Light for the Last Days

Is the Church the New Israel?

Written in 1996

When I became a Christian in 1970 I read most of the Bible and came to three main conclusions:

  1. That the Bible is the Word of God.
  2. That Jesus is the one way to God.
  3. That we are living in the last days.

A major factor influencing me to believe point 3 was the return of the Jewish people to Israel and the resulting conflict which tied in with such prophecies as Jeremiah 30, Zechariah 12-14, Matthew 24 and Luke 21. I saw also many factors in contemporary world events which seemed to be pushing us in the direction of the Great Tribulation and the reign of Antichrist prophesied in the Bible. Somewhat naively I imagined that Christians who took the Bible literally came to roughly the same conclusion.

I had a rude awakening from this delusion in 1982 when we joined a new charismatic fellowship in north London which at the time seemed to have a lot going for it; lively worship, young families like our own with plenty of activity for teenagers, exciting prophecies that we were going to be a stepping stone on the way to taking London for Jesus. I was on the emerging leadership team and looked likely to be going to play a leading role in its development.

Dominion Theology

The Restoration magazine, produced by Bryn Jones and the Harvestime stream of the charismatic movement brought out its first broadside against Israel and the pre-millennial view of end time prophecy. Our fellowship was not under Bryn Jones, but when I took issue with the interpretation of scripture contained in this magazine I found myself out of favour with the Apostle who was covering our fellowship and soon realised that my view of Israel and the end times was not flavour of the month and was placing me out of the running for any position of leadership in the group. Eventually we left the fellowship, which far from taking London for Jesus, ended up in discord and strife and now no longer exists. This was my first serious encounter with the view of prophecy sometimes known as Dominion theology which teaches that:

  • This age will end with a great revival causing the global triumph of Christianity with great signs and wonders convincing people of the truth of the Gospel as all other political and religious systems fail.
  • Prophecies relating to the restoration of Israel in the last days should in fact be applied to the church because the church has replaced Israel (or is the New Israel).

Bryn Jones described a vision in which he summed up this exciting prospect in store for those who took this line of interpretation:

  • Ordinary Christians would be equipped with supernatural powers, laying hands on the sick with extraordinary miracles taking place in public places. Poverty would be abolished among them as multitudes turn to the Lord and have their material needs met through his provision.
  • The powers of darkness would be overthrown – governments and religious systems based on principles opposed to the Bible would be shaken as the Church emerges in power and glory.
  • All nations would reach out to God as the Church is established as the mountain of the Lords house, the highest of nations. Heads of government in despair at their own failure to solve the problems of humanity will turn to the revived church asking them to teach us the ways of the Lord (see Isaiah 2:1-4).
  • Following this great revival the Lord will return for his glorious church and wind up history.

Bible literal or allegorical?

However exciting this vision appeared, my problem was that it did not line up with the scriptures which spoke of evil men and seducers waxing worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13) in the last days, of apostasy, persecution and the rise of Mystery Babylon the Great, mother of harlots and abominations of the earth (Revelation 17:5), and of a coming time of such great tribulation that if God did not cut short those days no flesh would be saved (Matthew 24:21-22). The only way to make out that the church would end up triumphant in this age was to take the Old Testament prophecies of Israel’s restoration in the Millennium (i.e. after the return of Christ) and apply them to the church at the end of this age (i.e. before the return of Christ). This in fact is what Bryn Jones is doing in the quote above, taking the words of Isaiah 2, which apply to the reign of the Messiah from restored Zion after his second coming and applying them to the church today. The church then replaces Israel and rules and reigns over the nations before the second coming as a result of the great end time revival.

In order to do this consistently one has to take the allegorical view of the prophetic scriptures which has in fact been the dominant church view since the time of Origen and Augustine, both of whom taught that the church replaces Israel and that the millennial reign of Christ is now taking place through the church. An example of this line of interpretation would be to say that the fulfilment of the regathering of the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth to the land of Israel (Isaiah 11:10) is the coming of the Gentiles from the east, west, south and north into the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).

It is vital for Dominion theology to take this line of interpretation, because without it there are no scriptures to justify the idea of the triumph of Christianity in the last days of this age. Therefore those who insist on taking the literal view that Israel means Israel in the Old and New Testaments are seen as a threat and their views criticised and suppressed. However it is the literal view which makes sense of both the prophecies themselves and the current world situation. Let us now examine the evidence that Israel remains Israel in prophetic interpretation, after the Church has come into being. For the sake of brevity I have simply given the references of most of the passages referred to. To understand the issue it is necessary to look up these passages .

  • God made a covenant with Abraham, repeated to Isaac and Jacob, to give him a multitude of descendants and the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession (Genesis 15, 17, 26:2-5, 28:13-15). This was conditional on Gods word, not on the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants. If they were unfaithful God reserved the right to remove them from the land as a punishment for disobedience (Leviticus 26:27-39, Deut. 28:58-68). However every reference to the removal of the people from the land is always followed by a promise of restoration (e.g. Deuteronomy 30:1-6).
  • Even after the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34, God promises that only if the sun, moon and stars cease to give their light will the seed of Israel cease from being a nation before me for ever (Jeremiah 31:33-37). This passage significantly points to the continuation of Israel as a nation after the giving of the new covenant.
  • In the New Testament the words Israel and Israelite are used 74 times. In all but 3 occasions (one of which is the word Israel coming twice in the same verse) there is no question that these words are used to mean exactly the same as they mean in the Old Testament. Let us look at four examples out of 71 in which Israel has to mean Israel.
  • Matthew 2.20. While in Egypt after the flight from Herod, Joseph is told in a dream to go to the land of Israel (note he was not told to go to Palestine!).
  • Luke 2:32. Jesus is described by Simeon as a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.
  • Luke 7:9. Jesus speaking to the Roman centurion: I say to you I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel.
  • Romans 9:4. Paul writing of his kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, etc. Replace Israel or Israelite with the church or Christian and you reduce any of these verses to meaninglessness.

What about the possible exceptions?

Romans 9:6: For they are not all Israel who are of Israel.

(A similar thought is to be found in Romans 3:28-29). Looked at in context the point Paul is making is not that Jews cease to be Jews when they dont believe in Jesus or that Gentiles become Jews when they do. Romans 9 deals with the question of the remnant, an idea familiar to the Hebrew prophets, whom he quotes at length to make his point. Within the nation of Israel there are those who are unfaithful and unbelievers as far as Yahweh, the God of Israel is concerned, and there are those who are faithful. The spiritual remnant of Israel obeyed the Torah and heeded the words of the prophets. The backsliding majority did not and came under judgment, the most severe judgment being their removal from the land. However there was always the possibility that the unfaithful Israelites would repent and return to the Lord and become believers, obeying the Torah. That was the purpose of the preaching of the prophets.

Now that the Messiah had come, the spiritual remnant of Israel recognised him and became Hebrew Christians/Messianic Jews. The unspiritual majority rejected him. However Paul goes on to say in Romans 11 that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved; as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sakes; but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. Rom. 11:25-29 Therefore Israel will remain a people even in unbelief because of the covenant which God made with the fathers (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), to be saved at the end of this age. This is backed up by point 2 above.

In the meantime individual Israelites may turn to the Messiah, as Paul himself has done, and become part of the church made up of Jews and Gentiles united in Messiah. Therefore Paul urges the church to pray for Israel to be saved and to take the Gospel to them (Romans l:16, 10:l).

Galatians 6:16: And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be upon them and mercy, and (or even) upon the Israel of God.

The linguistic key to the interpretation of this verse rests on the Greek word kai translated and in the AV and even in the NIV. If and is the correct reading, there are two groups of people in question: those who walk according to this rule and the Israel of God. If even is correct then there is one group, those who walk according to this rule who are even the Israel of God. As a result of the latter interpretation the Israel of God becomes a synonym for the Church.

Paul’s argument in Galatians has been with those Jewish Christians who have been trying to impose observation of ritual aspects of the Torah (e.g. circumcision and dietary laws) on the Gentiles. He is therefore dealing with two groups of people, Jewish Christians, who are trying to influence Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the Law, and Gentiles who are being influenced. So the AV version using the word and makes sense, because Paul is commending both Jewish and Gentile Christians who are resisting the pressure of the Judaisers. The Israel of God therefore simply means the Jewish believers who have understood correctly the implications of the new covenant. This is consistent with the usual translation of kai as ‘and’  not ‘even’.

So we can see that even these possible exceptions do not contradict the rule that Israel means Israel in the New Testament.

Does the New Testament imply a future for Israel?

The Old Testament contains many prophetic passages speaking of a worldwide restoration of Israel, many of which are connected with the events of the last days and the time of Jacobs trouble (e.g. Deuteronomy 30:1-6, Isaiah 11:10-12, Jeremiah 16:14-15, 30-31, Ezekiel 36-39, Zephaniah 3:20, Zechariah 12-14). It has been said by some commentators that the New Testament has nothing to say about this subject and therefore as far as Jesus was concerned this was no longer on the agenda. However Jesus treated the Old Testament as the infallible Word of God and assumed it would be transmitted without alteration to his followers (Matthew 5:17-18). In the light of this we can assume that Jesus did not wish to add or take away anything from what had already been revealed through he prophets on the subject of Israels dispersion and restoration. There are however significant New Testament references which imply a future for Israel:

(a) For Jesus own words concerning his second coming (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) to be literally fulfilled there has to be a Jewish presence in Jerusalem and Judea (Matthew 24:15-22, Mark 13:14-20, Luke 21:20-24). Some opponents of this view argue that Jesus prophecy of the abomination of desolation, the flight from Jerusalem and the great tribulation was fulfilled in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. There was no doubt a partial fulfilment of this prophecy then, but there is no way that this can be a complete fulfilment, since in all three Gospels these events end in the visible return of the Lord in glory, something which clearly did not happen in AD 70 and has not yet happened to this day.

(b) Matthew 23:39, announcing the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the desolation of the Temple, Jesus prophesies to Jerusalem: Behold your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, you shall not see me again, until you say, Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord. The phrase Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord (Baruch ha ba be shem Adonai in Hebrew) is the traditional Jewish greeting for the coming Messiah (note Psalm 118:19-29, Matthew 21:1-16). This phrase has no significance for Palestinian Arabs or any other Gentiles, but is still used by Orthodox Jews in anticipation of the Messiah coming. This expectation of a Jewish reception committee in Jerusalem for the returning Messiah harmonises with the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10 and the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jewish remnant in besieged Jerusalem as a result of which They shall look upon me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son.

(c) Luke 21:24: And Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. Whether or not the final fulfilment of this prophecy took place in 1967 (and my view is that it did not), it clearly implies a future restoration of Jerusalem to Jewish rule, after the long years of their dispersion in which they are led away captive into all nations.

(d) In Acts 1 Jesus had the perfect opportunity to settle the matter once and for all. In the time between his resurrection and ascension he had spoken to the disciples of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). Most important he had put them right on the matter of Messianic prophecy (Luke 24:44-46), showing them that he had fulfilled the prophecies of the Suffering Servant Messiah. We are not told which passages he referred to, but we can assume that Isaiah 53 was a major subject of this Bible study. There remained prophecies which he did not fulfil at his first coming, notably Isaiah 2:1-4, which concerns the reigning king Messiah who would rule the Gentile nations from a restored and redeemed Jerusalem and cause there to be world peace.

In the light of this the disciples question, ‘Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’, makes sense. What they were saying was: ‘We understand that you had to first fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 53 by dying as a sacrifice for sin. Are you now (at this time) going to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 2:1-4, drive out the Romans and restore the Davidic kingdom to Israel and bring world peace?’

Jesus does not say ‘Forget about restoring the kingdom to Israel. That’s finished now because everything is transferred to the church.’ He does say that their priority is to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and to preach the gospel worldwide (which is still our priority). But the implication of Acts 1:7, ‘It is not for you to know the times and the seasons which the Father has put in his own power, is that the Father has a time for the restoration of Israel.’ This will be sometime in the distant future at a date which the disciples will not know (because it is linked to the second coming – see Matthew 24:36).

(e) Romans 11:25-26: ‘So all Israel shall be saved’. Replacement theologians say that Israel in verse 26 means the church, but this makes nonsense of the text and the context. For three chapters Paul has been discussing Israel’s unbelief and need of the Gospel, so logically Israel in verse 26 must mean Israel. The theme of a future spiritual restoration of Israel harmonises with several Old Testament passages and is implied in Revelation 7, 11 and 12. For Israel to be saved at the end of this age, there must have been a physical survival of the Jewish people throughout the Christian era. The response of the true Church to Israel’s unbelief should have been to follow Paul’s injunction to pray for Israel that they might be saved. The failure to do this has resulted in tragic loss for both Israel and the Church. Now that we see the events of the end times which centre on Jerusalem and the Jewish people unfolding before us, God is looking for a faithful remnant amongst the believing Christians to pray for Israel and to point Jewish people to the only one who can save them, the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus).

Tony Pearce

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