The Last Days of Israel
Some of my favorite Bible teachers on radio have been dispensationalists who believe in a pretribulation rapture of the church. They rarely bring up the subject. In fact, you could listen for years without hearing a sermon on the rapture. The same is true of the church I currently attend. When they say one’s stance on the rapture shouldn’t divide Christians, they mean it. They are more interested in building up the body of Christ and making disciples.
Unfortunately, there are other radio programs whose hosts and guests accuse anyone opposed to their teaching of a pretribulation rapture of anti-semitism and replacement theology. They claim that one’s stance on the rapture doesn’t affect salvation, but then repeatedly refer to themselves as the remnant and accuse those who don’t agree with them or who don’t constantly teach about eschatology of being false teachers. It seems the greatest sin one can commit, according to these teachers, is to neglect Bible prophecy and Israel.
I don’t agree with their assessment. It is possible to believe the people of Israel play an important role in Bible prophecy without believing in a secret rapture that removes the Church from the earth before the start of the tribulation. I also believe God’s priority for Christians is to become more Christlike, not self-proclaimed experts in eschatology.
A Quick Review
In an earlier post I made the claim that the Church is not a parenthesis in God’s redemptive plan, inserted into history because of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah. Thus the Church and Israel do not operate as distinct entities and the rapture is not required to separate them into their respective dispensations. Also, the Church and Israel do not have separate eternal destinies, one in heaven and one on the new earth.
In another post, I presented Bible verses indicating that Israel and the Church have the same savior, redeemer and husband. This suggests a continuity and oneness between Israel and the Church far more than it suggests two distinct groups of people.
Furthermore, both the Church and Israel are called God’s chosen people and a holy nation. They have the same shepherd and same king. Jesus declares they shall be one flock. It makes no sense for them to have different eternal homes.
Finally, a closer look at the “left behind” passage in Matthew 24:37-41 reveals that the rapture is not in view here because it is unbelievers who are “taken” in judgment and it is believers who are left behind to live with Christ in the Millennium.
So, if there is no rapture and no Jewish age to be completed in the future, what role do the Jews as a distinct people have in the eschatological events prophesied in Revelation?
Much of the debate* concerning Israel’s role in future events centers on how much of the prophecy in the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24 and 25 has already been fulfilled.
Most all Christians agree that the context of the Olivet Discourse (especially Matthew 23:37-39) is Israel’s rejection of their Messiah. Furthermore, they agree that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. was God’s judgment on Israel for their rejection of Jesus.
But was it a permanent setting aside? Has the Church, as some believe, replaced ethnic Israel?
Grafted Back In
Matthew 23:37-39 and other passages seem to refute such a notion.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:37-39).
Matthew 23:37 describes the anguish Israel’s rejection caused her Messiah. Israel’s house is left desolate (v 38) when Jesus leaves the temple (24:1).1 But they will see him again (v 39). During his triumphal entry (Matthew 21), they welcomed Jesus as King hoping to be released from Roman rule but rejected him as Savior from their sins. After the crucifixion the Jews, as a people, will not see him again until they repent, using once more the words from Psalm 118 which portrays the triumph of the 2nd Advent — Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord — this time in understanding and faith.
Not only does this passage refute the extreme preterism idea that Jesus returned in 70 A.D. (because the Jews did not repent); it also indicates that Israel has a very important role to play in the future. Jesus will not return until Israel as a nation (but with exceptions) repents.2
The above may seem like thin evidence, but Zechariah 12:10 also refutes the idea that Israel was permanently replaced in God’s redemptive plan:
I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. (NASB)
Though one fulfillment of this verse occurred at the cross (John 19:37), when examined along with Romans 11:11-26, it becomes clearer that in the future, Israel mourns its sin and is grafted back in to the root because they no longer persist in unbelief and are saved.3
Jesus wept over the city that rejected him (Luke 19:41) knowing that unless they did, he would never be crucified. He wept knowing that unless they rejected him, the fountain that would cleanse from sin all who believe in him (Zechariah 13:1, Hebrews 9:22) would never be opened in his side. He wept knowing his Spirit of grace would one day be poured out on his people so they would recognize him, mourn and repent. He wept, perhaps longing for the time when he would return (Matthew 23:39) to make Jerusalem’s desolation a distant memory and to dwell in their midst (Zechariah 2:11).
Jesus’ love for his people pours out of these verses like a flood. Should we not see as Jesus did? Ethnic Israel’s last days do not end in the despair of the destruction of Jerusalem as some preterists claim. Israel’s last days end in the joy of knowing her Messiah. Grafted back into the root, Jesus makes them one flock with all the elect to live together forever with him.
The apostle Paul concluded that God has not rejected his people forever (Romans 11:1) nor are they beyond recovery (v11) though they have experienced a partial hardening (v25). Christians need not believe in a pretribulation rapture that abandons the Jewish people to the horrors of the tribulation to affirm that God still has plans and promises for ethnic Israel.
The fact that the modern nation of Israel exists, populated with Jews gathered from around the world is potentially very significant to prophecy fulfillment. Is it time for Israel to be grafted back into the root? Is the world stage being set for their repentance and the return of Jesus?
- Preterists argue this desolation denotes the end of the old covenant. See further reading below.
- This, of course, could refer to Israel used in the sense of all saved people. However, since verse 25 refers to physical Israel and not spiritual Israel and since it would not be a “mystery” that all the elect, whether Jew or Gentile, will be saved, it is more likely that Paul sees a “restoration of the Jews in the sense in which they had been rejected, that is, the nation generally. Paul then is affirming that the nation of Israel as a whole will ultimately have its place in God’s salvation.” (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 421.)
- This differs from the mourning of Revelation 1:7 when, at the 2nd Advent, every eye will see him and unbelievers, without repentance, mourn as they face judgment. However, in Matthew 24:30 the mourning of the tribes of the earth (Israel) upon Christ’s return (KJV, NASB and ESV) is most likely accompanied by repentance.
*Further Reading – Interpretive Methods for the Book of Revelation
Note — The following discussion uses the term Israel to refer to the Jewish people as an ethnic group, not to the redeemed people of God comprised of both Jew and Gentile.
A person’s view of Israel’s role in future world events largely depends on the method he or his Bible teacher uses to interpret the Book of Revelation.
For example, preterists interpret the book of Revelation as a message of hope to persecuted believers of the late first century and early second century. Preterism comes in three forms – mild, moderate (or partial) and extreme (or full). Mild preterism sees the prophecies in the book of Revelation fulfilled in 70 A.D. in the downfall of Israel as a nation and in 313 A.D. when pagan Rome met its demise with the Edict of Milan. Extreme preterism believes the 2nd Coming occurred in 70 A.D. along with the spiritual resurrection of the saints. There is no future bodily resurrection of believers or unbelievers. The mild and extreme forms of preterism are untenable in my estimation.
The moderate preterist understanding of both the Tribulation and the bulk of Bible prophecy centers on political events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. In this view the kingdom has not been postponed as dispensationalism teaches, but is here now and is spiritual in nature. Thus there is no need for national Israel to have a future dispensation in which to fulfill prophecy. However, for the moderate preterist the Second Coming, Resurrection and Judgment remain in the future.
Idealists view Revelation as a dramatic portrayal of the battle between good and evil and its application to humanity’s struggles. It does not serve as a predictive text.
Those who hold a millennialist view mostly adhere to either a historicist or futurist interpretation of Revelation. Historicists believe fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies can be found in the past, present and future. Futurists believe the events of Revelation await a future fulfillment.
- Toussaint, Stanley D., “A Critique of the Preterist View of the Olivet Discourse.” Bibliotheca Sacra161, no. 644 (2004). 469-490.
- Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 350-351.
- John Piper, “There Shall Be a Fountain Opened“
- Richard D. Phillips, Zechariah, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007).
- Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, The Case for Historic Premillennialism, An Alternative to Left Behind Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, e version