Readers of the Bible will soon encounter a term that is ubiquitous throughout Scripture: Israel. God declares He is “the King of Israel, and His Redeemer” (Isa 44:6). He says of Israel, “I formed you; you are My servant O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me” (44:21). He further says of Israel that He has, “blotted out your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like a mist,” and that the heavens and earth should rejoice. Why? “For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel” (44:22-23). Finally, God has promised, “I will bring near My righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel My glory” (46:13).
Clearly, Israel is very important to God. The passages above show that Israel was formed by God, has been redeemed by God, will not be forgotten by God, and ultimately will glorify God. God’s purpose for Israel dominates the narrative of the Old Testament and culminates in the New Testament. So to whom or what does this term Israel refer? Because of a widespread and deep-seated resistance to the literal interpretation of Scripture, many surmise that when God speaks of Israel, He means something other than the ethnic people of Jewish descent. One popular view contends that ethnic “Israel” has been replaced by “the Church.” So the Church is called the “New Israel” and thus supplants Old Testament Jews and promises made to them, because of their national rejection of the Messiah. This aberrant view of Israel and the Church is called replacement theology, in that some other group “replaces” ethnic Israel when the Bible refers to “Israel.”
The only way to arrive at this conclusion is to do away with the normal rules of biblical interpretation. Inevitably, those who aim to substitute some group other than ethnic Israel when the Bible say “Israel” must spiritualize or allegorize the text away from its literal intent. On what biblical license this is done is unclear, for you will not find any textual authorization to interpret “Israel” as any entity other than the race of Jewish descendants. Put another way, whenever the Bible references Israel, it is always and only referencing that people known as the Jews, ethnically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (later Israel).
Why is this so important to clarify? Because the basis for understanding end times lies in understanding God’s covenantal promises to His chosen people, Israel. In other words, the cornerstone of all eschatology is Israel. Only with a proper understanding of God’s purpose and plan for Israel does one have the foundation for understanding all future prophecy in the Word of God. Here, John MacArthur presents a helpful continuum to aid our understanding:
- You will get your eschatology right when you get Israel right;
- You will get Israel right when you get the Old Testament covenants right;
- You will get the Old Testament covenants right when you get the interpretation of Scripture right; and,
- You will get the interpretation of Scripture right when you are faithful to its valid rules of interpretation, which means accepting the plain meaning of Scripture as you read it.
According to such a literal interpretation, what are the covenantal promises God has given to Israel? There are five main ones relative to the subject at hand. In the order that God gave them, they include the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Palestinian, Davidic and the New Covenant. All the covenants to Israel have some common features including the following: (1) they are all initiated by God and contingent upon His grace; (2) they were given in a time of crisis or transition; (3) no covenant nullifies a previous one; (4) each covenant promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience; (5) all the covenants find their ultimate fulfillment and significance in Christ.1 A few highlights of each are in order. The first, the Abrahamic Covenant, was issued when God called Abram out of Ur and sent Him to the Promised Land of Canaan. Of His own sovereign prerogative and purpose, God blessed Abram (later Abraham), saying, “…I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). What specifics did this blessing entail? In a nutshell, God would make Abram a nation; and every nation requires three essentials: people, property and politics; or laity, land and laws. The promise of a nation with descendants too numerous to count, i.e. laity (Gen 13:16; 17:4-6; 22:17); land with territorial boundaries known even to this day (13:14-15; 15:18-21; 17:8); and, most critically, the coming of a victorious Offspring, a Leader with laws (22:17-18). How long was this blessing to be in effect? Forever (cf. Gen 13:15; Luke 1:55). God repeatedly describes His unilateral, unconditional, and often-repeated blessings to Abraham as “everlasting” (Gen 13, 17:7-8, 19). The Apostle Paul declares them “irrevocable” (Rom 11:29).
Nearly a millennium later, God expands His promises of the Abrahamic Covenant with the Davidic Covenant. In 2 Samuel 7:12, God (again, as with Abraham, unilaterally and unconditionally) declares to King David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your Offspring after you, Who shall come from your body, and I will establish His kingdom.” He continues in verse 16: “And your house, and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before Me. Your throne shall be established forever.” The Davidic promise is reiterated in Psalm 89: “Once for all I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David. His Offspring shall endure forever, and his throne as long as the sun before Me” (89:35-36). So what has God promised to Israel through His covenant with David? An eternal kingdom, to be ruled by a forever King, the Offspring of David.
But in between the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants lies the Mosaic Covenant. God used the Mosaic Covenant to prepare the people for the fulfillment of the previous covenants in addition to the yet-to-come New Covenant. The Ten Commandments, the hundreds of civil and legal ordinances, the sacrifices, the feast days, the Tabernacle and all its accouterments within the Mosaic Covenant were all pictures, symbols and types used by God to tutor and prepare Israel, to show them their need for a Savior by illustrating concretely God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness and helplessness. The Mosaic Law or Covenant was a complement to the Abrahamic Covenant, developing and even furthering specific components of it that would lead to the greater, or “better” New Covenant (Heb 7:22; cf. Lev 26). Paul makes it clear when contrasting the Abrahamic Covenant with the Mosaic Covenant: “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed [Messiah] would come to whom the promise had been made” (Gal 3:19). Further he says the Mosaic Covenant “has become our tutor to lead us to Christ” (3:24). All the covenants following the Abrahamic were further developments of its particular features. This is the nature of progressive revelation (Rom 9:4).
Because the Bible records Israel’s failure to comply with the Mosaic Law’s demands repeatedly and miserably, it might be concluded that God’s other promises through Abraham and David are then nullified. Is this true? Note how Paul decisively refutes this idea in Galatians 3:17-18: “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”
God’s promises are never invalidated because sinful people did not do what sinful people cannot do. No people, not even God’s chosen people of Israel, are able to obey God’s law apart from His cleansing and regeneration. What is needed is a mechanism by which Israel’s sinful hearts can be made righteous and thereby prompt all the blessings still pending in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. This is what is promised in a fourth covenant, the New Covenant, as described by Jeremiah. It reads:
‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant that they broke [that is, the Mosaic Covenant] though I was their husband,’ declares the LORD” (31:31-32).
In other words, in order to satisfy God’s standard of holy perfection, Israel requires a “new” covenant unlike the Mosaic Covenant with its impossible demands for perfect righteousness. Verse 33 then adds: “‘For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the LORD: ‘I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” In a parallel passage, Ezekiel 36:26-27 proclaims, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules.”
There is a word for this: salvation. This is God’s promise to save Israel (Rom 11:26). In the New Covenant, God says there will be a day when He will purify the hearts of His people sovereignly. In His Word, God promises to bless the righteous (Ps 5:12), but paradoxically He has declared that, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10). Thus, God must fix the problem of Israel’s unrighteousness before He can bless her, and with the New Covenant comes God’s claim that one day He will do exactly that. When the New Covenant is fulfilled, God will write His law on His chosen people’s heart so that their very nature will be righteous, thereby triggering the blessings promised in the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants.
What about Gentile believers, those outside of ethnic Israel? Do the promises of God extend to them as well? Absolutely! The Bible is unmistakable in assuring that the promises God made to Israel apply to all who repent and believe in Christ’s atoning sacrifice (Rom 10:13; Gal 3:14, 29). Israel was never meant as the sole beneficiary of God’s mercy and loving-kindness; rather, it is through Israel that salvation was intended to come to all peoples and nations (Isa 45:22; John 4:22). Note how the prophet Isaiah references this exact point (as God says of His Son, Jesus): “It is too light a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). But note the nuance here. The glorious promise of New Covenant salvation is for all believers throughout the wider world, but not to the exclusion of a remnant of ethnic Israel! Rather, all believers will participate alongside Israel in the earthly kingdom promised to her, united under the reign of the great and coming King, Jesus Christ.
In addition to the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, the Davidic and the New Covenant, there is a fifth covenant, often neglected and forgotten but highly significant for the future of Israel, and that is the Palestinian or Deuteronomic Covenant: the pact God established with Israel on the plains of Moab (Deut 27-30).2 The Deuteronomic Covenant promised Israel rights to the Promised Land. Hence, it had a related theme to the previous Covenants made to Israel: the Abrahamic gave the title deed to the land; the Mosaic provided a constitution for the people of the land; and the Deuteronomic would delineate Israel’s rights and riches of their Promised land. In each covenant the literal land of Canaan was at issue—and it was given to Israel as a gift from God (Deut 3:18). God had the right to give it, for He owned the land. In the Deuteronomic Covenant God promised to scatter Israel among the nations if they disobeyed, which they did. In chapter 30, He then promised to one day gather them back from the ends of the earth as one people, into the land of Promise. At that time, He will give them a new heart to obey and love God and they will dwell in the land that He promised them. This latter promise remains to be fulfilled.
The bottom line? In the future, a generation of ethnic Jews will come to faith in Jesus Christ collectively as a people. The fulfillment of the covenant promises described in this chapter awaits the salvation of the remnant of Jews God has ordained to eternal life since before time began. And when that happens, Jesus will return to deliver to them their promised kingdom. Zechariah 12:10 poignantly describes how God will pour out upon Israel, “a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look upon Me, upon Him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over Him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” And what will be the result? Zechariah 13:1: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”
A physical kingdom is coming for ethnic Israel, in a literal territory with earthly designations, to be ruled by Jesus Christ, the eternal King. God has promised this to His chosen people, Israel—the ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—in a series of unilateral, unconditional, irrevocable covenants to which He is sworn (Heb 6:13-20). All people who come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of the New Covenant will share in the inheritance of the coming earthly kingdom of Christ (and in His eternal kingdom to follow), but not in a manner that replaces ethnic Israel.
1. William D. Barrick, “The Mosaic Covenant,” TMSJ 10.2 (Fall, 1999): 213.
2. William D. Barrick, “Inter-covenantal Truth and Relevance: Leviticus 26 and the Biblical Covenants,” TMSJ, 20.1 (Spring 2010): 81-102.
You can read more on this topic in Colin’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future.