In my last two blogs, using Christ’s Prophetic Plans as my guide, I outlined why a dispensational hermeneutic (point 1) and why a dispensationalist belief in a hard distinction between Israel and the church (points 2, 3, 6) are in error. In this article, I will show that the dispensationalist view of the restoration of ethnic/national Israel (point 5) is also in error.
Before we get too far I want to remind you, once again, that there are several different flavours of dispensationalism, and each one might say things a bit differently then I have outlined below. My intention in these articles is not to disrespect anyone, but to get to the heart of dispensationalism in such a way that is fair and reflective of my dispensational brothers and sisters in Christ. As stated before I will be using the book Christ’s Prophetic Plans as my primary, but not only, source for dispensational arguments.
In chapter 1 of that text, Michael Vlach articulates a major implication of viewing Israel and the church as separate people of God (points 2, 3, 6) - the literal restoration of Israel during the time of the millennium.
(5) The nation Israel will be saved, restored with a unique identity, and function in a future millennial kingdom on the earth. This means that Israel as a nation will be restored by God, in her land, with a specific identity and role of service to the nations. This will take place after a future 7-year tribulation from which the church is raptured beforehand, and during a 1000 year period subsequent to the tribulation. (cf Revelation 20:1-6)
Summary: Israel will be “reinstalled as a nation, in her land, with a specific identity and role of service to the nations… Israel will be restored with a unique identity and function that is distinct from the church.” (Vlach)
Dispensationalists believe that a future restoration of ethnic Israel is an integral part of end times events. They believe that God must fulfil all of his promises to national Israel in a literal way. This fulfilment/restoration will happen during the 1000 year literal reign of Christ following the rapture, 7-year tribulation, and second coming of Christ. It is during this time that God fulfils all of the land and temple promises (and others) given to them in the Old Testament. (cf Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 453-455; et al) Michael Vlach is clear about this,
What distinguishes all dispensationalists, however, is that they believe not only in a salvation of Israel but also in a restoration of Israel. The concept of “restoration” certainly includes the idea of salvation, but it goes beyond that. “Restoration” involves the idea of salvation, but it goes beyond that. “Restoration” involves the idea of Israel being reinstalled as a nation, in her land, with a specific identity and role of service to the nations. In other words, in a literal, earthly kingdom -- a millennium -- the nation Israel will perform a functional role of service to the nations. This point is something all dispensationalists affirm while all nondispensationalists deny. (Christ’s Prophetic Plans, 33)
Our previous two blogs have established two things: (1) dispensational hermeneutics are narrow and naive; and (2) their distinction between Israel and the church lacks biblical warrant. If these points have been adequately established the topic of this blog becomes moot. But since the idea of a restoration of Israel is such a central part of dispensational thinking I believe the topic of Israel’s place, if any, in the eschatological plans of God, warrants further discussion. [Note: 5 of the 6 points which form the core of dispensationalism in Christ’s Prophetic Plans involve the nation of Israel.] The problem with this idea is that the New Testament nowhere speaks of the future restoration of Israel but of the future salvation of Israel.
In Romans 9-11 Paul deals with the present and future of Israel in God’s redemptive plans. (See the commentaries of Moo, Murray, and Stott as well as Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology for a fuller understanding of these chapters) In Romans 11:26a Paul is clear about this future. He boldly declares, “And in this way, all Israel will be saved.” (ESV) The verse, in its immediate context (vv 25-27), reads as such, (italics mine)
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
Before we get into this text, I think it is important to recognize four important ideas that are NOT present in this passage which we would expect to be there if dispensationalism is correct regarding Israel, the church, and God’s future redemptive plans for both. (cf Riddlebarger, 210)
No mention is made of the Jews returning to the Promised Land
No mention is made of a restoration of Israel’s earthly kingdom or temple
No mention is made of separate redemptive goals for Israel and the church
No reference of any kind is made regarding a future literal millennial kingdom in which Jesus rules the earth as a Davidic king
Put simply, dispensational ideas are not present in the discussion of Paul in Romans 9-11. In fact, “One would certainly think that since Paul is addressing the subject of Israel’s future and if Israel’s future entailed the things dispensationalists… claim that it does, this would be the ideal time for Paul to mention them. But he does not… Paul limits his discussion to Israel’s future, and that future is in no way tied to an earthly millennium.” (Riddlebarger, 210) Herein lies the problem with the dispensational understanding of Israel’s future -- there is no New Testament text that supports their ideas and a myriad of texts that speak against it.
So what does Paul mean when he says that “And in this way [houtos] all Israel will be saved” in v 26? Not all Reformed covenant theologians agree on the specifics even though none are dispensational or premillennial. For example, Michael Horton (Riddlebarger, Murray and Vos) believes there will be a future for Israel in God’s redemptive program, while Anthony Hoekema (and Robertson) does not. Despite differences in interpretation of Romans 11 what is agreed upon is that this chapter is not determinative of or influenced by Revelation 20:1-6; in fact, it does not give us any information regarding that text at all. Given what we noted above about what Paul is not saying or even suggesting, we can examine this verse on its own merits and not allow its interpretation to be tainted by an eschatological commitment made elsewhere.
I am inclined to side with Horton and Riddlebarger on this text. (For a defence of the other view see Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 143ff) In the first verse of Romans 11 Paul states, “I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” I think it is clear that Paul is referring to ethnic Jews in his discussion in chapter 11. What is also clear throughout this chapter is that Paul sees the redemptive-historical pendulum swinging between Israel and the Gentiles -- there is a divinely instituted connection, in fact, interdependence, between the redemption that each group enjoys. (Riddlebarger, 214-215; cf Ridderbos 358) Ridderbos is surely correct when he states regarding this interaction, “God grants no mercy to Israel without the gentiles, but neither does he do so to the gentiles without Israel… the whole argument of Romans 11:11-32 leads to the indication of this mutual relationship of dependence...” (360) Thus, as Horton observes, it is difficult to account for the classic dispensational view that the church does not fulfil in any sense the promises given to Israel. (The Christian Faith, 949)
In vv 16-24 Paul uses the metaphor of an olive tree to further explain this connection. God planted Israel, but they rejected and disobeyed God. So by his grace alone he engrafted the Gentiles into this plant. Thus if ethnic Israel is to be grafted back into this olive tree it will happen by God’s sovereign act of grace alone. (Riddlebarger, 216) This will happen, Paul explains, when “the fullness of the Gentiles have come in.” (v 25); the “until” that begins this phrase interpreted to be a time reference. Thus I understand Paul’s statement in v 25 to mean that “Once the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled, God will remove Israel’s present hardness of heart, and the nation will long last return to her Messiah.” (source unknown)
This brings us to v 26a. Since Paul has been speaking about ethnic Israel thus far, the context determines that we must see ethnic Israel present in this verse as well. (cf 9:6) Thus “all Israel” is best understood as “Jewish Israel in its eschatological fullness.” (Holwerda, cited in Riddlebarger, 219). The natural branches are re-grafted into the olive tree on account of the grace and mercy of God. Thus the salvation of ethnic Israel marks the beginning of the end of the redemptive-history, the eschaton; “history cannot meet its end before this fullness has been reached.” (Ridderbos, 511; cf. Riddlebarger, 219)
Thus the conclusions of Vlach cited above do not truly represent what Paul is articulating in Romans. As Horton states,
So while some amillennialists regard all of the saving promises to Israel as fulfilled in the new covenant church without remainder and dispensationalists treat them as fulfilled only in a revived theocracy of Israel i the millennium, Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 seems more complicated. While Israel is the church and the church is Israel, this spiritual nation will be enlarged in the last days -- this time, with a great influx of ethnic Jews. (950)
Is there a future for ethnic Israel? Paul’s answer is yes… But the future salvation of Israel is not connected to a future millennial kingdom. It is connected to the end of the age. When all Israel is saved, the resurrection is at hand. (221)
So what do we conclude? First, there may be a distinction between Israel and the church, but it is not one related to salvation. God saves all of his people in the same manner and thus all belong to his church. Second, there is a “historical bond between God and Israel” that continues to be maintained and has real significance. (Ridderbos, 36). But this does not overshadow the previous and more primary point as Romans 11 articulates. Third, there is no need to be a dispensationalist in order to see a future for Israel. In fact, I would argue that dispensationalism actually prevents us from seeing the true nature of the future that God has in mind for Israel. Fourth, there are no promises given to Israel that its kingdom, throne or temple will be restored. Romans 9-11, Hebrews and many other texts speak against this idea. Last, there is no need for a millennium to fulfil the redemptive-historical promises of God to either Israel or the Gentiles. Nobody in the New Testament sees it this way, so neither should we.
The conclusions of Ridderbos bring our discussion to a close.
On the one hand Israel is thus bound to the church of the gentiles; the stream of grace must return from them to Israel, after it has first passed Israel by because of its unbelief and come to the gentiles. But on the other hand, the church made up of the gentiles is bound to Israel… Thus, on the one hand Paul is able to see the church of the gentiles as endowed with all the privileges and blessings of Israel, and to see it occupy the place of unbelieving Israel, and yet on the other to uphold to the full the continuation of God’s original redemptive intentions with Israel as the historical people of God. And all this because of the gracious character of God’s election and because of Christ, who is the seed of Abraham as well as the second Adam; the one in whom the whole church, Jews and gentiles together, has become one body and one new man. (360-361)
Soli Deo Gloria