WHEN WE HEAR the name ‘Israel’, we may have many conflicting impressions. The modern state of Israel is often controversial. And since the beginning of Christianity, the Jews have been in conflict with it—after all, it was the Jewish rulers who caused Jesus Christ to be crucified. And yet Israel plays a key part in God’s purpose, as revealed in the Bible.
The Bible is clear: it promises a great future for all people, both Jew and Gentile (non- Jew). That future is bound up with the future of Israel. The present nation of Israel is flawed, and Christians have no business supporting it politically—but the fact is, the Jewish people and their nation will be central in the glorious future which God has in store for the world.
There are some who say that Israel is no longer important in God’s purpose. They are wrong:
Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord of hosts is his name: “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me for ever.” Thus says the Lord: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:35–37).
Chosen With Purpose
Let’s start at the beginning. God made a set of promises to a faithful man called Abraham, which hinged on a land and a nation that would be descended from him (Genesis 12:1–3). One of his grandsons was called Jacob, and had his name changed to ‘Israel’, which means ‘ruling with God’ (Genesis 32:28). His family grew into a nation during their slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1), from where God called them to the Promised Land. Speaking to Moses, God clearly identified Israel as His people:
I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob… I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters (Exodus 3:6–7).
One obvious question is why God chose Israel, of all the nations. The simple answer is that God loves them and is keeping His promises to Abraham.
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers (Deuteronomy 7:6–8).
Another question: why did God want to choose a nation at all, what was the point? The answer is clear: ‘”You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord’ (Isaiah 43:10). The people of Israel were chosen to be witnesses to the fact that God exists and of how He wants people to worship Him.
Israel were supposed to be a model for others to follow, of how to be in a relationship with God. He gave them His Law through Moses, which showed them how to please Him, how to worship and how to behave in daily life (Exodus through Deuteronomy). There were times when they did this well, such as during the great reigns of kings David and Solomon. In fact we read of kings and queens coming from all over the world to visit Solomon, to see the temple of God and to hear the word of God (see 2 Chronicles 9).
Sadly, even wise king Solomon struggled to stay close to God, and throughout their history the people of Israel largely failed to be faithful. Their Old Testament history stretches from Moses (about 1500 bc) to the time of the return of the Jews from exile (about 400 bc), and is marked largely by unfaithfulness and failure to follow God’s Law. It’s a pretty sad story and results in judgements by God. They were repeatedly invaded and exiled and suffered terribly under the Assyrians and Babylonians in particular. But God never gave up on them completely, and He said:
I am with you to save you, declares the Lord; I will make a full end of all the nations among whom I scattered you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished (Jeremiah 30:11).
However, this difficult history was in itself a witness to the existence and plan of God. He sent prophets who foretold what would happen in their own days, such as invasion and exile, which came true with amazing accuracy. They also made specific longer-term prophecies about the return of Israel to their land, about the empires that would come and go, and about the coming Messiah. Again, all of these came true in great detail. No human could make up these prophecies—they had to come from an all-knowing God.
This is still the case in our own day. Ezekiel prophesied in chapter 37 that Israel would undergo a national ‘resurrection’ after a long exile and be returned to their land before the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Speaking of the same period, Jesus said:
They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled… And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory (Luke 21:24–27).
The Jews returned to their ancient land after the Second World War, and the State of Israel was established in 1948. The fact that Israel exists and is in the land promised to Abraham is a sign that Jesus will come to fulfil God’s purpose soon.
Israel’s Status With God
This still leaves us with the question: what is Israel’s position with God now? They were so often faithless, and indeed were the ones to condemn Jesus and hand him over to the Romans for that unjust, cruel death by crucifixion. The dreadful events of 70 and 138 ad when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the nation of Israel, and the Jews were scattered around the world, are well documented.
The Apostle Paul asked exactly this question, and provided the answer: ‘I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!… God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew… So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace’ (Romans 11:1–5).
God has not rejected Israel, but Jews who want to be in a relationship with Him, since the work of Jesus, do so ‘by grace’. This means by God’s good favour. As far as salvation is concerned, they are in the same position as Gentiles. To be part of God’s plan requires that we admit our sin, accept Jesus as the sacrifice for forgiveness of that sin, and are baptised in demonstration of this.
We are not under the Old Testament Law (although many of its directions hold true), but we follow the commandments of Jesus Christ. This is the same now for Jew and Gentile, described in detail in Romans chapters 5 & 6. These two chapters end like this:
As sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:21).
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
A Shared Hope
So in terms of their position with God, there is no longer any distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Anyone who wants to come to God must do so through the Lord Jesus Christ:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:27–29).
When we are baptised, we become ‘children of Abraham’ and become heirs of the promises that were made to him. Believers are sometimes referred to as ‘spiritual Israel’. This is a wonderful prospect, and when Jesus comes back to set up God’s Kingdom, he will include all who have come to him faithfully.
Israel as a nation today is largely godless and the Jews as a religion do not generally recognise Jesus. They clearly will need to be reconciled to God and be sorry for what their ancestors did to Jesus. Zechariah chapters 12–14 speak extensively about a national spiritual revival which will happen at the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn… On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness… Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against
Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths (Zechariah 12:10, 13:1, 14:16).
So what should be our attitude to Israel today? Not political support, nor animosity either. Israel is still part of God’s purpose and will be in the future. Our hope lies in being part of ‘the hope of Israel’ (Acts 28:20) as preached by Jesus and his apostles: to be part of God’s plan and promises, and eventually in His Kingdom.