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  • Writer's pictureBrett Bonecutter

Theological Reflections on Israel

Israel is in the news... again. And that is no surprise given its precarious position in the Middle East. Non-Islamic western-styled democracies are not exactly welcome fare in that part of the world. I'll refrain from wading into the way our foreign policy complicates matters.

For a lot of my Christian friends, Israel is in the news because they believe it holds a unique position in the world's future. For them, the threats against Israel are signs pointing to the end of time. From their perspective, Biblical prophecies regarding everything from the rapture to the return of Christ are very possibly (and probably?) on the cusp of being fulfilled. They watch the news about Israel with a sense that the end could really be near. So what should we make of this from a Biblical-theological perspective?

Before launching in, I would like to start with a personal story. In 1991, I was a senior in high school and had just dutifully registered for the draft. When the Gulf War broke out against Iraq, many of my peers and I felt a sense of panic - will we be called to duty in the Middle East? The memories of the Vietnam quagmire were still fresh in the memories of many of our fathers and uncles.

As I was pondering these questions, my mom brought home a study Bible she had from a Bible study group and she turned my attention to a chart at the back of the Bible. This chart laid out a timeline without dates - but an order of events - detailing how there would be a rapture of Christians, followed by seven year tribulation, followed by a thousand year reign of Christ from Jerusalem, followed by a final rebellion, and then capped off by a judgment of the living and the dead. I had never seen a chart like this before and I didn't know my Bible very well, but I was confronted with a set of ideas I had never really chewed on. What does the Bible say about these things and how should I respond? I was rattled, for sure. Was I ready for the end of the world?

Fast forward a couple of years - the Gulf War was something of a nothing-burger in terms of raw conflict, but my journey towards unpacking that Biblical timeline was far from over. In fact, I found myself at a Bible college that was entirely committed to the peculiar timeline my mother had exposed me to... and they backed it up with serious intensity - Bible verse by Bible verse.

And yet I had a growing awareness that this prophecy timeline was quite novel in the history of the church. In fact, you couldn't find timelines of this sort until the late 19th century. My Bible college professors had a quick answer - the doctrine of the end times didn't get proper attention until fairly recently. The early church had been mired in disputes over the Trinity, the deity of Christ, sacraments, atonement, church government..., etc. The doctrine of the end times simply hadn't received the attention it deserved until the late 19th century. So the novelty of the prophecy timeline shouldn't be viewed with suspicion, but with an eye towards the development of Christian theology over two thousand years.

I found that line of reasoning to be somewhat unsatisfying, but my attention was drawn more and more to the Bible itself and alternative points of view. Did this "timeline" view really enjoy a strong current consensus based on compelling Biblical facts?

If you know me even a little bit, you probably know that I ended up rejecting the novel timeline view that is technically known as "premillenial dispensationalism." You read that right. It isn't a physical disease requiring a medical prescription, but rather, a theological perspective that I strongly disagree with. To cut straight to the point, I don't think Israel being in the news is a sign of the end of the world as we know it.

Instead of laying out a critique of the novel timeline view (premillenial dispensationalism is just too long to keep writing), I want to layout something of a positive case for what I think the Bible teaches on these matters. So button your chin-straps because we have a lot of work to do in a very small amount of space...

First, I think one of the features of the Old Testament that leaps off the pages is that God structured human history via a series of covenants. This is a blog, not a book, so we won't endeavor to unpack them all in detail. Suffice it to say that even a cursory reading of the Old Testament will bear this out.

One of the interesting dynamics that emerges from this covenantal structure is that the covenant with Abraham in Genesis contemplated blessing for all the families of the earth - all tribes. Not just one. Yes, the children and descendants of Abraham would be the vehicle of blessing, but the redemptive vision was worldwide from the beginning. God's heart and mission in the Abrahamic Covenant was to save the world.

Hundreds of years later in Biblical history, when God called Israel out of Egypt as a nation under Moses, the Mosaic covenant was established. But here's the thing. It is clear - crystal clear - that the Mosaic covenant would be temporary. The preceding Abrahamic covenant promising redemption through Israel was permanent, but the subsequent national Mosaic covenant between God and the nation of Israel would be broken through disobedience. Moses prophesied this explicitly and Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah went even further and promised a future "new covenant" in the future. Unlike the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant in relationship to a single nation-state would ultimately be dissolved and replaced. This was fully and explicitly anticipated by the Old Testament itself.

So the first salient point to understand is simply this: Israel as a theocratic nation-state had a role to play in God's plan (Abrahamic Covenant) to save the world, but that place would be temporary (Mosaic Covenant). The theocratic nation-state of Israel, as such, would eventually be subsumed and translated into something more permanent and global - the church of the New Covenant, including Jew and Gentile.

But - the prophecy timeline people say - what about all the Old Testament promises about restoring Israel? What about the prophecies about restoring the Temple? About judging the nations? Aren't those promises yet to be fulfilled? Isn't that what we're waiting for when Christ returns to reign from Jerusalem for a thousand years? Shouldn't we read the Old Testament on its own terms without reading it through the lens of the New Testament Apostles?

The answer, I believe, is that a straightforward reading of the New Testament provides the answers. Allow me to cite an obvious example regarding the Old Testament promises of a re-established Temple. Over and over again, the New Covenant people of the church (Jew and Gentile) are said to be the Temple of God. This is not cute Hallmark-card sentimentality about being a place where God is present or worshipped. This is a radical reinterpretation of the whole Old Covenant system. The church is now a spiritual house, a royal priesthood and a "holy nation." Jesus says it. Paul said it. Peter said it. The writer to the Hebrews said it. Revelation ends with it. It's all over the place.

Now - are there other texts that we need to grapple with? Of course. But it would be unfortunate to read them in isolation without this foundational context fully in view. The narrative arc of the Bible is large, but the matrix of the story isn't hard to understand. Let's start with this background and work forward from there.

So what about the fact that Israel as a nation does exist now? Is there a future for this non-theocratic state of Israel? Does it have a role to play in the future of the world? My understanding is colored by my understanding of Paul's letter to the Romans and it goes something like this... Modern Israel, as a non-theocratic nation-state, has no role to play, per se. However, there are many Jews who have yet to convert and recognize their true Messiah. I expect that has been happening over the course of the last two thousand years and will continue to happen.

But what about the rapture, the tribulation, the thousand year reign, and the rest of the timeline? What about the book of Revelation? I think there are helpful answers to these questions, but outside the scope of this blog about Israel. If I get enough feedback that people would like an exploration of these issues, I will be happy to oblige.

In the interim, I do pray that Israel will be able to stand as a beacon for freedom in a dark region. I don't think it has a further role to play in the redemption of the world, but I do believe it may have an important role for the cause of liberty. And as an American, I pray that it finds peace and prosperity.

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Apr 20

I applaud you for your script. You explained the “ending times” and its relation to Israel very simplistic, concise and logically. Your POV merits grabbing any reader’s attention. Israel has always been foggy for me. I’ve thought of the nation as being either cursed or blessed. Thank you for taking the time to manifest a meaningful blog. ~ Jace

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