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A Theological Pilgrimage
The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today
The Pentecostal Reality
Published Online Writings
Prophecy by the Book
Scripture: God's Written Word
The Holy Spirit in the Early Church
For a better understanding of prophecy I turn next to the question of Israel. If—as we have noted—the kingdom of God is a spiritual realm and has been taken from Israel, does Israel, according to the New Testament, have a continuing place in God's plan? This is a live issue today in the understanding of prophecy.
First, let us observe that in a real sense Christians, born-again believers, are "the Israel of God." Paul writes the Galatians, "Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God" (6:16 niv). It is apparent from what Paul had just been saying, namely, "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation" (v. 15 niv), that he means not ethnic Israel but the church, the spiritual people of God. This is quite clear in Philippians 3:3 where Paul speaks of Christians as "the [true] circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus" (niv). Amazingly, "we" (you and I as believers in Christ) are "the [true] circumcision."
Moreover, we in Christ are also the inheritors of the promises to Abraham. Christ Himself is the primary heir. Hear Paul in Galatians 3:16: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say 'and to seeds,' meaning many people, but 'and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ" (niv). Paul shortly thereafter adds: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (vv. 28-29 niv). What was that promise? It is the promise of God to Abraham as found in Genesis 12:7: "Unto thy seed will I give this land" (kjv). And God surely did give the land physically to Abraham's descendants (the promised land); but the promise ultimately was not physical but spiritual. Recall the words in Hebrews 11: "By faith he [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country...for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (vv. 9-10 niv). Earthly land was a good thing, and the physical heirs through Abraham, Israel, Jacob, and Jacob's twelve sons inherited it—but that was only preparation for "the city with foundations," the city of God, the commonwealth inhabited by all who belong to Jesus Christ.
In Christ all believers, whether they are Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, male or female, now belong to that glorious city. Paul speaks in Philippians to the effect that "our citizenship [not 'conversation' kjv] is in heaven" (3:20 niv, nasb). Together we are "the Israel of God" and in Christ heir to all God's promises.
Second, we need also to observe that God is not done with ethnic Israel. There is a continuing place for Israel in God's plan. In Romans 9-11 we find Paul dealing with this matter. All these chapters are valuable, but let us turn to 11 which begins, "I ask, then, has God rejected his people?" To this Paul responds: "By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham...God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew" (vv. 1-2). Shortly, Paul adds, "At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace" (v. 5). A remnant, a part of Israel (including, of course, Paul himself), has received grace, meaning the grace of salvation. Since that is the case, the Old Testament promises to Abraham, et al, are being fulfilled partly in Israel; thus God has not rejected His ancient people. But clearly this is a spiritual fulfillment, namely, wherever the remnant of Jews with believing Gentiles (e.g., the Romans) have come to salvation.
Then Paul gets quite excited about his own racial people. True, most Israelites have spurned the gospel, but through their very failure—Paul calls it "their trespass" (or "transgression" [niv, nasb]) "salvation has come to the Gentiles" (v. 11). But then follows Paul's breathtaking statement: "Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" (v. 12). Full inclusion! Paul says more about this later. He adds, "If their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" (v. 15). What a picture: when Israel comes into faith ("their acceptance"), it will make for such a burst of vigor as to be like life from the dead!
Paul illustrates this vividly by the analogy of an olive tree: the Jews largely have been broken off "because of their unbelief" (v. 20), and the Gentiles, "a wild olive shoot" (v. 17) have been grafted in. Now if the Jews "do not persist in their unbelief, [they] will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again" (v. 23). Compared to the Gentiles who have been "grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree" (v. 24). Thus Jews, Israel, will eventually—and supernaturally—witness to the gospel and with such explosive power that the world can scarcely be the same! Ah, there is God's future for ethnic Israel—an amazing prospect!
When will this happen? Now we get to the critical point. Paul writes thereafter that "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in" (v. 25 niv). This hardening of Israel is referred to elsewhere by Paul as a veil—"their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted" (2 Cor. 3:14). But some day in the future when the full number of the Gentiles have been saved, then it will be Israel's turn. Just after the words, "the full number of the Gentiles comes in," Paul adds, "And so all Israel will be saved" (v. 26).
What a climax! Paul writes about this as a "mystery" (v. 25)—something hitherto unknown and now revealed through the Apostle. He does not say exactly how Israel's salvation will occur—but it surely will happen. The sequence is also important. Following the full number of Gentiles coming in, the great event for Israel will be her national and personal salvation. Earlier Old Testament prophecies that seemed to relate only to earthly fulfillment, such as the promised land, are now transcended by a far greater future: the spiritual realm of salvation. Together with the Gentiles, Israel will enter into its fullness.
Israel has a continuing place in God's plan. Thus her rejection by God, her unbelief, her refusal of the Messiah, is not the last word. Israel will be a vital part of God's new people: all of whom together will be Abraham's seed and heirs of everything that God has promised.
In line with this, we must stress the great importance today of Jewish evangelization. Although the turning of Jews to Christ is still rather small, there are an increasing number of agencies (e.g., Jews for Jesus) that are reaching out to Jews with the gospel. Messianic (Jewish Christian) congregations are springing up in many places, and even in the nation of Israel some Jews are beginning to turn to the Lord. Indeed, this may be the significance of national Israel prophetically, namely, that the very concentration in one small land can be opportunity for a whole people coming to salvation. Just imagine for a moment what it would be—and will be—like when Israel's leadership (yes, even the prime minister, cabinet members, and the Knesset at large!) turn to Christ. Speak of walls tumbling down in Europe, especially the Berlin wall; that will be as nothing compared to the breach in Israel when the walls not of a few decades but of two thousand years come crashing down!
As the central core of Jewry around the world and the land to which more and more Jews are emigrating every day, the nation of Israel may well be the catalyst for future worldwide salvation of the Jews. Indeed, this will be a glorious climax: the Jews who were the first to hear the gospel but rejected it will be the last to hear the gospel and receive it! And together with fellow Christian Gentiles, a united people will be ready for the Lord when He comes.
One last prophetic touch may be added. Jesus declares, according to Luke 21:24, about the Jews that "they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." It is a historical fact that from the time of the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 a.d. (with some million Jews falling by the sword and thereafter almost 100,000 being led captive and scattered among many nations) until recently Gentile nations have dominated the city of Jerusalem. However, in 1967, for the first time since 70 a..d., Jerusalem has been liberated from Gentile forces and Israel is now in control of the whole city. The prophecy of Jesus in this literal fulfillment could prepare the way for the coming salvation of the Jewish people. It is interesting that Jesus proceeds in Luke's Gospel, immediately after His words about Jerusalem, to describe His return in glory (vv. 25-29), and shortly He adds the words: "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place" (v. 32).
Although we must exercise care in regard to this complex prophecy, it is possible that the generation living since 1967 a.d. will see both the completion of the gospel mission to Israel and the return of the Lord. Since Israel's salvation follows upon "the full number of the Gentiles" coming in (recall Paul's words in Rom. 11:25), this would mean our present generation could see both the completion of the gospel witness to the nations (recall Jesus' words in Matt. 24:14) and the salvation of Israel! If this is a correct understanding, we are living in the final years of history that will climax with the Lord's return. "Our Lord, come!"
| 1. Introduction: The Return of Christ | 2. Procedure in Studying Prophecy |
Content Copyright ©1996 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.