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Surely no one who believes the scriptures can doubt that the establishment of a homeland for the Jews was a remarkable act of God. More amazing evidence of God at work in history is that any Jews survived until that event in 1948. No race has been so targeted by concerted efforts to eradicate them throughout history, but they have survived!
There is also no doubt that godly people prophesied that the people of Israel would be restored to their historical homeland. In light of that, some Christian leaders have stated that this drama is the central act of God in the end times. This premise must be examined in the light of the Scriptures. We must also ask whether or not God requires the Jews’ cooperation and obedience in order to fulfill his plans for them.
To the latter question first. In Biblically-recorded history, God has always required their obedient response to His initiative. When they have hardened their heart, they have come under the heavy yoke of judgment time and time again. As a result, the scriptures came to interpret previous prophetic passages in terms of “remnant” –only a remnant will be saved.
Is His promise unconditional in our time? Will He establish the Jews and save all of them because of their blood links to Abraham or because of their link to the state of Israel regardless of their willingness? If we believe that, we have several issues to face and think about in the light of what we know of God’s ways. If God’s plan is to save them without requiring their cooperation then we must ask, is He going to save them according to their blood or according to their allegiance to the nation/state of Israel?
If it is according to blood, then how much blood do they need to have? That is a big issue for Jews and Arabs. Some of the believers I have met in Bethlehem are quite sure that, though they are identified as Arabs, they have more Jewish blood than many of the Israelis on the other side of the wall. They believe that their ancestors were amongst the first Jewish believers and managed to stay in the land or return as soon as the Roman prohibition lapsed. When Islam came, they did not convert, but remained Christian through all hardships. Under successive Muslim regimes they blended in as best they could and, especially under the Ottomans, their Jewish origins were a distinct disadvantage and that part of their identity was lost. Some of them are sure they have more Jewish blood than the Falashas or many of the Russian “Jews” who are now flooding Israel.
The Israeli courts are struggling daily to work out who is a Jew. Is that important to God in His administration of the New Covenant? If so, it runs against the current of so much of the New Testament that is explicit in its assertion that there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ and salvation is for “whoever will”. If salvation is according to blood, will people who have Jewish blood be saved whether or not they know about their blood line? If an American living in England (by the name of Green) actually does have an eighth or sixteenth Jewish blood in him as he suspects, will he be saved more certainly than if he does not have that blood? Or is that not a sufficient percentage?
What about the strict, observant Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem? He probably does not believe the state of Israel is God’s work. In fact, he could be one of the many who thinks it is accursed because it is the construct of man and only the Messiah can create the new nation for the Jews. Perhaps (and this is very likely) his parentage is not fully Jewish. Perhaps most of his blood is Polish and Russian, with only a sixteenth or thirty-second of Jewish blood. Will he be saved or lost? On what basis? Perhaps because he thinks he is a pure Jew?
This may seem to be hair-splitting, but if we introduce bloodlines, parentage and genetics into salvation, these questions are serious and unavoidable. That is one reason why the courts in Israel take it so seriously and argue about it interminably. For some of the lawyers and judges, it is not just a matter of citizenship in a modern nation-state; it is also a matter of election and salvation for eternity. I hasten to add that the majority of Israeli Jews do not practice any faith and have little or no sympathy for the religious dimension of their history. (The last time I checked the statistics, Israel counted a higher percentage of atheists than any nation other than Japan. I have no doubt that this fact is related to these two people’s suffering during the last century, but that is another subject.)
One might also argue that we cannot know these matters of election as they are in the sovereign and mysterious will of God. But He is the God who says, ‘Walk in the light as I am in the light!’ He has made his way of salvation so clear that even a child can know it. We too easily use this argument when we have not done sufficient thinking and research into our ideas.
Perhaps we think allegiance to the nation-state of Israel is more important than blood and parentage. Many Evangelical Christians around the world seem to think this is paramount. If salvation is in some way associated with Israeli citizenship, then we must think about the many Jewish/Israeli factions and see if all of them will be saved or only some of them. (I am not being facetious here. This is very important because it also impinges on the question of what it means to “bless Israel”).
Many of my Israeli friends are very worried about the hostilities with the Palestinians but confide that, if they did not have a common enemy, then they would destroy one another in civil war. The factions and resentments within Israeli society run very deep.
Firstly, there are the mainstream parties. Former Prime Minister Rabin, of the Labor Party, was convinced that they had to negotiate an agreement of land for peace. Is that being loyal to Israel? His assassin, a right-wing Orthodox Jew, was sure that Rabin was a traitor, so he killed his Prime Minister as an act of worship. To many religious Jews he is a great hero to this day.
Should Christians have blessed Israel by supporting its then elected government—or the assassin? Who is the more loyal citizen?
Now we have more conservative leadership, but they are still willing to negotiate land for peace. Should we support them? Other parties are waiting in the wings having positioned themselves to take a hard line of no negotiating of land for peace. Should we pray for them to come to power so they can force a violent showdown with the Arab world and their supporters? Is salvation connected to these political stances? Some Christians seem to think so. They are most enthusiastic about those parties that seize land by any means and are thus really tough on the Palestinians. On the other hand, they are strongly opposed to the likes of Rabin, who seemed willing to exchange land for peace. Is this related to issues of salvation and Shalom?
What should we think about the strictly observant Orthodox Jews who used to be small in number but are growing fast due to very high birth rates and some conversions? They are implacably opposed to the state of Israel because “God did not initiate it through the coming of Messiah”. They most often live in Jerusalem, existing on social security, refusing to work, studying the Torah and praying continuously, refusing military service, and producing very large families whereby they steadily grow in number and political influence. They claim a right to the land, but no allegiance to Israel, as it is currently constituted.
It should be noted that, generally speaking, the Jews who feel most strongly about their divine right to the land also take the strongest stance against Jesus, the Messiah. Under the Labor government there was a measure of religious freedom. Christian workers and Palestinian believers fared pretty well. Under the conservative and religious governments, the numbers of Palestinian Christians declined dramatically due to highly restrictive security measures, forced unemployment etc. In addition, the conservative governments have decided to withdraw hundreds of visas that have been granted to Christian workers over the decades. Does this “de-Christianization” of the Holy Land make any difference? Should we “bless Israel” regardless?
It seems somewhat absurd to think that personal salvation would be related to an Israeli citizen’s attitude towards the land, but if we set aside the relevance of eternal salvation to these issues, we still have to look more closely at what it means to “bless Israel”. Whom should we bless? We have lots of choice but, unfortunately, we cannot bless all the factions.
Should we bless the Russian “Jew” who has managed to take advantage of the funding of Christian ministries to get to Israel on his way to a third country? All he wants is a better and more comfortable life and by “discovering” his Jewish ethnicity, he seems to be on his way.
Should we bless the ultra-Orthodox Jew who hates the state of Israel and curses it daily, or the moderate Orthodox Jew who works in the government and is committed to ridding the nation of all Christians, who refuses citizenship to full-blooded Jews if they believe in Jesus as the Messiah?
Should we bless the soldiers who man the checkpoints and daily humiliate Arabs because they are taught in their military orientation that Arabs are an inferior race? Or should we bless the soldiers who refuse to serve in the “occupied territories”? Should we bless the helicopter gunship pilots who carry out the assassination sorties, or the ones who have created such a stir because they refused to do so in light of the unacceptable casualties among noncombatants?
Should we bless the Orthodox settler who carries an AK 47 and writes graffiti on the wall of an Arab family, “all Arabs to the gas chambers”? Or, should we bless the Israeli father, who lost his beloved 14 year-old daughter to a suicide bomber, but who works for peace with his Palestinian friends in the “Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Parents for Peace” movement? (Their persuasive conviction is that a “land-for-peace settlement” is inevitable. They believe that will come only when the majority of people believe that the cost of peace is outweighed only by the cost of not having peace. Currently they conclude, sadly, that the days of peace are still many thousands of lives away.)
Or maybe we should bless the leadership of the Messianic Fellowship that meets at Christchurch, Jaffa Gate, who grieve over the pain of the Palestinians and believe that God will not bless Israel until it treats the “alien in the land” as the scriptures command?
What does it mean to “bless Israel?” Surely, out of all the options listed above, it cannot mean that we encourage the Israeli military to seize and occupy more land by any and every means.
If it does, then what do we say to Daoud? He is a committed Christian who graduated from Bethlehem Bible College a few years ago. His family has about 100 acres (40 Hectares) of land near Bethlehem. Like many families I have met, they trace their ancestry in the region back more than 500 years. Unlike most in this oral society, they have documents that support their ownership of the land right back to Ottoman days. In spite of that, the Israeli Defense Force seized their land for “security reasons”. What that means practically is that they are not allowed to return to their house or land to tend their olive trees or vines or graze their sheep. But the recently-built settlement nearby, populated almost entirely by radical Orthodox Jews from New York and built deep within the West Bank region that is recognized by international treaties and the Oslo agreement as Palestinian land, can now requisition their land for new roads and houses. Should we tell Daoud that he has a right to go to the courts to keep that land? The only court available to him is the Israeli court and they have already cost him more than the monetary value of the land as he tries to jump through their legal hoops. Or should we agree with a very well known American evangelical who, upon hearing his story recently, replied that he and his family should have expected all this pain and trouble because they have refused to accept that they are living in the wrong place. This man kindly explained that Daoud should accept God’s sovereign preference for the American Jew to own this land and that he and his large family should move to Jordan where they belong.
So what does it mean to bless Israel? Has God brought the Jewish people back to the land conditionally or unconditionally? Clearly, I believe God brought them back under His conditions. If they obey His ways and trust in Him, then He will bless them. If they disobey Him, trusting in their own might and perpetrating injustice, then they will suffer judgment as they have before.
I truly believe that God handed the returning Jews the opportunity “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.” But, especially after the extraordinary, perhaps even miraculous, victory of 1967, they began to trust in their own power and have brought judgment on themselves. (Of course there were massacres of civilians and other atrocities as early as 1948, but they were relatively few.) In these circumstances, we must bless Israel as Jeremiah did. He was loyal and loving enough to refuse to prophecy peace when there was no peace.
I have spoken to many Arabs in the region who, for years, cherished a hope that a multi-racial democracy would thrive in Israel and that it might eventually become the core of a wider, regional federation of democratic states. As far as I can discern there is no remnant of that hope now. Without that hope, the future looks bleak in political and military terms. The cycle of vengeance and violence continues to escalate even though no one seriously believes that the problems will yield to more violence. Perhaps well-meaning Christian “scholars of prophecy” have proposed the most extreme solution. They suggest that Israel must simply ignore international law and the opinion of the nations and deport the remaining Arabs. (One Israeli, a former war hero, scoffed, “Let them help us get the deportation trains ready!”)
Any solution that promotes the forcible seizure of land and deportation of people only guarantees an endless supply of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective).
Given all these considerations, we can be much more straightforward with the scriptures if we accept two principles. Firstly, though God brought the Jews back to the land, He has not authorized them to establish a racially exclusive state. Their ethnicity does not exempt them from the ways of God, if anything, it makes them more accountable. I believe God expects all nations to behave under the same overarching laws that have prevailed throughout history and more particularly after Christ. He blesses the nation that pursues justice and that makes no allowance for excluding people from citizenship based on racial or religious criteria. I believe God also has to judge acts of ethnic cleansing regardless of who perpetrates them.
Of course many people point to the corruption of the Palestinian authorities or the wickedness of the Islamists, or the suffering of the Jews in history as justifications for their behavior. These are all true and important, so they should be taken into account, but they do not absolve the Israelis of their responsibilities to use their immense power much more carefully than they do.
Secondly, I believe that we must take a firm stand as Christians that there is but one covenant and that is the one established by the blood of Jesus. We must guard against the risk of implying that there is another covenant for the Jews. Paul was at his most zealous and most likely to express indignation and anger when he was guarding the early Church against those who wanted to drag it back into the original covenant. The scriptures are so clear that the covenant of laws and animals’ blood is finished in Christ. (Hebrews 8:13 is one of many scriptures that are explicit on this subject.) Paul was also clear that if you accept any part of the old covenant, you must accept it all. We do not want to do anything to imply that the Jews do not need Jesus. That would deprive them of their way of salvation.
Therefore, Jews must come to Christ willingly, from the heart. Just as God pled with them through Hosea, He still pleads with them today. He will not do a “will freeze” on them. When Paul writes about all Israel being saved, it must be interpreted in the light of all the other scriptural explanations of “Jewish-ness” being a matter of the heart, not of the flesh. As a result, we do not have to try to make the scriptures and providential history conform to some unique and exceptional interpretation of Romans 11. There is no doubt that Paul had a revelation about God blessing the Hebrew people again and that their salvation would be a blessing to the nations. But we cannot take the liberty of concluding that means eternal salvation on the basis of blood or some relationship to the land.
In the final analysis, there is no straightforward scriptural evidence that God intended issues of race or land to carry over into the new covenant. Given the fact that the ideas of divine right to land or election by race both produce strife and violence in human history, we would need overwhelming evidence from Jesus and the Apostles to accept those ideas as part of the New Covenant.
Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets. As He says in Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Paul gave his strongest warnings when dealing with those who attempted to carry the parts of the First Covenant over into the New Covenant. Personally, I am convinced that also includes First Covenant prophecy. We cannot assume that any Old Testament prophecy carries beyond its fulfillment in Jesus unless it is explicitly restated in the New Testament. A careful reading of Old Testament prophecy will confirm that it was all destined to fulfillment in Christ. The promise for a son of David to sit on the throne forever is a prime example.
So why do these ideas about the land and racial election prevail? Historically, they tend to arise quite regularly, usually as a part of some “end times” focus by some faction of the Church. They usually also include speculative interpretations of prophetic passages and some effort to identify key players—such as the Anti-Christ or the two end-times prophets. In fact, they usually result in violence in the name of Jesus (as the Crusades did) or some disastrous proclamation of the date of the end of the world. I believe they are part of an historical thread of deception. When the Church becomes preoccupied with end-time scenarios and conspiracy theories such as the “Left Behind” novels or The Late Great Planet Earth, they forget the central issues of living Christ-like lives and demonstrating God’s love to the lost. They quit planning for the future and often adopt a survival mentality. As a result, the momentum of the coming of the Kingdom is slowed or even reversed.
When this environment of end-times speculation grows strong, it also usually results in the marginalization of the essential teaching of Jesus. Occasionally I receive correspondence from Christians who believe that we are wasting our time or even disobeying God’s purposes in our time by reaching out to Muslims (of course many of them felt the same about communists a couple of decades ago ). That thinking completely eclipses Jesus’ teaching about peace-making and love of enemies. But, it is logically consistent with the idea that land and race are relevant in the New Covenant.
Those of us who do take the commands of Jesus at face value must be very thoughtful before we accept land and race as part of God’s plan for redeeming humankind. When we do, we add some really unsavory political dimensions to the gospel.
In addition, when we take that gospel to any of the one billion Muslims, we are asking them to accept and support the behavior of a political/military construct that has demonstrated that it is just as fallen and corrupt as all the others. I do not believe anyone can be a mature Christian whilst nurturing racial or political hatred in his or her life. Many Muslims, especially Arabs, have a deep and irrational hatred for Israel. That must be confronted. But we have no justification for going to the other extreme and requiring unconditional loyalty to a human political/military construct.
So, I recommend that we cling to a simple gospel with Jesus at the centre, avoiding a focus on speculative end-times theories. Let’s put the Great Commission and the gathering of the Church from every tribe, tongue, people and nation first, with Jesus, his example and commands as our ultimate example.