For the Jews this was a question of life of death. For many Christians the disciples’ question reflects spiritual ignorance. The restoration of the Jewish Nation continues to be a scandal for some Christians, but for the Jews it is a lifeline and fulfillment of covenant promises.
For the Jews
When the disciples asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom be restored to Israel,” Jerusalem was occupied by the pagan Roman Empire, and Jews were being crucified, sold into slavery, and the Temple was about to be destroyed. For Jews living in the first century, the very survival of Israel and the Jewish people were under threat of extinction. The disciples of Jesus, like all Jews, rightly wanted to know when Jerusalem and the Jewish nation would be restored (Acts 1:6).
These Jewish followers of Jesus believed with all their hearts in the covenants and promises of Israel’s restoration as predicted in Scripture. Jesus himself told them that he anticipated that one day “Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk.21:24). For First Century Jews, “Gentiles” meant Romans, and they needed to be overthrown so that Israel as a nation could continue to fulfill her God-given destiny.
The Messiah’s response was that the promised restoration is in the hands of the Father, who alone has the authority to fulfill His will and to determine the times and seasons when it will be accomplished. When speaking of his Second Coming, Jesus told his disciples that, “of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mk. 13:32).
This idea confirmed by the Messiah is common in Rabbinic literature. “Nobody knows when the house of David will be restored. Jesus’ answer is as characteristic of the Rabbinic mind of the age as the [disciples’] question,” noted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
For the Christians
Heschel goes on to explain how Christians interpreted this passage and the promise of the kingdom to Israel in a different way. “Reflecting a dichotomy in early Christian thinking, the position of the Galilean disciples was different from that of the Hellenistic Christians,” he writes in Israel: An Echo of Eternity . “The original hope of the disciples was that the kingdom was at hand in the apocalyptic sense, but the Hellenistic Christians, who in the end conquered the empire, preached the Gospel as having present importance for each individual apart from the eschatological kingdom.”
According to Heschel, from the beginning there has been a Christian tendency to disregard any secular or political relevance to the early Christian message, so the “disciples’ question was criticized rather than appreciated.” Calvin, for example, “maintains that ‘there are as many errors in this question as words.’”
Here are some quotes from Christian writers Heschel offers as representative of how modern commentators interpret the disciples asking about the kingdom of Israel as “spiritual ignorance and hardness of heart of the disciples.”
“The hardness of the disciples’ heart is apparent here as in Mark’s Gospel; they awaited a material kingdom, for the Spirit was not yet poured out on them to give them a more enlightened conception of it.” (C.S.C Williams, A Commentary on Acts)
“The disciples’ question is the darkened utterance of carnal and uninspired minds.” (G.T. Stokes, The Acts of the Apostles)
“The answer of Jesus is a rebuke of the disciples.” (R.B. Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles)
“The Apostles were Jews,” Rabbi Heschel points out, “and shared the hope of their people of seeing the kingdom of God realized in the restoration of Israel’s national identity. The expectation was burned into their very being by the tyranny of the Roman rule. The answer [of Jesus] confirms the expectation that the kingdom will be restored to Israel – an expectation expressed again and again in ancient Jewish liturgy … Jesus’ answer is not a rebuke of Apostles’ hope; it is, rather, a discouragement of Messianic calculations (see Lk. 17:20-21).”
Book Club on Heschel’s Israel: An Echo of Eternity starts Tuesday, December 29, at 6 PM Israel time.
For most of Christianity’s 2,000-year history, the idea that Israel would be restored to their homeland before a national revival of Jews accepting Jesus as Messiah was unimaginable. If the diaspora is their punishment for rejecting the Son of God, how to understand the restoration of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty and the return of the Jewish people to their homeland while still in unbelief?
There can only be one explanation and the Apostle Paul summarizes it in his Letter to the Romans (how appropriate!): “The God of Israel is compassionate and His wisdom beyond our ability to comprehend; He did not reject His people as some thought; Regarding election, they are loved on account of the patriarchs; God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable; The redeemer will come out of Zion and all Israel will be saved” (chap. 11).
If Paul were living today, he might add in a Letter to the Church: “You got it wrong about Israel and the Jewish nation. The Father’s faithfulness to His people Israel is a witness that He will never forsake you, His people the Church, despite your transgressions against My people. See My Glory, repent and sin no more against my people Israel.”