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Israel and the Messiah - which comes first?


Many years ago I worked as a teacher at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys, an Orthodox Jewish school in Hendon, north London.  Six months ago, one of my former pupils, a guy called Mike Isaacson, got in touch with me regarding a series he was writing about the school on his blog ( called ‘Hasmo Legends.’  Mike asked me to write something about my time there.   I wrote about my recollections as a believing Christian working in a Jewish school. Mike put my contribution (in two parts) onto his blog which created some interesting exchanges.  


A little while later there was a contribution from another former teacher called Osher, which sparked a debate on the website about Israel and Zionism.  Osher was an Orthodox Jew and also anti Zionist.  An ex pupil who supported him and identified himself as ‘ex-Hasmo’ wrote, ‘Osher and all like minded frum (religious) Jews dream of the return to Zion in the days of Moshiach (Messiah).  However do not confuse the filth that currently permeates Israel as the true Zion.  Eretz Israel can only be built on Torah values.’  When challenged what he meant by ‘the filth’ he said ‘I was not referring to people in anyway but to certain aspects of people’s behaviour- whether it is gay clubs, mixed beaches etc.’

He had a number of indignant responses, including one who wrote, ‘Brother Jew, there is a thriving country here with tens of thousands learning Torah and living real Torah values, far more so than can be done by any Jew living anywhere else.’   Another wrote, ‘Zionism isn’t about supporting governments in Israel.  It is about recognizing the gift that Hashem (God) has given us back - control of the land that He gave us – a far better state than it was before the second world war.’  Others were a bit ruder so I will not repeat them here!  I posted a comment asking him, ‘If Israel is not all that it should be, how should / could it be changed? Ahmadinejad’s way (i.e. through destruction) or the Messiah’s way?’

His reply was, ‘Ideally through the coming of the Messiah but we have to be on a level to deserve his coming.  According to Jewish Tradition, the Messiah can come by way of two methods.  Firstly if we are deserving and secondly if we have sullied ourselves so much that our only salvation is the coming of the Messiah. The first way is a way of peace the second way is not. Ideally the coming of the Messiah should be the former - that we are on a level to deserve his salvation. How could Israel be changed?   It is not Israel that needs to be changed but people’s mindsets. Once people accept the yoke of Torah and Mitzvos (commandments) this would change the whole moral standing of the country and it will experience a spiritual lift.’


This discussion raises a number of issues about Israel, Judaism and the Messiah.  Let us look at some of these.


1.  Israel is.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was some hostility between Orthodox Judaism and Zionism.  The goal of secular Zionism was to become ‘a nation like all others.’ This meant that Jewish identity was to be found in a national identity rather than a religious one. Because of this, many rabbis condemned secular Zionism as an attempt to destroy the Torah and traditional Judaism.  They taught that first the Messiah has to come and then he will cause the Jews to return to Israel, rebuild the Temple and create world peace.  


The novel by Chaim Potok, ‘The Chosen’ set in New York just after the Second World War gives a good insight into this conflict within Jewish thinking.  It features the friendship between Reuven Malter, the son of a Zionist activist campaigning for the Jewish state in Palestine, and Danny, the son of Reb Saunders, a Hassidic rabbi who vehemently opposes the establishment of a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah. When Reuven’s father makes a speech at a pro-Israel rally that is printed in the newspapers, Reb Saunders forbids Danny to speak to Reuven, or even mention his name. Their friendship resumes after the State of Israel is founded in May 1948; Danny explains to Reuven that Reb Saunders has relented, since the new nation is "no longer an issue; it's a fact."


The main influence leading to an acceptance of Zionism by most of mainstream Judaism was Rav (Rabbi) Kook (1865-1935), the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine during the British Mandate period. He heard the ‘footsteps of the Messiah’ in the modern movement to re-establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel.  He believed that even the secular Zionist pioneers could be part of a grand Divine process whereby the land and people of Israel were finally being redeemed from the 2,000-year exile.  As Jews sacrificed themselves for the cause of building up the physical land, they were laying the groundwork for the ultimate spiritual messianic redemption of world Jewry. He once commented that the establishment of the Chief Rabbinate was the first step towards the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin.  Today many Orthodox Jews see modern Israel as ‘the gift God has given us’ as the Jewish state has absorbed Jewish people from around the world and become the main centre of Jewish learning.  

2.  Israel should be.

‘Ex-Hasmo’ wrote about the ‘filth’ of modern Israel which he typified by gay bars and mixed beaches.  He says that Israel can only be built on Torah values.  However establishing modern Israel on Torah values is not so easy.  When the Jews returned from the first exile after a relatively short period in Babylon, they were a unified people who did return to Torah values as we see in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The Temple was rebuilt and the sacrificial system re-instated.  Ezra read from the ‘book of the law of Moses’ and explained it to the people and instructed teachers who were able to ‘give the sense and cause people to understand the reading.’  (Nehemiah 8.1-8).

The second restoration of Israel in our time has come from Jewish people being dispersed around the world over a very long period of time.  During this time they were exposed to a false and persecuting form of Christianity in Europe and at various times discrimination in the Muslim world.  They suffered the holocaust at the hands of the Nazis and an anti God society under communism in the Soviet Union.  Responses to these experiences vary from ultra Orthodoxy to secular humanism.  


As a result there are different views on what should be the foundation of modern Israel – Torah values or a modern secular state.   What we have ended up with a mixture of both.  Often the Orthodox are indignant at the behaviour of the secular and the secular are indignant at the behaviour of the Orthodox.  


‘Ex Hasmo’ calls for people to accept ‘the yoke of Torah’ which would change the whole moral standing of the country.’   He says, if Israel and Jewish people world-wide did this then they would deserve the Messiah and he would come by the way of peace.   But many Israelis are disillusioned with religion and have no belief in the coming of the Messiah.   Much of Israel does give the impression of being a country like any other absorbing influences from the rest of the world.  I remember standing in Tel Aviv bus station with McDonalds on one side, a bookstall with semi pornographic magazines on the other side and rock music blaring out from another stall, and thinking, ‘This is a country like any other.’  


But then there are other things which show that Israel is not a country like any other.  These tie up with the prophecies of the Bible – the restoration of the land with trees planted on the hills and the deserts blooming, the ancient cities being repopulated with Jewish people coming from the four corners of the earth, Israel’s deliverance in wars seeking her destruction.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets foretold this happening.  


Ezekiel wrote:  ‘For I will take you out from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land.  Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean;  I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take out the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you shall keep My judgments and do them.   Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be my people and I will be your God.’  Ezekiel 36.24-28.


Studying passages like this in the Hebrew prophets (Jeremiah 30-31, Ezekiel 36-39, Joel 2-3, Zechariah 12-14) led a number of Christian Bible scholars in the 19th century to the conclusion that there would be a return to Zion of the Jewish people in the last days of this age. Among them was David Baron (1857-1926), who came from Orthodox Judaism to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.  He attended the first Zionist conference in 1897 and saw there the beginning of the ‘dry bones’ of Ezekiel 37 coming together.  He believed that Israel would first be ‘born of the flesh’ (come into being as a nation) and then be ‘born of the spirit’ (experience a spiritual rebirth).  


In the Gospel of John chapter 3 we see the connection with this passage where Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, a leader of Israel, about being ‘born of the flesh’ (natural birth) and being ‘born of the spirit’ (spiritual rebirth). Jeremiah 31.31-34 prophesies the new covenant through which sin is forgiven and God’s law is written on our hearts.  In the New Testament we see how we can receive this spiritual through the new covenant.


According to David Baron the spiritual rebirth of Israel would come through repentance and faith in Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah, not through a return to ‘Torah observance’. Today there are Jewish believers (Messianic Jews) living in Israel who have come to know God through faith in Yeshua.  They are often rejected and may face persecution for their faith, but they have the witness in their hearts that they are walking in the truth.


3.  Israel should not be.


According to Zechariah 12-14 the spiritual rebirth of Israel would follow a time of trouble and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Jewish people leading to a recognition of one who has been ‘pierced’ as the ‘only Son’.  Messianic Jews identify this one with Yeshua, Jesus, as the Messiah, who would return to the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem and begin His reign on the earth.  


Interestingly ‘Ex-Hasmo’ wrote about two possibilities for the coming of the Messiah – either he comes to a deserving people or he comes at a time when ‘we have sullied ourselves so much that our only salvation is the coming of the Messiah.’  The second alternative would presumably be a coming in conditions of catastrophe.  The possibility of catastrophe in relation to modern Israel is clear to all.  


Restoring Israel in our time meant establishing a Jewish state in the Islamic Middle East.  As far as Muslims are concerned this land is the Dar al Islam (house of Islam) and should remain so until the end of time.  In the ‘Dar al Islam’ Jews and Christians should be ‘dhimmis’ (protected / subject) people who may have their communities but should be subject to Islamic rule.  Israel’s victories over Arab armies in 1948 and 1967 and particularly its occupation of the Old City of Jerusalem goes against this Islamic world view.  With Islam resurgent and influential throughout the world, Israel has faced continual hostility from its neighbours and continues to do so.  


The radical Islamic forces of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas make no secret of their desire to make an end of the Jewish state.  Today the big issue facing Israel is what to do about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  There are two bad options – bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and risk sparking a massive conflict in the Middle East or allow Iran to continue to work towards nuclear weapons and face the possibility of being targeted by them. Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister until 2007, said Israel will attack Iran's nuclear facilities before the end of the year if the West has not launched an attempt to destroy the regime with crippling sanctions.  (Jerusalem Post 17/9/09).  In this case there is no doubt that Iran would counter attack.


At the same time Israel is being pushed by the UN, EU, USA and Russia to accept a ‘land for peace’ deal with the Palestinians which would mean re-dividing Jerusalem and facing the possibility of having a hostile Palestinian state within a stone’s throw of Israeli populated areas. On 27/4/09 Jordan’s King Abdullah II declared that Israel faces all-out war within 18 months if it does not come to terms with the Arab world and allow the establishment of a new Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.  However when he was in London on 25/8/09 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that ‘United Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jews’ and that Israel will not accept to relinquish its sovereignty over the city.   This points to an apparently irreconcilable position between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world over Jerusalem.  


According to the Bible prophecies the last days’ restoration of Israel will be accompanied by a time of unique trouble, described in Jeremiah 30.7 as ‘the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it.’  A number of biblical passages of the last days speak of a time of trouble.  In Psalm 83, Ezekiel 38-9 and Zechariah 12-14 speak of a widening circle of nations coming against Israel, but God saving Israel until the coming again of the Messiah who will stand on the Mount of Olives and defeat these nations.


4.  Israel will be.


In Jeremiah 30.11 God says:  ‘For I am with you,’ says the Lord, ‘to save you; though I make a full end of all the nations where I have scattered you, yet I will not make a full end of you.  But I will correct you in justice and not let you go altogether unpunished.’  God promises to save, but also to correct Israel.  What will he correct in Israel?  Its secular state and gay bars and mixed beaches?  Its conflicts between different branches of Judaism?  Its relations with the Palestinian Arabs?  Or the long held rejection of Yeshua, Jesus as the Messiah?  


In Zechariah 12.10 we read about Israel in the last days of the time of trouble as the nations come against Jerusalem:  ‘And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they have pierced.  Yes they will mourn for Him as one mourns for His only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.’   


The Holy Spirit is poured out and causes a recognition of Yeshua, Jesus, as the pierced one, the Messiah who has come once as a sacrifice for the sins of the world and is now coming again to judge the world in righteousness.  Jesus spoke of this coming event when He said to Jerusalem, ‘You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’

(Matthew 23.39).  This is the greeting for the coming of the Messiah and means that Jesus will be welcomed as the Messiah by His Jewish people at His return.


Zechariah 14 goes on to describe the Messiah coming to stand on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem, the same place Jesus ascended into heaven from according to Acts 1. Then He will rule the restored earth from Zion fulfilling the words of Isaiah 2.1-4. ‘Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it.


Many people shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2.2-4).’


Israel will be at peace and the centre of world government of the Messiah during the Millennium / Messianic Age.  The question God wants Israel and the whole world to answer now is ‘Who is the Messiah?’  Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah who has come to fulfil the prophecies of the Suffering Servant and who is coming soon to fulfil the prophecies of the Reigning King.