The Old Testament Prophecies to Israel Fulfilled by the Church

“I know the slander on the part of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9 NRSV).

Premillennialism is that system of eschatology which has national Israel at its centre.  After the so-called Rapture of the Church and the seven years Tribulation during which Jews take a leading part, Jesus returns, destroys the antichrist, and sets up his kingdom on earth.  He will reign for a thousand years (the period known as the Millennium) with his capital at Jerusalem, and with Israel being the dominant nation on earth during that time.  According to Dispensational Premillennialists, during the Millennium the temple will be rebuilt and the full animal sacrificial system re-instituted.  Further, they say that because Israel rejected Jesus their Messiah, God cut them from the olive tree (Rom 11) and grafted the Gentiles (i.e. the Church) into it in their place, and they now await the restoration of national Israel.  Thus, the Church is simply a stop-gap situation until the time comes for God to re-start the clock and graft Israel back into the olive tree.  Israel will take up where they left off and continue as the people of God under the Old Testament dispensation.  Dispensationalism was popularised by the Scofield Reference Bible in the 20th century and more recently by the books and movies by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins in the “Left Behind” series.

Premillennialism is an elaborate and complicated system of Jesus’ return, where he returns not once, as the bible teaches, but twice.  To justify their claim for two returns, Dispensationalists prevaricate by saying his return is in two stages because at the first stage, when he comes at the Rapture, his feet don’t actually touch the ground – a neat side-step on their part. 

Premillennialism is blasphemous because it has Christ ruling for a thousand years in Jerusalem while Israel sacrifices animals to take away their sins in a rebuilt temple, and with the whole Old Testament system – law, Levitical priesthood, animal sacrifices, circumcision, Sabbaths, speaking Hebrew, feasts, and so on – re-instituted.  However, some Dispensationalists also have a problem with this, so they say that the animal sacrifices are not to atone for sin but will be similar in nature to a sacrament to remember the death of Christ.  But why would God want his people to perpetually practice something that has never given him pleasure (Heb 10:6)?  How can it be that Jesus, who is the antitype of that whole system, and who fulfilled it completely when he died on the cross (John 19:30; Matt 27:51) will, at a future time, preside over that which is inferior and insufficient – and that for a thousand years?  

The Two Covenants Say it all

Built-in obsolescence

The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians and it is all about the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old.  It says For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.  God finds fault with them when he says: ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah….’ In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear (Heb 8:7-8, 13). 

The ministry of death

The apostle Paul calls the Old Covenant “the ministry of death” and “the ministry of condemnation”; whereas, in contrast, he calls the New Covenant “the ministry of the Spirit” and “the ministry of righteousness” (2 Cor 3:7-9).  Surely, this passage alone is sufficient to put away any idea of a restored Israel under the Old Covenant? 

Paul writes that God equipped the twelve apostles to be ministers of the New Covenant, replacing the twelve tribes of Israel from whom came the law: “…who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).  He tells us that there is death in the law!  It brings death to all who would live by it.  And it is temporary.  God is never going to send his Son to rule over a Jewish kingdom/empire centred on Jerusalem for a thousand years, with a system of law that brings death to its adherents.  The Old Covenant is obsolete!  It served its temporary purpose but was made redundant when Christ fulfilled the law by dying on the cross as the Lamb of God slain for sinners; after which the temple curtain was torn in two signifying that the Old Covenant was now fulfilled and abrogated.

Jewish minds hardened

As if that wasn’t enough, Paul goes on to show the futility of the Old Covenant and the hope given by the New Covenant.  Continuing on from the above passage, he writes: ….not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.  But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside.  Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds(2 Cor 3:13-15).

Does this look like the kind of kingdom that Christ would rule?  Having fulfilled all the demands of the Old Covenant law and having died for sinners to free them from that ministry of death, it seems illogical, at the very least, that he would allow his Jewish subjects in the millennial kingdom to continue with the veil over their hardened minds, while he sits enthroned in Jerusalem, denying them the ministry of life for which he died in order to give it to them and so set them free.

The New Covenant is Better in Every Respect

So the Old Covenant is finished – it was insufficient to take away sins – “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins (Heb 10:11) – and is now obsolete and replaced by the New Covenant which is far better: “But Jesus has obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises (Heb 8:6).  Please read chapters 7-10 and you will see that you cannot hold the idea of a millennial temple in which are a fully restored animal sacrificial system, and fully restored Levitical priesthood, as we find in Ezekiel chs 40-48.  This prophecy of Ezekiel can only be referring to the Church that Jesus would build (Matt 16:18) and which began its fulfilment at Pentecost (Acts ch 2).  The OT sacrifices and priesthood were mere shadows, awaiting their fulfilment in the one perfect sacrifice of Christ (9:26; 10:12-14), who was also a better priest (7:24-25) and mediator of a better covenant (8:6).  The temple that Ezekiel describes in chapters 40-47 is, as Matthew Henry describes it, a mystical temple; it is not literal.  “This relates to the altar in this mystical temple, and that is mystical too; for Christ is our altar” (on Ezek 43:13-17).  And at the beginning of the vision in these chapters, Matthew Henry comments on Ezek 40:1-4: “From the top of this mountain he saw as the frame of a city, the plan and model of it; but this temple was as large as a city.  The New Jerusalem (Rev 21:22) had no temple therein; this which we have here is all temple, which comes much to one.  It is a city for men to dwell in; it is a temple for God to dwell in; for in the church on earth God dwells with men, in that in heaven men dwell with God”.  In this passage he also refers to the temple which Ezekiel was looking as “the gospel-temple” and “God’s house” i.e. the church.

Please note: I quote from Matthew Henry, not as an infallible authority but as a learned voice and a representative of the Puritan and Reformed churches of his time.  To interpret these chapters literally and still future gets one into all sorts of trouble, all of which deny the gospel.

Jesus established the New Covenant

The New Covenant was established when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26) and then activated at the cross.  When Jesus hung there, he cried “It is finished” and the curtain of the temple was torn in two (Mk 15:38), thus signifying the end of the Old Covenant, with the law and the animal sacrifices.  John tells us Jesus knew that all things were now accomplished (Jn 19:28).  The Old Covenant has been superseded by a superior covenant which has been established by the death of the spotless Lamb of God: But when  Christ had offered FOR ALL TIME a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God (Heb 10:12).  Jesus had to die so that he could establish the New Covenant (Heb 9:16-17).

Bear in mind then, that the writer of Hebrews is here speaking to Jewish Christians.  If the Old Covenant was in abeyance and would be reinstated at a later time, he would have told them so – but he didn’t say anything of the kind.  He is at pains to show the absolute superiority and permanence of the New Covenant, established on better promises, a better sacrifice, and a better priesthood; and to show the weakness and transient nature of the Old.  He also shows that what Jesus accomplished for us is eternal.

Jesus established a new priesthood

Paul explains that the Levitical priesthood has also been abolished; it was, along with the whole Old Covenant sacrificial system, a temporary priesthood, until the perfect priesthood of Melchisedec with Christ as the prefect priest, should appear.  He showed how Melchisedec met Abraham after “the slaughter of the kings” (Heb 7:1 KJV), and blessed him.  Abraham paid him a tithe of the spoils (7:4), and by so doing, demonstrated that Levi, of whom was the Jewish priesthood, also paid a tithe to Melchisedec because “he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchisedek met him” (7:10).  Paul then says that the priesthood has now changed (7:12), and that Christ is “a priest FOREVER, according to the order of Melchisedek” (7:17, 21); that his priesthood is UNCHANGEABLE (7:24); that “he holds his priesthood PERMANENTLY because HE CONTINUES FOREVER (7:25). 

So if all this is true – and it is – why would God subject his Son to a thousand years of blasphemy as his so-called people continue as if Jesus had never happened?  Why did Jesus say “It is finished” when he hung on the cross – why didn’t he say “This will do for now”?  Why does the scripture say that after Jesus But when  Christ had offered FOR ALL TIME a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet’ (Heb 10:12-13)?  Is this not the language of completion and permanence?  These verses allow absolutely no room for the Levitical priesthood whatsoever!

And why would God subject his people to a thousand years of sacrifices which can never take away sins when the very fulfilment of them was right there in front of them in the person of Jesus?  Why would his people need animal sacrifices as a memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice when he is there in their presence – isn’t the very sight of him sufficient reminder?  Why did he give the Church the sacrament of bread, which represented his flesh, and wine, which represented his blood, as memorials to what he accomplished on the cross and as being symbols of the New Covenant – and yet Israel will still be sacrificing the blood of bulls and of goats as memorials when God says he hates them (Heb 10:6).  Why would Paul write, “Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24) if the Jews were going to reject him for two thousand years so far with an undefined period of time still ahead; and then to live under the law for a further thousand years while Jesus rules over them from Jerusalem?  

They rejected him the first time by murdering him; so God rejected them.  But yet, in mercy, God gives them a second chance, not by restoring them to everything they were and had under the Old Covenant, but as the new people of God along with the Gentiles in the New Israel, the Church.

Therefore, if the Old Covenant has been abrogated permanently to be replaced with the New and better Covenant, there must be another way of interpreting the prophecies of the Old Testament, because they certainly can’t be fulfilled literally.

The Law a Yoke of Bondage

Acts chapter 15 is a pivotal point in the New Testament.  The gospel had been taken to the Gentile city of Antioch and a thriving church was established there; Jewish law had not been part of the message preached; only the gospel of justification by faith was.  However, it wasn’t long before some of the converted Jews (15:5) tried to impose circumcision on the new believers, which entailed keeping the whole law of Moses.  The apostles and elders gathered together to discuss the issue and its implications for the Church; this gathering has come to be known as the Jerusalem Council. 

Luke tells us that there was “much debate” (Acts 15:7) and then Peter got up and addressed the council; he reminded them that God had sent him to the Gentiles (15:7-8).  He then put his finger on the heart of the issue – the burden of having to fulfil the law of Moses instead of receiving the gospel of Jesus by faith.  “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:10-11).

Referring to this yoke of bondage that Peter mentioned, the apostle Paul told the council that God has made us alive in Christ, having forgiven our sins and erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.  He set this aside, nailing it to the cross (Col 2:13-14).  And he tells us, “…before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterward be revealed” (Gal 3:23).  Thus, the Law of Moses was shown to be obsolete and a burden too heavy to be borne, and should not be imposed on the Gentile churches.  So I ask again, “Why would God inflict another thousand years of law-keeping and animal sacrifices on the Jews?”

Church replaces Israel as the People of God

My Premillennial friend insists that Israel is God’s witness on earth.  He writes “But if you accept the concept of the millennium, then the Jew is central to the world and the Gentile nations catch hold of the skirt of the Jew and say let’s come with you FOR GOD IS WITH YOU. Finally, Israel takes her planned place in the world as God’s witness” (emphasis his).

The Church – Culmination of God’s Plan of Salvation

But that’s not what the New Testament says.  Paul tells us that God’s witness is now the Church, not Israel.  In Ephesians he writes so that through THE CHURCH the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (3:10); and in 3:21 he writes “…to him be glory IN THE CHURCH and in Christ Jesus TO ALL GENERATIONS, FOREVER AND EVER.  Amen”.  Please note that in this verse it is forever – not only for the New Testament age or “dispensation” (there are no dispensations!) but for all time, both now and forever.  The Church and the New Testament are not just a stop-gap until God can get things sorted out after the Jews mucked up his plan; we’re not just a commercial break until the real programme comes back and the Old Covenant is reinstituted.  No, the very opposite is true; the Old Covenant was the stop-gap; it was in place from Moses until the Messiah came; the Church is the culmination of God’s plan (Eph 1:9-10). 

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace….So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Eph 2:13-15, 19-22).

Thus, Christ through his death has abolished the wall that separated Jew and Gentile and has made them one in Christ, and this “one body” is the Church.  We’re now all one in Christ; all one holy temple in the Lord; all one olive tree; one holy nation; one body; one bride; because the two have been made one in Christ; and this is forever….and this body is the Church.

A New Testament “Israel”

The apostle Peter adds to this by showing that the Church has all the characteristics that Israel, as the Old Testament people of God, had.  He calls Christians “a spiritual house”, “a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet 2:5); “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9).  And the apostle Paul says of the Church, “…it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God” (Phil 3:3).

The Jewish nation was destroyed by an act of God’s judgment, and they have been replaced by the new people of God, the Church.  All the names that described Israel, God’s chosen people, now describe the Church.

Destruction of Jewish nation

In Matt 21:33-46 Jesus tells “The Parable of the Tenants” and the Jews recognised that he referred to them.  He said the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.….. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them” (21:43, 45).  Then, in another parable, in Matt 22, he tells of the coming judgment and destruction of the Jews, saying “The king was enraged.  He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city” (22:7).  Thus, Paul can write that the Jews have been cut off from the olive tree, and the Gentiles grafted into it in their place (Rom 11); see also 1 Thess 2:14-16.

In 70 AD Jerusalem was besieged by Roman legions under the command of Titus.  The city was taken and utterly destroyed; and the inhabitants who escaped slaughter were sold into slavery.  The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus described the horror and brutality of this event, and it fulfilled Jesus’ warning prophecy (Luke 21:20-24).  The Jews will never be reinstated as the people of God as they were under the Old Covenant.  When God does graft them back into the olive tree it will be with the Gentiles as part of the Church. 

And Paul says of the Jews, that “…they displease God and oppose everyone….God’s wrath has overtaken them at last” (1 Thess 2:15-16).

Therefore, the Old Testament prophecies cannot refer to a regathering of Israel and a thousand-year reign under Christ as their king.  Jesus will not be reigning as king from Jerusalem in a coming millennium.  There will be no animal sacrifices from a rebuilt temple with a restored Levitical priesthood; even the idea of this is blasphemous and destroys everything Christ came to achieve.  It is in fact a false gospel (Gal 1:6-9), as the apostle Paul stated and described in his letter to the Galatian churches.  The Old Testament prophecies cannot refer to a restored Israel under Old Covenant conditions.  The apostles themselves show that these prophecies are spiritual even though given in literal terms.

References

Henry, M. 1997, “The Matthew Henry Study Bible: King James Version”, copyright Thomas Nelson Inc., pub Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA.

“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright 1993 and 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.”  “Published by Catholic Bible Press, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee 37214.