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.

Does Isaiah’s prophecy about a remnant returning predict the formation of the state of Israel?

I’m reading through the Bible and have gotten as far as Isaiah, where I’ve just read, “The Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.  In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people” from nations all over the world.  Is this a prophecy of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948?

My study guide to the book of Isaiah in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series takes readers through the entire book, situating each passage in its historical context and explaining how Isaiah’s words apply both to his own day and to future events.  The guide explores the Messianic significance of this specific prophecy about the Root of Jesse.  Let me tell you a bit of what it says here.

With biblical prophecy, it’s important always to determine first what the original message was for the original audience.  Only then can you understand any further Messianic or end-times implications.

The “shoot from the stump of Jesse” in this passage is originally a new king in the line of David, Hezekiah, who will be faithful to Yahweh and reverse the policy of his father Ahaz.  Ahaz appeased Assyria and even put up altars modeled after Assyrian ones.  But Hezekiah will trust Yahweh, refuse to serve Assyria as a vassal, and see Yahweh’s deliverance.  Then there will be peace, and just as God reached out his hand to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he will reach out “a second time” to bring home the “remnant,” Israelites who were carried off into Assyria as exiles or who fled to other countries to escape the Assyrians.  That’s the message for the original audience.

But Hezekiah is also a type of Christ, and what is said about him has Messianic overtones.  When Jesus comes to reign, there will be a similar gathering of the “remnant.”  But who will they be?  My understanding is that they are gathered from all the nations because they’re people from all the nations. This gathering brings together the “great multitude” described in Revelation, which comes “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”  In other words, under the New Covenant the “chosen people” become a multinational community.  As Paul writes in Galatians, “If you are in Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.”  (See the study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, session 19.)

The implications of this are that the 1948 formation of the state of Israel is most likely not what is envisioned and predicted in Isaiah’s oracle about the “Root of Jesse.”  So modern Israel does not enjoy any special privileges in the world. Rather, it is a nation-state that is responsible before God for conducting itself with justice and prudence like any other nation.

I’m glad you’re reading through the whole Bible!  That’s the best way to come to understand each individual part: by seeing where it fits within the whole.  Keep on reading!