By Jon Weatherly
Is the founding of the modern state of Israel a sign that Jesus will return soon? Does God judge today’s nations based on how they treat Israel, or Jews in general? Does the Bible teach Christians always to side with Israel in conflicts with its neighbors?
Many American Christians would answer all of these questions in the affirmative. Through the influence of popular preachers and writers, they have come to believe the modern state of Israel plays a clear and crucial role in the Bible. They are therefore prepared to give unconditional, unqualified support to the nation of Israel, believing that their own nation’s safety and prosperity depend on it. And they believe that events in the Middle East are indicators that Jesus will return very soon.
My study of the Bible leads me to answer each question in the negative. Certainly ancient Israel is the center of attention in the Bible. Certainly God made crucial promises to Abraham, David, and the people of ancient Israel. Certainly God’s promises remain valid despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. Certainly the great biblical heroes were Jews, including Jesus himself.
But the clear, unequivocal witness of the Bible is that God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Through one Israelite, Jesus Christ, God has accomplished and is accomplishing everything he had promised Israel. The focus of God’s promises is not on modern Israel but on Jesus, the one who brings to people of all nations the blessing of the God of Israel, the God who does not play favorites.
The Bible’s message on this point is so pervasive we can only introduce a sample of the ways it is presented in each testament. We will explore three crucial promises of the Old Testament, followed by a survey of their fulfillment in the New Testament.
The Promise to Abraham: Blessing All Nations
While Genesis 1 and 2 show us the wonder of God’s perfect creation, Genesis 3–11 portray the brutality of human rebellion against God. What will the powerful, benevolent Creator do with a world ruined by human rebellion? The answer is found in Genesis 12. God calls an individual, Abram, a man of no special accomplishment, and gives him a dramatic promise:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3)1.
The promise has several elements: that Abram’s descendants will become a great nation in the land, that God’s judgment on others will be based on their actions toward Abram, and ultimately, that God will bless the entire world through Abram. While all these elements are important, the last one is vital, and it is placed at the end for emphasis. The world in rebellion against its Creator, the world portrayed in Genesis 3–11, will be blessed by its Creator through Abram.
This, then, is God’s purpose for Israel: the blessing of all nations. God repeats the promise to Abram and his descendants (Genesis 13:14-17; 15:18-21; 17:1-8; 18:17, 18; 22:17, 18; 26:4; 28:13, 14; 35:11, 12), and it becomes a theme of Israel’s psalmists and prophets (Psalm 2:1-12; 22:27, 28; Isaiah 25:6-8; 42:1, 6; 49:6; 66:19, 20; Micah 4:2, 3). The God of Israel is the God of all nations and will therefore bless people of all nations.
The Promise to David: An Eternal King Who Builds God’s House
Centuries after the promise to Abram, God’s promise to David adds another layer to his dealings with Israel. David had ascended the throne, ending Israel’s agony under the ungodly, ineffective leadership of Saul. David planned to build a temple for God in newly conquered Jerusalem, but through the prophet Nathan, God gave David different instructions:
“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
While it appears that Solomon fulfills the promise by building the temple in Jerusalem, by his idolatry Solomon proves himself not to be the promised one. Still, God’s promise remains constant (1 Kings 11:11-13). As with the promise to bless the nations, God reiterates the promise of a great king and temple builder to subsequent generations (Psalm 18:50; 89:3, 4, 35-37; 132:10-12, 17, 18; Isaiah 7:13, 14; 9:6, 7; 11:1-10; 16:5; 22:22; Jeremiah 23:5, 6; 33:15-18; Ezekiel 34:23, 24; 37:24; Hosea 3:5).
The Postexilic Promise: A Second Exodus
Israel’s defining experience was the exodus, God’s delivery of Israel from Egyptian slavery to freedom in the promised land. With that undeserved blessing, Israel received a solemn duty: to obey God’s law. To do otherwise, Moses explained, would mean that God would return Israel to bondage under foreigners, as they had experienced in Egypt (Deuteronomy 29:14-29). But beyond that warning lay another promise: that God would restore the nation again in a second exodus:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).
This warning and promise became foundational to Israel’s history. Prophets warned that exile would be Israel’s punishment for disobedience (Isaiah 13:3; Jeremiah 1:15; 20:4, 5; 25:8-11; 27:6; 32:36-38; 43:10). But beyond exile was the repeated promise that God would restore the nation (Isaiah 40:1-5; 49:7-26; Jeremiah 32:37-44; Ezekiel 37:1-28). That promise tied together the other great promises: Israel’s return would be led by the promised king and would mean that the nations would know and worship the true God.
Of course, Israel’s history unfolded just so. First the northern kingdom was taken captive by Assyria, then the southern kingdom by Babylon. A long generation after the Babylonian exile, Cyrus, emperor of Persia, defeated Babylon and permitted the Jewish exiles to return (2 Chronicles 36:22, 23). But the experience of the returned exiles was far from glorious. They had no king, their temple was far from glorious, and the nations were just as pagan as before. To their discouraged situation the prophets spoke again, affirming that God would one day send the king (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12), build the true temple (Haggai 2:6-9), and make himself known to all peoples (Zechariah 8:23).
The Promises Fulfilled in Christ
Someone has said that God is sovereign not only in the promises he makes but also in how he chooses to fulfill them. There is little question that many of ancient Israel’s faithful expected God’s promises to be fulfilled in political, military, and nationalistic terms. But the witness of the New Testament is that God stood those expectations on their head. In Christ, God fulfilled all his promises to Israel—and he did so not with conventional human power but the power of Christ’s submissive, loving self-sacrifice and surprising, triumphant resurrection. This is the constant, unequivocal message of virtually every book of the New Testament.
The four Gospels make this point abundantly clear:
• Jesus’ genealogy emphasizes his place in a series marked by Abraham, David, and the exile (Matthew 1:1-17).
• In the wilderness Jesus confronts and defeats Satan over 40 days, in contrast to Israel’s failure over 40 years.
• He consistently claims authority to forgive sin, the function of the temple (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12, 13; Luke 4:1-13).
• He claims authority over the Sabbath that surpasses David’s (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5).
• He goes to the lost sheep of Israel but extends his mercy to Gentiles (Matthew 8:5-13; 15:21-28; Mark 7:25-30; Luke 7:1-10).
• He surpasses the functions of the Mosaic law and of Moses himself (Matthew 14:15-20; 15:32-39; Mark 6:35-43; 8:1-9; Luke 9:12-17; John 2:1-11; 3:1-15; 5:1-47; 6:5-14, 35, 48; 7:37, 38; 8:12, 58; 9:5; 10:1-18; 11:25; 15:1-8).
• He claims authority to define the temple’s purity and announce its fate (Matthew 21:12, 13; 24:2; Mark 11:15-17; 13:2; Luke 19:45, 46; 21:6; John 2:13-21).
• He announces his presence as the end of the mourning for the exile (Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39).
• He takes the elements of Israel’s remembrance of the exodus and reinterprets it to refer to himself (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20).
• He presents himself as the pinnacle of God’s suffering people (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 [Psalm 22:1]; Luke 23:46 [Psalm 31:5]; John 19:28 [Psalm 69:21]).
• Raised from the dead in a way that echoes God’s promise to restore Israel from exile (Isaiah 26:19; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Daniel 12:2), he announces that the entirety of the Scriptures has been fulfilled in his death and resurrection (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47), that he possesses all authority (Matthew 28:18), and that the nations are now to become his people (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47).
In other words, God has fulfilled his promises to Israel. How? One (Jesus, the Messiah) in Israel assumes the nation’s purpose. He is the true king. He is himself the true temple. He restores God’s people from exile and blesses all the nations.
So it is no wonder that the rest of the New Testament speaks of Jesus in terms emphasizing his fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus is . . .
• the promised Son of David (Acts 2:25-31; 13:22, 23, 34-39; Romans 1:3; 2 Timothy 2:8; Revelation 5:5),
• God’s anointed king or “Christ” (Acts 9:22; 17:3; 1 John 2:22; 5:1),
• the head of a body that now constitutes the true temple where God’s Spirit dwells (Romans 12:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17; 12:12-27; Ephesians 1:22, 23; 2:16-22),
• the one who makes the nations God’s people by faith in him (Galatians 3:8, 14).
With Israel’s role thus fulfilled, the law is understood as a tutor to bring people to Christ (Galatians 3:24), as a shadow to which Christ corresponds as the solid, substantial thing (Colossians 2:16, 17).
Christ once and for all surpasses all that God has done before (Hebrews 1:1-4).
In sum, Christ fulfills all the promises God made to Israel. In what he has done in his incarnation, does now through the church, and will do at his return, the entirety of scriptural promise finds fulfillment.
Questions for Today
Some object to this understanding, labeling it “replacement theology.” They insist that God’s promises to Israel are unconditional and so are still in force. In fact, they have a point, though not quite the point they try to make. God’s promises to Israel were unconditional. Israel was not “replaced” because it was defective. Rather, in Christ, God did what he intended to do: fulfill Israel’s promises as his incarnate Son assumed Israel’s role. Call this not a “replacement theology” but “fulfillment theology.”
But are God’s warnings about blessing and cursing Israel still in force? Should we not still pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6)? Yes, they are; and yes, we should. But we do so with a right understanding of Christ’s role. Since Christ fulfills Israel’s purpose, those who “bless” or “curse” Abram are those who believe or reject Christ. Likewise, Jerusalem’s peace has the same source as the world’s peace: it comes only through Christ (Luke 19:41, 42). Our prayer and our purpose should not be that modern Israel prevail against its political enemies at any cost, but that all people, Jews and Gentiles, would come to know Jesus, becoming citizens of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2).
But is modern Israel’s founding not the great sign of the second coming, the flowering of the fig tree that portends the end of this age (Matthew 24:32, 33)? Jesus said emphatically that no one could presume to know the time of his return (Matthew 24:36), that no political event points to it (Matthew 24:6-8). Rather, every time we see suffering, chaos, and injustice in the world, we should know that he is near, that he has not abandoned his people or his cause in the world, and that he will indeed prevail over evil. His coming will be soon enough for all his people, though not at a time anyone can anticipate. To claim otherwise is to claim to know more than Jesus himself!
How, then, should Christians evaluate the situation in the Middle East? Certainly events there are complex, tragic, and deeply disturbing. Injustices and atrocities have been committed by and on all sides. Christians who pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven will long for peace and justice to be established in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the surrounding regions. But they may sincerely differ in how they understand the politics. The Bible is silent on modern Israel, for Israel’s biblical mission was completed by Christ.
Christians will differ in opinions on the politics of the Middle East. But we dare not differ about Christ’s supremacy. To elevate modern Israel to a place of biblical prominence is to diminish Christ as less than the complete fulfillment of God’s promises.
1All Scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
Jon Weatherly is vice president for academic affairs and professor of New Testament at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.