Does the Bible teach that the nation of Israel has a distinct role in the future plan of God?
Many Christians deny that it does. According to Bruce K. Waltke, “no clear passage [of Scripture] teaches the restoration of national Israel” because “the Jewish nation no longer has a place as the special people of God.” In the words of Herman Ridderbos, “The church . . . as the people of the New Covenant has taken the place of Israel, and national Israel is nothing other than the empty shell from which the pearl has been removed and which has lost its function in the history of redemption.” The words of Waltke and Ridderbos represent well the belief of many—no future for Israel.
One of the many passages which present a problem for this view is Acts 1:6-7. In this passage, just before Jesus ascended into heaven, the eleven disciples asked Him: “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) This question is profound, and its meaning unmistakable. In fact, even covenant theologian O. Palmer Robertson—who denies a future restoration of Israel—summarizes it well:
What can be said about the nature of this kingdom as understood by the disciples? The fact that they spoke of its being “restored to Israel” indicates that they were thinking of it as a national entity with its center located in Jerusalem and its domain encompassing the land of their fathers. They were expressing the Jewish hope that God would establish his rule, so that Israel would be freed from its enemies and reconstituted as the great nation that it once was.
The significance here is obvious: At the time of Christ’s ascension, the disciples were still expecting a future restoration of the kingdom to the ethnic nation of Israel. How, then, is it reasonable to deny a future for Israel?
One response is to say that the disciples were significantly misguided in their thinking. According to John Calvin, “[T]heir blindness is remarkable, that when they had been so fully and carefully instructed over a period of three years, they betrayed no less ignorance than if they had never heard a word. There are as many errors in this question as words.” Similarly, according to Robertson, “these disciples’ understanding of the nature of Christ’s kingdom was little better than had been displayed by the Jews in the days of the Maccabees or by the Zealots in Jesus’ own day.” In other words, even though the disciples fully expected the kingdom to be restored to the nation, this expectation was in vain, and it betrayed an astonishing ignorance of both the nature and the recipients of the kingdom.
Although the disciples were certainly misguided and in need of correction on several occasions throughout the ministry of Christ, it is difficult to believe that this was one of them. Instead, Acts 1:6-7 clearly indicates that there is indeed a future for the nation of Israel in the redemptive plan of God. I say this for two reasons: the context of the question and the answer to the question.
The Context of the Question
The disciples’ question did not arise in a vacuum. It came at the end of the 40-day period between the resurrection and ascension of Christ in which He appeared to the disciples and continued to teach them. It is reasonable to assume that Jesus taught them many things during this time, but Acts 1:3 mentions only one: “the things concerning the kingdom of God.”
As Jews, the disciples were certainly aware of the OT prophecies concerning the kingdom that would be restored to Israel, and during the earthly ministry of Christ, they continued to expect this very restoration. And although they did not initially understand that the death of Christ was necessary for its establishment, they listened to the resurrected Jesus teach about the kingdom over a 40-day period, and at its conclusion, one thing remained clear in all of their minds: the kingdom would be restored to Israel.
The content of Jesus’ teaching must have included an explanation of the nature and recipients of the kingdom. That much seems undeniable. In addition, the hours of instruction would have provided ample opportunity for dialogue, including questions from the disciples and clarifications from Jesus. For this reason, those who insist that the disciples were misguided in Acts 1:6 must believe that even though Jesus taught them clearly about these things, somehow they were not able to understand even the basics of what He said. This seems implausible, particularly in light of Luke 24:45.
According to Luke 24:45, Jesus not only taught His disciples during this time period, but He also “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” The Greek verb translated “opened” is the word used in Acts 16:14 of how the Lord “opened” Lydia’s heart to respond to the gospel. In Luke 24:45 it speaks of a supernatural opening of the disciples’ minds which enabled them to understand the things spoken about Jesus throughout the Old Testament.
In light of this, how can one insist that the disciples were deceived in thinking that God was planning to restore the kingdom to the nation of Israel? Jesus Himself instructed them clearly, and He even enlightened their minds to understand the things He taught, so how could they be so radically misinformed about features of the kingdom as basic as its nature and recipients? As Robert L. Saucy writes:
There is no question but that the disciples had difficulty with some of the spiritual teaching about the kingdom. This is evident in their failure to understand the teaching of Jesus at some points, especially with regard to the salvation of the kingdom through his death. But to charge them with a total misunderstanding of the kingdom hope of Israel based on an alleged reinterpretation of this hope is difficult to substantiate in Scripture.
The Answer to the Question
If the disciples were so radically misinformed about the nature and recipients of the promised kingdom, one might expect Jesus to set the record straight, to provide the needed correction at this crucial moment in redemptive history. After all, He was commissioning His disciples to be His witnesses to the nations, and this was their final question before His departure. Jesus’ consistent track record was that of correcting those who were in error (e.g., Matt 5:32; 18:21-22; 19:9; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 18-19), but here in Acts 1 He provides no correction whatsoever. Instead, He simply says: “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7).
Picture a little girl asking her father: “Daddy, is today the day that you’re giving me the pony?” To which her father responds: “Sweetie, it is not for you to know when.” What would this so obviously imply about whether or not her father was planning to give his daughter a pony, especially if he had previously promised her one? Rather than explaining that there was a misunderstanding and that he had never intended to give her a pony, the father has confirmed his daughter’s hope by simply saying that the timing is not for her to know. In Acts 1:6-7, Jesus does the same thing with the kingdom promised to Israel.
Some have responded by insisting that Jesus redefines the promised kingdom in His very next statement: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). According to this view, the kingdom promised by Jesus is different from the nationalistic expectations of the disciples. Instead, the kingdom would be established as the Holy Spirit worked through the disciples as they proclaimed the gospel throughout the earth.
The problem with this view is that it still does not account for Jesus’ failure to correct the disciples. In the collective mind of the eleven, the question was not if, but when, and rather than setting the record straight, Jesus confirmed their understanding by saying that the timing was not for them to know. It seems more than a little naïve to think that Jesus’ simple statement in Acts 1:8 would have succeeded in redefining the kingdom in the disciples’ minds when 40 days of instruction and enlightenment had failed to do just that.
The words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 are perfectly compatible with the disciples’ view that the kingdom would be restored to Israel, and those words give no indication that a correction or redefinition was being offered. The disciples asked Jesus if now was the time (v. 6), and He responded by saying it was not for them to know the time (v. 7). However, their immediate objective involved something they could know, namely that the Holy Spirit would come shortly and empower them to be His witnesses to the nations (v. 8 ). As Saucy writes, “This was to be their immediate concern before the final fulfillment of their hope for their people Israel.”
According to Jesus, God the Father not only knows the timing of Israel’s restoration, but He Himself has fixed the day (Acts 1:7). This is reminiscent of Mark 13:32 where Jesus said that only the Father knows the timing of the Second Coming. The connection here is interesting, especially in light of the biblical teaching elsewhere that the restoration of Israel will coincide with the return of Christ, the Deliverer who will take away their sins (Romans 11:25-27). At this time, the nation will look upon the One they have pierced and embrace the Messiah, receiving the covenant blessings of a God who is faithful to keep His promises.
It’s not a matter of if, but when.