Israel and the Church

Last month’s decision by the US president to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought out the full range of responses, as usual.  Such responses always dismay me as to how poorly both sides understand what the Bible says about Israel, land, and the Church today.  Here are some notes for a discussion I led on the subject, specifically for Christians; the notes have been somewhat edited since the original version.

Old Testament:

  • God promised Abraham three things: to be a blessing to all families (Genesis 12:3); to give the land of Canaan to his offspring (Genesis 12:7), and to be “the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4).
  • Israel is a name, originally that of Abraham’s grandson Jacob (Genesis 35:10), then of his descendants.
  • God chose “the sons of Israel” as his people by saving them from Egypt (Exodus 3:10; 19:3-6).
  • Failure to partake of the Passover excluded individuals from Israel, God’s people (Exodus 12:19).
  • God told Israel to possess the land; they refused, so he gave it not to them but to their children (Number 13-14).
  • Northern tribes seceded from the Davidic kingdom, and called their kingdom Israel (1 Kings 11-12).  This was not in obedience to God, but had been foretold by God as a judgment on Solomon’s idolatry.
  • Jeroboam I created idols to turn his kingdom of Israel away from God (1 Kings 12:28-33).
  • God repeatedly warned that Israel’s disobedience would lead to being cut off from the land (Leviticus 18:28; Deuteronomy 4:26; Joshua 23:13; 1 Kings 9:6-7; Jeremiah 24:10); so the promise of land to Abraham is conditional on obedience.
  • Prophets typically used “Israel” for all God’s people, not just the northern kingdom.
  • Isaiah warned that only a remnant of Israel would be saved (Isaiah 1:9; 10:21-22).
  • Isaiah also foretold “a second gathering” (Isaiah 11:11) after the first (Exodus), presumably return from exile.
  • For their idolatry, the northern kingdom was exiled (2 Kings 17), blended into the gentiles, and is lost.
  • For their wickedness, the southern kingdom was exiled (Ezekiel 36:16-19), though some returned with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2) or later (Ezra 7).
  • Nehemiah, having returned from exile, regarded the land promise to Abraham as fulfilled (Nehemiah 9:8).

New Testament:

  • Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of Israel; there is no other way of salvation apart from him (uh… the whole New Testament).
  • Jesus is the Seed of Abraham, and believers are heirs of Abraham’s promises (Galatians 3:16; Romans 4:11-17).
  • Gentiles who believed in Jesus were incorporated into the people of God, the true Israel (Acts 15).
  • Paul describes us as “grafted in” (Romans 11:17-24), & blesses “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).
  • Many Jews accepted Jesus (Paul cites himself as an example); faithful Israel is the Church (Romans 11:1-5).
  • Jews who rejected Jesus rejected also his Father (Luke 10:16; John 7:28; 1 John 2:23), and are therefore apostate.
  • Paul refers to Christ as our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7); all who reject it are to be cut off from Israel!
  • Paul describes non-Christian Jews as cut off from God’s olive tree (Romans 11:17-24), unless they come to faith in Christ.
  • The risen Jesus describes non-Christian Jews as “a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9).
  • We should, like Paul, pray for apostate Jews to believe and be saved (Romans 10:1; 1 Corinthians 9:20).
  • “They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Romans 9:6); so not all Jews are God’s people.
  • “Thus all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26): at a future time, God will remove iniquity from Jewish people.
  • But the Old Testament promises to Abraham and Israel belong to the Church today!

A note on terminology: the traditional Christian position that the Church today is the continuation of Israel has been falsely termed by its opponents “supersessionism” or “replacement theology.”  I say “falsely” because you can only say “A replaces B” or “A supersedes B” if A and B are two different things, but I am asserting that Israel and the Church are the same thing.  I have come across Christians who believe that God rejected Israel and chose the Church instead, but this is not what the Bible teaches, and it is not what this post is arguing.  The Bible’s position is that Israel continues as the Church today, and has not been superseded, but those who chose to leave Israel and reject Israel’s God (Jesus) have done so.  So the people of God of the Old Testament, the true Israel, continues today, having included believing Jews and believing gentiles and excluded apostate Jews and unbelieving gentiles, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).  This continuation of Israel we commonly call the Church.

History:

  • Jews who rejected Jesus continued calling themselves “Israel,” just like the northern kingdom.
  • With rise of antisemitism and nationalism in 1800s, European Jews wanted a nation of their own.
  • Palestine (Roman, Arab, Ottoman Turkish name) was already inhabited by a mixture of religious groups (Jews, Christians, and Muslims).
  • Jewish (not Muslim!) terrorism at end of World War II drove the British to pull out of Palestine in 1947.
  • Jewish terrorist group (Irgun) and militias had earlier been armed by British to help win World War II.
  • Irgun and other militias attacked and drove off most Palestinians, seizing their land by force.
  • In 1967, Israel conquered and occupied the remaining Palestinian land (West Bank, Gaza Strip), as well as the Golan Heights and Sinai
  • Israel today holds West Bank Palestinians under military occupation with no rights and limited access to basic necessities.
  • The closest biblical analogy to the modern Israeli state is the northern kingdom of Israel: they have rejected the true God (Jesus) for a god of their own devising (or none).  God is allowing them to continue for a time, like other governments that do not serve Him.
  • Israeli Jews have no greater “right” to the land than Ottoman Turks, Muslim Arabs, or pagan Romans…  Because the promise to the land is dependent on obeying and worshiping God, but they reject Him.  Their only claim to the land is the claim of conquest, which is an invalid claim under the Geneva Conventions.
  • The People of God in the Holy Land today are Christians, whether Palestinian or Israeli (once 10%, now only 2% of Palestinian population).
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has killed tens of thousands and displaced around 5 million, the vast majority of whom are Palestinians.
  • This conflict is sustained by US diplomatic and military support of Israel, giving Israel a sense of impunity.

Conclusion: Christians ought to seek justice and peace for both Israelis and Palestinians, and to support fellow Christians among both groups.

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