15 June 2012

Jesus, Israel and the Church

by Dr Philip Church

This past Wednesday (13 June) we had a presentation at Laidlaw College from Bob Mendelsohn, the Australasian director of Jews for Jesus. His topic was “Jesus, Israel and the Church.” Bob is a warm personality and an engaging speaker. Indeed, it was my privilege, along with a few others, to share a meal with him beforehand. I enjoyed most of his presentation and agreed with much of what he said. His personal testimony of how he came to Christ from an orthodox Jewish upbringing is moving, and like his Jewish countryman the Apostle Paul, he clearly has a heart for the Jewish people and longs to see them following Jesus. The call of God is clearly on his life and God is clearly using him in the spread of the gospel to his own people.

But I was disappointed with some parts of the presentation. One of Bob’s respondents used the word “occupation” to refer to the presence of the Israeli Defence Forces and the building of Jewish settlements in the “Palestinian” territories. Bob was uncomfortable with the use of the word “occupation.” Indeed, he denied the existence of a place called Palestine and repeated the view that most Palestinians came from Jordan in 1948 or 1967. That view has long since been discredited. What the Palestinian people call al Nakhba (the catastrophe) is well documented. Numerous Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes at gunpoint and became refugees in their own land or in neighbouring countries. They are forbidden from returning, in contravention of UN Resolution 194 that mandated that they be allowed to do so.

Bob also painted the picture of many Palestinians as terrorists wanting to push Israel into the sea. Those of us who have had the opportunity to spend any time at all in the West Bank soon notice the massive power imbalance. Certainly there have been wrongs on both sides, and terrorist acts are inexcusable. But to my mind it is clear that ordinary Palestinian people are subject to an occupying power. All that most of them want to do is get on with their lives in peace. Their leadership has repeatedly said that they will live within the agreed borders, while Israeli settlement activity continually encroaches on those borders, and the ubiquitous checkpoints often place insuperable barriers before them as they try to live out their lives. I wonder if Bob understands what these people face on a daily basis.

One questioner asked Bob to comment on Romans 4:13 where Paul claims that God promised Abraham not the “land” but the “world.” Bob was not familiar with the text. I find that very telling. The Apostle Paul had no interest whatsoever in the land of Israel. He never mentions it, not even in Romans 9-11 where he discusses the future of Israel. When Paul discusses the promises to Abraham, he widens Abraham’s descendants to include anyone who has faith and the land promise to include the entire world. Paul had another opportunity to mention the land in Ephesians 6:2, when he quotes the promise that those who honour their parents will enjoy a long life “in the land the Lord your God was giving you.” But he carefully avoids saying this. Rather, those who honour parents, he promises, will have a long life “on the earth.” These are significant texts. God is faithful to his promises to Abraham, to be sure, and Bob is absolutely right to stress this. But the NT sees the fulfilment of these promises in a surprisingly different way. I don’t think Paul ever envisaged the establishment of the state of Israel and the rise of political and Christian Zionism. Rather, he saw the fulfilment of he promises to Abraham, in the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world. Indeed, God said to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

I support Bob’s efforts and those of his organisation on behalf of the evangelisation of Jewish people, and indeed he quite rightly stressed the verse I have just quoted. But I question his Christian Zionist assumptions. In my view, Christian Zionism is based on a misunderstanding of the New Testament. It ultimately limits God to where he started (an individual, a nation and a land) rather than the telos, the end to which history is moving. This is the new heaven and earth where people from every tribe and language will worship the God of Abraham, and where the dwelling of God will be with all humanity.

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