Monday, November 9, 2015

Israel and the Church

Recently I posted a response to an article defending Christian Zionism. Some of you who read that article may have encountered terms that you had never seen before, and felt like you were walking into the middle of a very confusing conversation. So I wanted to take some time to define as simply as I can (hopefully without being unfair) the basic terms I discussed in that article.

While Zionism is a broad term, it refers to a set of movements that hold in common the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland in the ancient land of Israel. Religious versions of Zionism believe that this right is divine, and that the modern state of Israel is the inheritor of God’s promises of a homeland for Abraham’s offspring. Christian Zionists believe that God maintains a special commitment to ethnic Israel, as distinct and separate from the church.

Most Christian Zionists are adherents to a theological system known as dispensationalism. This doctrine derives its name from the belief that God has worked through very different ages or dispensations of history, sharply distinguished from one another. But the essence of dispensationalism is the belief that Scripture should always be interpreted literally. This means that when the Old Testament makes promises about the nation of Israel, those promises must be fulfilled literally in ethnic, fleshly Israel. Therefore, the age of Israel is to be sharply distinguished from the age of the church, and the promises made to Israel cannot apply to the church.

I appreciate the motivation behind the desire to interpret Scripture literally. Dispensationalism emerged in a time when theological liberalism sought to explain away the miracles of Jesus as nothing more than parables. By superimposing on the gospels a bias against the possibility of the supernatural,  liberalism distorted the clear historical claims of Christianity. Ironically, by superimposing its own grid of “literal” interpretation on the Bible, dispensationalism likewise distorts the clear teaching of the New Testament.

The issue is not whether God has made certain promises regarding Israel and the land. The issue is, how did God fulfill those promises? We could answer this question by assuming that the only possible way God could fulfill them was literally – with reference to ethnic Israel and the geographical entity called Palestine. But from a Christian point of view, we must let Jesus and the apostles explain to us how God fulfilled those promises. And what the New Testament consistently teaches is that God has redefined and expanded “Israel” to include all of those - whether ethnic Jews or Gentiles – who are in Christ. And, God has redefined and expanded the “the promised land” to include a whole new creation, “a new heaven and earth.”

With regard to “Israel,” Paul says that all of those who have faith like Abraham and are baptized into Christ become “Abraham’s offspring,” whether Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:26-29). For this reason, Peter takes an entire series of descriptions of Israel from the Old Testament – terms like “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation” – and applies them to Christians, regardless of ethnic identity (1 Peter 2:9-10). And this is precisely what Jesus envisioned, many coming “from east and west” to dine with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11).

Christian Zionists disagree, and often describe the position I just laid out as “replacement theology,” the idea that the church has replaced Israel. Another term that is often used in theological circles is supersessionism, the notion that the church has superseded (supplanted) Israel. This terminology easily leads to caricatures, like the following claims from the article to which I replied:
  • ·     “the Incarnation was supposed to turn the focus away from Israel” 
  • ·      “no longer would God be concerned with the Jews”
  • ·      “Israel has been left behind”

But of course these statements are completely false. Jesus came in the flesh to save Israel (Matthew 1:21), and sent the disciples to teach the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). God is most certainly concerned with the Jews, as he is with all people (Romans 10:1), and God has not rejected ethnic Israel in blanket fashion (Romans 11:1). That is why many theologians who reject Zionism and dispensationalism nevertheless also reject the terms “replacement theology” or “supersessionism.” Those terms are easily misconstrued. I prefer the term expansionism.

Maybe all of these “isms” are still confusing! Here’s an illustration I hope will help. Dispensationalism says that God has constructed two houses: first he built Israel, and then he built the church along side of Israel. Supersessionism says that God built one house – Israel, tore it down, and replaced it with another house – the church. But expansionism says that God built one house – Israel, and then remodeled it. This “remodeling” involved the removal of some parts of the house, along with the addition of other rooms to the house. The result of this remodeling is still Israel, but Israel expanded – the church.

It seems to me that this exactly the picture Paul gives to us in his own illustration of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24. Israel is the olive tree. Some branches were broken off because of unbelief. Others, which he identifies as the Gentiles, were grafted in. And those who were broken off in unbelief may once again be grafted back in. ONE tree, pruned and augmented for sure, but still one tree. Other illustrations make the same point: there is one body (Ephesians 2:11-18), one temple (Ephesians 2:19-22), one offspring of Abraham (Romans 4:9-12; Galatians 3:26-29).

In contrast to dispensationalism and supersessionism, there is both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church. There is discontinuity in the sense that ethnic heritage is no longer the defining point of entry into God’s “Israel” – faith in Christ is. But there is continuity in the sense that it is still Abraham’s family.

This same concept of redefinition and expansion is true of the “promised land.” The New Testament takes the promises of a new land and temple and applies them to the glorious eternal dwelling of God with his people in the “new heavens and earth” in Revelation 21-22. While this may run counter to the “literal” matrix of interpretation, we must ultimately yield to the way the inspired writers of the New Testament inform us of how God intends to keep his promises.

In Ephesians 5 Paul uses the relationship of marriage as a model of that of Christ and the church. He calls this a “mystery,” which earlier in Ephesians he says describes the relationship of Jews and Gentiles together in one body through the gospel (Ephesians 3:6). By insisting on special privileges for ethnic Israel, Christian Zionism pulls apart this unity that Christ achieved in making Gentiles fellow heirs with Israel. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.