If you’re a Christian living in the United States, you have certainly witnessed the politicking surrounding the nation of Israel. It’s likely your pastor has even thrown his hat in the ring, particularly if you attend a church with a premillennial dispensational eschatology. In fact, American evangelicalism is so tied to the Promised Land that Christians funnel millions of dollars into charitable causes in Israel. It’s no wonder, either, for those who see the 1948 rebirth of Israel as fulfillment of prophecy−a sign of the end of time. But is this a Biblical understanding?
Before we begin, I must admit the complications I face in addressing this topic. My husband’s roots are Palestinian. His father was born in Bethlehem in 1947, the year before Israel gained its statehood. His mother was born in California but spent her childhood with family in Bethlehem. Today, my husband’s cousin owns a bakery in the heart of Bethlehem. His maternal relatives are likewise business owners there. One of his female cousins is even a renowned Palestinian race car driver (Betty from the documentary Speed Sisters). All this to say, my in-laws have called Palestine home for generations.
Second to note: My in-laws are not Muslim, as you might expect, but Arab Christians. I should be quick to explain that the designation is often a cultural one with a nod to religion. In that, it is not so different from much of American Christianity. Many of the “Christians” I encountered there were also professing agnostics. To the Palestinians, the assignation is often nothing more than a way of distinguishing between entrenched communities, between Arabs who are generationally Christian and those who are generationally Muslim (conversions are rare and often deadly). To the nation of Israel, it is a way of assessing risk. Arab Christians are not viewed with the same height of suspicion as Muslims, though it makes little difference in the daily rigmarole as I came to find out.
Having laid bare my bias, I hope you will do the same. I understand the deeply entrenched viewpoint that is premillennial dispensationalism. I, too, once held that view. I believed the land was eternally Israel’s by the gifting of God, the ethnic Jews His chosen people. The news headlines were to me but a crystal ball by which to divine the name and rank of the coming Anti-Christ. I saw omens everywhere, as ripe for the reading as tea leaves. In every political ploy there was a conspiracy to usher in the New World Order. In every act of aggression, a portent of the coming apocalypse.
I carried these views with me to the Middle East late last year as we wound our way through the shadow streets of Bethlehem−that quiet little town. We had gone to bring the ashes of my father-in-law to the family plot, and so my expectation of spiritual experience was further heightened. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was seeking a pagan spirituality through pilgrimage. Like the annual Huicol journey to Wirikuta to gather peyote or the Islamic hajj, a trip to the Holy Land is more than bucket list; it is considered a rite of passage for American Christians.
Yet what I found wasn’t a mystical fantasy land imbued with some divine purpose that need only be mined, forged, and wielded as if a spiritual sword in God’s final cosmic battle. I found a predominately secular nation where rabbis were the relegated tchotchkes of bumpers and billboards, where religions were sharpened on the whetstone of politics, and the whole world was forgotten in the scrabble over plots of land. I had the advantage of seeing Israel and Palestine not from the air conditioning of a tour bus, but through the eyes of the people who live there, and the sight was anything but rosy.
Please do not misunderstand me. Arguments can and should be made for political support of Israel. As the only democracy in a sea of totalitarianism, the nation of Israel certainly aligns with American interests, particularly in curbing the rise of Radical Islam and the terror it conjures. The real question is whether the church should be involved. How does orthodox Christianity understand the relationship between Israel and the church?
One Covenant, One People
While dispensationalists view God’s people as divided into two distinct groups: Israel and the church, the hallmark of covenant theology is the unity of God’s purpose throughout redemptive history. Through His word, God has revealed His plan to restore His people into communion with Himself after Adam plunged all humanity into sin. This covenant of grace had distinct applications in the Old Testament (sacrifices, circumcision, etc.), types and shadows of the Messiah to come, but its ultimate fulfillment was realized through the atoning work of Christ.
It would be a mistake to believe the plan for salvation and fellowship with God was somehow different in the context of the Old Testament. God does not change His mind. Even Job understood the need for someone to mediate between God and man (Job 9:32-35). In fact, all the faithful of Israel looked forward to a Mediator greater than Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6), placing their trust in God alone as the source of their righteousness.
Contrast Rahab and Achan in the Book of Joshua. She was a Canaanite prostitute; he was from the royal tribe of Judah. Her obedience to the one true God garnered blessing for her and her family (Joshua 6:23-25, Hebrews 11:31) while Achan’s ethnicity and position did nothing to save him from the judgement of God, and he was ultimately destroyed like a Canaanite (Joshua 7:24-25).
As such, all those who are united to Christ by faith find inclusion in the promises and blessings made in the covenant of grace. Faithful allegiance, not direct ascent to Abraham, is the connecting thread in fulfillment of the promise. Therefore, the true Israel is the church, those whose allegiance lies with God − comprised of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9).
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.1 Peter 2:9, NIV
The land is not Israel’s, nor is it Arab land. It is God’s land, and it is His to do with what He wills (Deuteronomy 11:12-21). This is not a trivial point. The argument is often that God gave the land to Israel, so they have the ultimate right to it. But is this really what we see in the Old Testament? Did God grant the land to Israel without stipulation?
Instead, the pattern we see throughout the Deuteronomistic history is that of the faithful possessing the land. Those who reject God are not entitled to inheritance. In fact, the impenitent people of Israel are sent into exile until they repent and return to the worship of Yahweh, at which point they are restored to the land.
Caleb and his daughter are prime examples of the idea that, through federal headship, you and your children will inherit the land if you remain faithful−regardless of gender or cultural custom. Certainly ethnicity is not the requirement when we consider the Moabite Ruth who was considered a part of Israel due to her allegiance. It was through her that God would bring forth King David and ultimately Christ, the Messiah. So important to God is the faithfulness of His people.
In this way, the land of Israel functions as a synecdoche for the whole earth, a part that represents the whole. This is an important theological point. Just as the faithful inherited the Promised Land, so shall the children of God (through the federal headship of Christ Jesus) dwell in the new heaven and new earth. Those who rebel against God, unbelievers from any ethnicity, will be exiled from the land and into the chaos and disorder of hell. This, not premillennial dispensationalism or any other contrived timelining, is the eschatological view that matters.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:4-6, NIV
My prayer is that Christians throughout the United States would recognize the primacy of preaching the gospel to all those who are lost, Jew and Gentile, and that the body of Christ would be the business with which we are most concerned. Our focus should be on advancing the Kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of man.
Recommended Reading: Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton