Is Present-Day Israel God's People? A Dispensational Dilemma

1134388_israel_flag_button_.jpgHanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, recently expressed his dismay at the bombing of his church building during the three-week war between Israel and Hamas (CT Direct, February 10, 2009, “God in Gaza”). The Palestinian Bible Society also suffered damage from Israeli bombs. In light of these events some questions come to mind. Is present-day national Israel God’s people? Do we in this case have God’s ancient and now restored-covenant people bombing God’s new covenant people, Palestinian Christians in Gaza? Or asked in another way, do we have two peoples of God? Can we be sure that the 1948 United Nations declaration that created modern-day Israel was in fact a fulfillment of biblical prophecy? If so, is there a guarantee that Israel in her present state cannot be destroyed and her people dispersed?

One of the ramifications of classic dispensationalism is the often-unqualified identification of the modern nation of Israel as the people of God. This view intensified in the twentieth century with the Holocaust and the founding of the modern state of Israel. Many view through a prophetic lens the United Nations declaration of 1948, which brought national Israel into existence as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. For many this perspective requires almost unquestioning support of a seemingly invincible Israel, which has been rightfully returned to the land and will never be defeated. The myth and aura of Israeli invincibility was burnished over the years by the heroic and courageous spirit of the Israeli people in wars beginning with her independence in 1948. These wars include the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Although more recent apparent defeats or setbacks have tarnished Israel’s image (for example, the July 2006 war with Hezbollah), Israel continues to enjoy popular support in dispensational circles as the people of God.

Few Christians would deny Israel’s right as a nation to exist and defend herself. While some may desire a more proportionate response to the homemade bombs lobbed haphazardly from the Gaza Strip, no one should question the right of Israel to exist. Whether we consider the July 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War or the more recent Israeli-Hamas War, what is unquestionable is that more innocent civilians are always killed and maimed by Israel than by their adversaries. Obviously we can attribute this fact to the sheer supremacy of Israel’s American-made and supplied armaments. We may also rightfully assert that Israel’s opponents often hide among the civilian population and fire missiles from apartment buildings and mosques in densely populated urban areas.

As an American I affirm Israel’s right to exist and protect herself from enemies who refuse to recognize her status as a legitimate national entity. I shudder when I think of Israel’s history and the diabolical attempts to wipe the nation off the face of the earth. Furthermore, I admire a people who live on an island of democracy in a sea of tyranny. I hold them in high esteem for their resolve to resist terrorism and to sacrifice for future generations. Yet as a Christian I hesitate to apply Old Testament prophecies concerning the re-establishment of national Israel to the political entity called Israel today. Some might argue that the nation of Israel can be identified with the valley of dry bones prophecy in Ezekiel 37. Even if that were the case, it is difficult to conceive of them in their present condition as the people of God.

The history and experiences of modern Israel are not determinative in the identification of modern-day Israel as the people of God. Ultimately, there are theological questions only the Word of God can answer. Theological systems with different hermeneutical assumptions provide diverse responses to the question of the nature and identify of the people of God.

Dispensational theology sees more discontinuity between Israel and the church and in some way recognizes two peoples of God—Israel, the ancient, original, and prophetic people of God now partially restored; and the church, the second people of God, dispensationally prominent and presently participating in the promises made to the original covenantal people. Ryrie avers “that the Church is not the continuation of Israel and her purpose in being called out from among the nations” (Ryrie 1965, 143). He favorably quotes Daniel Fuller’s observation that “the basic premise of Dispensationalism is two purposes of God expressed in the formation of two peoples who maintain their distinction throughout eternity” (45). Further developments in dispensationalism have nuanced the idea of two peoples in that “Israel and the church are in one sense a united people of God (they participate in the same covenant), while in another sense they remain separate in their identity and so comprise differing peoples of God” (Ware 1992, 96; italics his). Dispensationalism is not monolithic, and these quotes are not meant to give the impression that all dispensationalists articulate the two-people view in the same way. Saucy, for example, rejects the “earlier dispensational teaching that divided the people of God into an earthly and heavenly people (i.e., the church and Israel), with fundamentally no continuity in the plan of God on the historical plane” (Saucy 1988, 239-40). The issue is the relationship of Israel and the church and how that is perceived in relation to the nation of Israel in our day.

Covenant theology, which views the church as the new Israel, may not wrestle with the identification of national Israel, as least not in the same way. In speaking of Adam and Eve, Kuiper held that “it may be asserted that they constituted the first Christian church” (Kuiper 1996, 22). Hodge maintained that “the Church under the New Dispensation is identical with that under the old” (Hodge 1968, 3:549). If the church as true Israel replaces or continues Old Testament ethnic Israel and inherits the promises made in the covenants, then present-day Israel is a nation among other nations—no more, no less. Individuals whose ethnic identity or history connects them with the ancient people of God hold no place of privilege and must enter the true people of God, the new Israel, through the new birth.

These competing systems have a long history of debate. They are deeply entrenched as valid, competing viewpoints and hold Scripture in the highest regard, but they differ on interpretive matters regarding temporal and future Israel. The issue of the identity of present-day Israel, however, is less problematic for covenantalists.

Where does this lead us? Is there a way for dispensationalists to view present-day Israel in a way that remains faithful to Scripture, does not distort or inflate the place of contemporary national and natural Israel, and does not give the slightest hint of promoting anti-Semitism? A straightforward reading of the Old Testament lends support to the idea of a future restoration of Israel that has received irrevocable promises (Jer. 31:31-37).The question is how those promises will be fulfilled. One’s hermeneutic will determine if these promises relate to fulfillment in the future of a national Israel, promises in which the church participates, or if the promises are presently fulfilled in ethnic Israelites, a present remnant who become part of the new covenant people, the church, through the new birth.

The New Testament reaffirms Old Testament promises that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:2 ESV). The apostle Paul boldly declares “in this way all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26). According to Leon Morris, “this expression has caused unending disputation among expositors” (Morris 1988, 420). Many older commentators took this statement as a reference to “spiritual Israel composed of elect Jews and Gentiles together” (Shedd 1979, 348). In the book Continuity and Discontinuity, Wouldstra argues that Jews grafted into “the one olive tree … will not form a separate program or a separate entity next to the church” (Woudstra 1988, 237), while Saucy holds that the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies “is best understood in relation to Israel as a national entity among the nations and not through the church” (Saucy 1988, 256).

Covenantal and dispensational scholars have debated texts and interpretation for decades without reaching consensus, and none will be reached in this article. I understand the different views on this, the similar texts, and the processes that lead to different interpretations. I am not overly concerned about how God will accomplish the details of His purposes. I fully expect all our eschatological schemes to be corrected. My struggle is how to relate these texts to the nation Israel in its present state. Can unconverted ethnic Jews in the land of Israel be considered the people of God? If so, in what sense? Do we then have two peoples of God, the regenerate church and unregenerate Israel?

Let’s come back to the bombing inflicted on the church building in Gaza. Do we have God’s chosen but unregenerate people in Israel bombing God’s chosen and regenerate people in Gaza? It seems that much of American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, especially the dispensational varieties, have sometimes married theological views to a conservative, political agenda. This agenda not only correctly supports the right of Israel to exist but often excuses her excesses and hesitates to criticize injustices the nation committed. There is the notion that criticizing Israel would make critics enemies of “God’s people” and bring them under the curses related to the Abrahamic covenant. Regardless of how we view the place of Israel in prophecy, we might at the very least be more guarded in identifying present-day Israel as the people of God and refrain from mixing our theology and politics into an inflexible theological position. God loves ethnic Israelites. They need to hear the gospel, and God has called them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, Like all peoples, they need to be confronted with the truth claims of the Word of God. When they respond in faith, they can then be called “the people of God.”

References:

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1968.

Kuiper, R. B. The Glorious Body of Christ. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1966.

Morris, Leon. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988.

Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965.

Saucy, Rober L. “Israel and the Church: A Case for Discontinuity.” Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and the New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988.

Shedd, William G. T. A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1879. Reprint, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1978.

Woudstra, Marten H. “Israel and the Church: A Case for Continuity.” Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and the New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988.

Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.
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