See also: Israel the Fig Tree — Mystery of the Olive Tree — The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel
Fundamental issues concerning Israel and the Church
Bible prophecy says that Israel and the church have major roles to play, both today and tomorrow. Their roles are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Some key points are:
- To Paul the “church” was a new mystery in that it was not revealed to the prophets (Eph 3:2-10). It was “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) in that it saw Christ as the new and complete way of being reconciled to God. Nevertheless, the church did not replace Israel. God did not cast Israel away (Isa 49:16, Hos 2:23, Rom 11:1)
- Israel pursued the law of righteousness by works, but failed because they did not seek it by faith in their true Messiah. In contrast, the Gentile church believed in Christ and so attained righteousness (Rom 9:30-32, 10:19-21, 11:7,11)
- Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ share equally in Abraham’s inheritance. They all can partake of the rich root and trunk of the symbolic olive tree (Rom 11:16-24)
- Today’s church or “ekklesia” (the called-out ones) comprises all who trust in Christ as LORD and Savior. In this sense Messianic Jews are part of Christ’s church, although they still identify as Jewish and observe the Sabbath, Jewish customs and holidays, link. Messianic Judaism is often presented as an ethnic church for Jews, link
- Many prophecies for the church and national Israel remain unfulfilled. A straight end-time interpretation sees the church being removed from the earth (Mat 24:36-44, Phil 3:20, Rev 3:10) and her earthly role as God’s witness and servant being taken by a restored and repentant Israel (Isa 49:22, 66:19, Rev 7:1-8)
- In the Millennial age, prophecy indicates that resurrected (immortal) saints reign with Christ over a repentant remnant of Israel. In this sense “all Israel”, both spiritual and national Israel honours Christ i.e. is “saved” (Rom 11:26)
Israel and the Church
are joint servants of God
Israel – God’s Servant and Witness
Understanding Romans 11
God’s Plan A: Romans chapter 11 is deliberately misinterpreted by churches favouring Replacement Theology. Those holding this theology insist that the Church has replaced Israel and that to promote an end-time ‘chosen people’ (Israel) in Christian circles is ‘cultism’ (see later). But an honest reading of Rom 11 clearly gives a different picture. God’s planned blessing to the world is symbolized by an olive tree rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant – and ultimately in Christ, link. God promised Abraham he would become a great nation (Israel) and promised Israel her own land, Canaan (Gen 12.2, 17.8, 35.12). In return, Israel was to be God’s servant (Isa 41.8-13) and witness to the nations (Isa 43.10). Moreover, through this Covenant the whole world would be blessed (Gen 22.18) – as in the promised Messiah (Mathew 1). That was God’s plan A.
God’s Plan B: History tells us that branches were symbolically broken off the true olive tree (Rom 11.17) due to Israel’s disobedience and unbelief. So, in reality, God scattered the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel (all twelve tribes) throughout the nations (James 1:1). A remnant of the Jews returned to Jerusalem after their deportation to Babylon, but when Jesus came their descendants didn’t recognize Him as their Messiah.
So God had another plan for mankind – the church. Paul saw this as “a mystery not previously revealed to men” (Eph 3:1-7). Here was a new dispensation, a “dispensation of grace” to the Gentiles so that they could be “fellow heirs” with Abraham’s descendants. Symbolically, the New Testament sees the gentile church as a wild olive tree grafted into the true olive tree (Rom 11.17) in the sense that her mission was to be God’s witness to the nations in the absence of exiled Israel. Importantly, the church was to feed on, and so be supported by, her Jewish roots (Rom 11:17,18). She was not a separate tree; she was not to replace Israel.
The Error of Replacement Theology
Replacement Theology is common in Western churches. It teaches that, since Israel was scattered amongst the nations due to her rejection of God’s way, then:
- the Christian church has replaced national Israel regarding the plan, purpose, and promises of God
- the Jewish people have no future, no hope, and no calling in the plan of God
- the Jewish people are no longer God’s chosen people and that the Christian Church now makes up God’s chosen people
Many Anglicans hold this view, and the World Council of Churches (WCC) supports numerous UN Resolutions against Israel’s so-called ‘land occupation’, and advocates peaceful protest e.g. a goods boycott (the BDS campaign). But God doesn’t see it that way, and neither do many evangelical Christians, link.
God’s Warning: Those who follow Replacement Theology should heed God’s warning. Genesis chapter 12 makes it quite clear that the church should not make light of, or simply ignore, God’s chosen nation, Israel. They are a special people chosen by God as His witness and servant (Deut 14:2, Isa 43:10) and they are now back on the world stage in order to fulfill that mission. Concerning Abraham and the nation of Israel, God says:
I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses (Heb: qalal Strongs 7043) you I will curse (Heb: arar Strongs 779) (Gen 12.3)
The Hebrew ‘qalal’ means ‘to make light of’ or ‘to treat something in a superficial manner’ or ‘to regard as trivial’. The Hebrew ‘arar’ means ‘to bring under a curse’. This is serious. The church must not make light of the Abrahamic Covenant and the nation Israel that came from him. It should not ignore Israel or treat Israel as unimportant. It is better to be blessed by God by blessing Israel His people than to come under God’s curse. Is this one of the reasons why the institutionalized church is facing an attendance catastrophe today, link?
The Truth: Replacement Theology fails to recognize that God has not totally rejected Israel:
“For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer (Isaiah 54: 7-8)
I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin (Rom 11:1)
Rather than ignore Romans 11, the church should really be comforting Israel as she returns home to Canaan (Isa 40.1). Immigration to Israel (known as Aliyah) has been underway for well over 100 years. Soon national Israel will once more take up the baton from the church and fulfill her planned role as God’s witness in the world (Isa 43:10, Rom 11:23-27). Even now we see Israel as a light to the nations (Isa 60.1-3) as Jews return to their Promised Land and national Israel plays a major role on the world scene. God’s Covenant to Abraham is being fulfilled.
What happens to the Church at the End of the Age?
Here we refer to the true church (as in Rev 3:7-13), not the apostate church of Revelation 17. Let’s assume the so-called Pre-Millennial view of prophecy since this seems compatible with observations of today’s world. This view holds that the risen Christ will (soon) return to rule the Earth from Jerusalem for the so-called Millennium (1,000 years). So what happens to the church when Christ returns?
The term ‘church’ in the New Testament means ‘a called out group’ and comprises both believing Gentiles and believing (Messianic) Jews, as well as all those who have died (are asleep) believing in Christ. Most Christians accept that born-again believers will be removed from the earth around the time of Christ’s Second Coming (the so-called ‘rapture’). Paul puts it quite clearly:
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thes 4.17)
This is the time of ‘the redemption of the body’ (Rom 8.23), the time when ‘the perishable body is raised an imperishable body’, the time when ‘the natural body is raised a spiritual body’ (1 Cor 15.42-44). This is the biblical ‘first resurrection’:
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet … the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed … this mortal must put on immortality (1 Cor 15.52,53)
What happens then? Jesus said that when He meets believers in the air He will reward them according to their works (Mat 16:27). Believers who have used their talents for the kingdom will be rewarded (Mat 25.20-23). And this is the time of the “marriage supper of the Lamb”, when the true church – the bride of Christ – is united with her husband – Christ (Rev 19.1-10).
When does the true Church meet Christ?
Recall that Jesus said no one knows the day or hour when He returns (Mat 24.36, 25.13). But He did give us signs so that ‘watchers’ would know He is “at the doors” (Mat 24.33). One of these signs concerns the in-gathering of the true church – a concept rarely mentioned in Christian circles. In the light of end time prophecy, a time is soon coming when the church will be ‘complete’ and the so-called ‘church age’ ends. Jesus implied that many will not have made a decision to follow Him before He returns. He Himself will ‘shut the door’ and many will be locked out of the kingdom of God at this point in time (Lk 13.25-28). The apostle Paul refers to the same concept. Speaking to the church, Paul said:
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery … Israel has experienced a hardening (blindness) in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in … (Rom 11.25)
Here again is the concept of the church being ‘completed’ at some point in time. A similar but broader view (spanning from Old Testament times to the Second Coming) is found in the book of Revelation. In Rev 6.9-11 we find the concept of ‘waiting’ until the number of servant martyrs has been “completed”.
So it seems that God’s order of events is to first take out from the Gentiles a people for His name (Acts 15.14). That is the true church. Romans 11.25 suggests that only after the church has been gathered to Christ (raptured) and the door shut does God turn His full attention to the blindness of His people, Israel. Continuing on in Acts 15 God says:
After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it .. so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD … (Acts 15.16-17)
If we read this text as referring to a post-church period (‘after these things’), we might expect the true church to be taken to be with Christ before Israel’s blindness is removed and before she recognizes her true Messiah. This is the so-called pre-tribulation view of prophecy. During this short but traumatic period at the end of this age, with the church gone, some see 144,000 Messianic Jews evangelizing the Gentile nations, link. As a result, many more are brought into the kingdom of God, although many through martyrdom (Rev 7.9-17). Returning to the main point, a detailed study shows that Israel’s blindness to their true Messiah is largely removed by end-time war against Israel, link.
So the rapture of the church could be before the next major war against Israel, possibly the so-called Gog-Magog war, link.
An Immortal Church Returns with Christ
As discussed, by the time Christ returns to Earth the true church will have been miraculously changed. Believers will have been resurrected, rewarded, and now have immortal bodies. It is this ‘immortal’ church which returns to Earth with Christ and reigns with Him for 1,000 years (Rev 20:4,6). To paraphrase Paul, Jesus comes back “with all His (immortal) saints” (1 Thes 3.13). And Jude says:
Behold, the Lord comes with many thousands of His holy ones (Jude 14)
What happens to Israel at the End of the Age?
The key point here is found in the book of Romans:
And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom 11:26)
What does “all Israel” mean? Let’s continue with the pre-tribulation view of Bible prophecy. As just discussed, a time is soon coming when the true church will be miraculously removed from the earth, most probably before the final major wars against Israel. There then follows a brief period, probably about seven years (corresponding to Daniel’s 70th week) during which time Israel will suffer “great tribulation”. The prophetic timeline could be as follows:
- Jews are gathered out of the gentile nations and brought back to dwell in the land (Canaan) promised to Abraham and his descendants. This is well underway. In just 100 years the Jewish population of Israel has risen an amazing 7,700 percent, link, link
- The true church is taken to be with Christ. She is the ‘bride of Christ’. But she is also ‘spiritual Israel’ since she is symbolically grafted into the true olive tree rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant, link
- The ‘man of sin’ is revealed who exalts himself above God and persecutes re-gathered Israel (2 Thes 2.1-12, Rev 12:13). Although persecution from the man of sin involves in a sense the whole world, it is essentially the time of “Jacobs trouble”. A key point here is that Jacob is “saved out of it” (Jer 30:7, Mat 24:15-22, Rom 11:26,27)
- Through war and persecution regathered Israel (essentially the Jews – the house of David) cries out to God. In their suffering their spiritual blindness is removed and they at last recognize Jesus as their true Messiah (Zech 12:10-14, Rom 11:25-27). Through this suffering they are ‘refined as silver and ‘tested as gold’. Just one-third come through this traumatic time to enter the Millennium (Zech 13.9)
Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: I am the Lord your God and there is no other … And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the remnant whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:27,32)
So in the following Millennial age the earth sees “two Israels”. It sees spiritual Israel (resurrected saints of the church, and resurrected martyred saints from the great tribulation), and also refined Israel (God’s refined chosen people, the Jews). The age sees “all Israel” in that both spiritual and saved national Israel are present with Christ.
Israel and the Church in the Millennium
Role of the Church
The Millennial scenario appears unique to earth’s history, to say the least! On the one hand we have the remnant nations and a remnant of national Israel – all ‘in the flesh’ – whilst on the other hand it appears that Earth’s ranks are to be swelled by millions of immortal beings – the bride of Christ! A clue might be in Jesus’s comment on marriage after the resurrection:
But those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead … are like angels (Lk 20.35,36)
It seems that, in the Millennium, the saints operate like ministering angels or heavenly administrators of God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus promised His followers:
I bestow upon you a kingdom … that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Lk 22:29-30, see also Mat 19:28)
Note here that, since a remnant of Israel will enter the Millennium (Isa 10.21-22), resurrected believers will also reign over the twelve tribes of Israel. Here is the fulfillment of the LORD’s prayer “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. So during the Millennium the resurrected church reigns with Christ over the people of the earth (gentiles and Jews) as priests of God (Rev 5.10), but the final home of the saints will be the New Jerusalem in the New Earth (Rev 21:1-5).
So much for the role of the church in the Millennium. What role does the remnant of Israel play? Bear in mind that when Christ returns He reigns over the earth from His new temple in Jerusalem. Plans are well advanced for a literal Third Temple, and much detail is found in Ezekiel chapters 40-48. Jewish feasts and rituals will be honoured since some Jewish festivals are to be held as ‘statutes for ever’, throughout all generations for all time, link. These activities require temple priests. In fact, such honour is applied to all the Jews in Israel in the Millennium. They will be honoured by the nations as priests and servants of the LORD:
But you shall be named the priests of the LORD, they shall call you the servants of our God (Isa 61:6)
In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zech 8:23)
Summarizing, we can say that the Millennium is essentially Jewish, reigned over by Christ and His resurrected saints (the Church, the perfected bride of Christ). For an in-depth study see The Millennial Reign of Christ.
The Final ‘Oneness’ of Israel and the Church
Prophecy says that the two scattered kingdoms of Israel will be reunited as ‘one stick’ (Ezek 37.15-22) and will take root again (Isa 27.6). We are seeing this today as God’s people are drawn from the nations to Israel their homeland. So the “grafted-in olive branches” (the church) and Israel itself (the rooted olive tree) are seen as ‘one’ in the Millennium in the sense that they both serve the God of Israel amongst the nations. They are also seen symbolically as ‘one’ in the New Heaven and the New Earth. The book of Revelation describes a heavenly city with ‘twelve gates’ (the twelve tribes of Israel) and ‘twelve foundation stones’ (the twelve apostles representing the church):
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper. It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. There were three gates on the east and three gates on the north and three gates on the south and three gates on the west. And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev 21.10-14)