I make no apologies about being an end-timer. Focus on “the second coming” is somewhat going out of style in both evangelical and Messianic circles, but it doesn’t mean we’re any further away from the eschaton. Even the secular world senses that, for better or worse, we’re rushing headlong, with exponentially-increasing speed, towards a transformative event that will redefine human life as we know it. It also senses that certain geo-political arrangements which brought a relatively peaceful generation to the world are rapidly unraveling. If the secular world is comfortable talking about an the end of the age, why shouldn’t we be? Maintaining eschatological expectation aids in the purification of a believer, and a blessing is pronounced on everyone who reads and takes heed to the prophecies in the book of Revelation. Further, Yeshua tells us unequivocally that he is coming quickly and commands us to be watchful. We have good reasons for studying eschatology, watching for signs of Yeshua’s coming and keeping one foot in the future.
That being said, the Messianic Jew understandably has a love-hate relationship with eschatology, especially of the pre-trib/pre-millennial dispensational variety. On the one hand, our movement is based on prophetic hope for Israel’s teshuvah–both geograpically in its return to the Land and spiritually in its repentance to God and ultimately its turning to Messiah. As Rabbi Rich Nichol said “Messianic Judaism has been more than influenced, it has actually defined itself in terms of the End Times. Almost a fundamental axiom of our faith is the conviction that God raised up Messianic Judaism at this very period of human history because we figure prominently in his plans to rescue the world from itself.”
On the other hand, the eschaton promises to be a very traumatic event for the world in general and for Israel in particular. The futurist view holds–correctly in my opinion– that events described in Revelation and Daniel do not just describe trouble in the past but also trouble in the future, based in great part on Yeshua’s warning “For there will be trouble then worse than there has ever been from the beginning of the world until now, and there will be nothing like it again!” and “if the length of this time had not been limited, no one would survive; but for the sake of those who have been chosen, its length will be limited” followed by descriptions of frightening astronomical phenomena. In other words, if Yeshua’s words are taken at face value, the tribulation is not merely some shock-and-awe attack by Roman legions back in 70 CE, but a future worst-case scenario for global upheaval that is an existential threat to human life. But even while these events affect the whole planet, one particular part of the globe is the epicenter for endtime activity: Israel. The Psalm 83 war, the Gog-Magog war, getting a temple then seeing it profaned with the “abominations of desolation”, a treaty made and broken with the Antichrist, receiving two prophets only to see them killed off by the Antichrist, all the blood and corpses that someone will have to clean up west of Afula . . . these are understandably not experiences believing Jewish people want to see befall Israel.
What also does not help is the common attitude among bible-prophecy exegetes towards Israel’s coming Tsuris, which is insensitive to say the least. It’s not uncommon to hear preachers expectantly, sometimes even ecstatically, speak about the State of Israel being decimated and violated by the armies of the Devil Incarnate. For some Christians, the miraculous repatriation and revitalization of the Jewish state over the last 70 years has no intrinsic value. The event is a means to an end, notable only as a prophetic harbinger, an alarm clock so to speak. The modern Medinat Yisrael is just another football that God, like a divine Lucy Van Pelt, is going to yank from God’s chosen Charlie Brown yet again. Maybe a remnant will be okay, but the rest of worldwide Jewry can look forward to “Holocaust II: Antichrist Boogaloo”. Meanwhile, all the good saved raptured Christians get box seats in heaven to watch all this terror befall the Jews, again.
How should Messianic Judaism respond to this type of endtime speculation? I would propose that we need to add an “Israel-positive” voice to pre-trib/pre-millennial eschatological discussions. Such a voice would aid both the gentile wing of the Church and Messianic Judaism in forming coherent theology and effective Jewish outreach. As the saying goes, you can draw more flies with honey than with nightmarish apocalyptic visions of genocidal destruction. I don’t contest that the Great Tsuris will be a traumatic experience for Israel (in and outside of the Land) along with the rest of the (Yeshua-believing and unbelieving) world. I don’t contest that the world needs to be warned–and the Body of Messiah comforted and sobered up–with the news of Yeshua’s return. But as Mark Kinzer reportedly once quipped to Stuart Dauermann “I just think that somehow the coming of Yeshua the Messiah must have advanced the condition of the Jewish people.” My modest proposal is that Yeshua’s Second Coming will do the same.
In the time and space I have here, I cannot form a full “Israel positive” eschatological theory of everything. However, my $18 to the cause is to respond to an especially horrific meme of endtime prophecy floating around in both Gentile and Messianic eschatology circles. Supposedly, two-thirds of all Jews in Israel are going to be killed in the last days.
Read that last sentence again, and think about it. Think about what that would mean to you if it were true, to an average diaspora Jewish person, or to an Israeli whose parents came out of Poland and Russia. For bonus points, imagine the smile that sentence would bring to a Neo-Nazi skinhead or a Hamas or ISIS jihadi. Not with a warm, bloody smile of a crazed anti-semite, nor with cold shock/horror/denial of a reasonable pro-semite, that proposition is commonly held with a lukewarm, assured matter-of-factness by Christian biblical prophecy experts–many of whom I admire and from whom I have learned much.
But they’re wrong. Sort of. Probably. Or they’re “right”, but not in the way they think. Allow me to give three reasons why.
Number One: It already happened
The basis for believing that two-thirds of the Jewish people will be cut off and perish in the last days in based on a reading of Zechariah 13, in particular verse 8. The Whole chapter reads
Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, Against the Man who is My Companion,” Says the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; Then I will turn My hand against the little ones. And it shall come to pass in all the land [world?],” Says the Lord, “That two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die, But one–third shall be left in it: I will bring the one–third through the fire, Will refine them as silver is refined, And test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, And I will answer them. I will say, ‘This is My people’; And each one will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’ (Emphasis, Brackets Added)
The plain reading of this passage suggests the following: (1) Certain events will happen after the sixth century BCE when; (2) “the Shepherd” will be struck; (3) “the sheep” will be scattered; (4) “the little ones” will have Hashem turn against them; (5) two-thirds of those in either the Land of Israel or the entire world (or both?) will perish; (6) one-third will live; (7) and will be “refined by fire” to the point they are faithful to Hashem.
Was there then any point in history at which “the Shepherd” was struck, “the little ones” were scattered, and then two-thirds of people in ha’ertz were scattered? One need look no further than A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, edited by Israeli diplomat and historian Élie Barnavi, where this graph makes clear when a two-thirds drop on Jewish population occurred. Between 1 C.E. and
200 C.E., two-third of the Jewish people disappeared in the trauma of the 70 C.E. Siege of Jerusalem, the Bar Kochba Rebellion, and the various anti-Jewish sentiment around the Roman Empire at that time. You can argue, then, that two-thirds of the Jewish people won’t die in the tribulation because they already did, in a “tribulation” of their own, an event in history which is commonly considered by eschatological scholars as a foreshadowing of the Great Tribulation. This interpretation would also seem to comport with Ezekiel 5, which places a two-thirds destruction of Israel contemporaneous with their scattering “to all the winds” among the nations.
(Two items are notable about this mode of interpreting Zechariah 13. First, the scattering of Yeshua followers by the Judean religious establishment, and their eventual exile from Jerusalem and Judea, is a microcosm and foreshadowing of the Jewish exile and diaspora across the Earth. Second, under this interpretation, the past era of diaspora rabbinic Judaism has been a time of Israel “refinement by fire” preceeding its final redemption. Both themes are deserving of further discussion apart from this article.)
Number Two: It doesn’t “rhyme” with the rest of biblical prophecy
Granted, this is a somewhat imprecise argument, but this interpretation of Zechariah 13 doesn’t “rhyme”, doesn’t “mesh” with the rest of endtime prophecy, especially with Revelation.
First, all the “trumpet” plagues of Revelation 8 and 9 are one-third, not two-thirds. Why doubly bad for Israel? But assuming a two-thirds punishment in the end-times, could not “kol ha’aretz” in Zechariah 13:8 refer to the whole Earth? If that is the case, Israel does not have to be destroyed any more than a tornado that destroys two-thirds of your town could spare your neighborhood.
Second, these plagues mirror, both in kind and in failing to invoke repentance, the ten plagues over Egypt before Israel’s exodus. And this whole section of Revelation mirrors Israel’s conquest of Jericho: Six marches around the city in six days, then a set of seven marches in the seventh day, compared to six seals being broken, then the seventh preceding the seven trumpets. But during these works, Israel was protected and blessed. Is there any reasons why God’s people–why Yeshua’s people–would not be protected a second time?
I’ll grant that the two-thirds punishment could reoccur somehow, to someone–prophetic themes echo all the time throughout scripture and in the history of Israel. But it doesn’t have to happen to Israel again in this generation. Please God, don’t let it happen again to Israel. And please don’t let your preachers assume this when speaking to Jews about Yeshua’s return.
Number three: It contradicts Romans 11:26
All Israel will be saved. Did Paul mean, “all Israel that says a prayer for Jesus to come into their heart,” or “all Israel, except for the two-thirds that perish in the apocalypse”? As Derek Leman points out (citing the word of Stanley K. Stowers) the “salvation” that Paul speaks about would not have been understood by its readers exclusively as a “go to heaven when you die” status, but a general sense of rescue from danger and redemption from an ill fate. Stowers and Leman may overstate their case somewhat in how Romans should be interpreted, but the connotations of sózó when applied to “all Israel” are profound to consider. This meaning is further emphasized by the Septuagint version of Isaiah 59-60 that Paul quotes
And truth has been taken away, and they have turned aside their mind from understanding. And the Lord saw it, and it pleased him not that there was no judgment. And he looked, and there was no man, and he observed, and there was none to help: so he defended them with his arm, and stablished them with his mercy. And he put on righteousness as a breast-plate, and placed the helmet of salvation on his head; and he clothed himself with the garment of vengeance, and with his cloak, as one about to render a recompence, even reproach to his adversaries. So shall they of the west fear the name of the Lord, and they that come from the rising of the sun his glorious name: for the wrath of the Lord shall come as a mighty river, it shall come with fury. And the deliverer shall come for Sion’s sake, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. And this shall be my covenant with them, said the Lord; My Spirit which is upon thee, and the words which I have put in thy mouth, shall never fail from thy mouth, nor from the mouth of thy seed, for the Lord has spoken it, henceforth and for ever. Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. Behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and there shall be gross darkness on the nations: but the Lord shall appear upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
The image we have here is of a Messiah aggressively, even militantly stepping in to defend Israel from external enemies while redeeming it from internal unrighteousness. This does not sound like a Messiah who–after all that has transpired between his first and second comings–would just neglect to rescue two-thirds of his people from a violent death.
John F. Kennedy said of the Jewish state “Israel was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish.” This sentiment has not always been true throughout history when Israel did at times indeed disappear, at least as a geopolitical entity. And we should all, Jew or Gentile, inside and outside of the land, end-times or not, be prepared for tsuris for the sake of kiddush Hashem. But at some point Kennedy’s hope, and this hope of the Torah, the prophets and the apostles will come to fruition. If not at the end of this world, then when?