IS THE MODERN STATE OF ISRAEL A FULFILLMENT OF BIBLICAL PROPHECY?
NOTE: This article is an appendix taken from my book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate (Redemption Press, 2014). In the book itself I discuss at length most of the texts briefly cited here. For further study of this interesting and important question, please consult the relevant portions of my book.
MANY PREMILLENNARIANS confidently assert that the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Dispensationalist Thomas Ice says it this way:
There are dozens of biblical passages that predict an end-time regathering of Israel back to her land … I believe that modern Israel is a divine work and is in the process of fulfilling Bible prophecy. I believe that Israel, as she is constituted today, is a work of God in progress, preparing the nation for the Tribulation, which will lead to her national conversion, the second coming of Christ, and His millennial reign.
These words invite careful—very careful—reflection. Certainly all Bible believing Christians would agree that the creation of the modern state of Israel is a “divine work,” since Scripture clearly teaches that God, by his all-controlling providence, creates every nation of the sons of Adam, having predetermined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation (Acts 17:26). Moreover, in the course of our study I myself have argued that a number of Scriptures encourage us to look for a large-scale conversion of world Jewry just prior to the second coming of Christ. If so, it would be strange indeed if the sudden arrival of a new Jewish state upon the stage of history had nothing to do with it!
But is it true, as Ice believes, that dozens of OT Kingdom prophecies predicted the recent return of millions of Russian and European Jews to Palestine? In God’s sight, are they still his people—his “Israel”—despite the fact the most of them have not (yet) trusted in Jesus Christ as their Messiah? In God’s sight, is Palestine still their land? Is God really preparing modern-day Israel for a seven-year Tribulation? And should we really look for a second coming of Christ that will partially transform physical Palestine, inaugurate a temporary earthly kingdom, raise up a middle wall of partition between Israel and the nations, and reinstitute various Mosaic ordinances—all for a thousand years?
In the body of this book, I have addressed these questions at length. Since, however, many Christians believe that the creation of the modern Jewish state lends credence to one or another of the various premillennial scenarios, it is important that we review them once again.
My approach in this appendix will be to consider three closely related questions:
- What is God’s present relation to unbelieving Jews, wherever they happen to live?
- Is the creation of the modern Jewish state a fulfillment of OTKP?
- And if it is not, how are we to understand it?
Again, what follows will be a review of material covered earlier. Accordingly, I will not often support my statements with proof texts. For the Scriptural basis of my arguments, please consult the relevant chapters and exegetical discussions.
What is God’s present relation to unbelieving Jews?
This is a subtle question, one that cannot be answered without the help of NT teaching on the true identity of the people of God, and on the exact relation of the Old Covenant to the New. Let us briefly recall our findings.
In the course of our journey we learned that from eternity past God has always had a single plan for the salvation of his people: the Eternal Covenant. It is comprised of five elements.
The parties to the Covenant are God and his chosen, believing people, whether Jew or Gentile. They go by various names. They are the Church: God’s called out ones, whether Jew or Gentile. They are the saints: God’s separated ones, whether Jew or Gentile. And they are the one Body, the one Bride, the one Flock, and the one Holy Nation of God and Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.
The provision of the Covenant—that which makes the Covenant possible—is Christ, both his divine-human Person and redemptive Work.
The promise of the Covenant is eternal life: spiritual life throughout the remainder of this present evil age (i.e., the Era of Proclamation), and spiritual and physical life throughout the eternal Age (or World) to Come.
The proviso of the Covenant—the condition of entrance into the Covenant, and of the enjoyment of its promised blessings—is repentance from sin and faith in Christ alone.
Finally, the penalty for spurning the Covenant is eternal punishment.
Here, in the Eternal Covenant, we have the great redemptive “mystery” of God. It is none other than the New Covenant, which, in the present Era of Proclamation, has been unveiled, expounded, proclaimed, and celebrated by Christ himself, his holy apostles and prophets, and his entire Church.
What, then, is the exact relationship between the Eternal Covenant, the Old Covenant (i.e., the Mosaic Law), and the New Covenant? In our study, we addressed this question at some length. We learned, for example, that in OT times, God administered the Eternal Covenant typologically; that in those days he promised, pictured, and prepared for the (unveiling of the) Covenant, while in NT times he fulfilled all he had promised, pictured, and prepared for by manifesting the several elements of the Covenant as they truly are.
This “mysterious” relationship is especially evident in God’s dealings with the family of Abraham, a family that in due season he constituted as a nation when he gave Israel the Mosaic Law at Mt. Sinai. Under that Law, ethnic Israel pictured the universal Church, the human parties to the Eternal Covenant; so too did the Temple, Jerusalem, and other OT institutions (Eph. 2:19-22, Rev. 21:1f). Under that Law, the prophets, priests, kings, and sacrifices pictured Christ, the provision of the Covenant, in all his offices. And under that Law, the land pictured the World to Come, the promise of the Eternal Covenant in all its fullness (Rom. 4:13). In short, the rich tapestry of Mosaic institutions pictured and promised the several elements of the Eternal Covenant.
Very importantly, we also learned that when Christ entered the world and inaugurated the Eternal Covenant through the shedding of his blood, he not only fulfilled the Old Covenant and its various emblems and institutions, but also abolished it (and them) forever (Mt. 5:17). The veil of the temple was rent (Mt. 27:51). The fig tree was cursed (Mark 11:12-14). The old wineskins were to be cast away (Mt. 9:17). In all of these things, the Spirit depicts for us the permanent laying aside of the OT institutions; their perpetual obsolescence (Heb. 8:13). As a result, since the Day of Pentecost when the apostles first proclaimed the finished work of Christ, it has never been safe for any man—Jew or Gentile—to shelter his soul under Moses (John 1:17). Indeed, the NT casts those who stubbornly try to do so as rebels against God (2 Thess. 1:8, 1 Peter 4:17). In the words of Christ, Jewish unbelievers who cling to the Mosaic Law are a synagogue of Satan (Rev. 2:9, 3:9). In the words of Paul, they are citizens of the Jerusalem below, but not of the Jerusalem above; they are children of Hagar, but not of Sara; they are slaves to sin, condemnation, and wrath, but not free men in Christ (Gal. 4:21-31). So then, now that Christ has entered the world, everything has changed for the physical seed of Abraham. Israel according to the flesh must become Israel according to the Spirit, or cease being Israel at all.
Once we understand all this—once we understand how the New Covenant fulfills the Old, rendering its emblems and institutions forever obsolete—then we can understand God’s relation to modern unbelieving Jews. It is not a mystery. Just like unbelieving Gentiles, they are “not his people” (Hosea 1:9). They are outside the Covenant. Indeed, they are outside two covenants. They are outside the New Covenant because they remain in sin and unbelief; and they are outside the Old Covenant because the Old Covenant no longer exists. Thus, at the risk of some confusion, one might call these people Israelites in a strictly anthropological sense, since they are indeed the physical descendants of Jacob. But spiritually speaking, they are no longer Israel at all. Though God certainly loves them, and though he may yet have great plans for them, at present he does not regard them as his people, his family, or his nation. In the NT, such honorifics are reserved exclusively for the elect parties of the New Covenant. In NT times, there is only one Israel of God: Christ’s Church (Gal. 6:16, 1 Peter 2:9-10).
This important truth bears heavily on the question before us. Premillennarians assert that in OTKP God spoke of a latter day restoration of ethnic Israel to their land. But we have learned from Scripture that the latter days are the days of the New Covenant (Heb. 1:1f, 8:1ff). How then, in those prophecies, could God have been speaking of anyone other than the parties of the New Covenant; of anyone other than Christ’s called out ones, whether Jew or Gentile? No, when God promised to draw eschatological “Israel” into an everlasting covenant with himself, and to give them a beautiful new homeland, he was not speaking of unbelieving Jews, but of his whole Church (Hosea 2:14-23). Even so, in every genuine OTKP God did not have in view the restoration of unbelieving Jews to a life in Palestine under (the institutions of) the Old Covenant, but the restoration of his believing Church to a life in the Spirit, in the stages and under the institutions of the New Covenant.
All of this enables us to think clearly about the vexed question of the “right” of modern unbelieving Jews to the land of Palestine. Suppose that in the years immediately following Pentecost, Israel at large had repented of their sin and trusted in Christ as their Messiah. Then indeed she would have had a divine right to the land. However, that right would not have been grounded in God’s Old Covenant promise of a physical homeland, because the Old Covenant, at that point, was obsolete. Therefore, their right to the land would have been grounded solely in the workings of divine Providence: Formerly, God had placed them there, much as he had placed other people groups in their own respective homelands. In order for them to remain there, they had only to walk in obedience to Christ, just as all nations must do if they hope to remain in their appointed places, secure and prosperous. In other words, by divine covenant, believing Israel would have had a right only to one land: the land above (Heb. 12:22), and the land up ahead (2 Peter 3:13). Difficult as it may be to receive, the upshot of this is quite clear: If, at that time, the land of Palestine would not have been theirs by divine covenant, certainly it is not theirs by divine covenant today.
We know, however, that as a matter of historical fact things turned out very differently. Not only did ethnic Israel at large reject their Messiah, they also persisted in their unbelief until God destroyed their capitol through Titus in 70 ad, and shortly thereafter scattered the whole nation to the four winds. Very importantly, this situation was altogether different from Israel’s earlier expulsion from the land. Formerly, when God sent Israel into Babylon for seventy years, the nation was still in covenant with him, as the prophet Daniel well knew, and to which fact he fervently appealed (1 Kings 8:33-35, Jer. 29:1f, Dan. 9). In God’s sight, the land still belonged to his OT people, so that they still had a right to return to it, all in his good time. However, after Calvary, when Christ sealed the New Covenant in his blood—thus fulfilling, dissolving, and rendering the Old Covenant permanently obsolete—unbelieving Israel no longer had a divine right to the land, for she was no longer in covenant with God. Nor does she have such a right today. She does, however, have a divine right to a far better homeland, which she may enter upon condition of simple faith in her Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In reflecting upon the condition of modern Israel, one is therefore inclined to think back to the days shortly after the Exodus. Having thought better about rejecting the good word of Joshua and Caleb, the panicky Israelites tried to press into Canaan in order to make it their own, even though God was not with them in the attempt, and even though he had warned them against it (Num. 13-14). It is much the same today. Having spurned the good word of the Gospel, ethnic Israel at large seeks to press into Palestine, hoping that somehow they can reclaim the glory days of David and Solomon. But after more than six decades of continual conflict, it is abundantly clear that this can never be, for apart from Christ they can do nothing (John 15:5). Moreover, even with Christ there is no guarantee that a believing Jewish nation would physically survive the vicissitudes of end-time persecution any better than an unbelieving Israel, seeing that all of God’s New Covenant children are destined for physical (but only physical) trampling beneath the feet of the unbelieving nations (Mt. 10:16-31, John 16:2, Rev. 11:1-2).
So then, as for the modern Gentile so for the modern Jew: Their greatest need is to make sure that their true citizenship is in heaven, from which also they ought eagerly to wait for a Savior who will welcome them into the glories of the only Land that counts: the World to Come (Phil. 3:20-21).
Hopefully, the Church Militant understands this. Hopefully we all understand that we do our Jewish neighbors no favor whatsoever by encouraging them to think that even now, in their unbelief, God has somehow accepted them; or that he has planted them in Palestine out of pure good will; or that the mysterious events of 1948 are a harbinger of unique millennial privileges soon to come. No, let all who understand and honor Scripture instead lovingly remind our Jewish neighbors that he who believes in the Son has eternal life, but that he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, for the wrath of God abides upon him (John 3:36). Let us invite them to turn their eyes away from the Jerusalem below, and to lift them up towards the Jerusalem above, where the Savior of the world is seated at God’s right hand. And let us urge them to join us in confessing that no matter where we live, we are strangers and exiles in this world; exiles who are confidently seeking a better homeland, a heavenly homeland, a homeland that the Messiah will make ours, once and for all, at his soon return (Heb. 11:13-16).
Is the creation of the modern state of Israel a fulfillment of OTKP?
Our premillennial brothers tell us that in OTKP God promised to restore latter-day ethnic Israel to Palestine, where, after a brief season of severe tribulation, they will live and worship for a thousand years with Christ as their king. Some say that all of the OT prophecies of Israel’s eschatological restoration were fulfilled in 1948. Others, like Thomas Ice and Arnold Fruchtenbaum, fine tune this doctrine: In 1948 some OTKP’s were fulfilled by the restoration of unbelieving Israelites to the land (Isaiah 11:11-12, Ezek. 36:22-26, 37:1-14); however, in the near future more of the prophecies will be fulfilled by a restoration of believing Israelites to the land (Deut. 30:1-10, Isaiah 43:5-9, Jer. 31:7-10, Amos 9:14-15, Zech. 10:8-12). In any case, all premillennarians are agreed that the true sphere of fulfillment of these prophecies is ethnic Israel and the land of Palestine.
We have just seen, however, that this is impossible, since, according to the NT, the true sphere of fulfillment of all OTKP is the New Covenant, the New Covenant people of God (the Church), and the New Covenant homeland of God, which is heaven above during the temporary Era of Proclamation, and which is the new heavens and the new earth during the eternal Era of Consummation. If, then, we are rightly to understand OTKP’s of “Israel’s” eschatological restoration to the land, we must interpret them within this paradigm. And this entails that OTKP says not a word about a latter day restoration of ethnic Israel to Palestine.
How, then, are we to interpret these prophecies? In the body of this book I have sawn a great deal of theological lumber in an effort to show the way. In our discussions, we uncovered three simple principles to guide us in our interpretive labors. For safety sake, let us briefly review them once again.
First, there is “simple” OT prophecy. These prophecies were fulfilled in OT times, under the Old Covenant. These we interpret literally. For example, Jeremiah 29:1-14 is a simple OT prophecy of ethnic Israel’s restoration to the land if Palestine. It was literally fulfilled in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, when a chastened, penitent, and prayerful people returned to their homeland to rebuild their lives, their homes, their villages, and their temple (Dan. 9:1f). It should be carefully noted, however, that this lesser restoration served as a picture of the far great restoration of eschatological “Israel” under the New Covenant. And it is of this greater restoration that Jeremiah and the other prophets almost always speak (Jer. 23:1-8, 30:1ff, 31:1-30, 31:31-40, 32:36ff, 33:14-26).
Secondly, there is OTKP. These prophecies are fulfilled in NT times, under the New Covenant. These we interpret by means of the New Covenant Hermeneutic. These we interpret typologically, christologically, eschatologically, and ecclesiologically. These we interpret as having their sphere of fulfillment in the New Covenant, in Christ, in the Church, and in the two-staged Kingdom of God.
Again, if all this is so, the implications are inescapable: Every OTKP in which premillennarians find God predicting a latter-day restoration of ethnic Israel to the land is actually an OTKP, which means that every such prophecy must be interpreted figuratively and typologically, by means of a skillful use of the NCH.
In our journey together, I have sought to model this approach many times.
For example, premillennarians claim that in Isaiah 11:11-16 God is speaking of two restorations of ethnic Israel to the land. The first was accomplished under Ezra and Nehemiah, the second under the United Nations, in 1948. We have seen, however, that this literal interpretation cannot possibly be correct, since it requires us to look for modern ethnic Israel fighting against nations that long ago passed from the stage of history (e.g., Philistia, Edom, Moab, etc.). No, the context indicates that here Isaiah is speaking “mysteriously” of the Messianic era (11:1-5, 10); an era in which God will gather unto Christ a new nation of Gospel warriors (11:10); an era in which those warriors will engage in such victorious Gospel combat that multitudes of previously unbelieving enemies will walk the highway of holiness into God’s Kingdom and into his people’s eschatological homeland (11:14-16). Just as God, in the first Exodus, rescued physical Israel from Egypt through Moses, so in the eschatological Exodus he will rescue spiritual Israel from the Domain of Darkness through Christ (11:16). And when the great contest is over, the Messiah will execute final Judgment against all his remaining foes (11:4), and then bring in the eternal World to Come (11:6-9).
Again, premillennarians say that in 1948 God fulfilled his ancient promise to give birth to a nation in a day (Isaiah 66:7-8). However, in our careful exegesis of this text, we saw that the new Land, Nation, and City of which Isaiah spoke is actually Christ’s Church, born on the Day of Pentecost as a result of the Person and redeeming Work of the Boy-Child to which OT Zion, embodied in mother Mary, gave birth (11:7-8, 10).
In our study we also considered Ezekiel’s famous vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. Without a doubt, this is the premillennarian’s favorite proof-text for a latter day restoration of the Jews to Palestine (Ezek. 37:1-14). Thomas Ice, for example, reads it as giving us “a multi-stage process.” First ethnic Israel is restored to the land in unbelief, and so is pictured as a vast sea of lifeless bodies, physically whole but spiritually dead. This stage supposedly began in 1948 and continues to the present. Then, possibly during the seven year Tribulation, the second stage begins: God brings the nation to faith, so that now it stands on its feet, a great army of Jewish evangelists, effectively calling both Jews and Gentiles to salvation in Christ just prior to his premillennial return.
However, earlier in our journey I argued for a very different interpretation of this text, an interpretation guided by the NCH. I suggested that Ezekiel’s famous prophecy pictures God, who physically created man from the dust, spiritually re-creating the One New Man—Christ’s Church—from the dead (Eph. 2:15). In other words, it gives us Christ, from the Day of Pentecost on, breathing into the nostrils of his elect (whether Jew or Gentile), raising them to newness of life, and sending them as a vast army into triumphant spiritual warfare for the cause of Gospel (John 20:22, Rom. 6:4, 2 Cor. 2:14f, Eph. 2:5-7, 6:10f, 2 Tim. 2:4, Rev. 19:19). Which interpretation has the sanction of NT eschatology? That is for you to decide.
Premillennarians also like to point to Amos 9:13-14, which they claim anticipates the agricultural fruitfulness that we now see, or soon will see, in the modern nation of Israel. However, the NCH supplies a far more edifying interpretation, finding here a beautiful prophecy, cast in rich OT symbolism, of the eternal fruitfulness of the Church in the Paradise of God, the new heavens and the new earth (Rev 2:7, 22:2, 22:14). And we know that this is the correct interpretation because of the verses immediately preceding our text (Amos 9:11-12). According to the explicit teaching of the NT, these speak of the eschatological restoration of the fallen Davidic dynasty through the birth and growth of the Christian Church, a growth that includes the gathering of all the Gentiles who are called by God’s name, after which comes the end and Paradise (Acts 15:16-18).
Finally, we have Zechariah 8:1-8, yet another picturesque prophecy of the restoration of God’s people to their eternal homeland and holy city, Jerusalem. Premillennarians confidently assert that this too was fulfilled in 1948, or that it will be fulfilled in yet another migration of Jews to Palestine, since it was written after the restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah. However, even a cursory reading of this heart-warming text will persuade the reader that the happy scenes depicted therein cannot possibly speak of life in modern war-torn Israel. No, as we saw earlier, this prophecy uses familiar OT imagery to speak of the blessedness of Christ’s Church, both in the present Era of Proclamation, and also in the World to Come .
And so too do all the other OTKP’s that premillennarians cite to defend their notion that the Bible predicts a latter day return of ethnic Israel to their ancient homeland in Palestine.
How are we to understand the creation of the modern state of Israel?
Certainly every Bible-believing Christian senses in his spirit that the creation of the modern Jewish state is a remarkable act of God’s providence, an act that cannot be without eschatological significance. Indeed, I imagine that even unbelievers, in their unguarded moments, find this unexpected phenomenon arresting, even troubling; that they cannot help but marvel at the preservation of Abraham’s physical seed over centuries of struggle, marginalization, persecution, and near destruction; and that they cannot help but see the invisible hand of the living God hovering over the events of 1948, moving purposefully and lovingly over his lost and scattered OT people. Some things we all know in our knower. God’s abiding concern for ethnic Israel is one of them.
The great question, however, is this: What exactly does God mean by this thought-provoking historical development? Here, and in the body of my book, I have stated forthrightly what I think it does not mean: It does not mean that God is literally fulfilling OTKP; it does not mean that he is placing ethnic Israel on center stage for the wrap-up of Salvation History; it does not mean that he is raising up 144,000 Jewish evangelists; it does not mean he is preparing for a great battle on the slopes of Mt. Meggido, or for a global assault on physical Jerusalem, or for a national conversion at the premillennial return of Christ, or for a thousand years of temple worship in Palestine, etc. In short, the creation of the modern nation of Israel does not vindicate historic or dispensational premillennialism.
This does not entail, however, that the event is without eschatological significance. To reject the premillennial interpretation of ethnic Israel’s return to Palestine is not to make it into mere accident of history. But if in fact it is not an historical accident, we are brought again to the question with which we opened this discussion: What does the birth of modern national Israel mean? How does it figure into God’s plan of salvation? What is its eschatological significance?
Earlier, I suggested a plausible answer to these fascinating questions. In particular, I argued from our exegetical study of Romans 11 that the spiritual rebirth of Israel at large is one of the four or five great NT signs of the imminence of Christ’s Parousia. As Paul wrote, “If their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be, if not life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15)?
The creation of the modern Israel fits well into this scenario. Indeed, the words of our Lord himself may well teach this very thing; for when, some two thousand years ago, he spoke God’s word of judgment over ethnic Jerusalem and Israel, he also left them—and us—with a notable glimmer of hope:
Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; 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 are fulfilled. —Luke 21:23-24
Now, it is certainly the case that since 1948 the Gentiles are no longer trampling earthly Jerusalem underfoot. Could it be, then, that Israel’s unexpected rise to nationhood signals that the times of the Gentiles are now fulfilled; that the Gentile’s (often cruel) domination over the Jewish Dispersion has come to an end; that God’s redemptive thrust into the Gentile world is now nearing its completion; and that, as Paul prophesied, the Gentiles are about to be broken off, while ethnic Israel at large is about to be grafted back in (Rom. 11:17-24)?
I am strongly inclined to think so. And if this is so, it becomes all the more urgent for Christ’s Church to bring the Gospel to the Jews, not only in Palestine, but wherever they may life. Thus shall we serve our Jewish neighbors as we ought. Thus shall we honor God in remembering that we Gentiles do not support the Jewish root, but the Jewish root supports us (Rom. 11:18). And thus shall we actually hasten the coming of our Lord (2 Peter 3:12). For as he himself told us, when ethnic Israel again learns to say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” then they–and we–shall finally see him again (Mt. 23:39)!