Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Previous article in this series: October 15, 2009, p. 44.
Especially since the days of World War II, there have been many Jews who have moved to Palestine. This gathering of Jews out of different nations into the new nation of Israel is said by many to be a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. God in Scripture repeatedly made known that the Jews would one day be brought back to the promised land. Citing these promises, many argue that the present-day gathering of unbelieving Jews is a fulfillment of the words spoken by the prophets.
The dispensationalist thinks this should be obvious to all. And, admittedly, such is the way one would likely interpret this promise, if he did not first go to Scripture to find the interpretation God Himself provides. But if we do look to the Scriptures first, then we find that this gathering of Jews refers to something far different from what the carnal man might expect.
The Dispensational View of the Gathering of the Jews
Dispensationalists typically divide God’s covenant into a number of different covenants, with each covenant containing different promises. God’s promise to gather the Jews out of the nations, they say, belongs to the “Palestinian Covenant.” The promise they refer to is found, among other places, in Deuteronomy 30:1-5:
And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee. If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the Lord thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee: And the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers.
Already in the days of Moses, God spoke of how the Israelites would one day be scattered among the nations for their disobedience. Yet God also said that sometime afterwards the Israelites would return to the Lord their God. It would be then, after their conversion, that they would return to the promised land. So first Israel would return to God, and then they would return to the land.
While commenting on this promise in Deuteronomy, the well-known dispensationalist Dwight Pentecost admitted that God said such a conversion would take place before Israel would be placed in the land:
As one surveys the wide areas included in this one passage, which sets forth the covenant program, one is compelled to feel that God takes Israel’s relation to the land as a matter of extreme importance. God not only guarantees its possession to them, but obligates Himself to judge and remove all Israel’s enemies, give the nation a new heart, a conversion, prior to placing them in the land.¹
Yet Walvoord, another leading dispensationalist, claims a partial fulfillment of this promise is found already now in the present-day gathering of Jews to Palestine.
The united testimony of the prophets is all to the same point, that Israel will yet be regathered from the nations of the world and reassembled in their ancient land. The beginnings of this final regathering are already apparent in contemporary history with almost two million Jews, or approximately one in six of all the Jewish population of the world, now living in Palestine. Scriptures make clear that the regathering will continue until consummated after the second advent of Christ.²
But Deuteronomy 30 speaks of the return of believing Jews. How can a return of blatantly unbelieving Jews be said to be even a partial fulfillment of this promise?
This presents a problem for dispensationalists—which at least one dispensationalist is willing to admit. Fruchtenbaum writes:
The issue that bothers some Dispensationalists is the fact that not only have the Jews returned in unbelief with regard to the person of Jesus, but the majority of those who have returned are not even Orthodox Jews; in fact, the majority are atheists or agnostics. Certainly, then, Israel does not fit in with all the biblical passages dealing with the return since it is a regenerated nation that the Bible speaks of, and the present State of Israel hardly fits that picture.³
Fruchtenbaum, having acknowledged the problem, then sets forth a distinction that he believes suffices as a solution:
However, the real problem is the failure to see that the prophets spoke of two international returns. First, there was to be a regathering in unbelief in preparation for judgment, namely the judgment of the Tribulation. This was to be followed by a second worldwide regathering in faith in preparation for blessings, namely the blessings of the messianic age. Once it is recognized that the Bible speaks of two such regatherings, it is easy to see how the present State of Israel fits into prophecy.4
The passages that Fruchtenbaum cites, however, do not provide support for a return to the promised land in unbelief. One passage (Ezek. 20:33—38) refers to God gathering the Israelites out of the nations and bringing them into the wilderness (not into the promised land) to execute judgment against them. Another passage (Ezek. 36:22—24) speaks of God bringing the Jews back to their own land, but says nothing about their being unconverted when they return. The context of this latter passage makes clear that Ezekiel is referring to the promise recorded in Deuteronomy 30—a promise that was quoted earlier and that makes clear that it is those who return to God that will return to the land.
As we search the Scriptures we see that God repeatedly promises to bring His believing people into the promised land. The promised land can be entered only by faith. But the Israelis returned to Palestine in unbelief. This fact alone should make it clear to us all that the return of these unbelieving Jews to Palestine is not a fulfillment of God’s promise to bring His people back to the promised land.
The Promised Gathering: A Gathering to Christ
So how are we to understand God’s promise to gather the Jews out of the nations and to place them in their own land? Who are these Jews, what does it mean that they are gathered, and to what land are they brought?
Let us begin by considering who these Jews are. The Scriptures tell us that a true Jew is one who believes in Christ. Being a Jew has to do with what you are inwardly, in your heart, as the inspired apostle has taught us:
For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God,
In harmony with this passage, Galatians 3:16 states that all the covenant promises are to Christ, and then verse 29 of that same chapter says that if we are in Christ, then these promises are also to us. So the promised gathering is a promise to Christ and to all those who are in Christ.
Now when we look to the New Testament especially to see what it means for these Jews to be gathered, we see many references to the idea that all believers (i.e., the true Jews) right now are being gathered into the one body of Christ.
That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him,
This gathering, in other words, is a gathering to Christ. This is what God promised. He promised to send the Messiah, and unto Him would be the gathering of the people.
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be,
All those who have been gathered into Christ are right now beginning to enjoy sabbath rest, communing with God. Entering this sabbath rest is what entering the land of Canaan pictured. We see this when we consider that to be forbidden to enter the land was to be forbidden to enter God’s rest.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest,
So the reverse idea is that entering the promised land is entering God’s rest. And this blessing is a blessing already enjoyed by all those who have been gathered unto Christ.
That this is really true is evident also from the fifth commandment. According to God’s promise, all those who keep the fifth commandment enjoy life in the promised land. The fifth commandment speaks of living “in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee,” which is none other than the promised land. This promise concerning living in this land is a promise not only to believing Jews, but also to believing Gentiles, for consider this passage from Ephesians:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth,
God here speaks to our children, and assures them that they will enjoy life in the promised land in the way of faith and submission. This is something that we and our children begin to enjoy now, while we look forward to the ultimate fulfillment after Christ returns.
But, says the dispensationalist, the promised land must literally mean land. And indeed it does. The promised gathering ultimately refers to that wondrous event that will take place when our Lord returns. On that day, Christ will send forth His angels to gather all His people out of the nations to meet Him as He returns. Then, after that, our Lord will bring us together into the land that He has promised us. But this land will be a heavenly one, free from the bondage of corruption, as the patriarchs themselves recognized (Heb. 11:13-16). Such will be the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. Now the true Jews are returning to God and enjoying sabbath rest in Christ, and soon they will be brought into the heavenly promised land where they will dwell with their God forever.
But does God promise also to gather a remnant from the blood descendants of Jacob? And what does Scripture mean when it says that “all Israel” will be saved? These questions will be considered, Lord willing, next time.
¹ J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (1958; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Dunham Publishing Co., 1966), 97.
² John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 182.
³ Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (1989; repr., Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2001), 716.
4 Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 716.