The Article Archives
Topic: Good Question
The Status of Israel
August 21, 2002
Dear Rev. Schlissel,
In this day of death, tension, and increased trouble in the Middle East, it seems appropriate to ask for your take on Acts 3:23, especially as it relates to:
widespread international support of Israel retaining its “own land”,
the Palestinian demand that they become caretakers of Jerusalem (if not all of Israel)
since Israel refused to “hear that prophet” (v. 23), have the Jews lost their “chosen people” status their Old Covenant forefathers enjoyed with God; i.e. what is the meaning of the phrase “shall be destroyed from among the people”?
With thanks, too, for Messiah’s Mandates and Messiah’s Updates, which I also enjoy reading. Your writings seem to inspire deep and lengthy thought!
KZ, MI, US
Thank you for your kind words. Acts 3:23 records Peter’s words preached to Israel, telling them of the terrible fate awaiting those who would reject Messiah: “Anyone who does not listen to Him will be completely cut off from among His people.”
Many things can be justly derived from this passage, when it is considered in the context of God’s entire revelation. First, physical Israel was being solemnly warned that the covenant curse was suspended over their heads. Moses spoke of it; so did Jesus (Matthew 23-25). That judgment did indeed fall in that generation, just as our Lord said it would.
Second, before that judgment fell, particularly in 70AD, God incorporated huge numbers of Gentiles into Israel (Ephesians 2), and took the covenant and its message beyond physical Israel’s borders.
Third, what Peter said in Acts 3:23 continues to be true for all people today, whether Christian or Jew. The only way to be next to God is through the mediation of His Son.
Fourth, that was not all that Peter said in that sermon. He also said, “Repent, then, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that He may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through His holy prophets” (19-21).
Thus we have the most fearful threat, to be sure, yet it is bound to a curious promise. Israel will be cut off because of unbelief, yet God speaks of their future repentance as a time of restoration and refreshing. Calvin captures both ideas nicely when he writes, “the Jews are the first and natural heirs of the gospel, except to the extent that by their ungratefulness they were forsaken as unworthy—yet forsaken in such a way that the heavenly blessing had not utterly departed from their nation” (Institutes, IV, XVI, 16).
This strange combination of the horrible threat of impending judgment, with a sweet hint of future mercy, is quite characteristic of our Lord. Consider the scathing condemnation of Matthew 23:1-36, which tells us that the judgments due all the evil of history, as it were, would come upon that generation. Stronger words were never spoken. Yet, immediately, our Savior weeps over Jerusalem and strongly infers that hope abides for their renewal: “I tell you, you will not see me again UNTIL you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Similarly, in the denunciation recorded by Luke, the dreadful destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews to all nations is followed by a thinly-veiled promise: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles UNTIL the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
Thus, while it is a certainty that the church enjoys the status that once belonged to Israel, it is equally certain that Israel as a nation will once again, prior to the consummation, return to faith in God through Christ and enter into the joy of the Lord. This was the stock teaching of Reformed and Presbyterian people before it was eroded toward the end of the nineteenth century. The pervasive ignorance concerning this historic position of Reformed churches on the future restoration of the Jews is a cause for weeping. While space forbids anything like a full survey, let me point to a few items worth noting:
Herman Witsius (1636-1708), often called “the father of covenant theology,” wrote on the restoration of the Jews in an exposition of Romans 11:25-27 (the entire extract will soon be posted at our website: www.MessiahNYC.org). Witsius interacts with the much of the same tired “reasoning” that one continues to hear today, reasoning that amounts to little more than sloganeering. One teaching that has gained a following of late, e.g., has it that the promised restoration occurred just prior to 70AD. Witsius calls this an “absurd imagination, contrary to the light of all history.” Amen.
That the position of the Dutch Reformed churches was warm to the expectation of a yet future conversion of the Jews, is revealed in this casual reference by Witsius: “When the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in, all Israel will be saved. That is, as our Dutch commentators well observe, not a few, but a very great number, and in a manner the whole Jewish nation, in a full body…They depart from the apostle’s meaning, who, by ‘all Israel,’ understand the ‘mystical Israel,’ or the people of God, consisting both of Jews and Gentiles, without admitting the conversion of the whole Jewish nation, in the sense we have mentioned.”
And it is not only Witsius’s testimony that this was a, if not the, common view. Louis Berkhof lists many Dutch Reformers who held to what might today be called Postmillennialism, which included a certain expectation of the future conversion of Israel. This list boasts Coccejus, Alting, the two Vitringas, d’Outrein, Witsius [as we’ve seen], Hoornbeek, Koelman and Brakel. In fact, Dr. Berkhof calls this future orientation “the prevailing view” among the Dutch Reformers, a view which expected that someday “the Jews will also share in the blessings of the gospel in an unprecedented manner” (Systematic Theology, p.716).
This expectation, however, was not confined to Postmillennialists. Professor Hans Joachim Schoeps says that the Christian belief that “all Israel will be converted, enter into knowledge of Jesus, and find salvation through him,” is an article belonging “to the doctrinal basis of every Christian Church, proclaimed in all centuries by the Church’s theology.” Those who deny it have the burden on themselves.
Dr. Geerhardus Vos, whom Dr. Van Til described to me as the finest Christian gentleman he had ever known, held to that eschatological scheme known as Amillennialism. Yet in his classic work, Biblical Theology, Dr. Vos’s fairness of mind led him to write, “The elective principle, abolished as to nationality, continues in force as to individuals. And even with respect to national privilege, while temporarily abolished now that its purpose has been fulfilled, there still remains reserved for the future a certain fulfillment of the national elective promise. Israel in its racial capacity will again in the future be visited by the saving grace of God (Romans 11:2, 12, 25).”
This was not only the prevailing view of Dutch Reformers, not only the view of Postmillennialists and fair-minded Amillennialists, it was the default view of Presbyterianism, both in Great Britain and America. I have a copy of an article, Will the Jews, as a Nation, be Restored to their own Land, from the British and Foreign Evangelical Review, Volume 6, 1857, which says without fear of contradiction, “We believe that it is not denied by any considerable number of Christians, or by any respectable class of interpreters, that the Jews, as a nation, will be converted to Christianity…This is so clearly taught in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans that one could scarcely deny it and retain his Christian character.” (By the way, this article rejects premillennialism, which had not yet made the progress it was later to make in the British Isles and America. The author noted that he “has no sympathy whatever with any Millennarian theory,” explicitly what is today called premillennialism.)
The point of all this is simple. Indeed Israel was “rejected” in the first century. But their rejection was partial (Romans 11:1) and temporary (Romans 11:11; see also v. 25: “in part, until”—partial and temporary). Therefore we look forward to Israel’s restoration.
The question of their “right” to the land, however, is more complex. I will refer you to the book by Steve Schlissel and David Brown, Hal Lindsey and the Restoration of the Jews (available from Messiah’s Ministries, 1-800-288-6202). Dr. Brown deals fairly and graciously with the question. He concludes, in part, that whatever claim Israel may have, by Divine promise, to the land, it cannot exercise that claim in unbelief. Since Israel is now not merely an unbelieving nation, but in some instances anti-Christian, questions concerning mideast policy need to be determined by making reference to considerations much wider than Biblical prophecy.
I will only add here that I find it passing strange that a hope which had appeared to be so abundantly clear to multitudes of Reformed Christian scholars before the Jews returned to Israel, has somehow become unclear now that they are there!