"Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" - An investigation of Acts 1 (Introduction)

Several of the most recent posts on this blog have dealt in one way or another with the question of Israel's place in the New Testament. In one post we argued that there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles under the New Covenant, either in regards to salvation or in regards to function, but that through the work of Israel's Messiah Gentiles have been welcomed into the covenant right along side the Jews, becoming heirs of the promises and kings and priests. In a follow-up post we looked specifically at one of the most relevant texts in the New Testament on the subject: Romans 2. In another post we looked specifically at one of the main hermeneutical questions standing behind the New Testament’s insistence that Gentile believers are included within God’s covenant people: the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. I plan to follow up on this subject in more detail soon. But I’d like to take the next several posts to examine a passage that has regularly been used to support the opposite conclusion to the one I’ve been advancing: Acts 1:6-8.

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

 

Far and away the most popular way to read this passage over the last century or more has been to see the disciple’s question (“will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel”) and Jesus' oblique answer (“It is not for you to know…”) as an implied affirmation that God will restore and exalt the nation of Israel above the nations of the earth, as was commonly envisaged under the Old Covenant and as many Zionists, Christian and otherwise, still hope today. This popular reading is tightly bound up in theologies and agendas at opposite ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum. On one hand we have the Fundamentalists and Dispensationalists, for whom the national restoration of Israel is simply a necessary piece in the puzzle, a way to populate the millennium and satisfy a number of Old Testament prophecies which seemingly can’t be fulfilled in the current “church age”, since Israel and the Church are two entirely distinct entities. On the other hand we have the liberal Zionists, for whom the national restoration of Israel is in no way dependent upon their acceptance of Jesus as Lord. For these there is a “dual covenant” whereby Jews are saved, not through Jesus, but through their own Jewishness. The irony, of course, is that these two ends of the spectrum, with their drastically different approaches and underlying motives, often line up in many respects when it comes to their specific interpretations of Scripture.

Nobody approaches Scripture with a “clean slate”, without carrying their own ideas into the text. The real question, however, is whether those ideas reflect the logic and worldview behind the text itself or just the reader’s own logic and worldview, influenced by their own culture. The notion that someone could have a completely “objective” understanding of the message of Scripture is an Enlightenment myth. We all have lenses and filters through which we read and make sense of Scripture. What many believers often don’t realize is that they didn’t come up with their theology just by picking up the Bible and taking it for what it says, but that there is often a strong cultural tide which has influenced their particular reading of Scripture. Many Christians like myself come into this whole whirlwind quite naively, just wanting to love the Jews and stay away from anti-Semitism, but we just aren’t aware of the fact that many of the theological and exegetical packages handed down to us have been put together by people with motivations very different from ours.

Support for the modern state of Israel has been fueled by more than conservative Christians alone. Zionism began as a secular movement in the 19th century, and while many of its supporters have been orthodox Jews and Christians, many others have been motivated for political reasons more than religious ones. As a whole this movement emerged through a nationalistic reaction to anti-Semitism, primarily expressed throughout Europe, and it has gained a much wider base of support after the atrocity of the holocaust, especially in America. Many Christians who support Israel are driven by this surrounding cultural sympathy, and it often leads them to a “dual-covenant” scheme in which all Jews are saved simply because they are Jews. And while this scheme isn’t taken to its extreme in many of the more conservative circles, the surrounding cultural sympathy that built it often bleeds over into those streams as well (especially the more dispensationalist ones) and has perpetuated readings of Scripture which are, at their core, completely unchristian.

These dual-covenant tendencies may or may not be taken to their logical end, but whether we realize it or not that ideology has been very prevalent in the top tear of scholarship over the last century or more, and we shouldn't be surprised to find that many of the interpretations that have trickled down to us were originally constructed from that lens. The purpose of the next two posts will be to challenge an interpretation of Acts 1 that is supported by many conservative Christians but which I believe does not express first century Jewish expectations as much as it does twentieth century secular agendas. We will look first at the disciple’s question in Acts 1:6, asking what expectations they would have carried and thus how we should understand the question on its own historical terms. We will then look at Jesus’ response in vv. 7-8, which constitutes the other side of the historical and exegetical coin. In what manner does Jesus indicate the kingdom will be restored to Israel? In attempting to answer both of these questions we will look specifically at what connotations the words “Israel” and “kingdom” would have carried in this specific context, arriving at a different conclusion than many would likely expect in the prevalent cultural tide this side of the Atlantic.