As Christians, should we expect the Kingdom of God to be restored to Israel? And if so, what would it mean? The last question that the apostles asked Jesus before his Ascension was about this:
Then they gathered around [Jesus] and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1:6-8 (NIV 2011)
George Athas has posted an interesting series asking what the apostles meant by “restore the kingdom to Israel”, and more to the point what Jesus meant in his answer to their question. In part 1 he skilfully demolishes the argument that the modern state of Israel is this restoration of the kingdom. In part 2 he is equally deft in dismissing the “replacement theology” by which the church has entirely replaced Israel. Then in part 3 he puts forward a middle way in his own understanding of what the book of Acts, and the New Testament more broadly, teaches on this matter.
George links restoring the kingdom to the apostolic witness “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. This makes a lot of sense of the book from which these words are taken:
in the first eight chapters of Acts, we witness the reunification of Israel under its Davidic king. What the prophets of old had looked forward to now becomes reality as Jews and Samaritans both put their faith in Jesus as ruler, saviour, and Messiah, for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 5.31, 42). Here, then, is the beginning of Israel’s restoration. … Only once the restoration of Israel under its rightful king, Jesus, is truly underway do we then observe the gospel going out to the Gentiles.
But I find a problem with George’s argument when he moves on from Acts to Romans. He may be right that in Romans 9
Paul views only those in Israel who have believed (or will believe) in Jesus as members of the true Israel.
But this doesn’t really make sense of Romans 11. In verse 7 Paul distinguishes “the elect” within Israel from “the others” who are “hardened”. From verses 8 to 24 he talks about these “others”, and contrasts them with Gentile believers. In verses 25 and 26 he refers again to the “others” when he proclaims the end of the “hardening in part”, at which point “all Israel will be saved”. Clearly the “all” here is meant to include the “others”, as well as “the elect” who have been saved all along.
Verse 23 implies that at this time the “others” will believe in Jesus, and it is only on this basis that they will be grafted back into the olive tree. So it is true that only those in Israel who believe in Jesus are members of the true Israel. But this chapter makes it clear that God has not simply rejected those of Israelite descent who do not believe.
So George Athas is somewhat confused when he writes:
we should not be expecting a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity marking the last days of history as we know it. Paul was not envisioning such a thing in Romans 11.26. … Paul was not predicting a sudden eschatological conversion of Jews against all previous expectations, but was rather advocating some good old evangelism.
It seems very clear to me that Paul was expecting a large scale turning to Jesus among the “others”, ethnic Jews who had at first rejected him. This was in the future for Paul, which doesn’t necessarily mean in the future for us. He probably wasn’t expecting anything miraculous here. More likely he saw this happening through “good old evangelism” among Jews, although not necessarily by “conversion … to Christianity” as commonly understood. And “all” may be hyperbole for the great majority from all groups. But God has not forgotten those ethnic Jews who have rejected the gospel, as Paul makes clear:
As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Romans 11:28-29 (NIV 2011)
Yes, God’s call to the physical descendants of Jacob is irrevocable. It has been transcended by the wider Christian call to all nations. But that ethnic group has not been rejected or replaced. And in the end God’s promises to his original chosen people will be fulfilled.
Thanks to Tim Bulkeley for the links to George Athas’ posts.
UPDATE: I have addressed some questions left unanswered here in a follow-up post Restoring the Kingdom to Israel: when and where?