Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why Israel Means Israel, Part 3

The two previous blogs on this topic have set forth the biblical support for the belief that there is a future for the people and nation of Israel. I would like to address one final topic related to this issue—how does the future Israel promised in the Bible relate to the present nation of Israel? I believe it is clear from Scripture that we must be careful to distinguish between the restored Israel of the Bible and the modern state of Israel that exists today. The secular state of Israel today does not meet the criteria for the restored people promised in Scripture. Israel's restoration is conditioned upon national repentance and recognition of Jesus as Messiah (cf. Deut 30:1-5; Zech 12:10-14; Acts 3:19-22). The Lord's new covenant blessings for Israel include empowerment for Israel to fully obey the Lord's commands so that they will never again forfeit the Promised Land (Deut 30:6-9; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:26-29). The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates how far present conditions fall short of the future envisioned by Ezekiel where the Jews will share their land with sojourners and treat them as "native-born children of Israel" (Ezek 47:22). Stanley Ellisen comments: "Judged on biblical grounds, the nation today does not pass divine muster. The promise of the land is directly tied to the nation's response to Messiah. Though her international right to the land can be well defended, her divine right by covenant has only sentiment in its favor." The prophetic promises concerning the restoration of Israel will only become reality when Israel has returned to the Lord and recognized her Messiah. Israel's divine right to retain the Promised Land and to enjoy the blessings of the land hinges on her obedience to the Lord.

And yet, while we do not know the future and what will happen to modern Israel, the formation of Israel as a nation would seem to be the beginning of her ultimate restoration. Merrill comments: "If the present nation of Israel isn't the nation to come, it's the foundation for it. The account of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 describes Jews who are alive physically but not spiritually. The text says they will come to life as a miraculous act of God. We've got the bones—we just need the Spirit." The prophecy against Gog in Ezekiel 38 envisions a powerful army of seven nations attacking Israel in the last days ("the latter years") when Israel is dwelling securely in the land (cf. Ezek 38:8-11). However, the prophet Zechariah also envisions this assault of the nations as a purging judgment on the people of Israel themselves (Zech 12:2; Zech 14:2). We also see the idea of the purging of Israel in the land as preparation for the coming of Christ in Matthew 24:15-22. The fulfillment of these prophecies requires a physical return of Israel to the Lord prior to Israel's full and complete restoration to the Lord. Thus, the return of Israel to the land in 1948 has potentially set the stage for the fulfillment of what is envisioned by the OT prophets in the last days.

We can only say "potentially," because we do not know the future and the specifics of how God will ultimately restore his people. Church history reflects the poor track record of Christians who have tried to predict the future with their Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. No one could have predicted the history of the Jewish people over the past 2000 years, and we engage in fruitless speculation when we go beyond what Scripture unfolds for us about the future. At the same time, the endurance and preservation of the Jewish people is confirmation of God's faithfulness and testimony to the fact that Israel has a role to play in the consummation of salvation history. A number of years ago, novelist Walker Percy explained that he was Catholic in large part because of how God's preservation of the Jewish people. Percy wrote:

Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but no one single Hittite even though the Hittites had a great flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people? When one meets a Jew in New York or New Orleans or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here? But it is even more remarkable to wonder, if there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here? Where are the Hittites? Show me one Hittite in New York City.

The continuation of the Jewish people and the presence of the modern state are a major reason why biblical scholarship has more and more questioned the idea of supercessionism and come to realize that God has a future for Israel and that the promises to Israel are not merely to be read in a figurative and spiritual manner.

Recognition that God has a future for Israel does not mean that we endorse every action of the nation of Israel today. Mark Bailey, the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, observes that we have often allowed our theological discussion of the place of Israel in Scripture to be "hijacked by the contemporary political conflicts in the Middle East." Any form of political militancy either for or against Israel is incompatible with the Christian faith and the ethic of Scripture.

Recognition of God's special purposes for Israel should also not lead us to look down upon Arabs as our enemies. Christians have a responsibility to be peacemakers and to help to overcome the prejudices that equate Arab peoples with militant forms of Islam. In his book, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel, Dr. Tony Maalouf reminds us that the Bible has special promises of blessing for Ishmael and his descendants. God preserves the life of Hagar and Ishmael in one of the most touching scenes in all of the Old Testament (cf. Gen 21:14-19). Ishmael was circumcised as a member of the covenant community (Gen 17:25-26) and was also extended specific national blessings in addition to the ones given to Isaac and his descendants (cf. Gen 21:13, 18). The divine pronouncement that Ishmael would be "a wild donkey of a man" and that "his hand will be against everyone" (Gen 16:12) is not intended as a curse or insult. It does not characterize Ishmael's offspring as rebellious and violent but rather testifies to their strength and independence as desert-dwellers and nomads. The imagery is not markedly different from the way that Jacob portrays his own sons when blessing them at the end of his life (cf. Gen 49:13, 17-19). In the future kingdom of God, Isaiah envisions the descendants of Ishmael (Midian, Sheba, Kedar, Nebaioth) coming to Jerusalem to bring tribute to the Lord (cf. Isa 60:1-9). Maalouf writes:

The same God who predicted a shining of Messiah's glory over a faithful remnant of the Jews (Isa 60:1-3) foreordained the drawing of the Arab faithful remnant to the glory of salvation light (60:5-7). God's visitation of Jerusalem in messianic times cannot be separated from his visitation of his people among the Arabian tribes of Midian and Sheba (60:6) or the Christian worship of Ishmael's children (60:7). Removing unwarranted biases against Arabs, which neither the Bible nor history sustains, would play a healing role in the Middle East conflict. It would also create a better attitude for dialogue between the antagonists."

Beginning with God's promise to Abraham, God's special relationship with Israel carries forward until the final act of salvation history, but God's plan was always one of inclusion. The blessing of Abraham's physical descendants was to be the instrument for the blessing of all peoples. The Old Testament promises that Israel's restoration and renewal will bring about the salvation of the Gentiles (Isa 19:19-25; Isa 49:6), and the New Testament completes the picture by demonstrating how the salvation of the Gentiles through the preaching of the gospel will prompt the restoration of Israel (Rom 11:25-26). Failure to understand God's abiding purposes for Israel ultimately diminishes the grand design of salvation history.


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