Israel did not exist as an independent nation for more than 2,500 years (586 BC – AD 1947). What is the significance of Israel’s rebirth 70 years ago?
For many Jews, it means coming home to the home they never had. Some see it as the fulfilment (or re-fulfilment) of God’s promise to resurrect their nation (Ezekiel 37:14).
Some Christians also see Israel’s return as a significant fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy in our time. Is this so? To answer that question, we need to review the crucial role Israel played in the kingdom of God narrative.
From the moment the nation of Israel rose from the Red Sea to meet God at Mount Sinai, she received a special mandate, a calling to represent the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the earth. God said:
Exodus 19:5–6 (NIV)
Out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The kings who led Israel/Judah were therefore the earthly representatives of her true king in heaven. The descendants of David sat on “the throne of the kingdom of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:5), so “the kingdom of the Lord was in the hand of the sons of David” (2 Chronicles 13:8).
But these human kings did not represent God’s kingship well. In time, Israel split into two nations, and both parts were swallowed up by the kingdoms of the world. Israel had failed to fulfil her vocation as God’s witness to the nations.
Even though God’s servant had failed, God had not failed. The prophets declared that God would come and reign over them anyway:
Isaiah 40:9–10 (NIV)
9 You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.
Jewish people yearned for their restoration. Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom was heard with such joy and hope. Here he was: their king, the son of David, walking among his people, liberating them from sickness and spiritual oppression. Well, that’s how it seemed … until he died.
You can hear the disillusionment. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Instead, the rulers of Jerusalem handed him over to Rome to be crucified. Many Jews, even today, find it incredible that anyone could consider a crucified man to be God’s anointed ruler (Messiah). Last year when we visited a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee, their spokesman referred to Jesus as “that trouble-maker from the first century.”
But the Jews who followed this trouble-maker in the first century reported that God had acted in a way none of them expected — by raising him from the dead. Yes, Jesus was killed in his battle with evil, but the God of Israel raised his anointed ruler from the dead. It was what God had always promised: resurrection as the ultimate answer to injustice.
The resurrected Jesus explained that this is what Israel’s God had always planned:
Luke 24:25–27 (NIV)
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
So yes, Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. He liberated them from their ultimate enemy: death itself. To the king who defeated death, God gave not only the throne of Israel but kingship over the earth. It was far more than anyone expected. Israel’s Messiah is now fulfilling Israel’s mission — bringing the nations into obedience to Israel’s God.
So where does that leave Israel today? Has God now rejected his people so he can have the nations instead? Has the church replaced Israel as the people of God? Absolutely not!
Israel’s God fulfilled his covenant commitment to Israel, restoring them from oppression, bringing them into the kingdom of this son of David, his anointed representative. In the Messiah, God fulfilled not only his promises to Israel but also his mandate for Israel — to represent him to the nations. God never gave up on Israel as the people of God; he incorporated the nations into the people of God, in the Messiah’s reign. What God has done is infinitely more wonderful than anyone dared to hope or imagine.
- God fulfilled his covenant with David: the lion of Judah rules the nations.
- God fulfilled his covenant with Israel: restoring his people in the Messiah.
- God fulfilled his covenant with the patriarchs: this son of Abraham extends divine blessing to the nations.
- God fulfilled his covenant with Noah: through the line of Seth, all nations are restored under God’s reign.
Before the Messiah, Israel was God’s unique nation, and the others were strangers to that covenant. In the Messiah, God broke down that division, forming a new humanity in him. Non-Jews are no longer strangers and aliens to the covenant; they are fellow citizens in God’s family. This integrated humanity is now God’s temple, the dwelling place of God on earth (Ephesians 2:11-21). It is no longer Israel alone, but all nations under the Messiah.
So don’t go looking for promises in the Old Testament that God must still fulfil for Israel. Those promises are all fulfilled in the Messiah:
2 Corinthians 1:20 (ESV)
For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.
God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled not in national Israel today, but in a particular Israelite, the anointed ruler who brings Jews and people of other nations together under his kingship. God’s “holy land” is no longer limited to one little strip in the Middle East. The Messiah has brought God’s cleansing to the earth, so the whole earth will be his holy land, just as he intended in the beginning.
The kingdom of God is not:
- Israel on its own
- Israel in a superior place to the nations
- The nations replacing Israel.
The kingdom of God is Israel and the nations, formed together into one new humanity in the Jewish Messiah.
In this restored humanity, the divisions of the past lose significance. There is no favoured position for Jew over Greek, for free over slave, or for male over female. All humanity is joined together as the kingdom of God in Christ, his anointed ruler.
There is no separate track for Jews and non-Jews. There is no other name under heaven given to mankind (Acts 4:12).
What others are saying
Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 725:
The church does not replace Israel, but it is the representative of Israel in the messianic age. Ethnic or empirical Israel is not so much replaced as expanded in scope to become a renewed messianic Israel.
G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 653:
These converted gentiles would come to be identified with Israel and Israel’s God. Such eschatologically converted gentiles would become identified with Israel as had gentiles in the past, such as Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah. Their gentile identity was not eradicated, but they came to have a greater identity as true Israelites.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 476:
First-century Jews looked forward to a public event, a great act of liberation for Israel, in and through which their god would reveal to all the world that he was not just a local, tribal deity, but the creator and sovereign of all. YHWH would reveal his salvation for Israel in the eyes of all the nations; the ends of the earth would see that he had vindicated his people. The early Christians, not least in the writings that came to be called the New Testament, looked back to an event in and through which, they claimed, Israel’s god had done exactly that.
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