Israel is often in the news. Currently (May 2011) Israel is reported to be concerned about the unrest in its neighboring Arab countries. Some expect a major war over Israel. Does Revelation say anything about Israel? It does, but not in the way commonly interpreted. Entire books have been written on the subject, so this can only be a very brief overview of the topic. Israel is mentioned in Revelation 7:4 and 21:12, and alluded to in chapter 14. I will come back to those, but first some background.
We have previously stated that Revelation borrows much from the Old Testament, so we need to understand some of that history if we are going to come to correct conclusions in Revelation. We go back to Abraham, who is considered the “father” of Israel through his son Isaac. Of course, the Muslims also consider Abraham the “father” of their religion through his son Ishmael. But we only find the term Israel when we reach Abraham’s grandson, Isaac’s son Jacob. God had promised (“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”–Genesis 12:3)that the Seed(Christ) would come through a son to be born to Sarah (Genesis 17:19).
Jacob was afraid for his life, expecting his brother Esau to try and kill him for cheating him out of his birthright. He had sent his family on before him on this trip to his homeland. He was left alone to probably pray about his situation when a man suddenly appeared. We speak of Jacob wrestling with an angel all night. Eventually Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and we pick up the story in Genesis 32:26. The angel says “‘Let Me go, for the day breaks.’ But he said, ‘I will not let You go unless You bless me!’ So He said to him, “What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ And He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.'” Jacob commented later, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”
This is the first mention of Israel. Note that he didn’t receive that name because he was a biological descendant of Abraham, but because of the special spiritual relationship with God that he had developed. Keep that in mind, because the spiritual will always be more important than the literal/biological relationships. Esau, for example, had the biological relationship, but not the spiritual one, and did not receive this name symbolizing this experience. Jacob had now acquired the kind of faith and character that his grandfather Abraham displayed.
God had promised Abraham to make of him a great nation. That began primarily at the time of the Exodus when God delivered Israel (the descendants of Jacob through his twelve sons) and set up what we call a theocracy–that is, God was the direct ruler of Israel. They had no king to rule over them as other nations did. God directly led them (through the cloud that directed them in the wilderness) and disciplined them. Later He used judges and prophets to speak for Him. It was during the time of Samuel the prophet that they clamored for a king like other nations had. God warned them about the problems but let them have their way. Some of the kings were faithful to God, but the majority were not. Eventually the nation was split in two, with 10 of the tribes forming the northern country of Israel and 2 forming the southern kingdom of Judah. But things went from bad to worse. Israel ended up being taken into captivity by the Assyrians, and Judah was eventually taken over by the Babylonians. The sad record is found in 2 Chronicles 36:14-17 (regarding Judah, but applicable to the northern tribes as well): “Moreover all the leaders of the priests and the people transgressed more and more, according to all the abominations of the nations, and defiled the house of the Lord which He had consecrated in Jerusalem. And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God,, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy. Therefore He brought against them the king of the Chaldeans….”
While in Babylon, Daniel had prophesied (as recorded in chapter 9, which will be more fully explained in a category “Revelation and Daniel”) that the Jewish nation would have a period of 490 years of probation, beginning in 457 B.C. and ending in 34 A.D. In the middle of the final 7 year period, the Messiah would be cut off (i.e. crucified), that is, in 31 A. D.
Jeremiah had prophesied that they would be held captive in Babylon for 70 years. This turned out to be accurate, and the Israelites(the remnant of Judah, actually) were permitted to return and rebuild Jerusalem. It seemed hard for them to find balance. Before the captivity they had become too “liberal,” becoming idolatrous, etc. After their return they went to the opposite extreme and became ultra conservative and exclusive. That’s when Jesus arrived on the scene.
Jesus tried to restore Israel to God’s true purpose for them, but without success as far as the leadership was concerned. He had pointed out their hypocrisy and other failings, and that didn’t set well with them. He also hadn’t met their expectations as to what a Messiah should be. He tried to show them the primarily spiritual nature of His kingdom, but they didn’t seem interested. They wanted a Messiah who would physically drive out or obliterate the Romans. Finally, it got so bad that Jesus said to them just before His crucifixion, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'” Matthew 23:37-39. In Mark 14:62-64 it says that when Jesus foretold His coming in the clouds of heaven that the leadership accused Him of blasphemy and worthy of death. The leadership had rejected Jesus and thus their position as a nation in a theocracy directly under God. Their probation had nearly ended, and was finalized a few years later (about 34 A. D. as mentioned in Daniel 9) at the stoning of Stephen.
But what about all those promises God had made to Israel through the years? Were they no longer valid? Let’s see what the New Testament has to say. It is the best interpreter of the Old Testament.
In Acts 13:44-46 Paul has preached in a Jewish synagogue to both Jews and Gentiles. “And the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.”
So what about Israel now? If the nation itself has been rejected, who inherits the promises? And can the Jews still be saved? Paul makes some very important statements about who Israel really is. For example, “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called.’ That is , those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.” Romans 9:6-8. In 1 Corinthians 15:50 he makes a general statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…” So the emphasis is on the spiritual, not the literal. He further states in Romans 2:28, 29: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” Paul summarizes it nicely in Galatians 3:29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” So if you have accepted Christ as your Savior, then according to these texts you are the true “Jew” and part of the people who will receive the promises and inheritance.
Does that mean that Jews can’t be saved? No, not at all. In Romans 12:1 Paul reminds us that he himself is a Jew. But his argument is that it is not his biological inheritance that entitles him to the promises and inheritance, but rather his spiritual inheritance that is determinative. That’s why Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again. His biological inheritance was no good. It would be his spiritual inheritance with a new spiritual Father that would now make the difference.
But what about the Jewish state of Israel? There may be good political reasons, even moral ones, to support the state of Israel in the middle east, but not prophetic ones. Our policies toward Israel should not be based on Old Testament prophecies which are no longer valid for that nation now, according to the New Testament. Those have been transferred to God’s true people no matter where they are. Has the Christian church now taken Israel’s place? Not as an institution or denomination or even as a group simply called by that name. The Christian church through the centuries has not always lived up to Christ’s calling. It is rather applied now to all those people who are true followers of Jesus Christ no matter what organization they belong to (or even if they don’t), or where they reside. They are all over the world, and will one day be gathered together to meet the Lord in the air and reside with Him for eternity.
Coming back to Israel in Revelation, there are only three times the word appears. Revelation 2:14 is simply a historical reference to the occasion when Balaam taught king Balak how to lead ancient Israel into immorality so as to bring God’s disfavor on them (when Balaam was not allowed by God to curse Israel). This is not literal Israel in the end time–it is merely telling us we need to learn lessons from ancient Israel’s experience.
The second reference is Revelation 7:4-9. It refers to a sealing of God’s people in their foreheads, 144,000 in number, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Is this literal or spiritual Israel? Here are some thoughts why I believe it is the latter and is not referring to literal Jews from the political state today. First of all, in verse 4 it John says he heard this number mentioned, but in verse 9 when he looked, he saw a multitude no man could number. Secondly, the tribes listed are not the original 12 tribes of Jacob. The tribes of Dan and Ephraim are left out. Joseph and Levi are in their places. Besides that, the 10 northern tribes merged into the population around them during their Assyrian captivity and were never returned to their homeland intact like the ones from the 2 tribes in Judah (after their captivity in Babylon). The number 144,000 seems arbitrary and unusually exact if it is literal. It would seem to be difficult for modern Jews to trace their ancestry to a specific tribe. The weight of evidence, to me, suggests a symbolic number.
The third and final time Israel is stated in Revelation is in chapter 21:12, where it says the 12 gates in the New Jerusalem are named after the 12 tribes of Israel. But keep in mind, there are thousands, maybe millions, of followers of Christ who cannot trace their biological ancestry to one of the 12 tribes of Israel, yet everyone goes into the city through one of those 12 gates. Which one do you think you will go through?! Some have suggested they represent different character traits. But whatever the case, It is not our biological ancestry that determines our destiny, but our spiritual ancestry, thus the necessity of being born again like Jesus told Nicodemus, so we can claim God as our spiritual Father, and thus receive our inheritance by virtue of our relationship with Jesus. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” Romans 8:16, 17. Note that it says nothing about being literal Jews. To repeat Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:29, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”
The book of Revelation says nothing about a war against political Israel in the Middle East. We have had several wars over there, yet none of them was prophetic other than in the general sense of many wars in the end time. Armageddon is not a war of Russia against Israel. But that is another topic.
To summarize this short overview, Revelation does not describe the final war as political Israel being the target. (Spiritual Israel will be, as we shall see in another posting). So while there may be political reasons for supporting Israel, it should not be because of some specific Bible prophecy compelling such a policy. The important thing for us today is that we belong to Christ and thus are heirs of God, and will one day walk through one of those gates into the city of God prepared for His people.
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