Why Pray for Israel?

There are several meanings to the title “Israel” in the Bible:

1. It is the name bestowed upon Jacob, when he met with and wrestled with God at the river Jabbok.
2. It is the name given to all his descendants via his 12 sons, the progenitors of the 12 tribes.
3. It is the name of the nation formed from the 12 tribes.
4. It is the name of the separatist state formed by the breakaway from the House of David.
5. It is the name of the tract of land, variously called Canaan and the land of promise.
6. It is the generic name of the Jewish people.
7. It is the name of the modern State of Israel “Medinat-Yisrael” set up under UN mandate in 1947.
8. It is, most properly, a reference to those of the Jewish People, who acknowledge their Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

When we talk of praying for Israel today we are referring

1. First and foremost to the believers of Jewish extraction, who are a part of the “Church”, remembering that the Church as a matter of historical fact began as a purely Jewish institution, and outreached first to the Samaritans (Acts 8), and then to the Gentiles (Acts 10). In NT times nearly every church had a large contingent of Jews among its foundation members. Today there are many congregations of Israeli Christians, which number Gentiles among their members. In some ways the wheel has come full circle.

2. Secondly we refer to the Jewish people in general, who are in need of salvation in Jesus Christ (Yeshua haMashiach in Hebrew). These
live scattered across the world.

3. Thirdly we refer to the State of Israel, which is now home to 6,000,000 Jewish people, some thousands of whom have professed faith in Jesus
Christ, and have formed their own congregations throughout the land. It is logical to intercede for this land, since, as we shall see, it is yet to be the scene of great events.

Biblical Data

We shall refer now to scriptural passages to illustrate some of what we have asserted above.

1. The meaning of the term ‘Israel’ in the NT

a. The historic Land of Israel; nowhere in the NT is the land called ‘Palestine’ unless you count the maps printed at the end of some Bibles! Reference: Matthew 2:20; here we have an angel, presumably passing on God’s assessment of the name of the territory. Elsewhere in the NT the constituent parts of the land are referred to as Judæa (or Judah), Samaria and Galilee.

b. The historic people of Israel: we may refer to Luke 1:68, where Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, speaks by
inspiration. We can also refer to Luke 2:25-32, where we have the prophetic message of Simeon, who speaks of both the Gentiles and Israel as blessed by the Messiah.

c. The unbelieving (Messiah/Christ rejecting) people of Israel: Romans 10:1 refers to those Israelites who need to be saved. The whole of Romans 11 refers to the apparent rejection of Israel, and their present cutting off out of their own “olive tree” because of their unbelief, and the fact that ‘concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sakes’. But within the same chapter there are clear intimations of their future conversion and salvation. To say that these references are to the Church in general is inconsistent with the fact that elsewhere within Romans 9-11 ‘Israel’ means the Jews, whether saved or unsaved.

d. The believing remnant of Israel: Throughout his epistles Paul refers either specifically or by implication to the fact that there is a remnant of believing Jews (of which, of course, he is one), who are most properly called ‘Israel’. In Romans 9:6, he says ‘they are not all Israel, which are of Israel’, i.e. true Jewishness is of faith. Galatians 6:16 says: ‘and as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and upon the Israel of God’. Many have said that “the Israel of God” means the Church, but it is more consistent with the universal usage of the term ‘Israel’ in the NT to interpret this of the believing remnant of Israel, which of course is part of the Church. 

2. The use of the term “Jew” in the NT

a. It is a general ethnic term, which means the Jewish people, descended from Jacob, Isaac and Abraham. References are too numerous to cite. Jesus, of course, and all His apostles were, in this generic sense, Jews.

b. It is used of the Judæans as opposed to the Galilæans, or the Samaritans.

c. It is used of the unbelieving Jews as opposed to those many, who came to faith in Jesus of Nazareth in the First Century. Particularly in Paul’s epistles it is used this way.

d. It can refer to the Jewish religious authorities, who opposed Jesus. John’s gospel particularly refers to the ‘Jews’ in this way. That this cannot refer to Jews in general must be obvious, since both John and all the apostles and first disciples were Jewish.

e. It is used of those Jews, who actually believe in Jesus. Paul refers to himself as ‘a Jew’ in the present tense (Acts 21:39 and 22:3) both addressing the Gentile Roman guard, and the Jewish mob. Paul in Romans 2:28-29 says that a real Jew is one whose circumcision is not merely outward, but of the heart, i.e. he is born again. Paul did not cease to be Jewish.

Paul specifically distinguished between Jew and non-Jew within the Church. First of all he says that one is not better than the other: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female” in Christ. That he cannot mean that these distinctions no longer exist is clear, since he makes much of the respective roles of males and females in the Church. He must mean that all believers are equally prized and loved by God.

Paul elsewhere by his actions demonstrated that there are both Jews and Gentiles in the Church, when he circumcised Timothy, the Jew, but refused to allow Titus, the Gentile, to be circumcised (Acts 16:1-3; Galatians 2:3). The passage might mean that Titus was in fact circumcised, but that if it did happen it was of his own free will, not of necessity to being part of
Paul’s team, or to being a believer.

Specifically Paul instructs his converts in Corinth, who originated both from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds thus: (1 Cor 7:18-19) “Is any called being circumcised, let him not become uncircumcised; is any man called in uncircumcision, let him not be circumcised”.

The physical operation is irreversible! So he is actually saying, “Were you a Jew, when you were saved, then don’t try to be a Gentile. Were you a Gentile, then don’t try to be Jewish”. Paul himself remained Jewish, made Jewish vows (Acts 18:18), and kept Jewish feasts (Acts 18:21). Circumcision regarded as a physical operation is not in consideration here. Gentile men are often circumcised, but that doesn’t make them Jewish, nor does it force them to behave as if they were Jews. For Jewish believers, keeping Torah is no longer a burdensome duty, but a joyful expression of their service to God. In any case, the very heart of Moses’ Law, which is the sacrificial system, has been fulfilled both for Jews and Gentiles, by the suffering and death of the Messiah Jesus.

However, the Jewish Church specifically exempted Gentile converts from an obligation to keep the Torah in its entirety (Acts 15:19-29).

3. Prophetic future for the Land in the NT:

a. Jesus implies that Jerusalem and therefore the Land is part of the prophetic future:
* In Matthew 23:37-39 He ties in the future conversion of Jews in Jerusalem to His return. This chimes with Paul’s prophecy about all Israel being saved at some future date, and that Israel’s ‘fulness’ will be ‘life from the dead’ (Rom 11:11-15).
* In Luke 21:24 He tells us that Jerusalem has to be ‘trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled’. This refers to the events of AD 70, and therefore to the yet future period preceding the Parousia.

b. Christ’s teachings during the 40 days from His resurrection to His ascension must have contained references to Israel’s future, for when the disciples say farewell to Jesus in Acts chapter 1 they ask for clarification on His teaching ‘pertaining to the Kingdom of God’ (verse 3). They then ask, ‘Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel’. Note that the question was not concerning the fact of that restoration, but the timing. Jesus’s reply: ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons’ is not a rebuke, but a reminder of His teaching that we are not to speculate about dates concerning
prophesied future events.

c. Jesus’s instructions to the Church in connection with His second coming, as recorded in Matthew 24, imply that Jesus will return specifically to Jerusalem. The angelic message at the ascension says that Jesus will ‘so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven’. He ascended physically from the Mount of Olives, so He will come physically
back to that same mount, a teaching, which is prophetically referred to in Zechariah 14.

d. The existence of the State of Israel in our own times need not come as a surprise. Many saints (such as for example bishop J.C. Ryle) expected it from their reading of prophetic scripture. The doctrines of Providence and the Divine control of History imply that the 50 year plus existence of modern Israel must be more than a mere chance.

Do we have any teaching on praying for Israel in the New Testament?

Paul specifically avows his solidarity with his unbelieving kinsmen in Romans 9:1-5: “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing
me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites” 
(note that their unbelief has not robbed them of their status as Israelites) “to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory and the covenants, and the giving of the law [Torah] and the service of God, and the promises, whose are the fathers [Abraham, Isaac & Jacob], and of whom as concerning the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever”. Paul’s high regard for the very unbelieving Jews, who opposed him, is quite remarkable here.

The rest of Romans 9 is a theological explanation of why this remarkable people should fail of the salvation, which is in Christ.

In Romans 10 he tells us: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they might be saved”. Here Paul models to
us the true intercessory heart of a Christian believer towards the Jewish people. Paul gives us a prophetic and historic framework within which to operate, when we pray for Israel. He clearly implies that they as a people are judicially hardened by God, yet he still prays, no doubt, for individuals to be saved.

However, Paul has an eschatological expectation of a great and spectacular national conversion for the Jews, which we read of in Romans 11. In 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 we read of the spiritual veil, which is over the Jewish heart, when they read the Torah, but the same passage gives us hope that this veil is to be taken away. The effect of such a Jewish national conversion on the unbelieving world, particularly the Moslem part of it, will no doubt be remarkable.

However, our motivation should not be to fulfil our own pet eschatology. It should be a much more loving one than that. Perhaps we might list some motivations for praying for the Jewish people:

1. Because they gave us our Saviour. We would have no Saviour had it not been for the Jews, for “salvation is of the Jews”, as Jesus said (John 4:22). Also, it was the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Him that led to His death, and the blessed atonement for sin.

2. Because they gave us the Bible. Of course the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are ‘Godbreathed’, but it was Jewish men God used to write them down.

3. Because they gave us the 10 Commandments. Again they were from God, but it was because of the faithfulness of Jewish teachers, scribes and rabbis that we have this basis of all truly civilized life today.

4. Because we owe it to them. “for as ye [Gentile Christians] in time past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their [the Jews’] unbelief; even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy” (Rom 11:31). Indeed Paul tells us that the gospel is “to everyone that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

Article reprinted with permission from Keith Parker. 2004.

To help you in your intelligent intercession you can obtain various prayer helps, in particular the bi-monthly prayer bulletin of Prayer for Israel:

PFI, PO Box 328, Bromley, BR1 2ZS

Date : 30/11/-0001    

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