A Future for Israel

This was a message to the adult Sunday School class at Old Plank Road Baptist Church, Jacksonville FL, on December 30, 2012.  Thank you once again for having us come and fellowship with you!

e are having a wonderful time back in Jacksonville.  We’ve lived in California since 2005, and, of course, our Florida family is the one thing that we miss the most. 

I was asked recently to sum up my time out there in lessons learned.  The main thing I’ve gleaned   from the professors and pastors at the Master’s College and Seminary is a deeper reverence for God’s Word.  That sounds strange, because I went out there in part because I already had a love for Scripture and wanted to learn more.  Even so, I know now that I was not truly and fully explaining God’s Word to people when I taught.

Understand, teachers of God's Word can love the Bible but not reflect that love when it comes to some of their interpretations.  For instance, perhaps you’ve heard a sermon like this: as young David strode out to meet Goliath, he picked up five smooth stones.  Why did he pick up five when he only needed one?  God is teaching us of the five truths David picked up from life—a trust in God, knowledge, peace, love, and confidence.  While sounding biblical, that kind of teaching does not treat Scripture with respect, for it uses the Bible only as a stepping stone itself for the preacher’s own ideas.  

Here's the point: that kind of teaching, what I and many others are guilty of, turns a real story into an allegory, and robs the text of the real meaning that God really put there.

Now, that doesn’t mean that anyone who allegorizes has apostatized or become a heretic!  Genuine Christian teachers throughout the millenia have struggled with this throughout the years.  Some might even rightly divide the Word of God in most places, but due to tradition or systematic misunderstandings, they treat some parts with less care.

One of the central problem areas is that of end-times prophecy.  Even though God revealed His plans for the world in Scripture, there is any number of interpretations as to how that plan will unfold.  Today, we are going to focus on the question of Israel’s future.  Has God cast the nation aside?  Has the church taken over the national promises?  Should we understand the texts as literal or as allegories?  My hope for you today is to build your confidence in a future for Israel, and in a literal, normal reading of Scripture.

While I thought a survey of the six major biblical covenants in relation to Israel’s future might be a good study today, we only have time to focus on one of them—the Abrahamic Covenant.  We will touch on some of the other covenants, but this one will be sufficient evidence.

The Old Testament gives us hope for a future Israel through the Abrahamic Covenant.

GENESIS 12:1–3, 7Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee:  And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:  And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. … And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land…
The story of Israel begins with Abram, an idol-worshipping Gentile from Ur of the Chaldees.  God chooses to use this man and calls him to follow His foreordained plan.  The rest of Genesis records the beginning fulfillment of that promise.  

Abram struggled with his belief and his own sin.  Even so, God remained faithful.  After Lot left for Sodom, God tells Abram the dimensions of the land promise, and places no conditions on the promise.  Abram struggled with his belief until he finally placed his faith fully in Yahweh the Lord, and was “counted it to him for righteousness.” (Gn 15:6; cf. Rm 4:9; Gal 3:6).  Because of God’s continued calls, Abram finally has that that true moment of conversion, the point in which he was justified by faith.

What did God say at that point in Genesis 15?  “I [am] the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it” (v. 7).  He confirms the covenant by walking alone through the broken pieces to signify that He alone will keep the terms of the promise.  It was a unilateral covenant on God’s part—Abraham did not have to worry about destroying the covenant.

In Genesis 17, the covenant is repeated once again.  
I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.  And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. … He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. (Gn 17:7, 8, 13).

Note what words are repeated.  This talk of an everlasting, unilateral covenant should remind us of another major covenant in Scripture—the Noahic Covenant.  You may recall the beautiful sight Noah saw after surveying the death and destruction left by the flood.  In Genesis 9:16, we see that the rainbow signified the everlasting or eternal covenant that God would never flood the earth again.

This is easy stuff—I ask kids these kinds of questions each time we study it.  What was that promise based on—Noah’s character or the Lord’s?  He says to Noah, “I establish my covenant” (vv. 9, 11, cf. vv. 13, 15, 16, and 17).  Who had to work to keep that covenant—human beings or God?  Verse 9: “I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you.”  Has the world ever been flooded since Noah’s day?  Verse 11: “neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood,” or, in other words, “never again.”  Does God keep His promises?  Yes—when God makes an everlasting promise, He will not break His word.

That means that when Jesus says things like He will never lose one person who comes to Him, or that nothing will separate Christians from His love, those of us who have repented of our sins and trust in Him should feel secure in our salvation, shouldn’t we?  And, I might add, it means that Abraham should trust when the Lord says there's land coming.

The stories may be familiar to you; perhaps you have just not seen this thread running through them.  You may recall that in Genesis 22, God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, the only son through whom the Covenant is made.  Abraham demonstrates his great faith in the Lord to keep His word, even believing that God will raise Isaac from the dead to fulfill His word (Heb 11:19)!  Of course, God never allowed things go that far.  In response to Abraham’s faith, the Lord repeats the Covenant again, swearing by His own High and Holy Name (vv. 15–18).

So, to review, the Abrahamic Covenant is an eternal, unilateral promise to Abraham by God that there will be a nation with kings from his loins, with universal promises to all Gentile nations.  God repeats that the promise is forever or everlasting.  Indeed, the Abrahamic Covenant is repeated once more in Genesis 48:4, again with the word “everlasting.”

Do you sense the importance of this land promise?   God gives the promise to Isaac and Jacob individually as well, just to help us best identify the line through whom the promises would come.   So, Genesis winds down with future expectation, even though the people know they are about to spend the next four centuries in Egypt.  God has a future for the land of Canaan and for the people of Israel; it is His unilateral plan, and it will not be a short plan, either.

  • 12:1–3, 6–7 — Land, nation, name, seed, blessing, protection
  • 13:14-17 — Land forever 
  • 15:1–21 — Land, protection, numerous descendants (Abram finally justified)
  • 17:1–14 — Land, descendants, many nations, kings; an everlasting covenant 
  • 22:15–18 — Oath of the Lord, descendants, blessing
  • 48:4 — Land, descendants, everlasting possession
In the book of Exodus, we meet God’s holy “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6); He is their king and the very beginning of the nation that He promised to establish forever.  Now, in the remaining books of Moses, as you know, we have recorded the Mosaic Covenant, rules for this kingdom.  Unfortunately, we don’t have time to study all that Scripture says about this covenant.  It will be the first of the three major covenants (and the only one of the six) which is not everlasting. This covenant is in direct contrast to the New Covenant when Hebrews notes, “In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:31).  

Even so, “the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rm 7:12).  Remember that Moses wrote these five books because the people were in desperate need of holiness, as is evident after the exodus from Egypt.  Not long after the people saw the wonders of God in Egypt and on the mountain of fire, Exodus 32 records their sinful turn to the golden calf, a representation of the true God they could manipulate with their hands.  

Though God is angered by their wanton sinfulness and rebellion, He uses this as a teaching opportunity.  He informs Moses that He plans to wipe out the people of Israel out and start over again.  Now, you’ve just tracked the Abrahamic Covenant with me, so what should Moses’s response be?  He calls on God to remember “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,” those to whom God swore by Himself (Ex 32:13).  God relents, in fulfillment of His own promises.

Through the Mosaic Covenant, God promises blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience.  You can find these in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26.  Let’s look at Leviticus 26 first.  We see starting in verse 14 the promises of cursing.  Nothing like these kinds of conditions or warnings appears in the Noahic or Abrahamic Covenants.  Even so, in 26:44–45, we read:
And yet for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them: for I [am] the LORD their God.  But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the heathen, that I might be their God: I [am] the LORD.
In Deuteronomy 28, we see another set of blessing and cursing.  However, note what God says in Deuteronomy 30:1–6, however.  Here, He gives a history for His people:
And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call [them] to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee.  If [any] of thine be driven out unto the outmost [parts] of heaven, from thence will the LORD thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee:  And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.
How marvelous!  And these are promises to Israel and his seed.  God will bring them back into the land and they will multiply there.  There is no room for us to say that this is the church, for we are not under this covenant.  We cannot transform the land here into some deep spiritual reality, for the spiritual reality is already there, in the promise to circumcise their hearts.  Mark this: If the spiritual reality is to be literally fulfilled, then there is no reason to expect any different for the land promises.

While the Mosaic Covenant reminds the Jewish reader of the Abrahamic Covenant, he would need to recognize that disobedience can delay the final realities of the covenant.  After the people conquered most of the land of Canaan, the text says that God has been faithful in fulfilling His promises (Joshua 21:43).  However, the Israelites settled with their incomplete conquest, though God told them to continue.  Thus, they hold the land neither completely nor eternally.

I cannot skip over one other major covenant without mentioning it.  That would be the Davidic Covenant, where God promised that his offspring would rule forever (2 Sam 7).  Though it appears the branch of David had fallen, God promised to restore it and Israel’s glory (Amos 9:11–15).  In the famous Christmas verses, the Messiah sits on David’s throne and rules over his kingdom forever (Isa 9:6–7).  Daniel confirms that the Son of Man will receive an everlasting dominion (Dan 7:13–14).  Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to go deep into that covenant, but therein we see the kingly extension of the Abrahamic Covenant.

According to Psalm 105:8-11, God remembers His covenant He made with Abraham.  God continued to promise a glorious future kingdom, of which there would be no end (Dan 2:44).  Though Israel was scattered (and remains scattered to an extent today—there are more Jews outside of Israel than inside), God promises to restore Judah and Jerusalem (Joel 3:1–3; Zeph 3:14-20).  He promises a time of blessing in Jerusalem, when people wanting to know God will grab a hold of Jews because Israel will be the center of the world’s worship (Zec 8:20–23).  The Jews as a people will realize who the Messiah is (Zec 12:8–10).  

As such, a major theme of the Old Testament is a coming, restored kindgom.  First century readers, those of Jesus' day, would rightly expect that there is coming a day when all of the nations will have literal blessings in knowing the offspring of Abraham and coming to Jerusalem.  This is in addition to the spiritual realities that Christ would bring.

The New Testament gives us hope for a future Israel by continuing the Abrahamic Covenant.

How does the book of Matthew begin?  “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  Do you think this is significant only to determine Jesus’ pedigree?  Here, at the top of the opening page of the New Testament, is a reminder of the very covenants that promise a coming eternal kingdom.  And none other than Mary in her Magnificat reminds us of this same promise (Luke 1:55).  Thus, as it is a sometimes-hard truth to remember, we must bear in mind that there is no Luke 2 – that passage read around so many chestnuts roasting on open fires – without a Luke 1 and the Abrahamic Covenant.

How does both He and John the Baptist begin their ministries?  “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near / at hand.” (Mt 3:2; 4:17; Mk 1:15; Lk 10:11).  The Jews of that day knew exactly what this meant.  This is why everyone expected an earthly kingdom with the coming of the Messiah—they were being consistent to the expectation laid out in the OT (though they missed all of what God wanted the Messiah to accomplish, namely, the salvation of the people).  

Jesus never corrects His disciples’ belief in a coming kingdom.  In fact, he told the Apostles that they would sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt 19:28/ Lk 22:30).  Moreover, when the disciples’ mother asks that her sons sit at Jesus’ right and left in His kingdom, He does not correct the belief in a political kingdom that required positions of authority (Matt. 20:20-28).  

A good question, as you know, is whether the people of Israel lost their inheritance in the first century.  The people unwisely rejected John the Baptist (Mt 11:7-19), the forerunner who first announced the coming kingdom.  The cities of Israel rejected Christ, despite His miracles (Mt 11:20-24).   Yet, Jesus continues His ministry.

Finally, the leaders of Israel rejected Him (Mt 12).  They represent the nation, but either do not or will not believe in Him.  Instead, they challenge Him, and even attribute the works He does in the power of the Holy Spirit to Satan (v. 24).  You have heard of the unpardonable sin, and this is it (v. 31).  Some of Jesus’ most cutting words appear in Matthew 12, and it is in response to His rejection.  Thus, in Matthew 13, we see that Jesus begins speaking in parables from that day forward, to hide the truth from the proud and unrepentant people.

Can there be any restoration of Israel after this?  In AD 66, Titus Vespasian laid siege to Jerusalem in response to the First Jewish-Roman War.  Though Jerusalem was well fortified, Titus had the city surrounded, starving the people out.  We have reports of Israelites resorting to cannibalism to stave off death, and disease swept through the city.  Those attempting to escape the city were crucified by the Romans by the hundreds.  By the time Jerusalem fell, Josephus claims that the death toll to be 1,100,000, with another 97,000 captured Jews being sold into slavery.  Ultimately, this would change the face of Judaism forever, forcing their faith to become synagogue-based rather than temple-based.

The people of Israel lost their land and their prescribed practice of religion.  Even so, God promises restoration.  He will keep His word to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.

Let us look at Jesus’ pronouncements against Israel.  Though they were that of judgment (Mt 23:37–39/ Lk 13:34–35), much like we saw in Leviticus 26:44–45 and Deuteronomy 30:1–6, they still included hope for a coming restoration.  Jesus does not say that the diaspora or dispersion of the people will be permanent.  

Of course, we know that to be true today.  On 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion (who would become the first prime minister of Israel) declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”  For the first time in nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people could step onto eretz Yishrael—“the land of Israel.”  Centuries of pogroms from unbelieving Gentiles could end, so they hoped, and thus their national anthem was Hatikvah—“The Hope.”  Unfortunately, they have been anything but safe since then, but the diaspora continues to come home to this day.  Since the nation’s formation, we have witnessed the early stages of the gathering Jesus predicted.   

God is not done with the Jewish people, but they still have a long road ahead.  During the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21, Jesus predicts that the Jews will continue to suffer “until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Lk 21:24).   Remember what He said in Mt 23:39—“For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”   Finally, before His ascension, Jesus does not rebuke the disciples for believing that He will restore the kingdom to Israel, only that they wondered when it would happen (Acts 1:6–7).   What else can we say but that Jesus marks His ministry with a continued expectation for a coming political kingdom?  Jesus gives us no cause to doubt what God promised to Abraham.    

This expectation does not end with Jesus’ words, but continues with the ministries of the Apostles, as well.   For instance, in Acts 3, Peter teaches that there is coming restoration if the children of Israel repent.  Then, a.) they will be fulfilling the picture of the lame beggar (vv. 1–10), b.) their sins will “be blotted out,” (v. 19), c.) “times of refreshing” will come (v. 20), d.) God will “send the Christ” to them (v. 20), and e.) they will have received Him before “the time for restoring all the things” (v. 21).  The same call for repentance comes with the same promises.

Paul also affirms a future for Israel, seen clearly in his discourse in Romans 9–11.  Paul begins Romans 9 speaking about his sorrow for his kinsman “according to the flesh” (v. 3).  He states that the covenants and promises still belonged to Israel (Rm 9:3b–4), including that promise of future restoration.   In Romans 11:1–2a, Paul also reaffirms the unconditional election of Israel (see Dt 7:6-8) as the reason God will never permanently reject the Jews (John Murray calls this “the most emphatic negative available.”)  

Consider 11:29–32; “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal 3:10), for “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29).  What else can we say?  Paul promises future salvation for all of national, ethnic Israel (Rm 11:26).  So clear is Paul’s assertion that even Covenant Post- and Pre-Millennialists, those who reject Dispensational teachings on almost every other text, take this to mean that there is coming a salvation for ethnic Israel.

Thus, we see firm reasons to hold out hope for Israel.  A couple of other questions to be quickly answered:
  • When will the kingdom of God be established?  When Christ returns to earth (Dan 7:13-14; Zec 1; Mt 25:31; Rv 19-20).  
  • Will the kingdom of God end with the Millenial Reign of Christ?  Was it not “everlasting?”  Consider 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and Revelation 20–21.
God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (v. 4), which he literally was (Gen 25).  Except for the eternal land grant and eternal reign of the kingdom of God, every promise in the Abrahamic Covenant has come true in a literal fashion.  Why, then, do so many Christian teachers reject the idea of a future for Israel?

Reasons Why People See No Future for Israel

Part of the confusion for modern Christians concerning the kingdom is that they get caught up in questions of detail and lose sight of the bigger picture.  For instance, there is the difficulty in translating Luke 17:21, which the KJV renders “the kingdom of God is within you.”  This, along with the assumption that the church somehow supersedes Israel, led some Christians to teach that the kingdom is only an internal reality.  In actuality, the verse is really saying that the kingdom is in Christ who was “in the midst of” the Jews at that time, a better understanding since those of the unbelieving Sanhedrin were obviously not circumcised of heart.

Another point of confusion is the dual usage of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” in the Gospel accounts.  The reality is that terms are equivalent, which you can see when you compare cross-references.  Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” for his Jewish audience who might be afraid of profaning the name of God (the idea of ineffability).  You may also remember that some Jews would take to swearing “by Heaven” (cf. Mat 5:34; Jam 5:12) rather than the more common Gentile oath, “by God” or “by the gods”—there was a sense in which the Jew would believe himself to be more spiritual, which Jesus addressed in 5:34.  This helps us clarify where some Christians have wondered if there were different kingdoms in this world.

There are other pieces of evidence that have caused Christians to wonder about the specifics of the kingdom of God.  Again, these debated details should not cause Bible students to lose focus on what is clearly taught in Scripture.  The best way to understand an unclear verse is by reading it in light of the larger contexts in which it is found.  The less clear should never redefine the more clear.  

The best kind of hermeneutic is the best way to read any book.  By examining the grammar and syntax of Scripture, and weighing it in its historical context, we can begin to rightly interpret what the message of the text would be.  We call this method of interpretation grammatical-historical hermeneutics.  The early church fathers, those who were closest to the Apostles, understood this, for most, if not all, believed in a coming future for Israel.  

Something obviously changed in church history to get us to where we are today.  Two words best sum up the problem: allegorical interpretations.  There are times when a literal reading like what I describe would cause problems, so other methods are employed.  The Greeks experienced with their methodology.  Not many intellectual Greeks, if any, believed in the myths, and some tried different approaches to reading them.  For instance, Plato was so embarrassed by the immoral content of Homer, he chose to allegorize his writings rather than accept them as they literally read.  Thus, the point of the Greek mythologies was no longer what they said, but what the interpreter claimed they meant.

This method of finding the hidden, allegorical messages under texts spread through the Greek world.  It not only became a popular way of dealing with embarrassing Greek mythology. Some rabbis, like Aristobolus (160 BC) and Philo (20 BC – AD 54) also adopted this allegorical method.  

Later, Christian leaders like Clemet of Alexandria (155-215), Origen (185-254), and Augustine (354-430) also found this technique fascinating.  In the case of Origen, he found three senses for every passage of the Bible—a physical, soulish, and spiritual sense—that could led more mature readers away from the ground level understanding of a passage to fly with those spiritual wings of eagles.  Those accepting such Gnostic and Neo-Gnostic methodology would have been the ones to say things like David's five stones represented five spiritual lessons, and would have despised pedestrian suggestions such as maybe God was promising real land to the real people of Israel.

Greek philosophy was infiltrating biblical theology.  Origin and others where touting the superiority and purity of the “spirit” over the evil and base nature of “matter.”  Because of this teaching, Christians began to believe that there is a fundamental contrast between “spirit” and “matter” and that the perfect state of things will mean there will be no change.  This laid the foundation for a spiritual vision model for the promises to Israel, and even the Christian view of Heaven.

Again, most early church fathers were more literal in their interpretations than these men; Antiochian-style preachers tried to explain Scripture as plainly as possible while Alexandrian teachers tried to be as inventive with Scripture as possible.  However, once Augustine latched onto allegorical interpretative methods, it remained dominant within the Roman Catholic Church (the kingdom of God on earth).   Premillennial expectations disappeared to the vast authority of the Pope’s own kingdom.  

Aside from a few lights during the Dark Ages, it would be the Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who would return us to a much more reasonable way of understanding and interpreting Scripture.  Unfortunately, the Reformation did not address all allegorical interpretations, as the church was still seen to be the new “Israel of God,” with the promises of a coming kingdom somehow realized within her ranks.  Our view of heaven is still affected by this misunderstanding, with some people describing ethereal experiences of oneness with people or with God, within the midsts or clouds of the afterlife.  Gone from the Christian imagination is a literal place that Jesus will create—a place of worship, work, and world peoples—a part of a coming kingdom.  

  • God keeps His Word.  “For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.” (2 Cor 1:20).  
    • There is a future for Israel.  I hope this much is clear at this point.  Israel will exist within a real piece of land with a real king forever.  
    • There is a future for us.  Because we see Him consistently keeping His word to Israel, we can trust Him to keep His word to us.  If you are a blood-bought believer, you need never doubt your eternal position in Christ.  That future includes joy-filled responsibilities untainted by sin.  It also includes work within and without Israel, all to the glory of God.
  • Beware innovative, allegorical, or spiritualized interpretations of the Bible.
    • The church has not replaced Israel.  Beware teaching that affirms either that the kingdom of God is only a spiritual reality or that the kingdom of God is advancing now.  Both are based on the assumption that God did not mean what He said about establishing an ethnic people on a plot of land with Himself as their king.  
    • Our country has not replaced Israel.   Though the American way of life is unique in world history, and something to thank God for, He never intended for it to last forever.  God grants humans all kinds of blessings, and I firmly believe that our nation is one of them, but we should keep our eyes looking forward to God’s ultimate plan.  Do not allow America to become an idol that distracts you from His Second Coming and the kingdom He is about to establish.
    • Overall, note also that imagination has not replaced sound exposition.  God’s people are called to explain what God’s Word means, not to create new interpretations of the text.  This goes well beyond end-times teachings.  Don't fall into the same Gnostic error that the early church did.  Use your opportunities in Sunday School and abroad to learn to rightly divide the Word of God.

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