As we discussed in the introduction, it has become standard procedure to read Acts 1:6 and imagine the disciples asking whether or not Jesus would then deliver the whole nation of Israel from their pagan overlords, the Romans. This reading, I believe, is influenced more by a modern reaction to supersessionism (sometimes real, sometimes merely perceived) than by a historically sensitive reading of the text itself.
I absolutely believe that it is still within God's plan to save all ethnic Jews (for this, see my post here on Romans 9-11). The promise still pertains to them, and it will be fulfilled for as many as will come to him in faith and repentance. So much is clear from Acts 2:38-39. But the disciples are not thinking of salvation from sin in Acts 1:6, as we would think in the Evangelical West; rather they are thinking of the long-awaited vindication of the true people of God over their oppressors. To say, then, that they would have expected Jesus to liberate the whole of the nation of Israel from their bondage to Rome “at this time”, i.e. only weeks after the majority of the nation decisively rejected this same Jesus as their Messiah, is to be guilty of radical anachronism, superimposing a modern sympathetic outlook towards the nation of Israel onto the disciples' eschatological expectation.
But presupposing the disciples did understand something of what Jesus had been saying over the last couple years of announcing the kingdom, they would have understood that a fundamental part of what he saw himself doing was renewing and reconstituting the people of God, redrawing the boundary-lines of the covenant around himself. Through his own kingdom-bearing work he was building a remnant, a renewed Israel, a people who would follow the true way of peace, who would be the “city on a hill”, who would carry the calling that the nation as a whole had all but abandoned. In other words, Jesus was forming an ekklesia, the Septuagint term for the “assembly” of Israel (Matt 16:18; cf. Acts 7:38). As we see clearly in passages like Matthew 23-25, however, he regarded the majority of the nation as either backslidden or apostate. To put it in Pauline terms, not all who were of Israel were truly “Israel”.
(For this theme throughout the Gospels, see especially Mark 8:38; 10:21, 29-31; Matt 3:8-12; 5:13-16; 7:24-27; 8:10-12; 10:34-38; 12:48-50; 19:28-30; 21:28-22:14; 25:1-13; Luke 2:34; 8:21; 12:49-53; 13:6-9, 24-30; 14:15-24; 19:41-44; 22:28-30; John 1:11-13; 3:3-8; 8:37-47; 11:51-52; 15:1-8)
Now this is not to say that the disciples would have seen themselves as an entirely new entity, disconnected from God’s one historic family and the single storyline which led up to that point in history—as if the “church” of Matt 16:18 meant something other than the congregation of the faithful, as it always had in Judaism. I do not believe that when they asked Jesus about the restoration of “Israel” what they were really envisioning was a non-Jewish replacement of the people whom God had originally called to bear his covenant to the nations. Anyone who believes something like this simply fails to think historically.
But, conversely, it should be taken into account that no sect within first century Judaism saw the line of demarcation in such superficially nationalistic terms so as to believe that when YHWH acted for the salvation of his people he would simply judge the Gentiles and vindicate the Jews, for none of them believed that the only criterion for inheriting the blessings of Israel was to be a naturally born Jew. Rather, each sect taught a respective level of behavior that was seen as required for maintaining one’s position in the covenant, and thus each sect, according to their varied levels of asceticism, regarded many (or even most) Jews as no better than pagan Gentiles. When they spoke of the time when God would “restore the kingdom to Israel” they implicitly understood that renegade Jews would be excluded from that restoration, since those Jews stood, along side the Gentiles, decisively outside the covenant.
And, lest we think that this nuanced conviction emerged out of a vacuum and without prior biblical foundation, we should be reminded that the OT didn’t ever envision the vindication and exaltation of the entire nation of Israel as it stood, as is commonly envisioned by Zionist eschatology today, but rather it repeatedly saw the nation going through a great trial and judgment for not carrying out its vocation, and in those passages it envisioned only a remnant (like Isaiah’s “tenth” or Zechariah’s “third”) coming out the other side of judgment and inheriting the blessings that were promised to the faithful.
What I am saying the disciples believed, then, as the followers of Israel’s true Messiah, is that they were the remnant of Israel that Isaiah and Zechariah and the rest of the prophets spoke of. These twelve men were chosen by God and, just like their Lord, they were invested with authority to carry Israel’s vocation as the light of the world, the city on a hill, the servant-people of the nations (cf. Acts 13:47). And, therefore, when they envisioned the time when God would “restore the kingdom to Israel” it is most probable that they would have seen it first and foremost in terms of their own vindication and exaltation, and then as an open offering to every Jew and Gentile who would join their company—the sect which was “The Way” of true Judaism.
To say, on the other hand, that the disciples were looking forward to the vindication and exaltation of an entity other than “The Way” is to tacitly buy into two different covenant-plans, one for the Church and one for the Jews. If we have been grafted into the one covenant-people historically referred to as “Israel”, and do not belong to a new and separate entity called the “Church”—which, ironically, is actually a synonym for “Israel” in first-century terms—then we must understand Acts 1:6-8 to be speaking of the vindication and exaltation of the one covenant-people into which we have been grafted. As the old monotheistic creed states: there is one God, and we are his people.
So then, as an initial answer to the question I raised in the introduction, I believe we can say confidently that when the disciples asked Jesus “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel”, they did not have in mind an immediate and widespread exaltation of the nation of Israel above the Roman Empire, but rather their own restoration as the elect remant, the ones upon whom the destiny of Israel hung.
Now that we have the disciples’ question clear in our minds, we are ready to look more closely at Jesus’ response.