Much ink has been spilled over the place of Israel in biblical prophecy. Radio teachers regularly point to events in the Middle East as proof that ancient predictions are coming true today. What are we to make of this?
Essentially two dominant views within the wider church have emerged to help believers navigate their way through the many Bible passages that speak of Israel not just as a collection of tribes in the ancient past, but as a people very much in the present and the future.
There are those we might call “Christian Zionists.” Siding with Israel’s own Zionists are those Christians who have a particular view of the end times that includes a Jewish state as an integral part of God’s coming Kingdom. They tend to look the other way at hot-button issues like the growth of Jewish settlements on land claimed by Arabs and they side with the most conservative voices within the state of Israel itself.
Then there are others who pick up grievances of marginalized Palestinians and echo the views of the recently-passed UN Resolution 2334 that condemns Israel for continued settlement activity. They do not see Israel with a unique divine mission. Rather, Israel’s role is to join the community of nations, do everything possible to make peace with its neighbors and realize that in the end that all people will be saved.
These second voices within the global Christian movement tend to point to Bible verses that say that in the end “all will be saved.” In effect, God created two covenants. The first was an immutable one pertaining to Israel. The second was offered to the rest of the world: a new covenant given through Jesus Christ. This two-covenant view is increasingly taught in liberal seminaries and leads to a particular distaste for any evangelism aimed at Jews.
My question is this: Is there another position for Christians who take the Bible seriously, indeed view it as God’s Word, but who are neither Zionist sympathizers or universal salvationists?
Message of Romans 9:11
In these crucial chapters of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrestles with two problems relating to Israel: First, a pastoral problem and then a theological problem.
Pastorally, he is concerned to deal with the question of how to prevent recent converts from Gentile backgrounds from looking down on Jews who reject their Messiah. The pastoral implications of this negative attitude, as Paul saw it, extended beyond mere anti-Semitism to an overall loss of perspective on how God has worked through the ages.
Paul in Romans 11:15 argues that both Jews and Gentiles are “dead” apart from Christ. [See also Ephesians 2:1] In spite of their historic position as God’s chosen, the unbelieving Jews are nevertheless spiritually cut off from God and need the life-giving resurrection power of Christ to bring them back into fellowship with God. Throughout his writings Paul insists that both Jew and Gentile must come to God on exactly the same basis: through grace and faith.
Paul then uses two metaphors, a culinary one and a horticultural one: “… if the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump.” [v.16] The first fruits he is talking about are the “remnant” of Jewish believers in Jesus. Their presence in the Christian community is a sign that the whole lump of Israel is in some sense “holy.”
That does not mean they are holy in a moral sense, or in the sense of being already saved. But it does mean that they are holy in the sense of being “set apart for God’s special purposes.”
Paul’s horticultural metaphor says much the same thing: It is the root that is holy, since Israel was chosen by God. Therefore, the branches are holy as well. In other words, the root supports and feeds the branches. Here Paul is saying: “your holiness, you Gentile Christians, comes because you have been incorporated into a holy root. Don’t think that when Jews become believers in Jesus, they gain ‘holiness’ by virtue of joining your now largely Gentile Christian body. It’s the other way around.”
On a recent visit to the site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River I noticed a tee-shirt for sale. The symbol on the back depicted a fish, (a traditional Christian symbol) attached to a seven-branch candlestick (a Jewish menorah). Below the composite image were these words: “Grafted in … Romans 11:19.” Someone within the state of Israel wanted the thousands of pilgrims there to understand that Christians gain their identity by being grafted in to the original vine — Israel.
This is close to what Paul was saying: How can you Gentile believers look down on the Jews? You gain your place in God’s eternal plan by joining them — not the other way around.
Next, having dealt with the pastoral problem, Paul deals with the theological question. How is it that God would raise up a people, redeem them, send them His Word and prophets and then stand by and watch them reject the Son He sent to save them? Had God rejected the very people upon whom He had first shown his mercy?
To deal with this theological problem Paul says that God is not going to abandon the Jews. In verse 29 he reminds his readers “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.” The Jews may have been faithless to their part of the covenant and God may have temporarily rejected them; but the new covenant will not be complete until it embraces the people of the old covenant. God is not going to renege on His ancient promises.
The future of Israel
Paul clearly envisions a day when, as he says in v.26, “all Israel will be saved.” What did he mean? Here we confront the two wrong interpretations that have arisen within the Christian community.
The first, espoused by so-called Christian Zionists, claims that the sixth century B.C. prophecies to the Israelite tribes that one day they would be brought back to their land have a primary fulfillment in the present day.
But here are some problems with this interpretation:
First: These prophecies were fulfilled to a large extent when the Jews were permitted to return from the Babylonian captivity in 539 B.C.
Two: Since most Jews still do not live in Palestine — but in cities like New York, Toronto and Moscow — does this line of interpretation envision them all eventually returning to the land of Israel?
Three: If we interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament (as Christians do), why is the New Testament so silent about this? There is no mention of the importance of the land in the New Testament. God’s people are no longer in the real estate business, but are to be found among all nations.
An event such as the return of the Jews to Palestine would be of such significance that Jesus would surely have mentioned it in his sermons on the “signs of the end.” But no such mention is made.
Four: There is the further difficulty of understanding what Paul is saying about salvation only by grace through faith if some (Jews) are “saved” by returning to the land and others (Gentiles) by faith.
Five: Finally, this interpretation unfortunately causes many sincere Christians to erase any sympathy for Israel’s Palestinian neighbors and to view with almost fatalistic acceptance the inevitability of an Armageddon-like showdown in the Middle East. Why, with this perspective, should anyone pay attention to efforts to find a modus vivendi to resolve the Arab/Israel conflict?
The other danger arising from a misinterpretation of the phrase “all Israel will be saved” comes from the liberal end of the church. Given their underlying universalism, these folk tend to reject the idea that Israel deserves special treatment by the West — and moreover refuse to see the obvious that the modern state of Israel is enormously vulnerable to terrorism and must protect itself from those neighbors who intend to wipe it off the face of the planet.
It wasn’t long ago that these same liberal Christians sided with Israel and believed that the Jews’ rights to a protected homeland should take precedence over other concerns. Now, in a remarkable volte-face, they side with the Palestinians, seeing them as the oppressed minority living within an oppressing nation.
I believe that neither of these two approaches (return to the land or universal salvation) get at the heart of what Paul is saying when he writes, “All Israel will be saved.” He has just written “a hardening has come upon the Jews until the full number of the Gentiles come in.” What Paul seems to be saying is this: When the evangelism of the Gentile world is complete, then new life will break out among the Jews and many will come to believe in Jesus Christ. When that happens, then “all Israel” will be saved.
By “all Israel” Paul means the new “Israel” that is composed of both Gentiles and Jews. “All Israel” is his way of saying the whole of God’s people, made up of Jew and Gentile, will now be complete. “Israel” will consist of two parts: the Jewish part and the Gentile part. Together we will be saved, as one people.
Modern state of Israel
So, how does this affect how we view the modern state of Israel?
Here we need the perspective of (The Book of) Exodus, chapter 16. In that passage we find the fledgling Jewish nation wandering in the wilderness and grumbling against its leaders, Moses and Aaron. As they think back to their former days in Egypt, their memory of delicious food contrasts sharply with the meager desert fare they now scrounge from the rugged countryside. They don’t want to kill their own animals, but they miss meat and bread too.
So, God says, “I will devise a plan to prove to you that your murmurings arise from an ungrateful heart and not just from your circumstances.” Each morning I will provide manna and each evening quail. You will have bread and meat. But will that stop your murmurings, or your rejection of my authority? No. And the next chapters in Exodus document that God was right.
God was presenting the young nation with a choice — life on your own terms: Survival at all costs. Self-preservation. Or — abandonment to the mercy of God, which would mean humble submission to His will. Translating this into Paul’s New Testament language, the choice was between “works” and “grace.”
Psalm 106:15 is God’s own commentary on the choice they made: “They lusted exceedingly in the wilderness and tested God in the desert. And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul.” (NKJV) In other words, God gave them their way; but as their bellies got full, their hearts got hard.
This incident is testimony to the deep flaw in Israel’s heart. And in the light of this and many other incidents of faithless, untrusting, ungrateful disobedience, ancient Israel is judged by its own Scriptures to have failed. That failure continued down through the years.
That is why Paul says, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Only those who accepted the promise of God’s grace are part of the true Israel. Therefore, to Paul the “true Israel” ultimately consists of the Jewish “remnant,” those Jewish believers in Jesus, united to the Gentile believers. Together we make up the people of God.
What should we learn from this brief overview?
First of all, we should reject all claims that the modern, secular, Israeli state has divine rights to the land. There are excellent grounds on a humanitarian basis, I believe, for the existence of a homeland for the Jews who have suffered so much. They have rights to self-determination, self-defense and secure borders. They should be protected by the entire civilized world. But since the coming of Jesus, God has abandoned the real estate business — and so should we.
Second, we should judge the practices of the state of Israel with the same moral rigor that we apply to any other state. Israel has a right to exist and to self-defense. But they must continue to try to negotiate a just peace with the Palestinians.
Third, we should abandon Christian Zionism. The sensationalism of some Bible teachers who link events in modern Israel directly to Bible prophecies should be viewed with great skepticism. The church is the “new Israel.” [See Galatians 6:16]
Fourth, we should pray for the Jews. If Paul had unceasing anguish in his heart for them, should not we? The hardening in their hearts to the gospel is just as likely to happen to us as to them.
Fifth, we should treasure the remnant. Messianic Jews are doubly blessed. It is not their honor to be a part of us. It is our honor to be a part of them. They are our taproot to holiness.
Sixth, we should expunge all anti-Semitism from our hearts. It should be a shame to us that Luther’s excessive condemnation of the Jews helped create the climate in which Hitler’s “final solution” could be hatched.
And finally, we should be aware of the unique role the Christians should be playing in the historic Arab/Israeli conflict. An American Christian friend of mine spent his entire career teaching in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem — perhaps the only Christian on the faculty. What a striking witness!
The only thing that is able to transcend all the bitterness and hatred of the past and bring any kind of genuine, lasting peace will be the reconciling love of Christ.
Peter Moore is the director of the Anglican Leadership Institute based in Mt. Pleasant.