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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Review of The Israel of God, by O. Palmer Robertson

I remember hearing one of my seminary professors say that before too long, the church would reach a virtual consensus about eschatology (the doctrine of the end times).  He was thinking that most Christians would end up believing his particular view, which was dispensational premillennialism.

Not if more people read this book…

O. Palmer Robertson has taught in seminaries and Bible schools around the world for many years, and at the time of this publication was on the faculties of Knox Seminary and the African Bible College.  He previously wrote a number of fine works that I have appreciated and learned much from.  These include The Final Word and The Christ of the Covenants.  But in my opinion he outdid himself with this one—it has become one of my favorite books.

Since I finally reached some conclusions about my eschatological views after years of consideration, I have been frequently met with “What planet are you from?” stares when I have suggested that the Jews returning to their homeland in 1948 has nothing to do with Bible prophecy, nor can that group of people even be considered the “Israel” that is talked about in the Bible.  The “Israel” for whom God has future plans is not an ethnic, geo-political nation, but a worldwide group of believers made up of all races, etc. etc.  And the funny looks turn into frowns…

Well here is a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend as an explanation for why I say those odd things (odd today, in the spiritual climate of America—but they would not have been odd throughout most of church history).  Robertson tackles the quite broad (but also quite crucial) issue of “Who or what is Israel?” in masterful exegetical fashion.  That’s right, I said exegetical—which may be surprising to those who have been told that “covenant theologians” and “amillennialists” base their beliefs mostly on systematic considerations.

Not so with Robertson.  As in his other writings, he is concerned first and foremost with what the text of Scripture teaches.  So in between a skillful introduction (quoting Bill Clinton as an advocate of the other view is a stroke of genius!) and a clear-as-crystal concluding chapter with twelve carefully-worded propositions, the book is crammed with extensive discussions of the biblical passages about the land, the temple rituals, the kingdom of God, and so forth.  His lengthy expositions of Hebrews 7 and Romans 11 alone are worth the price of the book (to quote one of the endorsers, because he’s right).

I won’t rehearse Robertson’s arguments and conclusions here, because he has communicated them so well in the book, but I will simply encourage you to read it, whether you think you will agree or disagree with him in the end (I know it’s probably too much to ask everyone to have an open mind).  If you do end up disagreeing, you should at least feel the force of his arguments and make sure that you are arguing against the real teaching of “covenant theologians,” and not just some superficial caricature of what they believe.  (And along those lines, I should add that Robertson is very irenic.  It seems to me that he would be a tough opponent to hate, if his writing style is any indication of his personality.)

To leave you with a taste of what you’ll encounter in this excellent book, here are a few interesting excerpts, starting with the aforementioned quote by Bill Clinton:

“If you abandon Israel [the current nation in the Middle East], God will never forgive you… It is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue now and forever.”  So spoke the President of the United States in a speech delivered before the Israeli Knesset assembled in Jerusalem. (p. 1)

The holiness of the land is inescapably related to the fact that the holy God dwelt there.  As has been stated, “Because Yawheh was near to it, his own holiness radiated through its boundaries.”  It is not that the land itself possessed some special sacredness in and of itself.  As a matter of fact, the phrase “holy land” apparently is used only twice in the whole of Scripture, and in each case the word land must be supplied by inference (Ps. 78:54; Zech. 2:12).  In other words, the holiness of the land is derived from the presence of the holy God.  But once his person has been removed, as is implied by the withdrawal of the Shekinah in the days before the captivity of Jerusalem, the land is no longer holy and so becomes subject to human devastation. (p. 11)

The disciples must have understood that the Gentiles had a place in the messianic kingdom.  But they had the greatest difficulty comprehending the “mystery” that the “Gentiles” would be in every way equal with the Jews as “heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6).  It is this equality of possession of the kingdom-promises by Jews and Gentiles that still today is most difficult for the church to grasp.  While virtually every believer is ready to acknowledge that the Gentile has a place in the messianic kingdom, many have difficulty accepting the equality of Gentiles with Jews in the possession of the promises. (pp. 136-137)

The idea of a middle phase in the coming of the kingdom, during which, for a thousand years, Christ physically subdues his enemies from an earthly throne located in Jerusalem, would be sadly anticlimactic in the experience of the Christian.  Already the believer is seated with him in the heavenly places.  Already he experiences the richness of life in the Spirit.  Already he is aware that Christ rules over all the nations.  Already he communes in prayer with the resurrected and reigning Christ.  What then would be the advantage of an earthly throne from which Christ would subdue his enemies, and to which the believer would have to come for a special audience with his Lord?  In other words, the present state of blessing for the believer is already so rich that nothing less than the consummate state would be “worthy to be its sequel.” (p. 164)

[Reviewer’s note:  If you would like to read an extensive discussion of the “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16, ask for a copy of my exegetical article on the topic.]

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