I had written on the subject of the Kingdom of God (KoG) as it related to the NT Church.
I believe the exegesis of the biblical texts reveal to us that the KoG is distinct from the NT Church. Moreover, the KoG is eschatological, or in other words, it awaits a future fulfillment at the return of God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ who will reign over the entire earth.
Yet, in the intern, as God’s eschatological purposes are being worked out according to a divinely established time table, God is calling out by the means of the gospel a spiritual body of believers comprised of both Jews and gentiles who are united with Jesus Christ by faith. They presently live according to the principles of the coming eschatological kingdom as they submit themselves to the authority of Jesus as the rightful Lord of God’s kingdom.
As I noted in my last post addressing the KoG, those of the covenant Reformed equate the KoG with the NT Church. The primary reason for this view is the idea that the NT Church fulfills the promises God made to OT Israel about making them a great nation and a great kingdom. Whereas the Jews had in mind a geo-political kingdom established on earth, God really had in mind just a spiritual kingdom comprised of Jews and gentiles from all over the world united in one spiritual body under the headship of Christ, the NT Church. Thus, those promises of Israel being restored in the land and of being established in a national, geo-political kingdom were fulfilled in Christ building His spiritual kingdom all over the world through the disciple-making activities of the Christian church.
Along with their view of the NT Church fulfilling the OT promises made to Israel shaping their convictions concerning the KoG, the covenant Reformed will also argue that no where in the NT is Israel promised restoration to their land in a political kingdom. That is a significance absence in the NT, for if the KoG was a yet future geo-political kingdom, then much would be said about it. In reality, next to nothing is stated about a Jewish restoration by any of the NT authors.
I would like to respond to that claim. I believe much more is said about Israel being restored to their land than what the covenant Reformed will allow. I will divide my study into two parts. With this first post, I wish to consider the promise to Israel of being restored to their promised land, and then with the next post, address a few key individual passages often appealed to as suggesting the KoG is spiritual and has no physical dimension attached to it at all.
The Promise of Restoration
When we search the Scripture we discover that God’s promises to Israel are quite plain. Beginning in the OT, God specifically told Israel through His prophets that He will set up a kingdom on this earth which will be everlasting in duration. This is promised to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-16 (c.f. Psalm 2, 72), and reiterated through a number of prophets including Isaiah 2:2-4; 11; Daniel 2:34-45; Micah 4:1-8 just to list a few. Additionally, that kingdom will involve the establishment of the nation of Israel to a special place in that kingdom. See for example Joel 3:18-21; Amos 9:14, 15; and Zechariah 14:16-20.
Coming into the NT, however, those OT passages are the ones spiritualized in order to speak of spiritual salvation only. There are a few reasons why the covenant Reformed draw the conclusions they do with their interpretation of those promises. One of the primary reason is because it is wrongly perceived such an idea of restoration creates division among “God’s people,” and places the Jews in a favored status with God. Paul, they point out, argues against any favoritism with God in Romans 9-11 and through the book of Galatians, and declares salvation is not based upon ethnicity or birth right, but squarely on the grace of God alone.
To suggest Israel will be restored to a favored status in a physical national kingdom cuts against Paul’s whole argumentation that a person’s national heritage gains that individual nothing with God. Thus, it is concluded in light of NT teaching (the greater revelation which trumps, and so reinterprets, the OT revelation), those OT promises must be understood in a different fashion than one of being fulfilled “literally” as non-covenant Reformed believers insist. A person can see how hermeneutical presuppositions come into play here.
But, I believe there is no warrant to employ a spiritualized hermeneutic to those prophetic promises. I think the objections by the covenant Reformed fail to take into consideration some important features related to prophecy and fulfillment.
First, I believe it fails to distinguish between what I would call a salvific unity and a unique diversity in God’s purposes. By that I mean God has set forth one avenue of eternal salvation in which a person is made right with God. That of course is through God’s Son, the appointed King of the Kingdom, Jesus Christ. All men are made right before God in exactly the same way: by grace through faith alone in Christ. Being a gentile or Jew, or a man or woman, or whatever, does not confer a salvific advantage in this sense. Yet, in God’s eschatological plans, each ethnic group has a designated purpose to play. There is a unified diversity. Even though men of all tribes and tongues will stand before God united in Christ, they are still men of different tribes and tongues. There is no reason to think their ethnic factors will be erased.
Additionally, there is sound biblical reason to see those eschatological promises of restoration transcend both testaments and across Jewish/gentile lines, and that has to do with the fulfillment of the New Covenant. Turning to Jeremiah 31:31-37, God promises a new covenant to Israel in which He will put His laws on the hearts of His people, Israel (31:33ff). The new covenant entails a heart change in the participants of that covenant so that they receive a spiritual motivation to obey God.
Coming to the NT, we see that new covenant established and initiated by Christ on the Cross. Though the new covenant was originally promised to national Israel, there was an unanticipated spiritual fulfillment of it in the formation of the NT Church which takes in both Jews and gentiles. Hebrews 8:8-12 and 10:16, 17 address the spiritual dimensions of salvation the new covenant confers upon God’s chosen people due to Christ’s greater priesthood.
The covenant Reformed appeal to the passages in Hebrews as completed and a total fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. In fact, some would argue the “Israel” spoken of by Jeremiah was really the “Church” which God had in mind when He revealed the new covenant through the prophet. Because of that interpretation, they redefine the “house of Israel” mentioned in Jeremiah as being the NT Church.
But there is no reason to re-interpret the language of Jeremiah’s prophecy when one understands the two facets of this prophecy being unfolded. The first involving Christ securing the salvific promises of the prophecy, what is addressed in Hebrews, but secondly, the eschatological prophecy of a national restoration for the nation of Israel.
Note with the citation of Jeremiah’s prophecy in Hebrews, the writer does not quote the remainder of the prophet’s oracle, Jeremiah 31:35-40, where God promises that the “seed of Israel shall not cease from being a nation” and “God will not cast off the seed of Israel,” and “Jerusalem will not be plucked up or thrown down any more forever.” This is language of a future national restoration in an eschatological kingdom, not merely a spiritual fulfillment encompassing only salvation.
But, what about any specific restoration of land promises in the NT? The covenant Reformed are quick to point out no direct NT passage speaks to Israel being restored to their land. However, I believer that is not entirely accurate. Robert Saucy observes that the land is always connected to the nation of Israel in the OT. Thus, any reference to God’s continued concern for the nation of Israel would most certainly have a territorial aspect [Saucy, 50].
Moreover, as Bruce Compton points out, Paul wrote of a future deliverance of the nation in Romans 11:26, 27; a deliverance which fulfills God’s promise of a new covenant with national, ethnic Israel [Compton, 35]. Granted, some covenant Reformed guys like Robertson and Reymond attempt to interpret “Israel” in this passage as being God’s elect, both Jews and gentiles, or the salvation of the Jews taking place throughout the history of the Church, but there is no exegetical warrant to reinterpret “Israel” in such a fashion. To do so represents an allegiance to the presuppositions of a theological system, not the intended meaning of the biblical text. It should also be noted that Paul cites Isaiah 59: 20,21 here in Romans 11:26, 27. Isaiah speaks of the deliverer (Jesus Christ) coming to Zion, a title for God’s holy city which is in the physical land of Israel.
However, the most comprehensive NT discussion of Israel’s restoration to their land is found in Luke’s gospel and his record of Acts. John Mclean states that when we survey Luke’s writings he used “Israel” 12 times in his gospel and with each time it clearly means national Israel and/or its people [Mclean, 222]. This meaning also continues through out the book of Acts as well.
Without going into a whole list of passages from Luke-Acts, allow me to concentrate on one passage in Acts. In Acts 1:1-8, right before Jesus was taken back into heaven, some of his disciples asked him if he would at this time restore the kingdom to Israel. Thoughts of Israel’s kingdom were perhaps fresh on their minds, because according to Acts 1:3, the Lord spent 40 days speaking to them of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Christ responds to their inquiry, not by correcting them as to their misunderstanding about the kingdom, but by telling them it was not for them to know the times and the seasons which the father put in His own authority.
The typical covenant Reformed response to that question by the disciples is to say they misunderstood what Jesus meant by “Israel.” The land promised to them wasn’t the land of Israel per se, but as verse 8 reveals, it was the “land” of the whole world as they went out proclaiming the gospel after the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2. However, throughout His ministry, Jesus answered questions and corrected misconceptions people had. The Gospels record more than one hundred questions were asked of Jesus. With all those question asked of Him, only two of them, one by the high priest (Matt. 26:62, 63), and another by Pilate (Matt. 27:13), Jesus did not answer directly. With all the others, He responded to them with full answers, many times correcting the wrong thinking of His audience [Mclean, 219]. Thus, to argue that the disciples were misunderstanding His teaching on the Kingdom for the last 40 days prior to that question (Acts 1:3), is a bit of a stretch. I believe it is noteworthy to observe how Jesus did not offer any correction to the disciples’ misunderstanding with the definition of “Israel” or their question about the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel.
Moreover, Peter continues to anticipate the restoration of the kingdom to Israel in his sermon recorded in Acts 3:17-23. He tells his Jewish audience that they must repent to receive the times of refreshing from the Lord, and then they will experience the times of restoration of all things. These “times of restoration,” states Peter, were spoken of by the prophets. In other words, those OT prophecies that promise a restoration of Israel.
Now, there is still a question about the spiritual descriptions of the KoG and the land of Israel mentioned in the NT. For example, Abraham being said to be waiting for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:8-16). That passage and others like it strongly suggest that the hope of God’s saints is not in restoration to a physical land and a physical city, Jerusalem, but rests in the certainty of a spiritual kingdom. Do those passages really teach that? That is what I will take up in the second portion of this study.
Craig Blaising, “Premillennialism,” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrel Bock. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 1999).
R. Bruce Compton, “Dispensationalism, The Church, and the New Covenant,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 8 (Fall 2003): 3-48. online here
Larry R. Helyer, “Luke and the Restoration of Israel,” JETS (Sept. 1993): 317-329.
John A McLean, “Did Jesus Correct the Disciples’ View of the Kingdom?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (April-June 1994): 215-227.
Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Thomas Nelson: Nashville TN, 1998).
O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. (P&R Publishers: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2000).
Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism. (Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids MI, 1993).