For this reason, when Israel was established as a nation in 1948, many Christians, under the influence of Dispensational theology, hailed this as an astounding proof of the Bible’s accuracy.

Dispensationalists believe that Israel and the Christian church have separate destinies and separate salvations. The Jewish salvation is earthly, the Christian’s heavenly. Thus they keep a keen eye on events in Israel, believing that the Old Testament prophecies must be physically fulfilled, and that this fulfillment signals the end of the church age and the soon return of Christ. It follows from this that to oppose the nation of Israel is to stand in the path of God's plan for salvation and to oppose the will of God.

No doubt, what I have just described, with various modifications, is the majority view of Evangelicals, which is why this is something that makes the news. But is it biblical? In my view, if we look carefully at the biblical data we will be led to different conclusions. First of all, the idea that Israel and the church have separate destinies and salvations does not square up with the New Testament’s teaching. In numerous places, the New Testament teaches that Old Testament Israel has its analogy today in the Christian church. Paul thus refers to Christians in Galatians 6:16 as “the Israel of God.” In Romans 11, he tells us that Christians have been grafted into the tree from which the branches of Israel have been broken off. In the dramatic scenery of Hebrews 12:22-24, the salvation of Christians is described in terms of the blessings of Israel: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.”

The New Testament depicts Old Testament prophecies of land and offspring as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:20). In Galatians 3 and 4, Paul teaches that Abraham’s promised offspring are Christian believers, so that he is our father in faith (see also Rom. 4:16-18). Likewise, the prophecies of the land should be understood as pointing to the worldwide extension of the church. This was the point Jesus made to the Samaritan woman in John 4, telling her on the one hand that the Jews were right in their emphasis of a particular holy land and city. But, he added, his coming had transcended that distinction, so that wherever God is worshiped through him in spirit and in truth, there is holy ground (Jn. 4:21-24). The Samaritans clearly understood, for after they met with Jesus they extolled him, saying, “This man really is the Savior of the world” (Jn. 4:42). Accordingly, there is no Holy Land on the map today, but every place where Jesus is preached and believed is holy ground.

Most objectionable is the particular fascination with a rebuilding of the temple, which many believe is part of God’s plan for the return of Christ. This flies in the face of the teaching of the Book of Hebrews, which says the Old Testament ceremonies were the shadow that gave way to the reality in Jesus Christ. Do we really expect God to accept the sacrifice of bulls and goats after his own Son has died once for all for our sins? (See Heb. 10:1-18).

Some will object that the basic Reformed view, which I am presenting, spiritualizes prophecies that spoke of physical realities. But this is not a spiritualizing of prophecy, but rather their literal interpretation in terms of the Bible's own redemptive-historical progression. The Old Testament leads to Christ. He is the Israelite who fulfills the Law and receives the promises. Biblically speaking, there is no Israel outside of him. The promises will indeed be really, physically fulfilled, but in a superabundance that transcends a flat reading of the Old Testament that discounts the transforming work of Christ. Using its habitual figurative language, the Book of Revelation concludes with a picture of a whole cosmos redeemed and a vast people from all nations living in the holy city in the light of his glory.

Does that mean, then, that there is nothing going on with the nation Israel and with Jewish people today? Or, to put in the terms of the question I was asked, “What's the deal with Israel?”

It surely is more than coincidence that the Jewish people are still around. After all, show me a Hittite, a Jebusite, or an Amorite today! But there are the Jews, intact as a people. That is a great proof of the Bible’s accuracy. Indeed, I think Christians will instinctively show a delight in the Jews and look on them with a certain favor. When I lived in New York I would sometimes encounter large groups of Hasidic Jews, complete with biblically-informed garments. And I praised God and took advantage of every opportunity to show kindness to these ethnic relations of our Lord and the apostles. Whatever you think of the Bible’s teaching regarding the Jews, surely Christians should treat them with kindness and grace.

I believe that Romans 11 does teach a future mass conversion of Jewish people to faith in Christ. Paul writes in Romans 11:26, “And so all Israel will be saved.” “As far as the gospel is concerned,” he concludes, “they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable” (vv. 18-29). To that end they are being preserved as an ethnic people, though the political entity of the nation Israel has no apparent significance apart from this.

What are the lessons for us? First, we ought to marvel at the faithfulness of God in preserving his ancient people and keeping them in the world as an ongoing testimony to his power. Second, we ought to be humble when we see the Jews, for if they were broken off from God’s vine by unbelief the same will happen to us if we do not persevere (Rom. 11:20-21). Third, just as we pray for the salvation of all others and the missionary work of the church, we ought to perhaps especially pray for the salvation of the Jews. While Jews have no special place in the church today (see Gal. 3:28), their conversion brings distinctive glory to God and ought to give special pleasure to us.

What about the nation of Israel? I suggest that we should pray for this nation, as we do for others, that God would bring them out of the darkness of unbelief into salvation through faith in Christ, that God would bless there the missionary work of the church, that in the meantime he would restrain evil in their land and allow them to live among their neighbors with peace and justice, and finally that God might use their struggle to lead them to the only true peace through the Son of David who died at Jerusalem as the Savior of the world.

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