Yeah, But I Just Don’t Get That ‘Israel’ Thing

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One of the most common things I hear when it comes to discussing God’s plan and purpose for Israel is, “Yeah, but I just don’t get that ‘Israel’ thing”. Considering the amount of silence in the church regarding teaching on modern day Israel, it is quite understandable that so many Christians fail to grasp the essential truths distinguishing Israel and the church. Unfortunately, as a result of the vacuum of teaching on Israel, a destructive false teaching has entered the church called “replacement theology”, also known as “supercessionism”.

Replacement theology teaches that the church has replaced Israel and has usurped the callings, covenants, gifts and promises that God originally gave to Israel. It teaches that modern day Israel has nothing to do with the Biblical Israel and has nothing to do with end times teaching. Christians who reject replacement theology (such as myself) are widely known as “Christian Zionists”. Zionism is simply the belief that the Jewish people have been given the land of Israel by covenant promise to Abraham and his descendants through the line of Isaac and Jacob and have a current right to occupy that land. Christian Zionists are Christians who agree with this belief.[1]

This blog aims to explain that the purpose of the church is not to replace Israel, but rather to expand Israel to represent both Jews and Gentiles in the millennial reign of Christ. This theological thought has profound implications in regard to Christian life and practice, as the church realises her responsibility to place priority on Jewish evangelism and to collectively acknowledge the debt owed to the Jewish people for their spiritual heritage which we now share.

 

Replacement Theology and Its Damaging Repercussions

Champion of replacement theology, Stephen Sizer has said that Jews have forfeited their place with the rejection of Jesus while he was among them and as a result have been denied divine individuality, nationality, and territory.[2] Sizer cites Matthew 21:33-46, where Jesus says in v.43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” as a categorical statement made by Jesus in which he specifically rules out any notion that Israel would enjoy a divinely mandated national identity as a kingdom in the future.[3] This teaching that Sizer and his associates have been spreading has gained significant momentum, and as a result, many evangelicals today have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from biblical Christian Zionism. It is true to say that from this scripture that the Kingdom of God is taken away from a ‘people’, but is it speaking of the Jewish people as a whole?

 

The Mystery of Israel and the Church: Olive Tree Enlarged, Not Replaced

In Romans 11, Paul goes to great lengths to emphasize that God has not rejected the Jews and explains the redemptive framework by which Gentiles are saved. Paul cleverly uses an allegory of an olive tree, which is both a representation of Israel (considering Jer 11:16 and Hosea 14:6) as well as a representation of God’s plan of salvation. Jesus affirms in John 4:22 that “salvation is of the Jews” and Paul in Eph 2:12 says that before Christ, Gentiles were “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Jeremiah made it clear in Jer 31:31 that the New Covenant is to be made “with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” and Paul in Rom 9:4 says that “the covenants” belong to the people of Israel, which obviously includes the New Covenant.

And so with the allegory of the olive tree in Rom 11, Paul goes into detail how the Gentiles partake of the New Covenant and attain salvation. He says that branches have been broken off to make room for believing Gentiles (v.17-19). But, who represents the people who were broken off? The answer cannot be the entire Jewish people, as Sizer and the other replacement theologians believe. The allegory is not about a tree being replaced with a completely different tree. Paul explains that branches have been broken off as a result of unbelief (cf. 20). Jews who have hardened their hearts and refused to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah and believe in him for their salvation. This makes so much sense revisiting the Parable of the Tenants in Matt 21:33-46, as it was the tenants who were doing the persecuting and were implicated in the killing of the landowners son. This is certainly not speaking of all of Israel, as it was not all of Israel that rejected Jesus. Many of the Jews in Israel believed that Jesus was their Messiah and did not want him to be killed.[4] When Jesus said, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” he was speaking directly to the chief priests and the elders and Matthew makes a poignant remark in v.45 by saying “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.” So, as a result, this new concept that came in with the church links Israel to the new community of both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus and consequently excludes those Jews who do not.[5] In Eph 3:6, Paul spells out the mystery of the purpose of the church, “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

 

The Eschatological Destiny of Israel and the Church

Considering the marvellous mystery of the purpose of the church, where does all this lead eschatologically? Remarkably, Paul makes the startling admission that; “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” Remarkably, Israel’s final salvation is predicated upon the prior salvation of the Gentiles.[6] So once the redemptive program of the church has concluded, God will turn his attention back to Israel, as was prophesied in Isaiah 14:1-2:

The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. Aliens will join them and unite with the house of Jacob. Nations will take them and bring them to their own place. And the house of Israel will possess the nations as menservants and maidservants in the Lord’s land. They will make captives of their captors and rule over their oppressors.

The ‘aliens’ that the passage speaks of is referring to Gentiles uniting with eschatological Israel. In fact, in a number of significant passages it is God who gathers in the nations.[7] Thus in Isaiah it is God who says of “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” (Isa 56:3,6-8) and in Ezekiel, land is allotted to ‘foreigners’ as their inheritance and are to be considered as ‘native-born Israelites’ (Ezek 47:22-23).

So it would be fair to say that the majority of Christians today think that the church is the be all and end all of God’s purpose for mankind and that the nation of Israel is just an afterthought. But what we have discussed is the remarkable eschatological scenario where Israel once again takes centre stage, made up of both Jews and aliens/foreigners (Gentiles), which rules over the nations in the Millennial Kingdom with Jesus the Messiah installed as King.

 

Conclusion

As a result of this theological understanding, our attitudes in Christian life and practice must change. We understand the great debt that we owe to the Jewish people as Paul mentions in Rom 15:27;

They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.

One of the best ways to bless the Jewish people is sharing with them the truth about their Messiah, as Paul has says in Rom 1:16 that the gospel is for the Jew first and then the Gentile. Adopting this theological understanding would require a significant shift in our personal evangelism tactics and World Mission strategy and planning. Yet, no Christian should harbour any lesser attitude, and it breaks my heart to say, many Christians have continued and will continue to be anti-Judaic both racially and theologically.[8]



[1] Thomas D. Ice, ‘Lovers of Zion: A History of Christian Zionism’, in Article Archives, Paper 29 (2009), p. 1. Online: http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/pretrib_arch/29 [cited: November 22, 2012]

[2] Barry E. Horner, Future Israel, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 89.

[3] Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: And The Road Map To Armageddon, (PhD thesis – 2004) p.190 [cited 11 October 2012]. Online: http://www.newlifetabernacleofchattanooga.org/attachments/File/Zionism/Christian_Zionism_PhD_Thesis.pdf

[4] Cleopas was one of these Jews who was hoping that Jesus was going to redeem Israel from the Romans (see Luke 24:20-21).

[5] Alex Jacob, The Case For Enlargement Theology, (Essex: Glory to Glory Publications, 2010), 153.

[6] Christopher Zoccali, ‘’And so all Israel will be saved’: Competing Interpretations of Romans 11.26 in Pauline Scholarship’, in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 3 (2008), Issue 3, p 291, [cited: October 3, 2012] Online: http://jnt.sagepub.com/content/30/3/289.full.pdf

[7] Charles H.H. Scobie, ‘Israel and the Nations: An Essay In Biblical Theology’, in Tyndale Bulletin, Vol. 43 (1992), Issue 2, p 291, [cited: October 3, 2012]. Online: http://www.tyndalehouse.com/TynBul/Library/TynBull_1992_43_2_04_Scobie_IsarelAndNations.pdf

[8] Barry E. Horner, Future Israel, 254.

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