A Pastoral Statement on Israel

June 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm 1 comment


On May 19, 2011, President Obama delivered a speech in which he called for Israel and Palestine to return to their 1967 borders with “mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”  The reaction to the president’s proposal was swift and fierce.  Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, declared, “The viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of Israel’s existence.”[1]

Because of the long-standing and good relationship between the United States and Israel, many are wondering, “What is our obligation to Israel?  Should we support a return to the greatly diminished Israeli borders of 1967 or should we demand the greatest amount of land possible for this democracy?  What should our position and policy be?”

People are asking these questions not only out of political concern, but out of theological concern as well.  Because God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever” (Exodus 32:13), the question naturally arises:  Does this land still belong, by divine right, to the Jews?  And if so, should we, as the United States, support Israel over the Palestinians in an effort to respect God’s promise to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Because this question is multifaceted, several things need to be addressed.  First, it is important to note that there is a difference between an “Israelite” and a “Jew.”  In Scripture, the term “Israelite” refers to an Old Testament believer who worships Yahweh, the God of Israel and the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and who trusts in His promise to send a Messiah (cf. Isaiah 7:14, 9:6, Micah 5:2, Zechariah 11:12-13).  The term “Jew,” on the other hand, refers to a person of either a certain race or of a certain faith or both.  There are Jews who are of the Jewish race, but are secular, while there are also Jews who are not of the Jewish race, but who practice the Jewish faith.  There are even Jews who are the Jewish race and trust in Christ as their Savior!  Thus, to equate ancient Israelites who had a specific and clear faith commitment to modern-day Jews who may or may not have a particular religious commitment perhaps misses the point from a Biblical view.

The distinction between Israelites and Jews becomes all the more important when one realizes that God makes His promise to Abraham and his descendants in light of Abraham’s faith and not of his race (cf. Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3).  Faith, not race, appropriates the promises of God to the people of God.  Consider the following verses:

  • Abraham…is the father of all who believe. (Romans 4:11)
  • Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)
  • You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

Again and again, the apostle Paul makes the same point:  It is by faith in Christ that one becomes a child of Abraham.  Just because one is a genetic descendant of Abraham does not mean he is an heir to God’s promises.  Indeed, when Abraham’s descendants prove faithless in the Old Testament, they are exiled from the land of Israel (cf. Jeremiah 3:6-10, 2 Kings 17:3-23, 25:8-21).   In the New Testament too, faithlessness is judged harshly.  Consider these verses:

  • John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (Luke 3:7-8)
  • Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.  Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. (Romans 9:6-8)

Abraham’s true children are those who trust in God’s promise of a Messiah, fulfilled in Christ.  Thus, modern day biological Jews, if they do not trust in Christ, cannot be said to be heirs to God’s promises.

But what about the land which God promised to Abraham and his descendants?  Is this the property of today’s Jewish people?  It is important to keep two things in mind as we seek to answer this question.  First, Israel, the modern-day democracy, is not the same as Israel, the ancient theocracy.  Israel, the ancient theocracy, is portrayed by the Biblical authors as ruled by God Himself.  This is why, for instance, King David is anointed by the prophet Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 16:1-13) rather than elected by Israel’s general population.  Conversely, in Israel, the modern-day democracy, officials are elected by the people and not anointed by the prophets or trumpeted as divinely appointed leaders.  Thus, ancient Israel and modern-day Israel are not the same.

Second, it has already been noted that, apart from faith in Christ, the promises of God cannot be appropriated to human beings.  Thus, for those who do not trust in Christ, the promises of God – including the land of Israel – are not theirs.  But what about those Jews who do believe in Christ?  Does this land of Israel still belong to them by divine right?

Ultimately, all land belongs not to people or to a people group, but to God:  “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).  God, in turn, entrusts His world to His people to steward faithfully.  Indeed, this theological truth is stated explicitly in the commission God gives to the Old Testament Israelites:  “When the LORD your God brings you into the land He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).  From the outset, God warns His people not to forget that it is He who entrusts the land of Canaan to the Israelites.  God expects His people to steward this land well and according to His commands.  If the Israelites do not, God warns, “I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 8:19-20).  Notice that if the Israelites fail to follow God, He will destroy them “like the nations the LORD destroyed before.”  What sets Israel apart is its faith, not its land.  Without faith, Israel is just like all other faithless nations.

Finally, we must remember that the land God promised to Abraham was only a foreshadowing of an even greater land to come.  The preacher of Hebrews explains:  “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10).  Indeed, all of God’s Old Testament faithful “were longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).  Earthly Israel was only a shadow of a greater heavenly Israel.  Thus, in the New Testament, Jesus does not make promises concerning the land of Israel.  Instead, He makes promises of a heavenly Kingdom (cf. Matthew 5:3, 10, 6:33, Luke 22:29).  This is why, in Revelation, John sees “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).  The earthly land of Israel, then, cannot be said to belong, by divine right, to biological Jews, or even to those Jews who trust in Christ.  For Christ did not come to bestow an earthly kingdom.  Indeed, Christ never drove out the Romans from Israel, contrary to first century expectations (cf. John 18:36), and, when a Samaritan woman asks Jesus where people are to worship, whether that be on Mount Gerizim according to Samaritan expectations or on Mount Zion according to Jewish expectations, Jesus responds, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:21, 23).  The earthly land of Israel was only a foreshadowing of a much greater heavenly inheritance, which is ours through faith in Christ.

So what does all this mean for the United States’ position on the nation of Israel?  Theologically, we are under no specific divine mandate to support any particular borders for the nation of Israel.  Politically, there may indeed be good reasons to support expanded borders for Israel such as the fact that this nation is one of our close allies and is a thriving, lively democracy in a part of the world which is largely devoid of such governments.  The democratic freedom Israel enjoys and promotes is a foundational value of our American union.  And as such, our citizens generally desire to see the cause of freedom spread far and wide.  For these reasons, many Christians and Americans can and do support Israel.


[1] Matt Spetalnick, “Obama and Netanyahu face tense meeting on Mideast,” Yahoo! News (May 20, 2011).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mark Hoelter  |  June 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Zach

    Thanks for an excellent piece on this timely topic. I am preparing to offer a similar discussion a week from now. I think your theological points are right on, and I wish many in the Evangelical community understood them. The other theological issues are the escatological ones, about Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. That would be another good study.

    But I do want to comment on the political issues you get to in your final paragraph. Theologically speaking, I think we have to criticize Israel for its oppression of Palestinians (as I would also condemn Palestinians for acts of terrorism). They are not living out the biblical mandate to love neighbor, foreigner, and sojourner in the land. Under the authority of the United Nations, Israel was given land that belonged for millennia to Palestinians. Under its own authority, it is taking more land and severely restricting life and freedom of Palestinian people. Using only one example, in our vocabulary, the word “settlements” brings images of a few pioneers at a place like Jamestown, a benign image. But many of the 100’s of Israeli settlements contain hundreds of buildings – apartments, schools and businesses – and thousands of people. They are significant incursions into Palestinian lands. I have traveled to Israel twice, seen these settlements, and visited and talked with Christian Palestinians, especially in Bethlehem. Their frustration, hurt and anger are real and understandable.

    My point is simply this, that we need to learn much more about the Palestinian Arabs before casting our votes for Israel. Palestinians, who have a tribal culture and history, are working on democracy. Although the Muslim issue is big for some of us, we must remember that there are many Arab Christians who can legitimately look back to ancestors who met Christ and the apostles! I, for one, applaud President Obama’s initiative and pray for peace in that unsettled land.

    Thanks again, Zach, for your good work.

    Reply

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