The Gospel’s Crucial Relationship to the Modern Nations of Israel
Given that the British and American peoples of the late-20th century are indeed the descendants of the ancient Israelites of the Bible, what effect should such knowledge have in our lives today? In an essay about the history of the British-Israel movement, one scholar summarized the practical impact of the 19th century understanding of Israel’s modern-day identity. He wrote:
“British-Israelism could be accepted in greater of lesser degree as an entertaining, perhaps titillating, set of speculations. The audiences need feel neither committed to it, nor incensed by it: it was offered, certainly by one [John Wilson, the author of Our Israelitish Origins, 1840] who believed it, but without obligation to decide finally about it, and without all the persuasions and antagonism with which it would have been inevitably associated had it been the creed of a particular sect or denomination” (John Wilson, “British Israelism: The Ideological Restraints on Sect Organization” in Patterns of Sectarianism, pp. 354, 359).
But is that all there is to the matter? Or are there dimensions to this understanding which have important — in fact — crucial implications for the Church and the preaching of its Gospel of the Kingdom as a witness to all nations on whom the end of the age is come (Matthew 24:14)?
What is the gospel?
Most people today might think that an understanding of Israel’s modern-day identity is irrelevant to the Gospel message. Certainly it is subordinate to the spiritual aspects of the promises to Abraham, something which Church of God has always understood, appreciated, and highly valued.
The Bible teaches that regardless of race (Acts 10:34-38; Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:26-29), salvation is open to all who believe in Jesus Christ and bring themselves under His beneficent rule.
There nevertheless remains a physical, material, and national aspect of God’s covenant with Abraham. An awareness of these physical promises is useful to our understanding of prophecy. Since Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of the Gospel message, we must remember that Christ came preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) — not solely a message about His personal role in the opening phase of God’s master plan. The Gospel message has several different facets and aspects. In fact, it is three-dimensional. The Gospel has a past, present, and future dimension. Each dimension is reflected in the sequence and symbolism of the holy days of Leviticus, chapter 23. The past dimension is the best known aspect of the Christian message. It deals with the life, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ — with redemption available to those who would repent of sin and accept Christ as personal Savior.
The present dimension of the Gospel relates to the establishment of the Church of God, an event which occurred on the day of Pentecost about 50 days after the crucifixion of Jesus. From that time forward, the Kingdom of God in embryonic form has existed on earth as the “little flock” of God’s spiritual Israel.
Although the Church is not the Kingdom in full-blown form, its members enjoy a foretaste of what it will be like to live under the laws, judgments, statutes, and principles of Jesus Christ’s benevolent government (Matthew 11:28-30). Christians from the 1st century C.E. until now have been writing the Gospel story as part of the “living Book of Acts.” They will continue to do so until Jesus Christ ushers in the new and globe-girdling Millennial age.
Not only will the lost tribes of Israel be able to visit the land of their forefathers, but all people from all racial backgrounds will look on Jerusalem as the Headquarters of the King of Kings — Jesus Christ. Notice Micah 4:2: “Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord ... He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths’.”
Sidebar: “Thy Kingdom Come”
Establishment Christianity’s shift away from an emphasis on the future dimension of the Gospel has led some to the misguided idea that the Kingdom in its fullness exists on earth today. That perception has inspired many Christians to become aggressively active in attempting to solve many of the world’s difficulties and problems.
While this has produced some good fruit, in many cases, members have become involved in futile programs or personal quests to rid the world of evils which are systemic and so deeply rooted in society’s structure and fabric that nothing less than the establishment of Christ’s rule on earth will effect the necessary changes. For now, we continue to live in a world fraught with evil, war, murder, dishonesty, immorality, and all the other human vices which living within the boundaries of the laws of God would remedy.
The historical record is filled with accounts of well-intentioned attempts to bring the Kingdom of God to earth in its fullness before God intends it to arrive. One such example is the concerted 17th century Puritan attempt to change humankind, in this case, through strictly legislated morality. Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, and his associates sought to “inaugurate a new millennium...” Cromwell’s failure was the tragedy of all men of good will who recognize evil but find it difficult to describe the right. As a “soldier-saint” he took on the “responsibility of forging a New Jerusalem” but “was eventually destroyed by the means forced on him to attain his ends. The kingdom of God belongs to heaven, the city of man to earth, and not even a Cromwell could unite the two” (Lacy Baldwin Smith, This Realm of England, pp. 266, 275-277).
An awareness of the timetable of God’s plan as revealed in the annual Holy Days helps us to understand why so many attempts to reform society have failed. Unorthodox Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung put his finger on just the problem in his reflections about the near universal failure of revolutionary movements throughout human history. He writes:
“[E]ven if revolution succeeds, there is often no more than a change of rulers, while the problems and the oppression remain unchanged... They have had only a partial success in changing man inwardly, in his innermost core, in changing his ‘heart,’ with the aid of environment technology or psychoanalysis or even political revolution... With all the many reforms are we not merely painting over the surface and not getting at the cause of evil? We seem to be engaged less in necessary radical reform than in bustling, flustered reformism which in various spheres of life (university, industry, Church, education, state legislation) has produced a great deal of change and little improvement.
“At any rate there has been no change in man himself, no different basic attitude, no new humanity... Liberal reformers and disappointed revolutionaries meet one another at the grave of their expectations” (On Being A Christian, pp. 55-56, 554, 569-570).
True Christians have made the change of heart about which Kung speaks (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Hebrews 8:8-10). The majority of humanity has not. All men and women will have the opportunity to do so, but only after the return of Jesus Christ.
It is the return of Jesus Christ and all those events surrounding the literal establishment of His thousand year rule on earth that are portrayed in the Fall festival season — those holy days beginning with the Feast of Trumpets and running through the Feast of Tabernacles. A critical element in that story pertains to the future for the physical, national people of Israel. One of the many things that Christ will do on His return to the earth is to deliver an enslaved Israel out of the lands of their captivity.
This future dimension of the Gospel message deals with events leading to the end of this age and Second Coming. That message includes Israel’s impending punishment, repentance, and restoration. Those elements of the story are equally a part of the Gospel. How, then, do we locate the yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecies about Israel in Scripture?
Israel and prophecies for our day
In many Bible prophecies, the use of the word “Israel” points us exclusively to the descendants of the tribes of the northern kingdom — decidedly not Judah. Herbert Armstrong writes: “Wherever you see the name ‘house of Israel,’ or ‘Samaria,’ or ‘Ephraim’ used in prophecy, remember this: IT REFERS TO THE NORTHERN TRIBES of Israel, who composed the nation... Thus it is that many of the prophecies about ‘Israel’ or ‘Jacob’ do not refer primarily to Jews or to any of the nations that are today the descendants of the other tribes of Israel” (United States and Britain in Prophecy, pp. 43, 64 — see also pp. 60-62, 65-66, 70-71, 88, 107, 122). Unfortunately, in many cases the biblical use of the name “Israel” is far more ambiguous than we might like it to be. It is often difficult to know for certain whether the biblical narrator or prophet intends it to describe Israel, Judah, Israel and Judah, a portion of Judah, or a portion of Israel. The difficulty is illustrated in several passages from the Book of Jeremiah (2:4, 9, 26-28; 5:1, 20, 29; 11:9-12, 17; 18:6-11; 31:31-33).
Many of these Scriptures show that this prophet addressed not only Judah, but Israel as well, even though the northern kingdom’s captivity had come well over a century before Babylon intruded into the affairs of the Judean kingdom. A similar point can be made from the writings of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 3:4, 7, 11, 15; 8:3-11; 9:6-7; 11:1-2).
Some commentators argue that these warnings were only to those northerners who, through the centuries, had relocated within the confines of Judah’s territory — in other words, the Israelites who lived in Jerusalem.
Were the Israelites mentioned by them only that “remnant” (e.g., Jeremiah 31:7, Ezekiel 11:13; Micah 2:12; 5:7-8) of the northern kingdom which had taken refuge in Jerusalem from the 9th century B.C.E. “religious” reforms of Jeroboam I or the 8th century B.C.E. Assyrian onslaught of Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sargon II? If there were northerners among the Jewish community — and there absolutely were — we have to ask the question, “How many?” and “What percentage of the total community did they comprise?”
The population of Judea and Jerusalem was overwhelmingly Jewish in its tribal makeup. Moreover, by definition, the word “remnant” means a small number. A case in point is the 6th century B.C.E. restoration of Judah to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel (note the use of the term “remnant” in the context of Zechariah 8:6, 9-13).
The startling thing that is often overlooked is the paltry number of Jews who chose to leave the comforts of their Babylonian “captivity” — a state which Bible historians generally believe to be quite benign and hospitable (Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, pp. 470- 471, 473, 483; Shanks, Ancient Israel, pp. 156-158, 160, 162; Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, p. 436).
Relatively few Jews — only 42,360 by the biblical reckoning (Ezra 2, Nehemiah 7:6, 66) — were prepared to take on the challenge of rebuilding the nation in a setting which still bore the scars of the havoc wreaked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in the late-7th and early-6th centuries.
The awesome message of the Hebrew prophets
Were prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many others writing for only the people of their own time, or do their prophecies have dual application? The warnings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, like those of Daniel (12:9), are written as messages for a future generation as well as people living in the times of the prophets themselves.
In Jeremiah’s case, the duality extends both into the past and the future. For example, he asserts: “... The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers ... Behold, I will surely bring calamity on them [both houses] which they will not be able to escape...” (Jeremiah 11:9-12, 17). Could not this allude backward in time to Israel’s Assyrian captivity, forward in time to the coming Babylonian invasion, and still further ahead to an end time punishment to overtake Israel at the end of the age? There is nothing in Jeremiah’s references to both Israel and Judah (e.g., Jeremiah 5:11, 20) that confirms the location of the former house.
Neither do Jeremiah’s prophecies require that both houses reside in the same place at the time of the writing. Considering the highly personal way in which God dealt with and revealed information to Jeremiah (e.g., 1:4-10), it seems altogether likely that he possessed some inkling that his prophecies had implications for a time beyond his own. Certainly, the Israelites of old and today were a people without regard for the laws of God. From idolatry to adultery to Sabbath-breaking, historically many Israelites have had great difficulty obeying God. In fact, Sabbath-breaking is literally linked to Israel’s disappearance from the record of history. Israel’s abandonment of the fourth commandment transformed northerners into the “lost 10 tribes.” Why? Because the Sabbath was the sign by which Israel could be identified among the nations of the world. The Sabbath was not solely an aspect of the Old Covenant sealed at Sinai (Exodus 24:6-8) but part of a separate, independent covenant (see United States and Britain in Prophecy, pp. 133-134, 141-142) received by Israel subsequent to the giving of the Law. This special “Sabbath Covenant” is described in Exodus 31:14-17.
Since the seventh day Sabbath is included in the Ten Commandments received by Israel at Sinai, it was important enough for God to reinforce its importance, making Sabbath observance the identifying sign of God’s human, physical people. “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: `Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you”(Exodus 31:13).
Indeed, the Jews have retained their ethnic identity through history because the majority of them continued to keep the Sabbath through their long and troubled history. It is significant that Ezekiel, chapters 20 and 22 are excoriating indictments for Sabbath-breaking. From passages like these, we learn that in ancient times Sabbathbreaking was a significant reason for God’s punishment on the House of Israel. Will this be the case again?
Coming national punishments
If God was honor-bound by His unconditional promise to pass the Birthright to the descendants of Abraham, He is today no longer obligated by His promise to continue our undeserving peoples in world prestige, wealth and greatness.
Herbert Armstrong predicted that God would even “strip entirely from them [the modern Israelites] this colossal, unprecedented national blessing — returning them to captivity and slavery... At the very time their power reaches its zenith, He suddenly will break it, cutting off their implements of war and destroying their cities” (United States and Britain in Prophecy, pp. 10, 163, 166).
If such dire predictions are true, we may draw again from Leviticus 26, and the reference to “seven times” in verse 21. In this case the reference is to “intensity” rather than “duration” of punishment. Mention of breaking “pride of your power” in verse 19 could be nothing other than the Great Tribulation forecast by Jeremiah (30:5-7), Daniel (12:1), and Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:21-22).
In the words of Jesus, “It will be a time of great distress, such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again. If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive...” (Revised English Bible). This “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7) shows the descendants of ancient Israel in dire straits at the time of Jesus Christ’s return.
The Church’s crucial mission
As this horrendous time approaches, what is the Church of God to do? It has a sobering responsibility to perform. The Church — the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” of the New Covenant (1 Peter 2:9, compare Exodus 19:5-6;) — has to shoulder the spiritual responsibility of preaching the true gospel (Matthew 24:14).
One of those duties was to sound, when necessary, a prophetic warning. God chose Hebrew prophets to make just these kinds of pronouncements. We read them today as a permanent part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Malachi 3:6 and Hebrews 13:8 remind us that God does not change.
It is logical that God would use his Church — spiritual Israel or “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) as a prophetic voice in the New Testament dispensation at such times when a prophetic warning should be delivered. That Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets (Ephesians 2:19-21).
The Church is described in the Book of Acts as having had prophets in a limited sense (e. g., Acts 21:10-11). There are New Testament prophecies (e.g., 2 Timothy 1:6). Is it not the job of the “holy nation” — the Church of God — to witness as did the prophets of ancient Israel and Judah? This is the principle of duality.
Amos implies God does not intervene in human affairs in a major way without first giving fair warning through “His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). In a dual sense we should expect God’s Church to increasingly perform this role as the end of the age approaches.
The principle of duality
If the principle of duality magnifies our appreciation of God’s Holy Days and other aspects of the Word of God, it also shows how predictions, written by prophets of antiquity for people of old, often have a double and quite modern application. It gives us the confidence that God will act today as He has acted in the past.
Indeed, many prophecies, as well as biblical stories like that of Abraham or Joseph, foreshadow the future or have multiple fulfillments. Thus, the principle of duality makes a variety of complimentary interpretations possible.
For example, the Church of God has traditionally connected Christ’s charge to go “to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24, 18:4-14, Luke 19:9) to the responsibility not only of preaching a Gospel about Jesus Christ, but delivering the message of Christ’s coming millennial reign on earth.
Of course, the majority of Christians through history have not had an understanding of Israel’s post-captivity identity, nor have they necessarily needed it for salvation. But if it is the job of an end time Church to warn Israel of a coming Tribulation, then this information takes on critical significance. A. S. Geyser’s exegesis on Matthew 15:24 throws the seriousness of this issue into high relief.
“According to Matthew’s record, Jesus Christ countered the appeal of a Syrophoenician woman with a harsh, ‘I am sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’... Apart from lending support to the authenticity of Matthew 10:5 and 6, the passage conveys that the gathering-in of the lost sheep of the house of Israel was Jesus’s own task. When he appointed and commissioned the 12 to it, he was in fact delegating His personal task and authority to them” (“Some Salient New Testament Passages,” p. 308). This charge to the apostles is the forerunner of an end- time work of God. We are dealing with a commission which Jesus Christ Himself expects His Church at the end of the age to fulfill.
The significance of biblical prophecy
Since the founding of the Church, some leaders of God’s Work have taken on the task of preaching the Gospel with a strong sense of urgency. But their belief in the sooncoming return of Christ turned out to be pre-mature as was also the case in the days of Zerubbabel.
Stirred by the prophets of his own time — Haggai and Zechariah — Zerubbabel’s acute sense of imminent 6th century B.C.E. Messianic Expectation revived the work of God in his day (Ezra 5:1-2; Haggai 1:1-14). More importantly, it led to a great accomplishment: the completion of the Temple of God (Ezra 4:24; 5:1-2, 14-15). In similar fashion, a strong and sincere enthusiasm for the Second Coming today can fuel the construction of the spiritual Temple of the Church (2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-21).
The teaching about Israel’s modern-day identity has been an important aspect of that gospel in recent times, attracting a following to Jesus Christ by revealing a new and often unknown historical and prophetic dimension. For those living in Britain, the Commonwealth nations, and the United States, this aspect of God’s Word applies to their lives in the here and now. It adds a facet of immediacy and personal significance to the Gospel message.
Awareness of this terrible time to come on the Israelite people and the world in general should inspire a repentant spirit and a willingness to change. For those who hear and do repent, there is a loving God who will forgive, restore, protect, and prosper (compare Jonah 3:2-10). Scripture even suggests in places that the Church will receive protection from the holocaust to come (Revelation 12:9-17; Psalm 91:1-16). We are, however, overly optimistic if we think that today’s messengers of God are more persuasive than Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, or Isaiah (Jeremiah 38:6 — compare Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 35). “Neither Hosea’s ministry nor Amos’s warnings seem to have made a lasting impression on the nation; the people did not change their lifestyle” (Shanks, Ancient Israel, p. 127).
Conditions are much the same today. The message of the coming Kingdom of God is no more palatable now than it was to many in Jesus Christ’s 1st century C.E. audiences. It threatens to overturn principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12), to upset the political, social, and economic systems in which we all to one degree or another have a stake.
The necessity of this vital prophetic message
In some quarters, the message about ancient Israel’s modern identity is more likely to attract sharp criticism than new converts. The understanding about Israel’s modern identity has always had its share of opponents. If God’s warnings to Israel in the writings of the prophets went unheeded, can we expect wide acceptance of a similar warning message today? Even if the answer is “no,” the message nevertheless must be preached. “Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). The principle is there. Certainly a prophetic message is an integral part of publishing the Gospel of God’s Kingdom.
The Bible has a promise regarding the physical heirs of Abraham’s Birthright as the end of the age approaches. Modern Israel must be made aware of its heritage and its destiny.
As Malachi predicts: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6).
Like the sons of Jacob standing in the ancient court of Pharaoh may today’s descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh be able to read with understanding and conclude: “I am Joseph!” W
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