Why do some premillennialists give special status to the nation of Israel?

Q.  I’d be thankful if you could expand a little on the following schools of belief:  Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism.  Which one are you inclined to believe, and why? Also, why do some of the people who believe in Premillennialism tend to treat Jews with special significance and Israel as a separate state (and not as the whole body of believers) even today? Doesn’t this go against what Paul said in Galatians 3:28-29?

In my first and second posts in response to this question, I’ve explained that the three terms premillennialsm, postmillennialism, and amillennialism refer to different beliefs about when Christ will return relative to the millennium (the thousand-year era of worldwide peace and justice described at the end of the book of Revelation) and by what means the kingdom of God might find its ultimate earthly expression in such an era.

Let me now answer the last part of your question and explain why some premillennialists believe that the nation of Israel has a special status within God’s unfolding plans for the culmination of human history.

As I’ve already noted, all three of these millennial views have been represented in just about every period of church history, and until relatively recently they all agreed, despite their other differences, that God’s plan for the Israelites was to draw them into the multinational community of Jesus’ followers that now constitutes the people of God on earth, according to the Christian understanding.

However, in the 1830s a man named John Nelson Darby developed a theological system, known as dispensationalism, that taught instead that the age of the church was a “parenthesis” between two periods, one past and one future, in which the Jews constituted the people of God on earth.

The starting point for Darby’s system was his doctrine of the “ruin of the church,” the belief that the earthly institution claiming to embody the community of Jesus’ followers had become so hopelessly corrupt that it was of no possible future use to God.  Darby expected the few remaining true followers of Jesus to be “raptured” (taken to heaven) imminently, after which all of the promises God made to the Jews in the First Testament would be fulfilled for them literally on earth.

This meant, for our present purposes specifically, that Darby expected a Jewish millennium:  Christ would return to earth to reign for a thousand years as the king of the Jews, who had once rejected him as their ruler but who would now accept him.  This view differed from all previous millennial expectations, which were of a Christian millennium, in which Christ’s reign over the multinational community of his followers (already a present spiritual reality) would be extended over the whole world.

Dispensational premillennialists today follow Darby’s theological system generally, and that is why they accord special status to the modern nation-state of Israel: They believe it embodies a group that will soon become the people of God on earth once again.  In this they differ distinctly from traditional premillennialists, who like postmillennialists and amillennialists have always expected a Christian millennium, in which the Jews are drawn into the multinational community of Jesus’ followers.  My personal belief is that the New Testament supports this expectation.

You cited Paul’s statement in Galatians that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile . . . if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  It’s hard to imagine a clearer statement of the case.  But there are others as well.  Paul writes in Romans, “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”  And he tells the Philippians, “It is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”

Statements such as these make me confident that today the true “Israel of God,” which Paul speaks of later in Galatians, is made up of “all who follow this rule”: that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”

One important implication of this conclusion is that the modern nation-state of Israel shouldn’t be held only to a privileged, more lenient standard when it comes to human rights and foreign relations.  That nation does not have a “free pass” from God to behave any way it wishes.  It must adhere to international norms.

A poster promoting one of the “Left Behind” movies. The books and films in the series reflect a popularized apocalyptic version of Darby’s nineteenth-century dispensationalism whose expectations about the future are much more pessimistic than those of traditional forms of millennialism.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Why do some premillennialists give special status to the nation of Israel?”

  1. Thank you, this has been the best answer I have found. I am coming to believe the amillennialism definition, but do not believe in replacement theology. Do these two go together ok.

    1. If by “replacement theology” you mean the belief that the church (the community of Jesus’ followers) is now the people of God in the world, and all of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament will be fulfilled in and for the church, then I think this is a necessary component of amillennialism. Dispensationalism, with its belief that the church will be raptured and Israel will once again become the people of God on earth, and that Jesus will return as the King of the Jews, pretty much has to have a millennium in which Jesus reigns. So if there is to be no literal millennium, it seems to me that there will be no switch back from the church to Israel, either.

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