This post brings together three opinions/insights into the so called ‘Christian Zionism’ debate. All 3 contributors (John Stott, David Torrance, John Piper) are highly regarded, not just within their own ‘school’ of thinking, but respected even amongst those with whom they humbly disagree. We trust that this discussion will engender the same ethos of respect which the contributors evidence, while still encouraging clear and robust discussion/debate.
The Place of Israel
by John Stott
Rector Emeritus, All Souls Church, London, England
Our topic has been announced as “The Place of Israel,” and the topic that has been set for us is an object lesson in biblical hermeneutics as it’s usually called in the principles of interpreting the Bible. But I would like to remind you right at the beginning that there are at least four ways in which the word “Israel,” whose place we are to investigate, can be used.
One: Israel was that devious scoundrel, the second son of Isaac, whose first name was Jacob – meaning “he who deceived or he who struggles,” who amply lived up to his name – but whom God renames “Israel,” because having struggled with men all his life, he at last came to struggle with God for the blessing he needed (a blessing to which he was not entitled).
Two: Israel is the chosen people of the Old Testament days – the 12 tribes descended from the 12 sons of Jacob called the children of Israel, because Israel (or Jacob) was a common ancestor.
Three: Israel is the messianic community – the people of Jesus – the true descendents of Abraham because they share Abraham’s faith. This includes Gentiles like most of us if we believe in Jesus, but excludes Jews who don’t. When Paul ended his letter to the Galatians, “Peace and mercy upon the Israel of God,” he was referring to believers in Jesus, whatever their ethnic origin. So Israel is the messianic community.
Four: Israel today, for many people if you read the newspapers, is the Israeli nation, promised a national home by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and given it in 1948.
So Israel has four meaning. It means Jacob. It means Jews. It means Christians. And it means Israelis. And that is just the problem when you are asked who you are talking about.
I’m not going to refer much anymore to the first and the fourth meanings, though a little big at the end to the fourth, but to concentrate, how the Bible concentrates, on the second and the third.
What is the place of Israel in the purpose of God? And in particular at the end of the world (which is our theme on Sunday mornings)? But you cannot jump to the end unless you begin at the beginning. So the best way for us to handle this delicate and controversial theme this morning is to consider Israel past, present, and future and try and get a perspective on the whole of the biblical revelation.
So we begin firstly with Israel’s past. I’ll come to my text in a moment. The Old Testament Israel was the chosen people of God, sometimes called “the covenant people of God.” God’s covenant was given to Abraham and to Isaac his son and to Jacob his grandson, and the promise of the covenant was, “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” It’s quite true that after 400 years of dejected slavery God seems to have at least temporarily forgotten His covenant. But then we read at the beginning of Exodus that God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and as a result He rescued His people from their Egyptian slavery.
About three months later at Mt. Sinai, God said to the people through Moses, “I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. And now if you obey my word and if you keep my covenant, then out of all the nations of the world, you will be my treasured possession. And all the whole earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Now the people of Israel never forgot those promises and they never forgot that covenant, and the literature of Israel (which we call the Old Testament) is crammed full of expressions of wonder that God should have chosen them to be His nation out of all the nations of the world – that He should have entered into a covenant with them and made them His people and that He should have had mercy on them like that.
Let me give you one or two examples of this expression of wonder. Listen to five rhetorical questions from Moses:
What other nation is so great as to have their God near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to Him?
What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws which I am setting before you today?
Has anything so great as this ever happened before?
Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire as you have done and lived after the experience?
Has any God ever tried to take for Himself one nation out of another nation by His mighty hand and outstretched arms?
There are five rhetorical questions, all expecting the answer, “No,” and if you want to look them up sometime, you will find them in Deuteronomy 4.
And Moses goes on, “The Lord didn’t set His love upon you and choose you because you were more numerous than any other nation. The Lord set His love upon you because He loves you.” That is Deut. 7. Then again, “He has revealed His words to Jacob, His laws and His decrees to Israel. He had done this for no other nation. They do not know His laws.” Psalm 147.
I could go on. The Old Testament literature of Israel is full of expressions of wonder that God had made them His special people. It is a sense of unique revelation that permeates the whole of the Old Testament.
Now the text. Turn to the New Testament to Romans chapter 9, and although we have several texts, we are going to stick to Romans. At the beginning of chapter 9, the Apostle Paul lists 8 privileges that distinguish the people of Israel. We are talking about Israel in the past and her distinct privileges as the holy nation of God.
Romans 9, verse 4. They are Israelites and to them belong the following 8 things:
1. The sonship, because God adopted the nation to be His son.
2. The glory – the shining symbol of God’s presence in the temple.
3. The covenants by which He pledged Himself to be their God.
4. The giving of the law, also called the oracles of God, because in the law He reveals His will.
5. The worship – both the sacrifices that preceded the Lord Jesus and the Psalter which we use in our worship today.
6. The promises, especially of the coming kingdom of the Messiah.
7. The patriarchs whose stories are recorded in the book of Genesis for our instruction.
8. Above all is stressed the human ancestry of Jesus Christ, who is the amazing expression of God over all, blessed forever.
Do you wonder that Paul says at the beginning of this chapter in verse 1, that he has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart for Israel according to the flesh, because with all these eight privileges, they did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Paul said he could wish that he could even be cursed and be cut off from Christ for the sake of his countrymen if only thereby they could be saved. You get a sense of his passionate love for the people of Israel.
There is no doubt that we need to conclude at this point by saying, “Away with anti-Semitism:” If there is anybody in church today who has any anti-Semitism feeling let us bow down in penitence. Away with anti-Semitism.
Now who, according to the New Testament perspective, is Israel today? And the answer we are going to see from the Bible is this extraordinary event – that true Israel today is neither Jews nor Israelis, but believers in the Messiah, even if they are gentiles. Now this seed began even in the Old Testament. We haven’t time to look into it in detail. I remind you of things already in the Old Testament. The physical descendent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not regarded as being sufficient to be a true member of the covenant. Of course, the people thought it was. They interpreted election as favoritism, but the prophets kept insisting to them that their choice by God to be the covenant people of God would not guarantee them immunity from the judgment of God. Perhaps the most striking example is in Amos when God said, “You are the only people that I have known,” God said, and how the Jews felt absolutely secure in the election of God! They expected Amos to go on, “You are the only nation I have known and therefore I will protect you from every disaster.” But Amos went on, “Therefore I will punish you for your iniquities, because of the greatness of your privileges.” And the prophet tends more and more to draw a distinction between Israel as a whole as a defenseless nation and the Israelites’ faithful remnant within the nation.
Then we get to John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet. He taught the positive counterpart. Listen carefully. John the Baptist taught that not only are there some Israelites who are not true Israel, but that there are some not Israelites who are true Israel. Because John the Baptist said to the people, “Don’t say to yourselves ‘We’ve got Abraham as our father.’ I’ll tell you, God is able to raise up children from Abraham out of these very stones.”
God didn’t raise up children to Abraham from stones, but He did from gentiles, who were rather like stones in a way. And Jesus stunned his contemporaries by saying that many are going to come from the North and the South and the East and the West, from all the gentile nations. They are going to sit down in a Messianic banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Some of the citizens of the kingdom who are descended physically from Jacob are going to be excluded from the kingdom. So some of the Israelites are not true Israel and many of the gentiles who are not Israelites are the true Israel. It is the teaching of the Old Testament, it is the teaching of John the Baptist, it is the teaching of Jesus, but it was particularly the teaching of Paul, the apostle to the gentiles to whom God gave the fullness of the revelation of this amazing development. Turn back now to chapter 2 of Romans and let me read you the last few verses starting with verse 2B. It is an amazing statement that Paul makes. “He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly by descent from Jacob. Nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, that is by faith in Jesus. And real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.”
Then again in chapter 9, I’ll give you another phrase – “Not all who are descendents of Israel belong to Israel.” Paul says in another place in Philippians, “We are the true circumcision – we who follow Jesus, whether we are gentiles or Jews. We are the true circumcision who worship God by the spirit of God and put all our confidence in Christ Jesus and none in the flesh,” (that is our physical descent. It is not a matter of physical descent. It is a matter of faith in Jesus. Peter says the same thing. With great audacity given to him by the Holy Spirit, he takes those expressions in Exodus 19, “You are a holy nation, a kingdom of priests,…” and he transfers them to the followers of Jesus. And he says, “You who follow Jesus, you are a holy nation, a special people and a royal priesthood and a holy nation.” It’s amazing what these New Testament writers are willing to do. The paradox of our position in this: True Jews today are Christians. May I say it again? The true Jews today are Christians. Or if you don’t like that expression, try this one: “The followers of the Messiah are more truly the people of Israel than those people of Israel who reject Him.”
Well, you may say, “How can you justify that identification?” The answer is, “In Christ.” The logic is absolutely irresistible. God promised to bless the nation through the seed of Abraham. The seed of Abraham is Jesus Christ. If you look at his genealogy in Matthew and Luke, you will see that He is descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So God promised to bless the seed of Abraham. The seed of Abraham is Christ and therefore anybody who is in Christ receives the promised blessing. And we are in Christ not by birth, but by rebirth; not physically by descent, but spiritually by faith. Paul writes in Romans 4, “Abraham is the father of all who believe.” Whether circumcised or uncircumcised, Abraham is my father. I’m not a Jew by descent from Jacob or Isaac or Abraham, but Abraham is my father. He is the father of believers, and if you and I are believers in Jesus, he is our father.
Again, in Galatians 3 we see that if you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s seed and you are heirs according to Christ. Now that is why you see that those of us who believe in Jesus read the Old Testament scriptures as our scriptures. We sing the Old Testament Psalms. We claim the Old Testament promises as referring to us, because all of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ and we are in Christ – therefore the promises belong to us. It is a tremendous truth.
What we have seen so far is this. In olden days, Israel was a physical designation and meant the descendants of Jacob. Today, Israel is a spiritual designation and means believers in Jesus, whether descendants from Jacob or not.
So this brings us to the third question about Israel’s future. If Israel meant the descendants of Jacob in the Old Testament and means believers of Jesus in the New, must we conclude that God has no special future for Israel according to the flesh?
Well, it’s funny you should ask that question because it’s the very question that Paul is teaching. Turn to Romans 11, verse 1. “I ask then, has God rejected His people? Has He rejected the descendants of Jacob, the people of Israel according to the flesh?” That’s what Paul asked. It’s apparently what you are asking.
You see Paul’s answer: “By no means.” He gives two answers to the question and on both occasions he begins, “By no means.” The first answer is in verse one: “I myself am an Israelite. Of course He hasn’t rejected all His people. I am one of them,” Paul says. And he goes on, “God has not rejected His people of faithful, Jewish descendants of Jacob and believers in the Jesus.” All of the first followers of Jesus were like that. They were all Jewish by physical descent, and thank God there are many Hebrew Christians today – some members of our own church family.
Yes, but what about the other descendants of Jacob who are not believers in Jesus?
Now we come to the second answer and you will find it in verse 11. He asks, “I say then, the did not stumble so as to fall, did they?” Does this mean that the descendants of Jacob, the Jews who rejected Jesus, are going to reject him forever?
Paul says, “By no means.” God’s rejection of them is not final, because their rejection of the Christ is not final either. In order to illustrate that, he develops the picture that is familiar to all of us in Romans 11 about the two olive trees. The cultivated olive tree which is a symbol of physical descendents of Jacob and the wild olive tree that is the symbol of us gentiles coming from the gentile nations. He says in verse 17 that some of the branches of the cultivated olive tree, that is Jewish unbelievers, have been broken off. In their place a slip from a wild olive tree (that’s us) has been grafted in to the olive tree. Gentiles have now been included in the children of Abraham by faith in Jesus. But he says, “One day the olive branches that have been broken off,” that is the unbelieving Jews, “are going to be grafted back in again. Let me read you verses 24 onward.
24For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
25For I do not want you, brethren, to be uniformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the gentiles has come in;
26and thus all Israel will be saved;…
That is the whole people of God’s election will be gathered in. There is going to be a wide spread turning of Jews to Jesus. The hardening that is taking place now that makes them blind to their own Messiah is only temporary. The veil is going to be lifted. They are going to see and believe – maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe more – someday in the history are going to believe and to be grafted back in.
Now that leads me to the question that must be in some of your minds, “What about the promised land?” Is the setting up of the State of Israel a fulfillment of the prophecy? Well, I cannot go into this in a detail. I can only say this: Some people think so. Especially dispensationalists, as we call them. There may be some here. They say in effect that the prophets promised that the Jews would return to the promised land. They even delineate the boundaries that the Jews would occupy in the promised land. Those promises were not fulfilled in the Old Testament literally, so we look for a fulfillment in the future. It is a reasonable view to hold, and many do hold it. And we regard them with respect and love. Others, among whom I number myself, do not hold that view. I’ll leave aside political questions that could occupy us for a long time, but I’ll just mention to you that you need to think about political issues here. The risk of ignoring the justice of the Palestinians’ cause is on the one hand, and on the other is the risk of encouraging further Jewish expansionism since the land promised to Abraham in the Old Testament included territory that belongs today to Jordan and to Lebanon and to Syria. So beware of what you are saying if you think all that belongs to the Jews forever.
1. The Old Testament promises about the Jews’ return to the land are comforted by promises of the Jews’ return to the Lord. It is hard to see how that secular, unbelieving State of Israel can possibly be a fulfillment of those prophecies.
2. The Old Testament promises about the land are nowhere repeated in the New Testament. The prophecy of Romans 11 is a prophecy that many many Jews will turn to Christ, but the land is not mentioned nor is Israel mentioned as a political entity. There is only one verse in the New Testament that has ever been regarded as a promise that the Jews will return to the land, and that is Luke 21:24 when Jesus says that Jerusalem is going to be trodden down by the gentiles until the times of the gentiles be fulfilled. That is an ambiguous verse, and it can be interpreted in two different ways. It could refer not to a period of gentile domination after which Jerusalem is going to be rebuilt, but the times of the gentiles could rather refer to the whole of the present world order until the end of history when Jesus will come again in power and great glory. But even that left aside, there is no other verse that repeats the promises of the Old Testament. So we need to be very cautious in simply jumping back to the Old Testament promises and ignoring how they are handled in the New.
3.The Old Testament promises according to the apostles are fulfilled in Christ and in the international community of Christ. The New Testament authors apply the promise of Abraham’s seed to Jesus Christ. And they apply to Jesus Christ the promise of the land and all the land which is inherited, the land flowing with mild and honey, because it is in Him that our hunger is satisfied and our thirst is quenched. A return to Jewish nationalism would seem incompatible with this New Testament perspective of the international community of Jesus.
I’m sorry for this little parenthesis, especially if it has seemed controversial to some.
Let me conclude. We tried to get the biblical perspective of Israel. In the past, the chosen nation; in the present, the international messianic community of believers in Jesus; in the future, a growing community that will incorporate many more gentiles and many more Jews.
Let us end where Paul invites us to end in verse 22 of chapter 11 of Romans. He says, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness…”
The God of biblical revelation is a God of severity and kindness, a God of judgment and salvation. Note well the severity. The God of biblical revelation is a God of judgment. The history of Israel is a solemn warning against unfaithfulness. Verse 21: “If God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you.” Brothers and Sisters, beware. Take that warning to heart. Beware lest we forsake the Lord our God by our disobedience. But not only His severity. In particular His kindness. The whole history of Israel and the whole history of the world is the story of the patient, loving kindness of God. See how Paul emphasizes this in verses 30-32: “Just as you were once disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all.”
God’s merciful purpose, which is God’s missionary purpose, has not come to an end. Religions of the world may threaten the spread of the gospel. Hinduism tries to absorb Christianity. Marxism tries to drive it underground. Islam becomes even more aggressive. Secularism permeates into the whole of our society. But, beloved, God’s mercy is going to triumph in the end. There is a great future for believers in Jesus. The fullness of the Jews is going to be gathered in. The fullness of the gentiles is going to be gathered in. God is going to have mercy on the whole of His people.
When we wake up in Heaven, if by God’s mercy and grace we shall, we are going to be utterly dumbfounded. We are going to find ourselves a part, not of a tiny little remnant, but of a great company so vast – so unimaginable – that in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham it will be like the stars in the night sky, the sand on the seashore, the grains of dust on the earth. It is going to be actually innumerable. Praise God for His mercy.
God’s Covenant of Grace with Israel and the Nations –
A Response by David Torrance
to John Stott’s Sermon, “The Place of Israel”, and to those who believe that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s purposes.
John Stott, Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, is well known as a speaker and author and for his biblical interpretation of Scripture. He has helped many people in the Christian faith. I have appreciated his contribution to the Christian Church and to the evangelical cause. It is therefore with regret that I respond to this sermon, believing biblically that on the subject of Israel, he is incorrect. ^
According to Stott there are “at least four ways in which the word ‘Israel’ may be used”. These are:
‘Israel’ was that devious scoundrel, the younger son of Isaac and Rebecca.
‘Israel’ was the chosen, covenant people of God in the Old Testament.
‘Israel’ is the Messianic community, the people of Jesus, the true descendants of Abraham because they share Abraham’s faith.
‘Israel’ today for most people means the Israeli nation. Promised a national home by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, they were given it in 1948.
“Thus ‘Israel’ has four distinct meanings. It means Jacob. It means Jews. It means Christians. And it means Israelis. To which of these four meanings are we referring, then, when we ask about ‘the place of Israel’ in the purpose of God?”
Stott’s differentiation between four so-called meanings of Israel is unhelpful. Israel is indeed Jacob, the people called to serve, the believers in Christ and the nation. We may not separate out this multi-layered, Biblical definition of Israel, as Stott does. Having affirmed this unbiblical differentiation, Stott then affirms that the Church of Believing Jews and Gentiles, has replaced covenant Israel.
I believe the interpretation that the Church has replaced Israel, deprives us of much of the sheer wonder of God’s grace, love and condescension in binding to Himself a sinful people for their redemption and that of the world. It demonstrates a failure to understand the real nature and depths of Christ’s atonement and God’s dealing with the world through Israel. It also fails to appreciate the nature and significance of God’s promises.
God’s Covenant of Grace with Israel is within His Covenant of Grace with all humankind. God, in His love and determination to redeem, has bound His sinful people to Himself in a living personal bond. God’s Covenant, fulfilled and confirmed in Christ, is a Covenant of Grace and cannot be broken. Its continuance does not depend on human response. Consequently, I believe that the Biblical definition of Israel should not be differentiated and reinterpreted to suit our human understanding. It should be embraced with gratitude.
God created the world out of nothing through His Word and affirmed that all He created was good. In doing so, He made a Covenant of Grace with humankind. His Covenant embraced all creation, in that God did not put men and women in an alien environment, but within one created and controlled by God. Despite the fact that through Adam and Eve sin entered and spoiled the world, God reaffirmed His Covenant of Grace many times.
Israel’s sin is important. Without sin they would not represent the peoples of the world. Through their sin and oft-repeated rebellion against God we are given the revelation not only of God’s judgement on sin but of His amazing patience, mercy and forgiveness. Without Israel’s sin we would not have the Old Testament in its present form. God said to Pharaoh in Egypt, “I have raised you up for this very purpose that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth“ (Exodus 9:16). The same- can be said of the reason for God’s choosing of Israel (Romans $). Here however, we must be cautious: Israel is not more sinful than other nations, even today. Frequently she is more righteous. In judging Israel, as the nations today so often do, they are judging themselves before God.
Effectively, there is only one Covenant of Grace reaffirmed at different times and revealed in different forms, which God established with all humankind. It was fulfilled, confirmed and sealed in Christ and can never be broken. Within that one Covenant, God’s Covenant with Israel for the undeserved salvation of the world was fulfilled and confirmed in Christ, not sett’ aside or cancelled. Neither the sin of the world, nor the sin of Israel, can ever cancel God’s Covenant.
The blessings of the Covenant can only truly be received and enjoyed by those who believe. That is to say, the enjoyment by Jew or Gentile, of the blessings of God’s Covenant is conditional on faith and obedience. The Covenant itself is dependent on God’s grace and is not conditional. This is confirmed many times in Scripture.
In Israel, there is a covenant within a covenant. Although God’s Covenant and call to serve was to all Israel, and all Israel was embraced within it, there is an inner covenant with those who believe and obey the Lord. There is an inner remnant who enjoy the blessings of the covenant. They are through faith, the true children of Abraham. Unless we understand the existence of the inner covenant we cannot rightly understand what Paul says in Romans 2:23-3:4 and chapters 9-11.
In chapter 9 Paul says of all Israel as a nation, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs is the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” Then Paul speaks of Israel’s call as a nation to serve or witness to God. He says that through them, as through Pharaoh in Egypt, God revealed both His wrath and His mercy. In chapter 10 Paul makes clear that salvation is only in Christ. In chapter 11, he speaks both of the remnant who believe in the Lord and also of all Israel. God’s purpose and His Covenant embrace both grougsof peopjc^
Israel in their sin was called to play a vital part in Christ’s atonement. Those who believe that the Church has replaced Israel fail to understand this.
Here however, we need to hold our breath or to put our hand over our mouth, in awe. Israel was called in her sin, as a sinful people to represent the sins of the nations, (onr sins), which God took on Himself in Jesus Christ in order to atone for the world. Israel’s sin is important for God’s purposes of redemption. So we have the mysterious words of Isaiah 6:9,10. ““Go and tell this people: “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving”. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their hearts dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed”. This passage, quoted six times in the New Testament is quoted in part by Christ.
being recalled “from the islands of the sea” or “from the four quarters of the earth”, cannot refer to the return from Babylon. It can only refer to the future return of which Jesus spoke.
Israel’s return to the Promised Land and resurrection as a nation, proclaims that something momentous will happen in the world. What will happen, what God will do and when, we do not know. We are simply in faith, kept in expectation.
The Land and the New Testament. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; 1 have not come to abolish but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). In fulfilling them, He fulfilled and confirmed all the promises concerning Israel and the Land. If by fulfilling He meant that He had come to replace them He would certainly have said so. His covenant with Israel, which embraced the Land, was far too important and central to Israel’s life and being.
Certainly by His life and what He did in living, dying, rising and ascending to the Father, Christ fulfilled and replaced the liturgical law and forms of worship. However, He did not come to replace His covenant with Israel, which long preceded the giving of the law. “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).
Israel was living in the Land during the days of Jesus’ life on earth, so is not surprising that there are relatively few references to the Land in the Gospels. Nonetheless, I believe that John Stott is wrong when he says “Only one New Testament verse can be claimed as referring to the Land”, namely Luke 21:22. “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”. There are several references, of which I mention a few.
The three parables of the fig tree which represent Israel, and to which I have referred, had each a spiritual and physical dimension. The disciples asked the risen Christ, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israeli” Jesus did not deny the validity of their question, although a kingdom implies land. He did not say that Israel would never again be a kingdom. He simply said, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:6,7,8). Until the time that the Father decides to restore the kingdom of Israel they much preach the Gospel “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. ”
Again, Paul says in Romans 11:12, “If their transgression means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater will their fullness bringV’ Scholars readily say that because of Israel’s stumbling (Romans 11:11), Israel was destroyed as a nation. That is to say, their spiritual stumbling had a physical, material dimension. To be consistent in our interpretation of Scripture we must say that their fullness, which is spiritual, must also have a physical, material dimension, which can be nothing else than a restoration to the Promised Land, which is frequently prophesied in Scripture.
The Faith of Israel and the Land are closely linked in Scripture. It could not be otherwise. Their knowledge of the Lord is of the One who redeemed them out of Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land, which He gave them for an everlasting Covenant.
When Israel sinned she was banished from the Land. Their return to the Land is linked with faith in the Lord. Sometimes there is faith before returning to the Land as in the case of Ezra and Nehemiah. Other times, a return to the Land precedes faith in the Lord, their return being a wonderful act of God’s grace (Ezekiel 36:16-38 & Ezekiel 37:114). Israel’s faith in the Lord is closely linked with her living in the Land and we err if we do not see this.
David W. Torrance
Minister of the Gospel for over 50 years May 2010
Israel’s relation to the “Promised Land” in the Middle East
by John Piper
Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; 27 “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” 28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Today I would like to address the issue of Israel’s relation to the “Promised Land” in the Middle East. This is not primarily an expository message from Romans 11, but an effort to draw out implications of Romans 11 and the rest of Scripture for a very vexing problem in the world today. The existence of Israel in the Middle East and the extent of her borders and her sovereignty are perhaps the most explosive factors in world terrorism and the most volatile factors in Arab-Western relations.
The Arab roots and the Jewish roots in this land go back for thousands of years. Both lay claim to the land not merely because of historical presence, but also because of divine right. I won’t try to lay out a detailed peace plan. But I will try to lay out some biblical truths that could guide all of us in thinking about peace and justice in that part of the world. What we think about this, and what we say, does matter, since politicians are influenced by their constituents in these religiously super-charged situations. And we need to know how to pray. And we need to know how to talk to others in a way that honors the truth. So for all those reasons, and for the reason that God is very much involved in this situation, we should talk about it in the context of Romans 11.
What we’ve seen in Romans 11 is that Israel as a whole—that is, as an ethnic, corporate people enduring from generation to generation—has a root in the covenant promises made to Abraham and his descendants. Verse 16b: “If the root is holy so are the branches.” We interpreted that picture in the light of verse 28: “As regards the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies of God for your [Gentile] sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The “forefathers” here correspond to the root in verse 16. So the promises to the forefathers imply that some day the whole tree, with all its branches, will be saved.
Some day. Because verse 28 says, for now “they are enemies.” Verse 28a: “As regards the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies of God for your sake.” In other words, they are rejecting their Messiah and thus putting themselves against God. This is what Jesus said to Israel in John 8:42: “If God were your father you would love me.” Jesus is the litmus test whether anybody’s religion is worship of the true God. But Israel does not love Jesus as God’s son and her Messiah. So they are, for now, “enemies of God.”
So when verse 16 says, “If the root is holy so are the branches,” we take it to mean: “If God chose the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for himself, and set them apart and made to them covenant promises, then someday (after this present time of enmity and hardening are over) their descendants are going to return to God through Jesus Christ, and become God’s set-apart, holy people. Unbelief and ungodliness will be banished from Jacob forever (v. 26).
So now we ask, is the so-called “Promised Land” part of the inheritance and salvation that “all Israel” (v. 26) will receive? And if so, what does that say about the rights of Israel today to the Land?
In developing the answer to this question I would like to maintain seven truths which are based on Scripture.
1. God chose Israel from all the peoples of the world to be his own possession.
Deuteronomy 7:6, “ The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”
2. The Land was part of the inheritance he promised to Abraham and his descendants forever.
Genesis 15:18, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’”
Then in Genesis 17:7-8 God says to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
Then God confirmed the promise to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, in Genesis 28:13, “And behold, the Lord . . . said, ‘I am the Lord , the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” And when Jacob was dying he called Joseph to him and said (in Genesis 48:3), “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, 4 and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you and . . . will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’”
This, of course, creates a huge cleavage between the Islamic view of God’s covenant and the Jewish and Christian view of God’s covenant. But we believe that this is God’s word, confirmed by the Lord Jesus, and so we say, The land is destined to be Israel’s land.
But it’s not that simple. This is not an issue that can be dealt with in soundbites.
3. The promises made to Abraham, including the promise of the Land, will be inherited as an everlasting gift only by true, spiritual Israel, not disobedient, unbelieving Israel.
This was the point of Romans 9. When Paul grieved over the lostness of so many Jews who were rejecting Jesus and were perishing, he said in verses 6-7, “It is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” In other words, the promises cannot be demanded by anyone just because he is Jewish. Jewish ethnicity has a place in God’s plan, but it is not enough to secure anything. It does not in itself qualify a person to be an heir of the promise to Abraham and his offspring. Romans 9:8 says it clearly: “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Being born Jewish does not make one an heir of the promise—neither the promise of the Land nor any other promise.
This was plain in the Old Testament, and it was plain the teachings of Jesus (which we will see under truth #4). For example, in the terrible list of curses that God promised to bring on the people if they broke his covenant and forsook him was this: “ And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it” (Deuteronomy 28:63). Throughout the history of Israel, covenant breaking and disobedience and idolatry disqualified Israel from the present divine right to the Land. (See also Daniel 9:4-7; Psalm 78:54-61.)
Be careful not to infer from this that Gentile nations (like Arabs) have the right to molest Israel. God’s judgments on Israel do not sanction human sin against Israel. Israel still has human rights among nations even when she forfeits her present divine right to the Land. Remember that nations which gloated over her divine discipline were punished by God (Isaiah 10:5-13; Joel 3:2).
So the promise to Abraham that his descendants will inherit the Land does not mean that all Jews inherit that promise. It will come finally to the true Israel, the Israel that keeps covenant and obeys her God.
4. Jesus Christ has come into the world as the Jewish Messiah, and his own people rejected him and broke covenant with their God.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ [that is, the Jewish Messiah], the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responded to him, “ Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-17). And when the high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62).
But even though Jesus was the Messiah and did many mighty works and taught with great authority and fulfilled Old Testament promises, nevertheless the people of Israel as a whole rejected him. This was the most serious covenant-breaking disobedience that Israel had ever committed in all her history.
This is why Jesus told the parable of the tenants who killed the Landlord’s son when he came for his harvest, and ended that parable with these words to Israel in Matthew 21:43, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” And it’s why he said in Matthew 8:11-12, after seeing the faith of a Gentile centurion and the unbelief of Israel, “Many [Gentiles] will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Israel has broken covenant with her God and is living today in disobedience and unbelief in his Son and her Messiah. That is why Paul says in Romans 11:28, “As regards the gospel [the good news of the Messiah] they are enemies of God.”
5. Therefore, the secular state of Israel today may not claim a present divine right to the Land, but they and we should seek a peaceful settlement not based on present divine rights, but on international principles of justice, mercy, and practical feasibility.
This follows from all we have said so far, and the implication it has for those of us who believe the Bible and trust Christ as our Savior and as the Lord of history, is that we should not give blanket approval to Jewish or to Palestinian actions. We should approve or denounce according to Biblical standards of justice and mercy among peoples. We should encourage our representatives to seek a just settlement that takes the historical and social claims of both peoples into account. Neither should be allowed to sway the judgments of justice by a present divine claim to the land. If you believe this, it would be helpful for your representatives to know it.
We are not whitewashing terrorism and we are not whitewashing Jewish force. Nor is there any attempt on my part to assess measures of blame or moral equivalence. That’s not my aim. My aim is to put the debate on a balanced footing in this sense: neither side should preempt the claims of international justice by the claim of present divine rights. Working out what that justice will look like is still a huge and daunting task. I have not solved that problem. But I think we will make better progress if we do not yield to the claim of either side to be ethnically or nationally sanctioned by God in their present conflict.
6. By faith in Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, Gentiles become heirs of the promise of Abraham, including the promise of the Land.
In the words of Romans 11:17, “You [Gentile], although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree”—that is, they become part of the redeemed covenant people who share the faith of Abraham. The reason, as Paul put in Romans 4:13, is that “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” So all who are united to Christ, Abraham’s Offspring, by faith are part of the covenant made with him and his offspring.
Here’s the most sweeping statement of this truth— Ephesians 2:12, “Remember that you [Gentiles] were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
Therefore Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers will inherit the Land. And the easiest way to see this is to see that we will inherit the world which includes the Land. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians will not quibble over the real estate of the Promised Land because the entire new heavens and the new earth will be ours. 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, “All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” All followers of Christ, and only followers of Christ, will inherit the earth, including the Land.
7. Finally, this inheritance of Christ’s people will happen at the second coming of Christ to establish his kingdom, not before; and till then, we Christians must not take up arms to claim our inheritance; but rather lay down our lives to share our inheritance with as many as we can.
You recall that all-important word that Jesus spoke to Pilate in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Christians do not take up the sword to advance the kingdom of Christ. We wait for a king from heaven who will deliver us by his mighty power. And in that great day Jew and Gentile who have treasured Christ will receive what was promised. There will be a great reversal: the last will be first, and the meek—in fellowship with the Lamb of God—will inherit the Land.
Therefore, come to the meek and lowly Christ while there is time, and receive forgiveness of sins, and the hope of glory.