Does Israel Have a Future?
- 2006 14 Aug
The following things have happened in the last week:
- A terrorist plot to blow up ten U.S.-bound jets was foiled when authorities in the United Kingdom arrested 24 suspects. London's deputy police commissioner, Paul Stephenson, called it an attempt to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
- The threat level on flights from the U.K. to the U.S. was raised to red, meaning there is a severe risk of terrorist attacks.
- President Bush said that the foiled plot shows that "this nation is at war with Islamic fascists."
- Israel announced plans to expand its ground offensive into southern Lebanon and then pulled back some troops, waiting to see if the United Nations can pass a ceasefire resolution.
- Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday that Israeli attacks had not weakened its rocket capabilities and its fighters would turn south Lebanon into a "graveyard" for the Israeli forces.
- Lebanon announced plans to send 15,000 troops to patrol the region south of the Litani River, an area filled with Hezbollah fighters and Israeli troops.
- On Sunday Hezbollah launched its largest barrage of Katushya rockets on northern Israel, killing 12 IDF reservists in the town of Kfar Giladi.
Last October, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that "Israel must be wiped off the map." It is no surprise that former Israeli deputy defense minister retired Maj. Gen. Efraim Sneh says that war between Israel and Iran is "inevitable."
Does Israel have a future? Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? As storm clouds gather in the Middle East, the prospects for a lasting peace look increasingly dim. The events of the last 24 hours remind us that none of us are totally safe. Americans used to think that war happened "over there," on the other side of the world, far removed from our shores. But 9/11 burst our bubble of false security. Given the level of hostility and instability, it is perhaps easier to imagine that we are seeing the run-up to the events predicted for the last days before the return of Christ.
Does Israel have a future? That question has enormous implications for Christian theology that go far beyond the current crisis. In Romans 9-11 we come to the culmination of Paul's examination of the problem of Jewish unbelief in Jesus Christ. After looking at the issue from the standpoint of God's sovereignty (Romans 9) and Jewish unbelief (Romans 10), he considers whether or not God has a plan for Israel in the future (Romans 11). His conclusion must have seemed amazing to his first-century readers, for Paul foresees a time when "all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:25).
What does he mean? And how does that statement help us think biblically about the current crisis in the Middle East? Let's begin by dealing first with a very fundamental question:
What does the term "Israel" refer to in Romans 9-11?
Bible commentators have offered various answers to the question. Some have said that in Romans 9-11 the term "Israel" refers not to the Jewish people or to the nation of Israel, but to all the redeemed children of God in this age, both Jew and Gentile. Some have gone so far as to say that the church replaces Israel in God's plan so that there is no definite future for the Jewish people in God's plan. Others say that Israel refers to the Jewish people or to what we might call "ethnic Israel." So here is the issue put plainly. The term "Israel" refers either to...
Jews and Gentiles together in the church ("spiritual Israel"), OR
Jews alone ("ethnic Israel").
In his commentary on Romans, Charles Hodge offers a succinct discussion of these two main options, and offers eight reasons why the second option ("ethnic Israel") is the proper meaning of the text:
1) The context favors the reference to the Jewish people as a whole. 2) Paul argues that the Jews will be restored in the same sense that they were rejected. 3) Paul anticipates a vast event ("all Israel will be saved" v. 26) that that will be world-shaking its impact. 4) When Paul says, "I do not want you to be ignorant" (v. 25), he uses a phrase that introduces a truth that they had not previously known. 5) Paul even calls this truth of Israel's future conversion a "mystery" in verse 25. A "mystery" in the New Testament refers not to a secret, but to a truth once known only to God but now revealed to the world. The "mystery" can't be that individual Jews are coming to Christ because that's how the Christian movement started. 6) The term "all Israel" can't refer only to "spiritual Israel" because in verse 25 he clearly distinguishes between unbelieving Israel and the Gentiles who are coming to Christ in this age. 7) The "until" sets a definite time limit in the future for Israel's conversion. 8) The following verses require this interpretation: Isaiah 59:20, Isaiah 59:21, Isaiah 27:9, Zechariah 12:10-12, Zechariah 13:1.
The promises of those verses form the basis of Paul's argument in Romans 11:28-29. The Jews are still the object of God's special love and care because his ancient promises cannot be broken. "God's gifts and his call are irrevocable" (v. 29).
When Frederick the Great asked his chaplain to give him in a sentence the strongest evidence for Christianity, the chaplain replied, "The Jew, Sir." Romans 11 would seem to make the same argument. How else do we explain the continued existence of the Jewish people despite millennia of hatred, opposition, persecution, pogroms, and Hitler's desperate attempt to cleanse Europe of the "Jewish scum," resulting in the Holocaust that killed six million Jews (and an equal number of others from various nations and ethnic groups)?
The Jews are a "miracle people," a tiny remnant of 13-15 million in a world of 6.4 billion people. That the Jews exist at all today cannot be explained by anything other that the sovereign hand of God. Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.
Are the Jews still God's chosen people?
I answer yes for the reason Paul gives in Romans 11:29. God's promises cannot be broken, not even by human unbelief. No one can deny that modern Israel is a secular Jewish state. It's not just that most Jews don't believe in Jesus, it's that most Jews don't practice their own faith to any great extent. Jewishness in many cases refers to family heritage, not to adherence to the Torah. (Obviously this is not true of the Orthodox Jews, but even in Israel they are a distinct minority). The proper way to say it is that the Jewish people today are still God's chosen people but they as a people have been partially blinded by God (because their leaders rejected Jesus) in the present age. This leads to a paradox that we need not try to resolve. The Jews are still God's chosen people, and they are partially blinded and under God's judgment in the present age.
Will every single Jew be saved at the Second Coming?
Not necessarily. Just as not all Jews rejected Christ at his first coming, not all Jews individually will believe on him at his Second Coming. The phrase "all Israel" refers to the nation as a whole. There will be great national turning to Christ ("they will look on him whom they pierced") and vast multitudes of Jews will be saved. This is the clear teaching of Paul in Romans 11:25-26.
The Jews, as a people, are now rejected; as a people, they are to be restored. As their rejection, though national, did not include the rejection of every individual; so their restoration, although in like manner national, need not be assumed to include the salvation of every individual Jew. (Hodge, Romans, p. 374)
Salvation is always individual. We are not saved in groups or even in families, but personally, one by one, as we see our need and run to the cross of Christ for our salvation. That principle applies to the Jews as much as to the Gentiles, in the present and in the future.
Is the modern nation of Israel a fulfillment of Bible prophecy?
Before answering this question, it helps to remember that the prophets foresaw a day when Israel would dwell safely in the land, free from terror at the hands of its neighbors, protected by the Lord God Almighty, and trusting in him completely for salvation. The prophets never envisioned a regathering that would primarily or ultimately be in unbelief. They looked ahead to a golden age when the lion would lie down with the lamb and "all the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). In that day all the nation will stream into Jerusalem "to the house of the God of Jacob" because the Lord himself will be there to judge between the nations and to settle disputes between many peoples. "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword again nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). When I checked Fox News this morning, I didn't see anyone beating their swords into plowshares. I saw Israeli tanks moving into southern Lebanon and Hezbollah firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. I saw scenes of war and devastation, of civilians on both sides dying in the conflict. The leader of Iran has declared that the ultimate goal is to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. The Israelis are determined to destroy the power of Hezbollah. Meanwhile the Syrians threaten to attack in force if they are attacked, and the French and the Americans try to cobble together a resolution at the United Nations.
This is not the fulfillment of Isaiah 2. This is not the glorious day of peace that the prophets saw in the distance.
Ezekiel 37 pictures a valley of dry bones brought to life by the power of God. Those bones represent the "whole house of Israel" (v. 11). They are the dry bones of the Jewish people scattered among the nations.
When God begins the process of bringing the nation back to life, he first assembles the bones, then attaches tendons and covers the bodies with skin. But according to verse 8, "there was no breath in them," that is, there were bodies put together by God but not yet given life. That serves as a good symbol for the modern nation of Israel. The dead bones have come together in the ancient Jewish homeland, and there is a body with flesh on it, but there is no spiritual life. Both Ezekiel 37 and Romans 11 look forward to a day when the Jewish people as a nation will come to life because God himself will breathe on them that they may live. Jeremiah 31:31-34 pictures the same thing as it describes the impact of the New Covenant. God promises to give Israel four new things:
A New Heart
A New Relationship
A New Knowledge
A New Forgiveness
Then God seals the promise by referring to the constancy of the sun, moon and the stars, which operate by God's decree. "'Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,' declares the Lord, 'will the nation of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me'" (v. 36). So here's a good test. Did the sun come up this morning? Then Israel will not cease. Did the stars shine last night? Then Israel will not cease. Not even Israel's continued unbelief can cancel God's promises to his ancient people (v. 37). And that unbelief will not last forever. That's Paul's whole point in Romans 11.
How does the present conflict fit into the larger picture of Bible prophecy?
There are two ways of answering that question. There is always a danger of trying to manipulate the latest news from the Middle East into our understanding of Bible prophecy, or (and this is much worse) bending the text of Scripture so it fits the latest CNN bulletin from the Israel-Lebanon border. People have been fighting in that region of the world for thousands of years. Borders wars are nothing new. What is new is technology that allows us to watch the war unfold in real time. The other day I happened to hear a reporter sign off by saying, "This is Fox News under fire on the Israel-Lebanon border." Pretty heady stuff. Now we can watch the tanks roll and the rockets fire, and we can see the buildings collapse. In World War II the news was censored so the folks back home didn't hear about some battles for days or weeks or even months. Centuries ago it might take a year for news from a distant battlefield to reach the home front. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that every battle or even every war somehow fulfills a particular prophecy in Isaiah or Zechariah or Revelation. I don't have a verse or a passage to give you that applies to the current conflict. Furthermore, I do not think that Christians are always bound to support whatever the state of Israel does. The biblical promises relate to the Jewish people as a whole, not to the particular policies of whichever party happens to be in power in Jerusalem. Christians are free to agree or disagree with the political decisions made by the state of Israel.
Having said that, we should remember that the story of the Bible starts and ends in the Middle East. World history is going to climax, not in Chicago or New York or in Los Angels, not in Rome or Sydney or Beijing, not in Moscow or Bangalore, but in the city of Jerusalem and in the nation of Israel.
Take the Long View
I do not know when Christ will return, but I hope and pray that it will be soon. It seems to me that many of the pieces are in place, the table is set, and we are not far from the moment when the curtain will rise on the final act of human history. In Matthew 24:33-34 Jesus used the budding of the fig tree as a symbol of how events will unfold in the last days before his return: "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, then you know that summer is near. When you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.”
How much clearer can it be? If you look at a tree and see the leaves sprouting, you know that summer is not far away. It may not come for several weeks or even for a month or two, but once you see the leaves, you know summer is coming. In the same way, there will be slowly-unfolding signs of the return of Jesus Christ. As those things begin to happen, you may be sure that the return of the Lord cannot be far away. By saying it that way, Jesus is encouraging His followers to constantly examine the world in which they live for the gathering signs of His return. Let me make that stronger. Jesus expects His followers to watch for His return.
Mathew 24 seems to indicate that the signs will slowly unfold before us, which is why it is impossible to say exactly how or where a particular world event fits into the prophetic picture. The time frame is too short. We can't see clearly how this or that crisis affects the flow of end-time events. Instead of thinking in terms of days or months when it comes to prophecy, we need to think in terms of years and decades and generations and even centuries. One generation will see one thing beginning; the next sees something else. One generation sees the spread of liberalism among the mainline churches; another sees the rise of communism; yet another witnesses Hitler's failed attempt to exterminate the Jewish race. That same generation witnesses the establishment of the state of Israel. Twenty years later Israel controls Jerusalem. And twenty years after that the world edges toward war in the Persian Gulf. Within a decade the Internet revolutionizes communications and makes the world a true “global village.” That same technology makes it possible for terrorists to win asymmetric battles against much larger conventional forces. A few minutes ago I heard a commentator remark that a cell phone can now become a detonator for a bomb. As the end times draw near, the world will become progressively more unstable, violence will spread, the global economy will become unified, and people will long for a leader who can bring peace to the Middle East.
"Have You Been Here Before?"
No single generation sees all these things, but over time, as the generations come and go, a flow and pattern becomes apparent. Some things that seemed important in one generation pass into insignificance in the next. But other events build on what has already happened to produce that flow and pattern evident to the thoughtful observer of world history.
Meanwhile I do not blame Israel for defending itself against continued terrorist attacks. What would we do in the U.S. if terrorists started firing rockets from Mexico into Texas or from Canada into Vermont? We would not hesitate to use whatever force was necessary to end that threat. We wouldn't tolerate that and neither should Israel. I say that as a Christian who believes what the Bible says about the end times, but I would say that even if I weren't a Christian and didn't believe the Bible. Israel is America's best ally (after Great Britain) and the only stable democracy in the Middle East. America's fate is tied to Israel's fate by history and by shared Judeo-Christian values.
So I come back to the original question. Does Israel have a future? The answer biblically is a resounding yes. The best days for the Jewish people are yet to come. Recently I read about a Jewish leader who said, "When the Messiah comes, we will ask him, 'Have you been here before?'" The answer is yes, he's been here before, and when he comes again, he will open a fountain of forgiveness for his own people and "all Israel will be saved." Amen.