Answered by Mike Meyers (Pastor of Heritage OPC in Royston, GA):
For the last several weeks, our headlines have been dominated with coverage of the ongoing conflict between the modern nation-state of Israel and Hamas/Palestine. With the increased recent attention, I thought it would be timely to set some thoughts down about how to think biblically about the current geo-political entity we call Israel and the Israel we find in the Bible. I am afraid that there are many Christians who assume that because the words are the same the entities are the same and the current Israel, along with the contested land, has remaining theological significance. This becomes even more important considering that the nearly unquestioning support for the modern Israel—or the pressure to declare the same—among Christians is motivated by theological conviction. While often well intended, my argument is that this is misguided.
The biblical nation of Israel originated as the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the latter being renamed to Israel by God Himself (Gen. 32:28). They were His special treasure above all people (Ex. 19:5), the tribe of His inheritance (Jer. 10:16). To them God gave all the special blessings of His word, promises, covenant, worship, and grace (see Rom. 9:1-5). This story of redemption in the Bible is dominated by two great themes: the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of His people (Mal. 3:6-7). To illustrate the latter with just one verse, here is what the Lord said concerning Israel, “O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you? For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away” (Hos. 6:4). Why did God stay faithful to them for so long, despite grievous sins like rampant idolatry (Jer. 2:11), child sacrifice (Ezek. 16:20-21), and Sabbath breaking (Ezek. 20:13), which led them to exile (Neh. 1:8)? The first reason was His promise (Is. 49:16) and the second is His promised Son, Jesus Christ.
Concerning His promise, we must remember that God is not a man that He can lie (Num. 23:19). He gave Abraham an unbreakable promise that from him would come blessing for all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3; see also Heb. 6:13-18). God’s gracious promise is the only reason behind bringing Israel back from their bondage in Egypt (Exod. 2:24), back from their exile in Babylon (Ezek. 36:22-24), and continuing to save physical descendants of Jacob who may even now be living in unbelief (Rom. 11:25-32).
The physical nation of Israel had one grand purpose in the Bible: in keeping with God’s promise, they were to be the people through whom the Messiah, the Savior of sinners and crusher of Satan, would come (Gen. 3:15). The reason God gave them circumcision, sacrifices, the tabernacle and temple, all His laws, and His gracious covenant as He worked through time was to preserve this people until the promised Seed came: “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘and to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Once Jesus Christ came, who is not only the Second Adam (Rom. 5:18-21) but the One who fulfilled everything Israel failed to do (Heb. 10:5-7), Israel’s redemptive necessity ceased.
I cannot go into this at too much length here, but consider this big-picture perspective. Those things that specifically delineated Israel from the nations were entirely abolished after the coming of Christ. Circumcision was replaced by baptism (see Acts 15 and Galatians). The necessity of ongoing sacrifice ceased because of the once-and-for-all death of Jesus (see Hebrews). Later the temple would be destroyed in AD 70, precisely as Jesus said in Matthew 24 and parallel passages. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, ceremonial and dietary laws were removed so that there no longer remained a barrier for fellowship for anyone in Christ (see Acts 10-11; Gal. 2:11-16). In fact, even the distinguishing blessings given exclusively to Old Testament Israel were explicitly bestowed upon the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, including the status of a holy ethnicity (compare Exod. 19:5-6 and 1 Pet. 2:9-10).
If all the above is true, then surely the land no longer possesses theological significance either, except for historical value. Consider this: if the land still held a significant place theologically, why would Barnabas the Levite sell his portion of it (Acts 4:36-37)? On the other hand, Jesus teaches us that the meek shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:6). Later in the New Testament, Paul expands the fifth commandment land promise, given initially to Israel at Sinai (Exod. 20:12), to Christian children who honor their parents (Eph. 6:3-4). Let me explain it in this way: Old Testament Israel was like God’s “children’s church,” where He taught them spiritual truth through many wise images and physical ceremonies. This preserved them until His purposes of working with them in that way were complete. Now the New Testament Church is God’s grown-up Israel. We do not need these old ways, for they were “a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col. 2:17; cf. Heb. 10:1, for a sermon on this theme, click here).
Many argue that we must “support Israel” based on Genesis 12:3, where the LORD told Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” For any who have been persuaded by this, I would encourage you to consider the following two points. First, Jesus Christ is the Promised Seed to Abraham (Gal. 3:16). He is the One in whom and from whom believers, from whatever family of the earth, receive every blessing (Eph. 1:3). He also became a curse to redeem us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10-14). Second, and closely related, in Jesus Christ Christians have become the new humanity, God’s own special people (Eph. 2:15; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). Remarkably, the Apostle Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5), said, “Only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). This means that only those united to Jesus Christ by faith, regardless of ethnicity, are now the true and genuine sons of Abraham. Because of Him, “the Gentiles in the flesh…are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:11-18). Therefore, the principle of Genesis 12:3 actually applies to the Church in Christ, not to physical descendants of Abraham (John 8:39).
In summary, consider these words from Scripture, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:15-16). There are three stunningly significant implications of this. First, in Christ, those things that are so frequently occasions for division are no barriers to communion, for in Him all are new creations (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-18; 2 Cor. 5:17). Second, this holy nation gathered into Jesus Christ from every nation, kindred, tribe, and tongue, bears the status of “Abraham’s seed,” not according to the flesh, but through faith as “heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). Third, as stated explicitly in Gal. 6:16, the people of God united in Christ is “the Israel of God.”
Now I said above that Israel’s redemptive necessity ceased, but not their redeemability. We ought to pray for and seek after the conversion of both Jew and Gentile. This is true despite the great sin laid upon the Jews in the Bible. Did the Jews crucify and reject Jesus Christ? Yes, they did (John 1:11; Matt. 27:25). Jesus Himself said that they bore more culpability in His death than Pilate who sentenced Him to execution (John 19:11). Yet, in God’s wisdom, the Jewish rejection of Christ and then persecution of Christians were the sinful means by which God sent the saving message of the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 8:1, 28:28). The cross, invented not by Jews but by Romans, was also the sinful means by which God sovereignly accomplished all that was necessary for the salvation of sinners, Jew and Gentile (Acts 2:22-24).
It is a wonder of grace that God did not annihilate Adam after his initial sin (Gen. 3:6), but instead promised the gospel (Gen. 3:15). It is a wonder of grace that God did entirely harden and abandon the Jews after their sin against Jesus Christ. Paul, the converted Jewish persecutor of Christians, wrote that blindness has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. In the unsearchable grace of God that blindness is not total but partial (Rom. 11:25). Paul himself was proof that “God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). It is a wonder of grace that God determined to bring the light of the gospel to the nations He scattered at Babel (Gen. 11:9), for we all walked in darkness and were by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3). Friends, the reason this is so important is this: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
The God of grace is still saving both Jew and Gentile, reconciling them to Himself through the blood— and only through the blood—of Jesus Christ. But is the land and the nation that goes by the name Israel still holy? Based on what I believe the Scriptures make clear, I contend that the answer is no. Of course, there are many who will disagree with what I have written. My simple encouragement is, in all things, search the Scriptures, see if what I have told you is true. Above all, give thanks to the Triune God of grace, “for of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36).