It is impossible to read the Bible without being struck by the centrality of the nation of Israel and the Jewish people in the plan of God. Beginning with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, virtually the entire Old Testament is about God’s dealings with the nation of Israel. The hope of future salvation and blessing for believers is channeled through God’s covenants with Israel. Nearly all of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the national language of the Jewish people. Nearly every book of the Old Testament was written by Israelites.
References to Israel abound in the New Testament, as well. Christianity began in the Jewish world, and all but two books of the New Testament (Luke and Acts) were written by Jews. The early Christians identified themselves as the sect of true Judaism, which recognized Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Jesus and the twelve apostles were observant Jews who lived in Israel’s land (Galilee and Judea), and Jesus came specifically to offer the promised kingdom to Israel. When Peter preached the gospel in Acts 3, he proclaimed that Jesus would return and restore the kingdom to Israel whenever the Jewish nation repented and accepted Him as their Messiah (cf. Acts 1:6; 3:19-21). The New Testament epistles are filled with references to Israel, as early Christians struggled with the relation of Jews to Gentiles in the church. Jesus and the apostles taught that all the promises to Israel are still valid and will be fulfilled to the Jewish people at the end of the age, but that there is an interim period in which the church exists as a non-national (primarily Gentile) entity.
Although many early church fathers interpreted prophecy literally, the allegorical interpretation of prophecy came to dominate Christian theology by late antiquity. The church was asserted to have replaced Israel in God’s program, and the Jewish people were considered no longer to be special in any way. The hatred of Christians by Jews which dates back to the crucifixion of Jesus was matched at times by the persecution of Jews on the part of professing Christians. The church’s hostility toward Jews began gradually to change after the Protestant Reformation, when Christians sought to return to Scripture as the source of their beliefs. In 18th century England and America, the study of Hebrew and renewed scholarly interest in the Old Testament led to the recovery of premillennial theology and the literal interpretation of prophecy among some Protestant groups. Prophecy scholars in the 19th century often spoke at length about God’s miraculous preservation of the Jewish people through the ages and asserted that God would yet bring the Jews back to their land and fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. At about the same time, biblical faith on the European continent was being swept away by a wave of liberal theology, higher criticism, and rationalism. The Bible’s teachings were not merely disbelieved, but were vigorously opposed. Since those who hate God also hate His chosen people, higher criticism led to a marked rise in anti-Semitism and violent acts against the Jews across Europe. This persecution forged a new nationalist spirit among the Jews, leading to the adoption of the shield (star) of David as the symbol of Judaism, and to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. It also gave rise to the modern Zionist movement, which sought to establish a homeland for the Jews where they would be protected from persecution. Paradoxically, higher criticism and rationalism made great inroads into Judaism as well as Christianity in the 19th century, leading to the abandonment of Orthodox Judaism by the majority of Jews and the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism. While in Christianity higher criticism had the effect of undermining the gospel, in Judaism it removed longstanding theological barriers to the acceptance of the gospel.
While there have always been small numbers of Jews who have converted to Christianity, the 20th century saw a dramatic increase in Christian missionary efforts to the Jews. The number of Jews who became Christians also increased greatly. However, because Christianity remained stigmatized among the general population of Jews, a “Messianic” Jewish movement arose in which Jews professed faith in Jesus as their Messiah but did not call themselves Christians or join churches. Instead, they formed separate “messianic synagogues” which met on Saturday and were led by rabbis, not pastors. Many aspects of Jewish tradition and the Mosaic Law continued to be observed by these groups, in blatant contradiction of the book of Hebrews and other New Testament writings. These movements continue in great strength to the present day.
Since the late 1800s, Jews began returning in increasing numbers to their historic homeland (then known by the name “Palestine,” which the Roman emperor Hadrian gave to it), and the modern state of Israel was finally founded in 1948, following the Nazi Holocaust. Although the majority of modern Israelis are secular (non-observant) Jews, they have maintained a strong Jewish identity through their national struggle for survival. Since the 1960s, Israel’s greatest foreign supporter has been the United States of America. For decades, the base of support for Israel in the United States was a bipartisan coalition of American Jews and evangelical Christians. In recent years, however, the American left has taken a radical stance against the values of biblical Christianity, and this has resulted in increasing hostility toward Israel, even among many liberal American Jews. Mainline Christian denominations have also consistently opposed Israel. The main base of support for Israel in the United States is now a large segment of evangelical Christians, who believe that those who bless Abraham are still blessed, and those who curse Abraham are still cursed (Gen 12:1-3). Recognizing this fact, the current Israeli government has very directly courted American evangelicals, tossing aside the traditional Jewish hostility toward Christians for preaching Jesus as the Messiah.
The new friendliness of Jews with evangelical Christians is a great sign. Israeli Jews are now beginning to understand that evangelical, dispensational Christians love them and are their most reliable friends, in contrast to nominal Christians. More importantly, Jews at the highest levels of leadership in Israel now realize that there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic about Christianity or the Christian gospel. This is significant because the Bible is clear that Israel will accept Jesus as the promised Messiah before He returns (and as a condition for His return). A shift in Jewish attitudes toward Christians is a sign that Israel’s partial hardening (Rom 11:25) is finally beginning to lift.
The Bible clearly describes a regathering of the Jewish people to their historic homeland at the end of history. It describes how they overcome their ancient adversaries, repossess their ancient homeland, and become incredibly prosperous once again. By the time of the tribulation period, they are living in great peace with their neighbors, to the point of having no walls or army. Yet this physical restoration of the Jewish people is merely a precursor to their spiritual restoration, as Israel’s acceptance of Jesus as their Messiah is the main event which must occur prior to the second coming of Jesus. (For more details on this, see the comments on Ezekiel 34–39 in vol. 4 of my Interpretive Guide to the Bible.)
Satan seeks three things with regard to Israel in order to prevent the fulfillment of God’s promises: (1) The genocide of the Jewish people. (2) Driving the Jewish people out of the land of Israel. (3) Preventing the spiritual conversion of the Jewish people. While Satan has always sought these things, his efforts have greatly intensified in the last 250 years, as God’s program for Israel draws closer to its final consummation. Yet God’s program continues to move forward in the face of Satan’s opposition, resulting in a great conflict.
When events happen in the Middle East, and especially in the land of Israel, a common question Christians ask is whether that event was prophesied. While some specific events are indeed prophesied, such as the end-time regathering of Israel and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, most events in the news today are not specifically mentioned in biblical prophecy. The recent opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is an example of this type of event. Of course there is nothing in the Bible specifically about the U.S. embassy. But everything that happens in Israel has its part in God’s plan, and the embassy move was a significant event. It could fairly be said that the U.S. embassy move occurred as part of a prophesied process of Israel’s increasing rootedness in their land. We must avoid the extreme of allegorizing Scripture to make it appear as if specific events in the news were prophesied, but we must also avoid the much more common extreme of allegorizing Scripture in order to claim that biblical prophecy has nothing to say at all about the modern state of Israel. The history of nation of Israel holds a central place in redemptive history, because God is unfolding His plan of redemption through His covenants with Israel. The various stages through which the history of the Jews has passed are coterminous with the central events in the development of God’s plan of redemption, which are the events of real significance in the history of the entire human race. Seen in this light, the present regathering of the Jewish people to the Promised Land is of great significance in the plan of God and in the history of the world—God is in the process of winding up human history.
Some people say that Christians should only focus on the gospel and should avoid discussing Israel because it is divisive. But the apostles preached the second coming of Jesus to establish His kingdom as the main hope of Christians, and the kingdom which Jesus will establish is the kingdom of Israel on the earth, fulfilling God’s promises to David and Abraham. Christians who oppose Israel not only fail to understand the plan of God as revealed in the Bible, but are actually opposing the work of God in our day.