The God of grace is still saving both Jew and Gentile, reconciling them to Himself through the blood— and only through the blood—of Jesus Christ. But is the land and the nation that goes by the name Israel still holy? Based on what I believe the Scriptures make clear, I contend that the answer is no.
For the last several weeks, our headlines have been dominated with coverage of the ongoing conflict between the modern nation-state of Israel and Hamas/Palestine. With the increased recent attention, I thought it would be timely to set some thoughts down about how to think biblically about the current geo-political entity we call Israel and the Israel we find in the Bible. I am afraid that there are many Christians who assume that because the words are the same the entities are the same and the current Israel, along with the contested land, has remaining theological significance. This becomes even more important considering that the nearly unquestioning support for the modern Israel—or the pressure to declare the same—among Christians is motivated by theological conviction. While often well intended, my argument is that this is misguided.
The biblical nation of Israel originated as the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the latter being renamed to Israel by God Himself (Gen. 32:28). They were His special treasure above all people (Ex. 19:5), the tribe of His inheritance (Jer. 10:16). To them God gave all the special blessings of His word, promises, covenant, worship, and grace (see Rom. 9:1-5). This story of redemption in the Bible is dominated by two great themes: the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of His people (Mal. 3:6-7). To illustrate the latter with just one verse, here is what the Lord said concerning Israel, “O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you? For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away” (Hos. 6:4). Why did God stay faithful to them for so long, despite grievous sins like rampant idolatry (Jer. 2:11), child sacrifice (Ezek. 16:20-21), and Sabbath breaking (Ezek. 20:13), which led them to exile (Neh. 1:8)? The first reason was His promise (Is. 49:16) and the second is His promised Son, Jesus Christ.
Concerning His promise, we must remember that God is not a man that He can lie (Num. 23:19). He gave Abraham an unbreakable promise that from him would come blessing for all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3; see also Heb. 6:13-18). God’s gracious promise is the only reason behind bringing Israel back from their bondage in Egypt (Exod. 2:24), back from their exile in Babylon (Ezek. 36:22-24), and continuing to save physical descendants of Jacob who may even now be living in unbelief (Rom. 11:25-32).
The physical nation of Israel had one grand purpose in the Bible: in keeping with God’s promise, they were to be the people through whom the Messiah, the Savior of sinners and crusher of Satan, would come (Gen. 3:15). The reason God gave them circumcision, sacrifices, the tabernacle and temple, all His laws, and His gracious covenant as He worked through time was to preserve this people until the promised Seed came: “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘and to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Once Jesus Christ came, who is not only the Second Adam (Rom. 5:18-21) but the One who fulfilled everything Israel failed to do (Heb. 10:5-7), Israel’s redemptive necessity ceased.
I cannot go into this at too much length here, but consider this big-picture perspective. Those things that specifically delineated Israel from the nations were entirely abolished after the coming of Christ. Circumcision was replaced by baptism (see Acts 15 and Galatians). The necessity of ongoing sacrifice ceased because of the once-and-for-all death of Jesus (see Hebrews). Later the temple would be destroyed in AD 70, precisely as Jesus said in Matthew 24 and parallel passages. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, ceremonial and dietary laws were removed so that there no longer remained a barrier for fellowship for anyone in Christ (see Acts 10-11; Gal. 2:11-16). In fact, even the distinguishing blessings given exclusively to Old Testament Israel were explicitly bestowed upon the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, including the status of a holy ethnicity (compare Exod. 19:5-6 and 1 Pet. 2:9-10).