Questions About the Return of Jesus and the End Times: Israel


Last Fall we invited people to submit questions about the end times and Jesus’s return; the results indicated two topics of great interest. One was the rapture, which I discussed in last week’s post and the other was Israel – both how to view current war from a Christian worldview and how these events may fit into the biblical description of the end times. 

As with other topics related to the end times and return of Jesus, Christians have different views  and don’t agree about all the details. Our church’s statement of faith does not adopt one particular view, thus I’ll offer the position I hold, which is not idiosyncratic but fairly common in the Reformed tradition. Before giving my view, I want to first highlight some critical points of agreement among Christians about the covenants and promises found in the Bible. I will follow this by discussing the most common views of how and when these promises are fulfilled since these have implications for questions concerning how to view modern-day Israel and the conflict in the Middle East. 

The Covenant Promises Found in the Bible
There is a general consensus among Christians as it relates to the covenantal storyline of the Bible. In Genesis 12:1-3, God promises to bless Abraham and make him into a great nation, with the result that all the nations of the earth should be blessed through him. This promise included reference to land, as Abraham was called to go to the place God would show him (Genesis 12:1) and give Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 12:7). The Bible then recounts the fulfillment of these promises, as God gives Abraham a child whose children multiply and become a nation (Israel) that would then go to the land that was promised (Canaan). 

In that process of fulfillment of these promises, God establishes other covenants. One is made with Israel in Moses’s time. This covenant says they will remain in the land if they are faithful, but if they rebel from the laws God had given them, they will be ejected from the land (see Deuteronomy 28-29). Alongside those promises of blessings and cursing is a promise that God would restore His people and change their hearts so they can follow Him (Deuteronomy 30). While the people are in the land, God makes a promise to King David that his descendants would reign, noting that God would discipline them if they are unfaithful but also that this throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:11-17). 

The Old Testament then recounts the failure of David’s descendants and the rebellion of the people, the result of which causes the people to be removed from the land and David’s descendants removed from the throne. In the midst of the people’s failures, though, God speaks through the prophets spoke of a new covenant that recalls the promises God made to Moses about restoration and renewal (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-28) and looks to a coming figure from the line of David as a perfect ruler who rules a peaceful and prosperous kingdom to which the nations flock (see e.g., Isaiah 9:1-7; 11:1-9; Jeremiah 33:14-26). 

The people of Israel return to the land in the Old Testament and the temple rebuilt (see the books of Ezra-Nehemiah), but there is no Davidic ruler, the glory of God does not reside in the temple, and the people’s hearts aren’t yet transformed. Thus, these promises still needed to be fulfilled, but there are different perspectives on the timing and manner in which this happens. 

One View: The Promises Will Be Fulfilled in a Future Kingdom of Israel
Some look to the promises of Abraham’s descendants having their land and a restored and renewed Israel under a Davidic king as pointing to the promise of a future, political kingdom here on earth with a new temple that will occur when Christ returns. 

For nearly 2,000 years, this idea would seem pretty unlikely from a human perspective, as the land of Israel continued to be ruled by other nations, such as the Roman and Ottoman Empires. However, things shifted in the 19th and 20th century, as there was a call for Jewish people to return to Palestine and support from Great Britain for a national state (made explicit in the Balfour Declaration of 1917) that would ultimately culminate in the creation of Israel as a nation in 1948. This modern state is not viewed as the fulfillment of those promises because it is not a place ruled by the Davidic king nor filled with faith in the Messiah that God has sent. However, it is still seen by some as a step towards the reality of a future kingdom of Israel and a necessary component in the fulfillment of prophecies for the end of age that speak of nations rising up against Israel.

For those with this view, the events surrounding the nation of Israel are very important; wars surrounding this nation could be the fulfillment of various prophecies. In addition, those in this camp would usually support Israel’s claims to the land in its Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Another View: The Promises Have Been and Are Being Fulfilled in Jesus
However, others would view these Old Testament promises as being fulfilled in Jesus and the church. They point to the way the apostles interpret the prophetic promises in the New Testament. For example, Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 points to the promises of Joel 2 as being fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. In Acts 15, James speaks about the rebuilding of David’s throne as happening in his time (through the death and resurrection of Jesus). Jesus himself speaks about the new covenant being established in his blood at the Last Supper, with the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews discussing this new covenant as well and noting how it marks the end of sacrifice and the presence of a heavenly temple (Hebrews 8-10). This new covenant fulfills the promise of blessing to all nations in that it is now not just the physical children of Abraham who are recipient of these promises, as those of faith are now the children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7-9, 14) and the kingdom of priests for God (1 Peter 2:9-10). The restored kingdom has been established in part now through Jesus’s ministry and resurrection, but Jesus also promises to come again to bring it to its complete fulfillment in the new heavens and new earth, which the Promised Land foreshadowed and pointed to.

Those with this view would look at the events happening in the Middle East with a similar perspective as those of any other land that is ravaged by war and violence along ethnic lines. This requires careful research and thoughtful reflection on this particular situation in light of the complexities involved in an area that was dominated by foreign powers for so long and has witnessed hostile and surprise attacks on nations over the years.

Where Do I Land?
At one point in my life, I was firmly committed to the idea that the promises to Israel required future fulfillment in the form of a kingdom centered in Israel in which Jesus rules over the people and all the nations. However, I no longer put myself in that camp but rather in the view that the Old Testament promises pointed to the work of Christ and thus have been – and are being – fulfilled in part, even as they await the final phase. I’ll now quickly summarize what led me to this view before engaging in how that affects how I view the current situation in Israel.

A major reason I take this view is the way the apostles described the promises being fulfilled in Jesus, as noted above. In addition, I also saw how particular images in the prophetic promises do not seem to make much sense in terms of a literal fulfillment. For example, a literal fulfillment of the future temple promised in Ezekiel 40-48 does not make sense because the New Testament speaks of Jesus and the church being the temple and there no longer being any need for sacrifice. Moreover, I realized that a text often used to support the idea of the need for fulfillment of a promised kingdom for Israel as a way to confirm God’s faithfulness to His promises (Romans 11) never particularly references a kingdom being restored. Rather, Paul seems to speak about an influx of Jewish people turning to faith in Christ at the end of time without any reference to a restored nation-state and notes that Jews and Gentiles are all united as one people of God.

My view also emerged from reflecting on how the idea of a literal kingdom for Israel in the future runs counter to a couple of key threads of Scripture. One thread is that the plan was to bring salvation to all nations through working in one particular nation. A future literal kingdom for Israel would seem to take a step back in this plan to God’s focus on one nation and run counter to the multi-ethnic vision that is fulfilled in the church. Another theme is how the people of Jesus’s time were anticipating a literal king and kingdom and thus misunderstood God’s plan in that Jesus came as a different kind of king and brought a different kind of kingdom. The focus on a future kingdom for Israel seems to fall into the same trap. While some might say that the issue was of timing rather than in conception, and thus Jesus could bring the kingdom at his return, it seems that his return does not bring a kingdom but rather salvation and thus the eternal age (see Hebrews 9:27-28). 

What Difference Does This Make?

An implication of the view I hold on the fulfillment of these promises is that I do not spend a lot of time tracking and looking at what is happening in the Middle East because I do not think that wars and conflicts will lead us to know when the end is coming. There have been a lot of wars in the Middle East throughout time and also for the past 100 years (such as the Six-Day War of 1968; Yom Kippur War of 1973 and Persian Gulf Wars). Each time there is war, people wonder if it is a sign of the end. While these words of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse likely have specific reference to the events before the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, I believe they also should speak to the perspective we should have as we hear about these wars: “You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these events are the beginning of labor pains” (Matthew 24:6-8; see also Mark 13:7-8; Luke 21:9-11). We should not look to wars or disasters as necessarily pointing to the end being near but rather, we should live with constant readiness, faithfulness, and endurance as we wait. This does not mean completely ignoring what happens to our neighbors in other parts of the world, but that we should monitor them and engage as global citizens, offering support to allies and protection to those who are oppressed.

I’d like to once again end on the note that I have laid out my understanding of a complex issue about which some good and faithful Christians disagree. My goal has not necessarily been to argue or convince those who may have a different understanding, but to explain the different perspectives and offer my view in response to the questions that we received. I’ll continue answering questions we have received in the next few posts.

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