Gentile Christians and Israel

I’m sure you’ve noticed in this recent conflict between Israel and Hamas how polarizing the nation of Israel is.  People are either strongly for Israel or against it.  For few other conflicts in the world do you get such large demonstrations everywhere as there were recently.  Why is this?  Why does Israel make people so upset?  And of course the Muslim world is constantly angry at Israel, and constantly plotting its destruction.  Why is this? 

Israel is a tiny nation, only about the size of Taiwan.  Why is it in the news all the time?  Why are the eyes of the world constantly on Israel?  There are many explanations.  But the one that’s most important for us as Christians is that there’s a spiritual war going on over Israel.  Why is this battle so intense?  Because God is at work in Israel, preparing a tremendous miracle there, and the devil can’t stand it!  What is God preparing?

The Bible says that Jesus himself is going to return there, on the Mt. of Olives, in the same way that he left to go into heaven.  As it says in Acts 1:11:  “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched him go into heaven.”  And when he returns, you'll be with him—if you're a believer.  As it says in Zech 14:  "And in that day, his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east.... The LORD my God will come;  all the holy ones will be with you [Jerusalem]…. And the LORD will be king over all the earth" (Zech. 14:4,5,9).   

God is restoring Israel to prepare for the return of Jesus to Jerusalem.  This means, obviously, that the nation of Israel is very important to Christians.  In fact, you could say that Israel is both our past and our future.  What do I mean by that? 

Christianity began as a Jewish Messianic movement, started among the Jews by Jews.  As Jesus himself put it, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).  Jesus himself is Jewish.  The disciples are Jewish.  Most of our Bible was originally written in Hebrew.  Our faith was originally a branch of Judaism.  The disciples of Jesus at first preached the gospel only to Jews (“Those who were dispersed …made their way …speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone,” Acts 11:19).  That’s where the gospel came from.  It was completely Jewish. 

That means that without an understanding of our Jewish roots, we can’t understand our faith.  What is Messiah?  Messiah is a Jewish idea.  What is salvation?  It’s a Jewish idea.  What is paradise?  What is Gehenna?  What is the Holy Spirit?  Without some Jewish background, the meaning even of the words in our Bibles can’t be understood properly.  Without that background, our faith can mean anything anyone wants it to mean. 

And unfortunately that’s exactly what happened in history.  When the Church rejected the Jewish roots of our faith, people interpreted the Bible any way they wanted to.  And the Church went swinging way off into false teaching and destructive actions:  the Crusades, the Inquisition, forced conversions, the violent subjugation of Central and South America, colonialism.  Christianity became a religion of power, a tool of conquest rather than a message of love and personal salvation.  The Church got lost because it rejected the Jewish background of our faith.  Without that Jewish background, Christianity is no longer Christian. 

So originally, Christianity was completely Jewish.  That’s our past.  What about the future?

The Bible says that the Jewish people will repent and accept Jesus when he returns:  “And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the Land will beat (the breast in mourning), and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).  This will not be the “tribes of the earth” as often translated, but the “tribes of the Land,” the Land of Israel.  How do I know that?

Because Jesus is referring here to Zech. 12, when the inhabitants of Jerusalem will mourn at the return of Jesus (“And I will pour out on the house of David and on the one living in Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication and they will look to me whom they pierced and they will beat the beast over him as the wailing over an only son and will make a bitter outcry over him as the making of a bitter outcry over a firstborn,” Zech. 12:10).  This is when Israel will repent and receive Jesus.  This is why Israel has been regathered from the nations:  to prepare for the return of Jesus and the salvation of the Jewish nation. 

Then, when he comes, together we will reign with him for a thousand years:  Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers in Jesus.  This will, after all, be the kingdom of a Jewish Messiah, not an American president.  Right?  The Bible says that Jesus will come back in just the same way that he went:  he’ll still be Jewish. 

And during that time, the Bible says that we will all celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.  Zech. 14:16:  “And it will be that everyone who remains from all the nations who will come against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship before the King, the LORD of hosts, and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.”  This is talking about all the believers in Jesus from all the nations of the world who will live with Jesus in his Messianic kingdom.  At that time, everyone, including Gentile believers, will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. 

 This verse, by the way, is what started the modern international celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, in 1980.  Merla Watson, a Christian from Canada, was reading her Bible and saw in Zechariah that we will celebrate the Feast in the future with Jesus.  So, she thought, maybe we should start practicing for this now, and the modern celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles was born.  Today, thousands of Christians from all over the world come up to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Feast.  It’s the biggest tourism event in Israel every year.  People come from all over the world to participate. 

So if the Bible says that we will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in the Messianic kingdom, does that mean we will also celebrate other Jewish festivals when Jesus returns?  The Bible doesn’t say directly.  But at his last Passover with his disciples, Jesus said, “But I say to you, I will certainly not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I will drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father” (Matt. 26:29).  It certainly sounds like he’s referring to the celebration of Passover in the Messianic kingdom.

And what about after the Millennium, in the New Heavens and the New Earth?  The Bible says we will live in the New Jerusalem, not the new Paris or the new Tokyo.  It will be a Jewish city with the Jewish God, the God of Israel, reigning there. 

The only way to enter that city, according to the book of Revelation, will be through twelve gates, each of which will have on it the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel:  “The city had a broad and high wall with twelve gates and twelve messengers at the gates.  And names were written on them which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (Rev. 21:12).  Even in the New Heavens and the New Earth, Israel will still be important! 

Christianity is Jewish from the beginning to the end.  So then why are we a part of it, who are not Jewish?

When Christianity first got started, it was a natural assumption that to worship the true God of Israel, to be a follower of the Jewish Messiah, Gentile believers should become Jews:  they should convert to Judaism to be Christians.  Makes sense, right?  After all, Israel at the time was the only nation to worship the God of Israel.  As some said at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15: But some from the sect of the Pharisees who believed stood up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to observe the Law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5).  But the Council didn’t go along with this point of view.  They decided that Gentile believers in Jesus do not need to become Jewish first.  Why not? 

First Peter told of his experience at Caesarea (Acts 15:7-11).  When he preached the gospel to Gentiles at the house of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit descended on them even though they were not Jewish and were not yet even baptized.  God obviously accepted them just the way they were.  Paul also told of his experiences with Gentile believers (Acts 15:12). 

Finally James, the brother of Jesus, proposed a decision based on Amos 9:11-12.  And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written:  ‘After these things I will return and rebuild the tent of David that is fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins and restore it’” (Acts 15:15,16).  What is the tent of David?  It’s talking about the royal line of David that had fallen in Old Testament times, but is now restored in the Messiah. 

Acts 15:17:  “so that the rest of mankind will seek the Lord, and all the nations (the Gentiles) for whom my name has been named over them,’ says the Lord who does these things.”  This is often translated, ‘who are called by my name’; but that’s not what it says.  It says “for whom my name has been named over them.”  What’s this talking about?  When do people have the name of the Lord spoken over them?  At baptism.  That’s exactly what Peter did to the Gentiles at Caesarea after the Holy Spirit fell on them.  They were baptized in the name of Jesus.  The name of Jesus was spoken over them in baptism while they were still Gentiles.  So what does this prophecy mean?  The royal line of David has been restored in Jesus so that the Gentiles can seek the Lord, be saved, and be baptized.  James saw this verse in Amos as a confirmation of what Peter and Paul had already done:  accepting Gentiles as believers in Jesus without requiring them to convert to Judaism.  God had another plan for the Gentiles. 

So what is God’s plan for Gentiles?  It goes all the way back to Abraham.  Do you remember when God said to Abraham, “All the families of the earth will be blessed by you.”  How could that happen?  How could Abraham, a shepherd in the Middle East, bless all the families of the earth?  Abraham was the ancestor of the Israelites, of the Jewish people.  How could other nations be blessed by him? 

The same promise was passed down to his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob.  To Isaac it was said:  “…and by your seed all the nations of the earth will bless themselves” (Gen. 26:4).  To Jacob it was said:  “…and all the families of the earth will be blessed by you and your seed” (Gen. 28:14).  But at the time of Jacob’s death, or just before his death, something very important happened.  This blessing wasn’t passed down to all his sons.  It was only passed down to one of them:  to Ephraim. 

In a deathbed blessing, Jacob said to Joseph’s sons, “his younger brother (Ephraim) will be greater than he (than Manasseh), and his seed will be the fullness of the nations [melo ha-goyim]” (Gen. 48:19).  This is different than the promise we heard before.  This says that Ephraim’s seed will be “the fullness  of the nations,” melo ha-goyim in Hebrew.  Unfortunately, this is often translated ‘a multitude of nations,’ but that’s not what it says in Hebrew, and hides the true meaning.  Jacob clearly said that the descendants of Ephraim will become the Gentile nations of the earth.  But how could that be?  How could the tribe of Ephraim fill all the Gentile nations of the earth? 

After Solomon sinned because of his wives, his kingdom was divided.  The two tribes in the south, Judah and Benjamin, became the Kingdom of Judah.  This kingdom was ruled by a descendant of David.  But the ten tribes in the north became the Kingdom of Israel, also known as Ephraim. 

Jeroboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom, led them into apostasy by having them worship golden calves at Dan and Bethel.  You can still the foundation of the temple for the golden calf at Dan.  Then Ahab and Jezebel led them into the worship of Baal.  And it got worse and worse, until finally God exiled them from the Land, but only after many warnings from the prophets. 

One of the prophets that warned them about their sin was Hosea.  He compared their worship of other gods to prostitution:  “…for surely the Land commits harlotry from no longer following after the LORD” (Hosea 1:2).  This is talking about the worship of other gods.  This made God so angry, that if they didn’t stop he said, “…and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hos. 1:4).  And again in Hosea 1:6:  “…for I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel, for I will surely take them away (into exile).” 

Finally God said, “…for you are not my people, and I am not I Am to you” (Hos. 1:9).  This is the most extreme thing that God could say.  This verse is often described as God divorcing Israel.  Israel, the northern kingdom, would no longer be God’s people.  He would no longer be I Am to them.  Because of this, God’s protection was removed, and Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and taken away and scattered among the nations.  And unlike Judah in its time of exile, most of the ten northern tribes never returned.

This led to their being referred to as the Ten Lost Tribes.  Some small groups did maintain a sense of Israelite identity until today, but many others intermarried, and have long since completely lost any memory and any outward trace of Israelite identity.  They just mixed among the nations.  And because of this, every person alive today is descended at least in some small part from the Ten Tribes. 

This is how they fulfilled the prophecy of melo ha-goyim.  Ephraim today has become the fullness of the Gentiles.  And this is the way the Jewish rabbis also see them:  technically, according to Jewish Law, the Ten Tribes, even those who maintained their identity, are no longer bound by the Law of Moses.  They are completely cut off.  They have become Gentiles.  If they want to be considered Jewish, they must be converted to Judaism.  So when some of the descendants of the Ten Tribes have recently been brought back to Israel, they have had to go through a conversion ceremony because they had been completely cut off by God.    

Because of Ephraim, the seed of Abraham has been spread literally throughout the entire world.  Ephraim has indeed become the “fullness of the nations.”  This means that you, too, are descended in some small way from Ephraim.  Yet the Jewish hope is that the Lost Tribes will one day be restored.  Why is there this hope of restoration?  Because in the very place that God cut them off, he also prophesied their restoration:

Hosea 1:10:  “and the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand of the sea that is not measured and is not numbered, and it will be that in the place that it is said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it will be said to them, ‘You are sons of the living God.’”  But wait a minute!  Ephraim was totally cut off, divorced from God.  According to Biblical law, a divorced woman can never be restored to the former relationship.  Do you know that verse?

Deut. 24:1:  “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house...”  That’s what God did to Ephraim, to the northern kingdom.  He divorced her and sent her out from the Land. 

Deut. 24:2,4:  “and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife.... her first husband who sent her away may not return to take her to be his wife after she was defiled, for it is an abomination before the LORD.”  This means that Ephraim can never again come under the Law of Moses.  He cannot enter again into his first covenant which he left to serve other gods.  So how can Ephraim be restored to God?  Only by a new covenant with a new spouse:  Jesus. 

Hosea 1:11:  “and the sons of Judah and the sons of Israel will be gathered together and they will appoint one leader for themselves, and they will go up from the land, for great is the day of Jezreel.”  Who is this one leader?  The Messiah.  And what does it mean, “they will go up from the land”?  The resurrection of the righteous, which will take place right after all Israel is saved at the coming of the Messiah.  So here, too, we see the reconciliation of the Jewish people and the Gentile believers in Jesus (Judah and Israel coming together), on the basis of one leader, the Messiah, which means the salvation of the Jewish people just before the resurrection and the coming of the Messiah. 

And what is “the day of Jezreel”?  Jezreel is another name for the valley of Megiddo, also known as the valley of Armageddon (Rev. 16:16):  the place of assembly for the final war against Jerusalem.  God will show himself mighty by completely destroying the armies that will come up against Jerusalem. 

Have you ever heard this interpretation of Hosea before?  Probably not.  But Paul did.  In Romans 9, Paul is not only thinking of this passage in Hosea, he directly quotes from it:   “Us whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles, as he also says in Hosea:  ‘I will call the one who is not my people, ‘My people,’ and her who is not loved, ‘Beloved’ (Hosea 2:23).  And it will be in the place that it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called sons of the living God (Hosea 1:10)” (Rom. 9:24-26).  Paul directly states here that he considers the Gentile believers in Jesus to be the fulfillment of this verse in Hosea, the fulfillment of the restoration of Ephraim. 

Peter was also familiar with this same prophecy, and applied it in the same way.  Writing to Gentile believers, he said, “You who once were not a people, but now are the people of God, those who had not been shown mercy, but now have been shown mercy” (1 Pet. 2:10).  He’s quoting the same verse in Hosea, and applying it to Gentiles—to us.  This was obviously a teaching that all the apostles understood, a basic part of the gospel message. 

We fulfill this verse.  We are the scattered, cut off seed of Ephraim that is being restored to God and restored to Israel in the Messiah.  This is also what Paul was talking about in Rom 11:25:  “For I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of this mystery that you may not be wise in your own sight, for the hardening of a part of Israel has taken place until the time when the fullness of the nations comes in.”  Do you recognize that phrase, “fullness of the nations”?  It’s the melo hagoyim of Jacob way back in the book of Genesis.  It’s Ephraim scattered among the nations.  But now Ephraim—we—are coming in.  We are being restored to God through the New Covenant, through Jesus.  While this is happening, a part of Israel is hardened.  But once the fullness of the nations, melo hagoyim, has all come in, the hardening of Israel will be removed, and the Jewish people will accept their Messiah.  In this way, all Israel will be saved.  And that’s exactly what he says in the next verse.    

Rom. 11:26:  “And in this way all Israel will be saved:  just as it is written, ‘The deliverer will come because of Zion, he will cause godlessness to turn away from Jacob.’”  Once the fullness of the nations has come in, the deliverer will come.  Who’s that??  Jesus will return and “cause godlessness to turn away from Jacob.”  When Jesus returns, the Jewish people will turn back to the living God and accept Jesus as their Messiah.  And then all Israel will be saved! 

Yes, we are part of the incredible story of Israel!  We, like long lost sheep, are being restored to Israel and to Israel’s God!

Paul also mentions this in Eph. 2:12-19, while talking again to Gentiles:  “Remember that you were at that time without Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and in the world without God.”  What’s this talking about?  Before we became believers, we were not only cut off from God, we were also cut off from Israel, even hostile to Israel, as so much of the world is.  We were cut off from the covenants of promise.  Which covenants are they? 

The covenant with Abraham is a covenant of promise (Gal. 3:16-22).  Remember God’s promise to Abraham, that all the families of the earth will be blessed by him?  That’s a promise, a promise that is being fulfilled in Jesus.  God’s covenant with David is also a covenant of promise, that one of David’s descendents would rule on the throne of Israel forever.  What other covenant of promise is there?  The New Covenant in Messiah is also a covenant of promise:  it has the promise of eternal life, the promise of forgiveness of all our sins.  We were cut off from all these things.  But now we are included in all these covenants of promise through Jesus.   

Eph. 2:13,14:  “But now, in Messiah Jesus, you who once were far away [the Gentiles] were made near by the blood of Messiah.  For he himself [Jesus] is our peace, who made both [Jews and Gentiles who believe in him] one and destroyed the dividing wall of the fence, the hostility between the two, in his flesh...”   What does he mean, the “dividing wall of the fence”? 

In the ancient Temple, there was a stone fence that divided the areas where Gentiles could go from the areas where only the Jews could go.  Only the Jews could go into the inner courts of the Temple.  This fence Paul uses as a symbol of the division between Jews and Gentiles, the hostility between Jews and Gentiles.  But now, in Messiah Jesus, this fence is broken down.  Now, in Jesus, we who are Gentiles have accepted our Jewish brothers and sisters in the faith—we are not hostile to them anymore.  And that means that now we have access to the inner courts of the Temple, to worship God in Spirit and in truth. 

When did he destroy this dividing wall?  Eph. 2:15,16:  “when he made the law of commandments in ordinances [the Law of Moses] ineffective that in himself [in Messiah] he may create out of the two one new man [made up of Jewish and Gentile believers], making peace, and may reconcile both in one body to God by means of the cross, abolishing the hostility between the two in him.”  The Law of Moses is powerless compared to the new, better Law of Messiah, a law no longer written on tablets of stone, but on our hearts.  Now we willingly follow God, not because we have to, but because we want to.  And through Messiah, through the cross, Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus have become one.  The hostility between Jew and Gentile has been removed. 

Eph. 2:17,18:  “And when he [Messiah] came, he preached good news of ‘peace to you who were far away [the Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [the Jews]’ (Isa. 57:19),’ for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”  The gospel is for both Jews and Gentiles, and through it, we both have access to the Father God through the Holy Spirit.  So what’s the result of all of this? 

Eph. 2:19:  “So, therefore, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but you are fellow-citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God.”  Fellow-citizens of what?  Before we were cut off from Israel but now we’re not.  So that means we’re citizens of Israel:  our citizenship has been restored.  This is not talking about the current earthly nation of Israel.  If you go to Israel and try to claim your citizenship, they will reject you.  But it’s talking about the spiritual, saved Israel, which includes our Jewish brothers and sisters in Messiah, and all rest of the nation of Israel when they finally accept Jesus, when we will be with them in the kingdom of the Messiah.  But for now the fullness of the nations (melo hagoyim) is still coming in, though the salvation of Israel is drawing closer every day. 

So what is God’s plan for the Gentiles?  To deliver us from our alienation from and hatred of Israel.  Because in fact, spiritually speaking, we are Ephraim.  We are the Ten Lost Tribes.  We need to wake up to our true identity.  But we can’t go back to the way it was before.  We can’t go back to the Law of Moses that our distant ancestors broke and rejected so badly that God had to throw them out of Israel and cut them off from being his people.  But God has a plan of salvation for us.  And that salvation is in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.  Through Jesus, we can be restored to God.  Through Jesus, we can be restored to Israel, and to citizenship in Israel.  Through Jesus, we can be restored to all the covenants of promise and to our calling.  Amen?

Let’s pray:  Father God, I pray that you would help us get hold of this teaching from your Word.  Help us understand our true identity in you and our true calling in you.  Help us to understand what the apostles taught about us as Gentile believers, and how we can be restored to Israel through Jesus.  Father, increase our love for Israel and our understanding of how we fit into your plan and into your world.  And it’s in the name of Jesus our Messiah that we pray.