The Church in Israel
“How much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:24)
In AD 70, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans under Titus. It is said that not a single Jew was left alive in Jerusalem, as all were either killed or taken away as prisoners. The Romans destroyed much of the city, including the second temple, the very centre of Jewish life. Most of the information on the destruction of Jerusalem comes from the writings of the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-AD 100). According to Josephus, over a million Jews died as a result of either violence or famine. It has been noted that this number exceeded the entire population of Jerusalem. This has been accounted for by the fact that many were thought to have travelled to Jerusalem to partake of the Passover, but got trapped in the siege.
Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the creation of the modern nation state of Israel. On 14 May 1948, David Ben-Guiron, the Prime Minister of Israel, read out Israel’s Declaration of Independence, leaving Jews free to return to and govern themselves in their own land. Immediately after, Israel was attacked by 5 neighbouring Arab states. The Israeli-Palestinian issue remains one of the world’s most enduring conflicts with numerous political efforts made to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
A popular Palestinian rallying cry is, “From the river to the sea,” referring to the land from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, “Palestine must be free,” typically meaning that that the land should be free of Jews. Meanwhile, in the West, there is a leftist form of identity politics, increasingly hostile to the Jewish people. To many, the fact that the modern nation state of Israel has made it to 75 years is quite remarkable, given both the hostility it has faced from Islamists in the Middle East and more recently from leftists in the West. This is all the more remarkable when we remember that, prior to 1948, the Holocaust was a Satanic effort to annihilate the Jews, yet they as a people survived. The question which many fail to ask is, does God have a particular purpose for the Jewish people?
In the Old Testament, the Lord set apart Abraham’s descendants, one special nation in the earth, God’s own chosen people. He led them out of Egypt, fed them, protected them and led them through the Red Sea. He made promises to them of spiritual redemption and from them came the promised Messiah, yet when He came, His own people rejected Him.
The words, “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24) surely speaks of the events of AD 70, when the temple was demolished and the Jews were dispersed from the land. Since then, for the most part, Israel has remained a blinded nation that has sat in darkness in a state of national reprobation. Yet, the Scripture states that this blindness is “in part” (Romans 11:25). In other words, this blindness will not be continual or final.
Concerning this blindness, Thomas Boston preached a sermon in 1716, where he stated, “There is a day coming when there shall be a national conversion of the Jews or Israelites. The now blinded and rejected Jews shall at length be converted into the faith of Christ, and join themselves to the Christian Church.”
In Romans 11, the Apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, used the illustration of an olive tree to refer to three periods of God’s dealings with the world; first Jews, then Gentiles and then both Jews and Gentiles. Firstly, in the period of Abraham to the Day of Pentecost, God dealt almost exclusively with the Jewish people (aside from some significant exceptions, including Ruth and Rahab). Paul speaks of the end of the Jewish period when he refers to “their fall” (v12) and “their being cast away” (v15).
Secondly, from the Day of Pentecost to a future date, which is unknown to us, God has been dealing primarily with the Gentiles. As Paul says, the end of the Jewish period led to the Gentile period: “their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles” (v12). The sense here is that the Jews, by their fall, lost their blessings and privileges. Their loss was the gain of the Gentiles, as the treasures of the Gospel were transferred to the Gentile nations, which eventually led to the Gospel arriving on our own shores.
Finally, the Apostle makes it clear that, despite their present unbelief and rejection of Christ, there will at some point be a future conversion of the Jewish people, as, “God is able to graft them in again” (v23). “How much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?” (v24). The Gentiles have been grafted into the tree, although they are not the natural branches, yet one day, Israel, the natural branches, will be grafted back into their own olive tree. When the Jews are grafted back in, it will be as regenerate Christians. At that point in time, God’s dealings with the world will be with both Jews and Gentiles. It is important to note that Replacement Theology, the idea that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s plan, is not found in Scripture. There is one olive tree, one Church of Christ throughout the Old and New Testament and one way of salvation. The two peoples, Jews and Gentiles, are made one in Christ.
Some Reformed writers understand the phrase, “all Israel shall be saved” (v26) to refer to spiritual Israel, in other words, all the elect of God, rather than ethnic Israel, the Jewish people. It is difficult to accept such an interpretation, as “Israel” is used throughout the passage in contrast to “the Gentiles”. This is the position that Professor John Murray took when he wrote, “If we keep in mind the theme of this chapter and the sustained emphasis on the restoration of Israel, there is no other alternative than to conclude that the proposition, ‘all Israel shall be saved’ is to be interpreted in terms of the fullness, the receiving, the in-grafting of Israel as a people, the restoration of Israel to gospel favour and blessing and the correlative turning of Israel from unbelief to faith and repentance” (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, p.99). Murray also helpfully observed, in relation to v28, that Israel are both “enemies” and “beloved” of God at the same time. “‘Beloved’ thus means that God has not suspended or rescinded his relation to Israel as his chosen people in terms of the covenants made with their fathers.”
Jewish Return to the Land Prophesied
The return of the Jewish people to their own land in 1948 is not without spiritual significance. In reference to the words, “And bring you into the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 37:12), Spurgeon stated, “The meaning of our text, as opened up by the context, is most evidently, if words mean anything, first, that there shall be a political restoration of the Jews to their own land and to their own nationality; and then, secondly, there is in the text, and in the context, a most plain declaration, that there shall be a spiritual restoration, a conversion in fact, of the tribes of Israel.” This is perhaps even more emphatic in Zechariah, given that Zechariah was writing after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).
The marvel of the preservation of the Jewish people, despite great hostility and wickedness shown towards them, is something that was not lost on Jonathan Edwards, who saw God’s preserving hand in their continued survival as a nation. “There is undoubtedly a remarkable hand of providence in it. When they shall be called, that ancient people, who alone were so long God’s people for so long a time, shall be his people again, never to be rejected more. They shall be gathered together into one fold, together with the Gentiles” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, page 607).
Prayer for Jewish Conversion
The expectation of the future conversion of the Jewish people is a Confessional position. Question 191 of the Larger Catechism, in response to the question, “What do we pray for in the second petition of the Lord’s prayer?” is answered as follows, “We pray that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, and the fullness of the Gentiles brought in.” Likewise in the Directory for Public Worship, we are directed to pray for, “The propagation of the gospel and the kingdom of Christ to all nations; for the conversion of the Jews, the fullness of the Gentiles, the fall of antichrist, and the hastening of the second coming of our Lord.”
In prayer meetings, in some of our churches, we rightly hear some of the men praying that the Lord would be pleased to once again bless His ancient people, the Jews, and graft them back into their own olive tree.
Israel and the Reformed Church
There are more than seven million Jews currently living in Israel, which is more than 70% of the Israeli population. There are thought to be less than 200,000 Christians in Israel, which is less than 2% of the population. Recent reports suggest that there has been an increase in the number of Christian congregations in Israel, but it appears that the vast majority of churches in Israel are Dispensational and Pentecostal. It would seem that faithful Reformed churches in Israel are few and far between. Is there a case to be made that Israel has been neglected by the Reformed Church?
If it is the case, which we have sought to make from Scripture, that God has a particular purpose for ethnic Israel, ought not the Reformed Church seek to be engaged in that on the ground? The nineteenth century Scottish Church were awakened to the subject of the Jews and saw it as both their duty and privilege to promote their cause amongst the Church, which included the visit of a number of ministers to the land, more of which can be read in the book, A Mission of Enquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland. Should not the Reformed Church be both praying for and working towards, under God’s blessing, establishing a faithful witness throughout the land of Israel?