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29 April 2015

Greetings from Atlanta! We're back from Scotland -- wonderful trip in an amazing city. For our special Sunday service, we were joined by lots of guests and Glaswegians (those who drove in from Glasgow). The presentation was From Facts to Faith, which I tooled around the popular Mythbusters TV series.

This week's bulletin features the second half of our study on the place of modern Israel in the plan of God: All Israel to be Saved? The text at issue is Romans 11:25-26, where we read "I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written..."

Last week I offered 8 reasons why I doubt modern Israel is still part of God's prophetic plan. Today I'll tackle 8 questions related to this conclusion.
  1. What about the land? Didn't the Lord promise the land of Israel to Israel? Indeed, he made the promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1), and this promise was fulfilled in the time of Joshua, in the 13th century BC (Joshua 21:43,45). Sadly, because of sin, the Israelites were exiled from their land seven centuries later, although the Lord promised that there would be an eventual return (Jeremiah 32:37). This promise too was fulfilled, in the 6th century BC (2 Chronicles 36; Ezra 1; etc). Yet with the abolition of the old covenant (Jeremiah 31), political Israel disappeared. In fact, the apostle Paul interprets the Gentiles coming to Zion (the beautiful visions in passages like Isaiah 2) metaphorically. The nations stream to Zion (the Gentiles are converted): a spiritual pilgrimage, not a geographical journey. Read through the final chapters of Romans and you will see how Paul is thinking. Thus Zion today has nothing to do with physical Jerusalem, but the Jerusalem that is above (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22).
  2. What about Ezekiel's prophecy? Doesn't Ezekiel 37:24+ say that the second David will lead the people into the land of Israel? Or does Ezekiel 34-39 refer to our own day? Some interpreters believe this was fulfilled (partially) under Ezra and at again Pentecost, they cannot believe there isn't more to come. Yet God's prophetic oracles were often hyperbolic, or otherwise non-literal -- the "fall" of Babylon, e.g. More important, Jesus portrayed himself as the second David and the Good Shepherd (Matthew 22:45; John 10:11). He is already ruling. When he returns it will be the judgment day, not a time for the extension of the gospel.
  3. What about 1948? The modern State of Israel was formed in 1948, the goal of the secular Zionist movement originating in the late 19th century. The new nation was the result of politics, not prophecy. Lobbyists pressured Congress (U.S.) and Parliament (U.K.) for a Palestinian homeland; afterwards their success was hailed as fulfilling the scriptures. The Zionist movement was born of violence, its founders and most of its supporters atheists. No wonder the movement is rejected by Orthodox rabbis as unbiblical. Modern Zionism is protected by the West's need for oil (and stability in the region). Hence a related question: Shouldn't "we" be supporting Israel / its military? There's no evidence that the support Israel receives from the evangelical lobby is disposing Israelis towards faith. Besides, national Israel no longer a biblically valid category.
  4. Doesn't "full number" mean the clock is ticking -- that once the last receptive Gentile is reached, the Lord will redeem all ethnic Jews? We should note that in Romans 11:25 the Greek word is pleroma, meaning fullness or completion. Let's see how Paul uses this word elsewhere in Romans. In 13:10, love is the fullness of the law, not its full number. In 15:29 Paul will come in the fullness of the blessings of Christ, not in a full number of blessings. Ditto in 11:12. Finally, pleroma also shows up in John 1:16 (from Jesus' fullness), Gal 4:4 (the fullness of time), and several other verses in 1 Cor, Eph, and Col. That's why I believe translations rendering pleroma as "full number" in 11:26 (like the NIV) are probably mistaken.
  5. What about Matthew 19:28 -- where we read of the Son of man on his throne and the apostles on their thrones, judging the tribes of Israel? Doesn't it assume that the 12 tribes are reconstituted and residing in the land of Israel? Not necessarily. The thrones are likely symbolic -- like the 12 tribes in James 1:1. By the time of Jesus, most of the tribes had been fully absorbed into the surrounding peoples, with few exceptions (Levi, Benjamin, Judah -- see 2 Kings 17). The church is a type of "holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9), Christ as sovereign ruler, his people extending his rule in the world. If the "restoration" of Acts 3:21 is still future, then the traditional evangelical view carries more weight (my view would be less plausible). Otherwise, Matthew 19:28 was fulfilled in the apostolic period.
  6. The Holocaust? (Unspoken question, but often felt:) Given the holocaust -- and crusades and pogroms -- don't the Jews, sorely discriminated against throughout "Christian" history, deserve some compensation? That sounds fair, but if it's a free ticket to heaven, then this must be scripturally demonstrated, not merely asserted. Christians often make it difficult for Jews to respond, but that no more creates an excuse for not following Christ than it would for any other faith group. Of course it's a tragedy when the kingdom of heaven is shut in people's faces (Matthew 23:13). Yet a bad teacher doesn't thereby exonerate his unfortunate students any more than a poor physician heals his patients! People's salvation may be detrimentally affected by ungodly life or teaching (Matthew 23:15). We must learn to uncouple the scandal of antisemitism from overly sentimental interpretations of scripture.
  7. Aren't there two covenants? As prophesied (Jeremiah 31:31-34), the old covenant (testament) was replaced by a better one (more on this in Hebrews 8). This means there's no "parallel track" to salvation; it's Jesus Christ (Christianity) or nothing (Matthew 7:13-14; John 14:6).
  8. Aren't God's gifts and calling irrevocable? Yes, and at first blush Romans 11:29 sounds like a guarantee of salvation for all descendants of Israel regardless of faithfulness. Yet Jesus denied the spiritual pedigree of unfaithful Jews (John 8:32-34), as did John (Revelation 2:9, 3:9) and Paul (Romans 2:28-29). The calling always depends on faith! Paul has already defined true Israel as faithful Israel (9:6). "Israel" (11:26 etc) means God's faithful followers, none of whom will be lost! In essence, the promises were fulfilled in Christ and his church (Galatians 6:16), who are part of the true Israel. The Jews lost their kingdom, just as Jesus warned (Matthew 21:43).
So it's finished?
These days, it's a common evangelical notion that "God isn't finished with Israel." However, unless I am greatly mistaken, he is finished. Pentecost was the clarion call to repentance, the rejection of the final generation of unfaithful Israel solemnized in 70 AD when the Roman armies destroyed both Jerusalem and its temple. Those who were God's people are no longer his people, while those who were not a people (the Gentiles) have become the people of God.
  • The mid-first century was a time of transition between the covenants. We no longer live in this period -- any more than we live in the apostolic age.
  • There is only one people of God. He doesn't have two families, two churches, two covenants -- just one, the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).
  • God is just. We ought not to worry about unevangelized Jews today. While they occupy no privileged position, they are still being reached through the proclamation of the gospel (as are many Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists). No one will slip through the cracks; those who seek will find. Remember, Yahweh can easily bring round the unlikeliest of converts. Paul himself was a representative of the faithful in Israel.
  • For a time the Gentiles would enter the kingdom in large numbers, both because it was a new message and because they had been prepared through the diaspora -- the Jewish seeding of the Mediterranean world with the revolutionary message of the true Lord, the God of Israel. The success of the Gentile mission forced the Jews to ponder. At this critical juncture, the Israelites had to make a decision to join with the Gentiles in the new covenant -- or harden their hearts. It was a volatile time. Think Joel (2:28-32, 3:14): "Multitudes, multitudes... in the valley of decision."
If you're ready for more on the subject, you way want to listen to the podcast version of these lessons. Also, please consider David Bercot's material on the topic of Dispensationalism (Scroll publishers) -- which expertly explores the roots of Zionist thinking among church people.
This week I'm teaching in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the following week in Jackson, Mississippi. These are church visits. Thank you for your support. It's great to be able to visit these congregations without asking them for reimbursement. There's also an AIM session Saturday morning (AIM Live Church History -- scroll down). All are welcome to join.

Next bulletin: the beginning of a special series on Responding to Skeptics. Lots of practicals to help your skeptical, agnostic, or atheist friends.

Your brother,
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