Israel, “Replacement Theology” and Jesus’ Kingdom

I am often asked about my “position on Israel.” In fact, it may be the #1 question Christians ask me.  Non-Christians (of any stripe) never ask me that.  It’s a fair question and deserves a thoughtful response. Some of you don’t care, but for those of you who do, here’s my best and most honest response to date.

Like most questions – this question “What is your position on Israel” is a loaded one. It’s loaded with meaning.  It tends to blur the lines between theology (our beliefs about God), eschatology (our beliefs about the “end times”), politics, religion, the nature of the Old Covenant with the New, the nature of the church (ecclesiology), history (of the Middle East) and several other things like how we think of terrorism, issues of justice, the role of political peace-making in the life of a believer, etc.

So the question itself is a minefield.  So what I’ve done for most of my life is ignore the issue.  Too difficult. Too volatile.  Way too much baggage.  And it causes me to lose the support of my friends and family. So why tackle it now?  Four reasons:

I’m 50.  Yep, that’s the number one reason.  I remember my hero in the faith and mentor, John Wimber, told a group of us that we shouldn’t write a book before 50 because you don’t know much and what you do know you’ll change your mind on before  50.  Well, I didn’t quite listen to his advice, since I was 47 when my first book came out, but on this issue – I have. Now I’m 50. I’ve been thinking about, reading about and living out this issue for 30 years now. And I’m not as consumed with what others will think as I once was – so it feels like the right time.
In years past, I wasn’t personally involved with either Palestinians (living in the land) or with Israelis.  We lived in Lebanon and therefore couldn’t go to Israel/Palestine, so the issue was only theoretical. Now I go there and so now it’s relevant. I don’t fight every battle.  Too many. But this is now one worth fighting as I’m personally invested on various sides of the issue.
God’s heart for the weak, the poor, the outsider, the downtrodden, the underdog is hard to argue with. Proverbs 31:8 says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute..”  I cannot ignore that injunction in this case.

Finally, as I have travelled now many times into Israel and the West Bank and have seen firsthand what is happening, I cannot remain silent.  The Israelis live in fear. The Palestinians live under oppression. Neither are good and the two side by side are a really bad combination.

We, the church in the West, have a huge role to play in this.  How we think and believe about this issue has far-reaching affect. It has on-the-ground impact.  It changes and moves the lives or real people, both Israelis and Palestinians.

So…with that as a backdrop,here we go – hold on. Pray for God to reveal wisdom, an open heart and a clear mind. Don’t take my word for it. Research. Pray. Read the scriptures. Ask some friends.
In this communication I will only deal with the biblical issue of whether or not modern-day Israel is supposed to have the land.  I’ll leave the politics and the social issues for others.

First, let me say that the nation of Israel has all the rights to be a sovereign people and nation living in peace and security that any other nation should have.  There is NEVER an excuse for terrorism.  The problems the Palestinians and other surrounding Arab nations have are obvious and have been well-documented and discussed.   The leaders in most of these Arab countries have been anything but positive. I’m not a fan of many of their policies or politics.

So…the issue restated – does the current nation of Israel have a biblical right to the land promised to the Israelites in the Old Testament?

The promises that are usually being referred to occur in Genesis 12:7, 13:15-16 and 17:7-8.

Two interesting and worthy side-notes before we get into the heart of the matter:

If you are reading these passages to mean that the promise of physical land was given to Abraham’s physical “offspring” or “descendants” – the words which are used – then you could argue that it’s already been fulfilled. The offspring of Abraham were Isaac and Ishmael. And they do, in fact, currently inhabit the land. These passages do not specify Isaac as the “offspring” so it would be both. So IF you’re relying on that as your #1 point, you could say that the current state of affairs does, in fact, fulfill that promise.
Other passages in Deuteronomy clearly state that the promises of God toward his people were conditional on obedience.  God’s always good to his word and from his side they are unconditional. But throughout the scripture we see the theme that God makes us offers of life, but are only received (appropriated) by our acceptance and then obedience. So to make the case that the promises made to the Old Testament Israelites has now been fulfilled in the modern secular (almost totally god-less) nation of Israel, which has clearly NOT walked in the way of God, is quite a stretch.

But here are the main biblical points:

Jesus never speaks of the land.  Neither does Paul or anyone else in the New Testament. In fact, they seem to work overtime to make it clear to their Jewish compatriots that this New Kingdom was NOT about this world. Not about land. Not about a political entity.

Here’s how Paul deals with it – mostly in Romans, Galatians and Ephesians.

Look at Romans 9:3-8.  A very clear word that those who are called “Israel” are not necessarily the offspring of Abraham – who Paul earlier states are the real children of the promise because of FAITH in Christ.  Abraham is not simply the father of the nations, but the father of faith.  And it is through that faith that we are now the true Israel . Read Ephesians 2:11-19.

Circumcision is now of the heart, not the flesh.  Remember that circumcision was unique at the time to the Jews.  To be Jewish meant your were circumcised.  Therefore to be of Israel meant the same.  Paul came and said in Romans 2:28-29 that the true “Jew” is one who has been circumcised of the heart NOT the flesh.

Finally Galatians 3:15-19 clearly states (again) that it was a promise to Abraham’s “seed” which is singular and referring to Christ.  NOT to a specific nation or people, but the promise was actually promised to Jesus and to his descendants in faith.  (The last half of Galatians chapter 4 further demonstrates this).

We have not “replaced” Israel as the promised ones (“we” being those who are “in Christ”) but we have been included. How could we replace Israel?  God’s promises to them stand firm – from his side. When and if any Jew or member of the current nation of Israel recognizes Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, they are “in.”  The offer to them stands firm.

And through the life, death, resurrection and work of Jesus Christ, we – the gentiles who believe – have been included. What a great mercy. It’s “Inclusion theology” not in any way “Replacement Theology.” And I’d suggest it’s more appropriately thought of as “Expansion Theology.” God, through Paul’s writing, has expanded how the term “Israel” is used. It no longer simply refers to a political entity or religious identity, but refers to all who are in Christ through faith.

So…what does this have to do with my answer to the question “What’s your position on Israel?”

Well, firstly and mainly, since we are people of the Book and believe in its power to lead and guide us – we have to be sure our understanding of what it says is correct.  Once we understand that we must read the Old Testament promises in light of the newer Covenant in Christ, and that we are the heirs of those promises because of the Seed (Jesus) and what he did, then we can move forward to answer the rest of the question.

And….if, you agree with me that all the promises were (and are) fulfilled in Jesus – not nullifying anything, but fulfilling all things – and that, in that sense, Jesus is our inheritance – our land….more becomes clear.

So the current secular nation-state of Israel should have all the rights of any nation.  I should want the same things for Israel that I want for the USA.  I want a peaceful and secure life for myself and my children in this country, so why wouldn’t I want that for them?  I do.

But it also now allows me to view the flaws of Israel through the same lens that I’d view the flaws of any nation.  I can criticize them freely and fairly.  I can hold them to the same standard I’d hold any nation to.  I can ask hard questions.  I don’t need to be overly sensitive to the “You’re a replacement theology nut” or “anti-semitic.”  The accusations that have for decades shut down fair and vigorous dialogue about these issues.

Honestly, holding the opposite (dispensationalist) viewpoint is untenable anyway.  It means that the current secular nation-state of Israel OUGHT to have all the land from the Tigris River to the Nile and over to the Great Sea (the Mediterranean).  That would include much or most of the modern nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and all of what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories).  There are about 100 million Arabs (descendants of Ishmael) living there now. Knowing, as we do, that God created these people and loves them dearly and wants to see them introduced to his Son – we can’t simply hope they will disappear.

A refusal to view the Old Promises in light of the New (in Christ) will lead to disaster at so many levels.  Which is why Jesus came!

I want my views of the former times, the current times and the end times to all line up with ALL of the scripture.  With the life, message and way of Jesus.  But also that of our greatest theologian – Paul.  And I believe Paul was clear. He had to clear it up then for his Jewish listeners and he’d have to clear it up again if he lived among us today – because we want to see physical realities rather than accept the spiritual one that Christ has offered. I don’t know why we’re wired that way, but it seems we are.

So was the founding of modern Israel as a physical political entity a fulfillment of prophecy or something that has been used to (quite effectively) distract us from the greater issue – that all would meet and believe in the Seed of Abraham, our Savior?

Comments

  1. Dave Hall Jr says:

    Hi Carl. Thanks for writing on this. Could you elaborate on Israel being a virtually god less nation? We’re so far removed from there, and I would imagine many of us just assume they’re very devout people.

  2. Col says:

    Hi Carl,
    I agree it is good to have an open debate on these issues! Your first side note, however, is simply indefensible. God’s promise of the land was clearly specified to come through Isaac and then Jacob. Ishmael is specifically excluded from this promise.

    Genesis 17:19-21 19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.
    20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.
    21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.”

    Genesis 28:13-14 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.
    14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
    Genesis 50:24 24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
    Exodus 3:6-8 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
    7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.
    8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.
    Psalm 105:6-11 6 O descendants of Abraham his servant, O sons of Jacob, his chosen ones.
    7 He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth.
    8 He remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded, for a thousand generations,
    9 the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac.
    10 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
    11 “To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit.”

    1. jeff appel says:

      COL – You fail to see that, for the Israelites, land was a gift. See Gen 12:1-3, 15:1-16, Deut 8:7-10, 9:4-5, 11:10-12, 26:9, Amos 2:9-10, and Hosea 2:14-16.
      Land wasn’t the Israelites by right – it was given as a gift. It was destined for God’s people before Israel was a people. The people had nothing to do with it (again, see Deut. 9:4-5). Israel’s identity is not tied to the land: they can be a people without it. It is not intrinsic that they have a land in order to be a people. They are constituted by their relationship with God – this is the covenant reality.
      Think of the Caananites: they hold blood, soil and the gods together. In the Ancient Near East, what makes you a (fill in the blank) is your identity to the land, mostly because the gods were local. If you moved to a new land in the ANE mindset, you couldn’t take your gods with you – you had to find new ones in a new land.
      Also, think of the Church: land is a future reality. We are pilgrims now. “Land” is an eschatological promise.

  3. Col says:

    Hi again Carl,
    Your second point, that the New Testament does not mention the land, while strictly accurate, misses the point. In Luke, an angel from God says “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David,
    and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”, while Mary says; “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” Paul says “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs” Note that promises here is plural, as are the patriarchs. Speaking of Israel, Paul again says, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” Again, the word promises. Concerning God’s promises, he states “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.”

    Now, would you say the following count as promises?

    Psalm 105:6-11 O descendants of Abraham his servant, O sons of Jacob, his chosen ones.
    He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth.
    He remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded, for a thousand generations,
    the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac.
    He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
    “To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit.”
    Jeremiah 31:35-36 This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar– the LORD Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.”

    Jesus is not irrelevant to these issues, it is specifically because of him that they will come true. He is indeed a light to the nations and the glory of his people Israel.

  4. Col says:

    Last one, Carl,
    To give a slightly more coherent discussion of how I see it, I thought this might be useful;

    God loves Israel. God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12; 1-3 is the beginning of salvation history, and includes both universal and specific promises. For example, Psalm 105; 7-11 and Jeremiah 31; 35-37. This is because his love for Israel is the first expression of his love for all humanity. His eternal promises to Israel are not in conflict with this, but are a guarantee of it (Romans 11:16). They were called to be a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6), to show God’s ways to the rest of humanity.

    Israel were called because God loved them (Deut 7: 8), rescued from slavery, given God’s laws and a good land, yet with all this they still sinned. They sinned to the point of killing his own dear son, Jesus. Israel shows us that we cannot make it to God through our own efforts, even with God’s own care and help, yet we fail. Now, is that then the end of the story, God’s love and promises thwarted by our weakness and sin? NO!, for as Paul tells us, in his discussion of Israel, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” God’s love is greater than our sin.

    Israel will say, given every divine help, we sinned, we turned our backs on God, we killed Jesus, yet that was not the limit of his love. In every generation a remnant were saved, and finally, “all Israel will be saved” (note this passage includes its own definition of Israel, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”)
    On that day Israel will say; “We are monuments to the love and grace of God.”

    Israel are saved when, as we find in Zechariah 12-13, they look on him whom they have pierced (conviction of sin), the mourn for him (repentance), and a fountain is opened for them for the removal of sin (baptism). That is, they are saved just the same way you and I are, just as they showed that we cannot reach God in our own strength, that the wages of sin is death, so they show that the free gift of God is eternal life, when all the nations of the earth come against them, they show the world the way of salvation (see above), and so fulfill their calling as a nation of priests (Zechariah 8:20-23).

    At present, they have been re-gathered in unbelief, just as Scriptures says, are still sinning, just as you and I are, and need the gospel. At the same time, when I sin, when I let God down, when I wonder if God could ever forgive and use me again, I look at re-gathered Israel and take hope. If God has not given up on them, he will not give up on me. As a gentile Christian, I am glad God has re-gathered Israel, that he still cares for them and is working for their salvation.

    Thank God for the modern miracle, the nation of Israel!

  5. ericknac says:

    COL,
    The most important part in all this is found in Galatians 3:16 “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.”
    The promises were always to the world THROUGH Jesus…the Jewish nation had that very important and honorable vocation.

    Then in Galatians 4 Paul compares the earthly Jerusalem to Hagar. And then Paul says in Galatians 4:30 Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.”

    Whatever the Old Testament says it must be interpreted through Galatians.

    The Jews deserve a homeland, but they cannot be allowed to perpetuate the same mistakes the Pharisees made in the Gospels. WE are God’s chosen people and we can do whatever we want. The prophets both major and minor tell us that attitude is what got the Jews carried away to captivity in the first place.