MacArthur, Calvinism, and (Dispensational) Premillennialism: Part 3
Life has been busy, so it has taken me some time to finish Part Three (Part One, Part Two). As I’ve mentioned in my first two posts, MacArthur is arguing for dispensational premillennialism. What this means is that he believes in a future geo-political kingdom that is distinctly Jewish in character in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to Abraham, Jacob, David, and the Israelites. While I have briefly criticized this before, I will now offer a few more thoughts that question this interpretation. I won’t quote extensively in this post, both for space and because this question of Israel’s status covers the majority of MacArthur’s next few messages. First I will briefly describe MacArthur’s view of Israel, and then I’ll move to both biblical and practical problems with this view.
MacArthur’s View of Israel
(1) The promises God made to Abraham and David in the Old Testament regarding the land, a kingdom, etc., will be fulfilled in a geo-political sense in a future millennial kingdom. He believes that Israel has never had the fulfillment of these promises.
(2) Israel is currently under divine judgment for rejecting the Messiah.
(3) Ethnic Israel’s existence in the land of Palestine is proof of God’s continuing promises to them.
(4) The church is not in any sense the fulfillment of the promises to Israel, though she does get salvation through the new covenant, which is fulfilled in Jesus.
(5) Believing in election means that one should accept that God must give Israel the land of Palestine and a geo-political kingdom.
The Doctrine of Election and the Status of Israel
MacArthur’s repeated claim is that those who believe in God’s immutable election (speaking of soteriology) should accept that ethnic Israel has an enduring, special place in God’s plan because of promises made in the Old Testament. This is really the heart of his argument. I now hope to offer a biblical evaluation of this claim.
(1) MacArthur really proves too much by his comments. He argues that the promises made to Abraham are not conditional, that is, that they will necessarily be fulfilled. However, he also restricts those promises to ethnic Jews. And if those promises aren’t conditional, and are restricted to ethnic Jews, then MacArthur has a problem: Why must Jews believe in Christ in order to receive the fulfillment of the promises? He admits that the Jews are currently under the judgment of God and that they won’t fully receive the promises until they believe in Christ. However, if the promises are unconditional, then why does it matter if ethnic Jews do or do not meet the conditions? The logical conclusion of MacArthur’s position is, I believe, something akin to the craziness of John Hagee, who supports sending money to establish (unbelieving) Jews in the land of Palestine. I’m sure that MacArthur doesn’t support this, given his commitment to the importance of the gospel. However, I believe this is the logical conclusion of his views. If what he says is true, then unbelieving Jews have a right to the land of Palestine, not only believing ones. This has extreme practical implications that I will discuss later.
(2) MacArthur’s claims do not adequately grapple with how election relates to the promises of the Old Testament. He says that God must keep the promises of land, kingdom, and status to ethnic, physical Jews. This is the basic dispensational distinctive. However, a series of questions illustrate the faultiness of this approach. If the promises are to Abraham’s ethnic descendants, then why shouldn’t Ishmael and his descendants (which some argue are Arabs) receive the promises? The answer is, of course, that Ishmael wasn’t the promised son; that was Isaac. What about Esau? Don’t the descendants of Esau have rights to the land, kingdom, and so on? No, because God chose Jacob, not Esau. So the promise doesn’t go to all of Abraham’s ethnic descendants? No, only to the ones chosen by God. So the promises to Abraham are given only to those chosen by God? Yes. So who are those who are chosen by God? It is at this point, I believe that the dispensational argument breaks down. Consider the following Scriptures:
“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7)
“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)
“Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of the promise.” (Galatians 4:28)
“That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.” (Romans 4:16)
Who are the sons of Abraham, the heirs of the promises to him? Those who are of faith. Paul was writing to Jews and Gentiles in these verses. Accordingly, is it ethnic Jews alone who are heirs of the promises to Abraham? Not according to Paul. The promises to Abraham were not ultimately to be fulfilled to his ethnic descendants, but his spiritual descendants. Even more specifically, though, the promises are fulfilled in Christ: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” Christ inherits all the promises, and Christ fulfills the promises. Accordingly, the only way to inherit the promises is to be in Christ. And as Galatians 3:28 tells us, in Christ, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Thus those who receive the promises to Abraham are not ethnic Jews alone. It is all those who are united to Christ by faith. The physical people were intended to point to the spiritual people, made up of Jews and Gentiles.
The Church is Spiritual Israel
MacArthur makes bold claims regarding the identity of Israel: “Not one reference anywhere in Scripture and there are over two thousand, referring to Israel means anything other than Israel.” He means that the term “Israel” only refers to ethnic, physical Jews, and never to the church. At this point, I’ll simply list a few Scriptures with commentary, as I believe the Scriptures speak for themselves at this point.
Philippians 3:3: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
In the Old Testament, which people were identified by the mark of circumcision? The Jews were. And repeatedly, God tells the Israelites to “circumcise their hearts” (e.g., Deut. 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4). So the distinguishing mark of physical Israel pointed to an inward spiritual reality. Those who are spiritually changed are the true Jews (Romans 2:28-29), because being a Jew and being circumcised are ultimately spiritual realities. And Philippians 3:3 clearly states that those who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus are the circumcision. To restrict this statement in Philippians to ethnic Jews alone who are also spiritual Jews would be to miss the point. Paul is saying that the true worshipers of God (John 4) are the circumcision—that is, they are spiritual Israel.
1 Peter 2:4-10: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’ So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
While I’m aware that some dispensationalists apply this passage only to believing Jews, I find such an interpretation extremely difficult to defend. 1 Peter was written to the church, not to believing Jews alone. And the church is a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession. Those who were not a people are now the people of God. Paul applies that same expression from Hosea to the church in Romans 9.
I mentioned Ephesians 2 in my first post, so I won’t repeat it here. But the basic point is that it says that those who were outside of the commonwealth of Israel were brought near through the blood of Christ. Brought near to what? To Christ, to God, to hope, to the commonwealth of Israel.
I’ve already quoted this above, but Galatians 3 clearly says that those who are of the faith are the sons of Abraham. What was the claim to fame of physical Jews in Jesus’ day? That they were sons of Abraham (John 8). And yet Paul says that Gentiles who believe are the sons of Abraham (spiritually). Simple logic tells us then that Gentiles who believe are part of spiritual Israel.
While more can be said from the Scriptures about this topic, I’ll quote only one more passage.
Revelation 21:9-14 “Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed—on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
So the Bride of the Lamb is the New Jerusalem (which Galatians 4 says is the mother of us all) coming down out of heaven. What names are put on the gates and foundations? The names of the twelve tribes and the twelve Apostles. Accordingly, the bride of the Lamb (which Ephesians 5 identifies as the church) is made up of the continuous people of God from the Old Testament to the New Testament. So if the church is part of the heavenly Jerusalem (the capital of Israel/Palestine), then it stands to reason that the church is spiritual Israel. The collective witness of the Scriptures is clear on this point.
If, as MacArthur says, the presence of ethnic Jews in the land of Palestine is an apologetic for God’s faithfulness, and if ethnic Jews have a right to that land because of God’s promises, then there is at least one clear practical implication: Christians ought to continue to support the presence of ethnic Jews in the land of Palestine whether the modern state of Israel acts justly or unjustly. While I have no desire to get into the political question of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, I humbly suggest that such a perspective will not promote peace in the Middle East in the slightest. Jews and Arabs need to be called to not see the land as ultimate, to not see it as the fulfillment of God’s promises, but rather be called to repent and trust in Christ as the fulfillment of all the Messianic expectation of the Old Testament. That is the path to peace, not asserting on the basis of God’s promises a commitment to the land of Palestine.