With the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, one of the issues for Christians that arises again and again is whether the existence of the modern State of Israel is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. I am therefore reposting a pair of articles that I wrote in 2014, which explores carefully whether this is the case—the first looking at OT issues, and this one considering how the NT interprets the OT promises.
In my previous post, looking at the function of the land in the OT, I concluded that the land is the arena in which the people of God both receive God’s blessings, and take on the responsibility of obedience to God’s commands. How is this idea developed and adapted in the New Testament?
There are significant indications that the gospels are located in the context of some sort of expectation of restoration of the land with the coming of messiah (though it is now broadly agreed that there were a variety of expectations in the first century, and a variety of ideas about who the messiah was, what he would do, or whether in fact one was needed). We can see this in Zechariah’s prophetic poem now known as the Benedictus (from the first word in the Latin Vulgate):
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1.68–75)
In context, the main ‘enemy’ is of course Rome, and it is oppression by Rome that is preventing Israel from ‘serving him without fear in holiness.’ So implicit in this expectation is the hope of restoration of the sovereignty of Israel as a nation, inhabiting the promised land. To make this even clearer, Zechariah goes on to allude to Is 40’s proclamation of the one who will ‘go before the Lord to prepare his way’, which is also used in Mark’s introduction in Mark 1.2–3. These verses (from Isaiah and Micah) are all about the people returning from exile and being restored to the land in fulfilment of God’s promise of faithfulness. This is one part of a complex of expectations, which Tom Wright characterises under the headings return from exile, restoration of Temple, renewed covenant, giving of Spirit, keeping of Law, no king but God, and God’s anointed agent (Heb messiach Greek christos) (N T Wright The New Testament and the People of God chapter 10 ‘The Hope of Israel’).
But from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, these expectations are starting to be transformed. Even the most sceptical commentator agrees that the proclamation of the nearness of ‘the kingdom of God’ was a core part of the teaching of the historical Jesus. This phrase, which hardly occurs at all in the OT, shifts the focus from the land in which the people occupy to the reign or authority under which they live. The separation between the free occupation of the land and obedience to God, still held together in the Benedictus, is most decisively broken in Jesus’ answer to the question about taxes:
“Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matt 22.19–20)
The shock of this is not to do with the separation of the ‘political’ from the ‘religious’ as such, but the overturning of the expectation that the restoration of the land is tied in with the coming of God’s kingdom. Living freely in the land is not the prerequisite to forgiveness of sins and living in holiness.
Consequently, the New Testament strikingly shows no interest in the further question of the land itself, and instead focus on the other elements in Wright’s list. This is shown clearly in the responses of gospel writers to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Mark’s gospel, probably written in the 60s before the temple was destroyed, shows most interest in the immediate events and Jesus’ predictions about them (Mark 13). Matthew’s similar account, most likely written after 70, includes similar details to Mark, but then goes on to focus on Jesus’ words about the parousia, Jesus’ second coming to complete the work begun in the first. John’s gospel goes even further, and does something quite distinct. With the temple gone, and the tension between the now exiled Jews and Jesus’ Jewish-and-gentile followers mounting, John makes clear that Jesus is the temple for those who follow him.
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty–six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2.18–22)
This is not so much about Jesus replacing the temple, but Jesus being the fulfilment of the purpose of the temple—and with it the land. (Note that this is not an idea made up by John and read back into the story about Jesus; reference is made to it in the trial of Jesus in Mark 14.58. This is good example of one of many ‘undesigned’ historical connections between the gospels.) This again is why John’s gospel is so ‘Jewish’, in focussing on Jewish habits of eating, washing, and attending the pilgrim festivals, all the major festivals occurring in John’s narrative. They all find their fulfilment and true meaning in Jesus.
We see in Acts 2.46 that the first generation of believers continued to visit the temple, though of course now with new understanding. While the temple was standing, then Jewish followers of Jesus would continue to worship there. But once the temple was gone, there was no need to long for its restoration, since its meaning was embodied in the person of Jesus. If the land was the arena for knowing the blessing of God and taking on the responsibilities of obedience, that role was now fulfilled in Jesus. So, as with the temple, there is now no need to long for physical return from exile and occupying the territory of the land—all this was now available to those not ‘in Israel’ but ‘in Christ’. I think this is why the phrase is so important in Paul. Where, in the OT, both Jew and gentile ‘resident alien’ enjoy God’s reign when they are ‘in Israel’, now for Paul the (theological) space where this happens for both Jew and gentile is ‘in Christ.’
That is why Peter, writing to an audience containing at least some gentiles, can address the whole group as the ‘diaspora’, the term previously used of Jews scattered and awaiting (at least in principle) a return from exile to the land (1 Peter 1.1). The scattered followers of Jesus are awaiting not their return from physical exile but the return of Jesus to restore all things. Even more explicitly, in the book of Revelation, John sees the fulfilment of the gathering of God’s people from all the nations (Deut 30.3, Jeremiah 32.37, Ezekiel 11.17, 20.34, 36.24) in this uncountable, Jewish-gentile people redeemed by the blood of the lamb (Rev 7.9, also in Rev 5.9, 11.9, 13.7 and 14.6). This is just the way Matthew has understood Jesus’ teaching in Matt 24.31.
Note that reading the NT in this way is not ‘supersessionism‘, where ‘The Church’ replaces ‘The Jews’ as the people of God; this only happens where the Jesus movement is detached from its Jewish historical context and expression. Instead it is a redefinition of what it means to be the people of God beyond ethnic boundaries, just as happened in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and as Paul starts to do in his argument in Romans 2.28–29.
So the New Testament holds out no expectation that ethnic Jews will return to the territory of the land of Israel as part of the fulfilment of the promises of God. All those promises are fulfilled in Jesus, who now becomes the place of God’s blessing and his people’s obedience.
(It is perhaps worth noting that those who argue that the modern state of Israel is the fulfilment of prophecy have to appeal to OT texts alone, and ignore what the NT does with such texts.)
This leaves the one ‘bogie’ text of Romans 11.26: ‘All Israel will be saved’. There is a massive literature on this, some following the view expressed by Tom Wright that ‘all Israel’ refers to all those who are part of God’s new Israel i.e. all those now redeemed through Jesus, and others believing that ‘all Israel’ here refers to ethnic Jewish people, indicating that there will be an ‘end times’ turning of Jews to faith in Jesus. For now, I note some key points in the discussion:
1. There is no reference whatsoever to the idea of Jews returning to the land of Israel. So to fit these two ideas together is an artifice.
2. Verse 26 does not say ‘And then all Israel will be saved’ but ‘and in this way all Israel will be saved.’ So Paul is talking about the hardening of the Jews and the incoming of the gentiles as the means by which God’s purposes of salvation are accomplished, not as something that happens prior to this. I think this strongly supports Wright’s reading.
3. Paul then cites texts from Isaiah and Jeremiah, which he clearly sees fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus: the deliverer from Zion who establishes a (new) covenant and takes away sins.
4. It has been objected that Paul only ever uses ‘Israel’ to mean those who are ethnically Jewish. But Gal 6.16 is a counter-example to this, and Paul certainly uses the language of ‘Jew’ in literal and metaphorical ways earlier in Romans.
5. It seems very odd to me to think that Paul would describe an ‘end-times’ turning of the last generation of Jews to faith in Jesus with the term ‘all Israel.’ This leaves all the (not believing in Jesus) Jews of all the intermediate generations excluded from this, so at the most it could mean ‘all those Jews alive when Jesus returns’. This hardly makes sense of the phrase.
Because of all this, I do not believe that, remarkable though it is, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1947 is a ‘fulfilment’ of ‘end times’ ‘prophecies.’ Neither do I believe that Israel has a divine right to the land which trumps all other rights. I do want to defend the right of Israel to exist, and to be a particular homeland for Jews around the world, and to use reasonable force to defend itself—like any other nations. But I do this on grounds other than ‘divine right’ or ‘prophecy.’
In the current conflict between Israel and Gaza, we need to appeal to other grounds to support whatever view we have on the matter.
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