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?