Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

ISRAEL - WHERE IT FITS INTO GOD'S PROGRAM

This article will examine the role that the nation of Israel plays in God's plans and purposes for the world. As we will discover, a lack of clarity on this subject results in endless confusion, contradiction and misunderstanding regarding the Bible.

The Covenants

At various stages, God made covenants with the ancestors of the Jews (the nation of Israel) as follows:-
  1. The covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3, 12:7, 13:15-17, 17:8, 15:8)
  2. This covenant was reaffirmed to Abraham's son Isaac (Genesis 26:3-4) and to Jacob (Israel), Isaac's son (Genesis 35:11-12). The nation of Israel consists of the descendants of Jacob. The Arabs are the other descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael.
  3. The covenant at Horeb, also called Mt Sinai (Exodus 19:5-6)
  4. The covenant at Arnon (Deuteronomy 29:1)

Signs of the covenant-relationship

The most important signs of the covenant relationship between God and the nation of Israel were:-
  • Circumcision (Genesis 17:11)
  • The Sabbath - Saturday would be a day of rest for the Jews (Exodus 31:16-17)
The ceremonial law that God gave Israel also became a sign of God's covenant relationship with Israel because this segment of the law was adopted only by Israel, and continues to this day.

Promises of the Covenants:-

The covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:3 includes the following promises:-
  1. I will make of you a great nation
  2. I will bless you
  3. I will make your name great
  4. You will be a blessing
  5. I will bless those who bless you, and
  6. I will curse those who curse you
  7. In you will all families of the earth be blessed
Abraham traveled from Ur of the Chaldees (modern day Iraq - see image) to Canaan (modern day Israel). There God told him:-

"Unto thy seed will I give this land" - Genesis 12:7, 13:15-17, 17:8, 15:8.

The Arnon covenant stipulated that the Jews would become rich, famous and powerful if they obeyed God, and Israel would be the greatest nation on the earth (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). If they disobeyed God, they would be persecuted, exiled and impoverished (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

The scope of the covenants

Although the early covenants were made to Abraham and Isaac (who are ancestors of the Arabs as well as Jews), the covenant was narrowed down to Jacob, who is the ancestor of only the Jews. Thus, the covenants taken together apply only to Israel.

The covenant was an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:7).

Were the covenants unconditional or conditional on the conduct of Israel?

The covenant of Horeb was conditional to the obedience of Israel. They failed, and thus forfeited it. However, the covenants to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were unconditional. The covenant at Arnon took into account both possibilities - that Israel would be obedient and disobedient to God, and is thus effectively, unconditional.

The Law

God gave Israel various laws (collectively referred to as "the law"). These laws can be classified into three types:-

Moral Law: Laws directly pertaining to right and wrong. These laws are applicable to everyone. For example: "You shall not commit adultery" - Exodus 20:14

Ceremonial Law: Laws pertaining to rituals and feasts that God had established as symbols of spiritual realities. For example, the passover meal was to be had with unleavened bread (Exodus 12:8). The Passover commemorated the deliverance of the Israelis from Egypt. It also was a type (symbol) of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:7). These laws were applicable for as long as Israel was a nation under God. Some Jews continue to keep these laws even today.

Civil Law: Every nation has laws for its citizens. These laws were applicable for as long as Israel was a nation under God. After the Romans destroyed Israel in AD 70, these laws lost their direct relevance. Even though Israel has been re-established as a nation, it has not brought itself under these laws. Example: Adulterers had to be stoned to death.

Israel's performance

God expected obedience, love and honour from Israel. What He got was, by and large, the opposite.

In ancient times, Israel's most prominent sins were
  • Idolatry and false religion (Jeremiah 11:13)
  • Immorality (Habakkuk 2:15, Jeremiah 5:8)
  • Oppression (Amos 4:1)
Because of these sins, God sent Israel to captivity: the 10 northern tribes in 722 BC (2 Kings 17:6) and the southern two tribes in 587 BC (2 Chronicles 36:19-20)

God enabled the Jewish captives to return in 537 BC (Ezra 1:1-3).

After this, the people of Israel were still disobedient towards God as follows:-
  • Apathy, cynicism, complacence (Malachi 1:6)
  • Hardheartedness, lack of love (Mark 10:5, Mark 3:4-5)
  • Obeying tradition instead of God's word (Mark 7:13)
  • Rejection of their Messiah (John 19:15)
Because of this, God allowed the Romans to destroy Israel in AD 70 and disperse the Jews. However, the same condition of the Jews persists today.

The consequences of Israel's disobedience

The following has happened to the Jews in accordance with God's warnings because of their disobedience:-
  • They have been scattered all over the world (Deuteronomy 28:64)
  • Their land was made desolate (Deuteronomy 28:24)
  • They have been hated and persecuted (Deuteronomy 28:33, 37)
  • They have not been able to be a kingdom of priests to God (Exodus 19:6)
In the meantime, God has started the church. God's people today consists of disciples of Jesus Christ all over the world, both Jew and Gentile. It is important to realize that Israel's failure does not mean that God has permanently abandoned her. Paul compares Israel to natural branches that were cast off. The Gentiles are "wild branches" grafted it, and God will graft the natural branches again (Romans 11:24). In Ezekiel 36:22, God says that He is doing this for His own names' sake and not because Israel deserves it.

Differences between Israel and the church

The Bible clearly distinguishes between Israel and the church. For example, notice the "they" and the "your" in Romans 11:28, the "them" and "you" in Romans 11:22. In 1 Corinthians 10:32, we have three classes of people: the Jews, the Gentiles and the church.

The following are some of them

 Israel Church
 Membership based on birth Membership based on belief and repentance
A national repentance (Romans 11:26, Zechariah 12:10)  Each member repents individually
 Promised dominance over others if obedient Promised persecution at the hands of others if obedient
 One nation A people called out from all nations
 Fights wars Members may join the armed forces of their respective countries
 Anticipated Jesus' death using the ceremonial law Commemorate Jesus' death with the Lord's Table
 Civil law given;  Asked to obey civil laws of their respective nations
 Given power to enforce civil laws Given limited power to discipline erring members
 Circumcision as a sign of membership Baptism as a sign of joining
 Promised a patch of land No such promise
 Started with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob about 2000 BC Started on the Day of Pentecost, AD 32 (Acts 2)
 Earthly blessings: children, wealth, power (Deuteronomy 28) Heavenly blessings (Ephesians 1:3)
 God will build Israel up just as he destroyed them (Jeremiah 31:28)  God never destroyed the church!

Mis-identification between Israel and the Church is perhaps the greatest source of confusion, false doctrine and bad conduct, which in turn has further bad consequences. A few examples:-

  • The "prosperity gospel" is based on the idea that God's promises to Israel about getting rich in return for obeying God apply to the church. Millions have been duped into giving "seed money" to (false) preachers, thinking that they are giving to God and God will make them rich.
  • The baptism of infants, something totally foreign to the New Testament, arises partly from a confusion of Israel with the church. (If infants are circumcised, so the argument goes, why shouldn't they be baptized?)
  • The popular stereotype of being Christian because one is born in a "Christian" family arises from the same confusion. (One is Jewish because of being born in a Jewish family!)
  • The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, (and some Protestants) indulged in political manipulation during the Middle Ages because they did not realize that unlike Israel, the church is not a political entity.
  • The Roman Catholic Church committed unspeakable atrocities because it believed that it had the responsibility to enforce religion in the land. God gave this responsibility only to Israel (Deuteronomy 17:2-5). (The nation of Israel agreed to such rules because they had themselves witnessed supernatural proof that their God was the Only True God.) The Orthodox Church and some Protestants like John Calvin also committed similar atrocities.
  • If all that the Bible says about Israel actually applies to the church, it follows that Israel is permanently rejected and accursed by God; this idea inspired "Christian" antisemitism in the Middle Ages.
  • If the church is the New Israel, then the "old" Israel (Jewry) is a non-entity. The resurgence of Israel in modern times then becomes an enigma to be resisted. The result is hatred towards Israel - modern "Christian" antisemitism.
  • If the prophecies about a glorious future for Israel refer to the church, then the church should be on course to taking over the world. This, of course, is an illusion. The Bible clearly specifies that the end times will be characterised by apostasy and rebellion, not the world turning to God (1 Timothy 4:1-2, 2 Timothy 4:3). Yes, the nations will worship God (Micah 4:2, Zechariah 8:22) at Jerusalem during the Millennium, but that will be only after the Lord Jesus returns to earth and forces the Kingdom of God on the earth. Remember: we (the church) are not preparing the earth for Christ so that where we are, there he may be. He is preparing a place for us, so that where he is, there we may be (John 14:2-3).
  • Running a nation includes the endeavor to eradicate social problems such as illiteracy, poverty, disease, oppression, etc. If the church is the new Israel, then the church is a nation/kingdom, and therefore it becomes the church's responsibility to solve these problems. Thousands of missionaries and missionary organizations have lost their focus on the gospel after latching on to some social issue.

As you can see, confounding Israel with the church has created untold harm. Although everyone who is mistaken on this issue is not party to all the wrongs listed above, the perniciousness of this false doctrine should be evident.

The future of Israel

As mentioned above, the covenants that God made with Israel include an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:7) and took into account the possibility that Israel would fail spiritually (which she did). This implies that God is not finished with Israel. In fact, after Israel rejected Christ, Paul tells us that all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26) - this restoration has nothing to do with Israel's merit but because of God's own name (Ezekiel 36:22). The following are some things that the Bible mentions about Israel that still await complete fulfillment.

Prophecy ReferenceLevel of fulfillment so far
Amidst great tribulation, people will stick close to Jews because they realize that God's protection is on the Jews Zechariah 8:23Completely unfulfilled
All nations will go to Jerusalem to learn from the "God of Jacob"Isaiah 2:3, Micah 4:2
Completely unfulfilled 
Israel will look at the same Jesus who they pierced and accept him as their Messiah - in JerusalemZechariah 12:10-11 Completely unfulfilled 
The Jews will plant fruit trees extensively in Samaria (West Bank)Jeremiah 31:5Completely unfulfilled
The Jews will return to IsraelJeremiah 31:8-9Partially fulfilled
Israel will turn from false gods to the true God
Zechariah 13:1-2
Completely unfulfilled 
Anti-semites will bow down to Jews
 Isaiah 60:14
Completely unfulfilled
Israelis will see dreams and visions amidst astronomical upheavals
 Joel 2:28-31
Only partly fulfilled in Acts 2
Israel will never cease to be a nation before God  Jeremiah 31:36
Ongoing
144,000 Jewish servants will serve GodRevelation 7:4-8
Completely unfulfilled 
There will be a new temple and sacrificial system in JerusalemEzekiel 40:1 Completely unfulfilled 
There will be a new tribal distribution in Israel
Ezekiel 48:1
Completely unfulfilled 
The Dead Sea will be healed and teem with fish Ezekiel 47:8
Completely unfulfilled

The people of Israel today

In 971 BC, after the death of King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel split into two (2 Chronicles 10:16-19): the northern kingdom comprised of 10 tribes and the southern kingdom comprised of two tribes: Judah and Benjamin (2 Chronicles 11:1). Many individuals from the other tribes joined them later (2 Chronicles 15:9, 2 Chronicles 30:11). The northern kingdom continued up till 722 BC when it was destroyed by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom continued up till 587 BC when it was destroyed by the Babylonians. In 537 BC, the Persian Emperor Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Israel. Most of the people who returned were from the Southern kingdom. The Jews were again dispersed when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.

One way to classify the people of Israel today is:-
  1. Israelites who have lost their identity
  2. Israelites who have not lost their identity
The former are descendants of the 10 northern tribes of Israel. They did not return to Israel after their captivity of 722 BC and gradually got assimilated into the nations into which they migrated. Thanks to anthropological research and DNA testing, some of them have regained their identity recently - some of these "lost Jews" have even migrated to Israel. The "10 lost tribes" seem to be scattered in Palestine, Afghanistan, India, China and Japan. As far as religious beliefs are concerned, Israelites who have lost their identity are Muslims, animists, Buddhists, Shinto, etc. while Israelites who have retained their Jewish identity follow rabbinical Judaism or are atheists.
 
Most of the Jews who were dispersed after 70 AD have retained their identity. These Jews are mostly from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, but also include other tribes.

The Khazar Hypothesis: It states that today's Israelis are of East European descent - descended from the Khazars, a tribe in Armenia - and thus, unrelated to the ancient Israelites. The only factual element in it is that some members of the Khazar aristocracy converted to Judaism in 1300 AD. The Khazar hypothesis has largely been discredited but is still propagated by people who are against the modern State of Israel.

Here are some reasons we can be confident that the Israelis of today are by and large, truly descendants of the ancient Israelites:-
  • Jews were an isolated group, largely due to Roman Catholic, Islamic and Orthodox hostility. Why would anyone marry into or convert to a group/religion that was despised everywhere?
  • Today (2014), Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized severely in Israel because of his son's Norwegian girlfriend. Such opposition was undoubtedly more in former centuries. Those Jews who married Gentiles would be rejected by the Jewish community. Thus, assimilation has mostly been Jewish-to-Gentile, not Gentile-to-Jewish.
  • Again, why would someone migrate all the way to Israel if he is not Jewish? Life would be easier in Russia or Europe.
  • Judaism has never had a great appeal for people to convert to it. Nor have religious Jews tried to propagate their faith. Therefore, conversions to Judaism have been very few.
  • Today, DNA testing is also being used to ascertain Jewish ancestry.
  • God promises that Israel would not cease from being a nation (Jeremiah 31:35-36). If there are no true Jews who know that they are Jews, it would imply that this promise has been violated

Mirror Truths

Biblical truths often occur in pairs of contrasting aspects. For example,
  • Jesus was human, but he was also God.
  • God is One, but there are Three Persons in the Godhead
  • Salvation is by faith (not works), but those who really have faith will prove it with their works
  • Baptism is not necessary for salvation, but those who get saved should be baptized.
  • Salvation is God's gift (Ephesians 2:8), but we have to work out its implications in our life (Philippians 2:11)
  • We are to bear one another's burdens (troubles) (Galatians 6:2) and yet everyone should bear their own burdens (responsibilities) (Galatians 6:5)
  • Our sins are forgiven once and for all judicially (Romans 5:1) and yet we need filial forgiveness continually, day by day (1 John 1:8-9).
It is fatal to emphasize one truth to the denial of the other. In the same way, the two truths mentioned above, namely,
  1. The church is distinct from Israel
  2. God still has plans for Israel in the future.
have their mirror truths:-
  • Mere Jewish ancestry will not make a person approved of God and take him to heaven (Romans 2:28-29, Romans 9:6). Among Jews, there is a subset of "real" Jews, that is, Jews who truly honour God.
  • In a spiritual sense, Christians are Jews - we exercise faith just as Abraham did (Romans 4:61-17) and thus are "children" of Abraham
  • the church is made up of Jews and Gentiles with no distinction between them (Colossians 1:11)
It is faulty exegesis to use the latter to deny the former.
 
While applying we must distinguish between the following:-
  • Salvation, for which repentance is critical (Luke 13:3) - this restricts salvation to only "true" Jews and believing Gentiles (spiritual sons of Abraham)
  • Certain gifts and calling which do not require repentance (Romans 11:29) - this opens certain privileges and responsibilities even to Jews who do not acknowledge God

Conclusion

God has a plan for the nation in history. Some of it has already been accomplished, and some of it is yet future. It is important for us Christians to understand and appreciate this plan without confusing it with God's plan for the church. God's dealings with Israel are important because:-

  • They illustrate His character. If humans learn God's character from history and the Bible, they won't have to learn it the hard way in hell.
  • They help us in our Christian walk by way of examples, object lessons, etc.
  • They make Israel proof that the Bible is true. A lot of people do miracles or amazing things with the help of "gods" but to orchestrate the history of a nation over several continents and thousands of years and make that nation different from every other nation in earth - this is something only the God of the Bible does.