I’ve been doing a lot of reading this week on the topic of Israel, the Church, and Christian Zionism. One book in particular, Christian Zionism; Road – Map to Armageddon by Stephen Sizer, has been very interesting due not only to the author’s research but to the numerous quotes contained in the book from a number of Christian Zionists. Here are 3 picked at random,
Because the jewish people does in some mysterious way bear God’s name and witness…Christianity was clearly not designed to replace Judaism, instead….there was a continuing covenant with the jewish people…Christians need to lean from observant jews. (Dr. Margaret Brearley, Jerusalem in Judaism and for Christian Zionists)
Trying to convert jews is a waste of time…jews already have a covenant with God that has never been replaced by Christianity. (John Hagee, Houston Chronicle, 30 April 1988)
The Church has sought to settle itself here; but it has no place on the earth . . [Though] making a most constructive parenthesis, it forms no part of the regular order of God’s earthly plans, but is merely an interruption of them to give a fuller character and meaning to the Jews. (John Nelson Darby, The character of office in the present dispensation)
(My intention is to include more quotes in part 2)
There have also been a number of articles I’ve read as well. Adrian Birks has written a paper, Israel and the Church – Fulfillment of Promise, in which he explores Dispensational Zionism, Classical Zionism, and Fulfillment Theology. If you are not already aware of the differences in the three perspectives, perhaps this small series will be of some benefit.
Israel and the Church (Part 1)
…there is considerable diversity regarding the place of ethnic Israel in Christian theology. We will explore this diversity using the three categories of dispensational Zionism, classical Zionism, and Fulfilment Theology accepting that there is a range of views even under these headings.
Dispensationalism as a system began in the UK with J.N. Darby in the 19th Century although was popularised in the US early in the 20th Century by Cyrus Scofield and his Reference Bible. Under this system there are seven ages or ‘dispensations’ where God relates to humanity in a different way after the previous way had failed. Thus concerning Israel and the Church, David Pawson explains “[the sixth age] is referred to as ‘the church age’ (from the first coming of Jesus to the second, and mainly gentile) and [the seventh age is] the ‘kingdom age’ (the thousand years of his ‘millennial’ reign, after his second coming and mainly Jewish.” He continues that “[Darby] made a division between Israel and the church. That is, he saw no continuity between the physical people of God (all Jewish) and the spiritual people of God (some Jews but mostly Gentiles). Believing their separateness would extend into eternity, when the Jews would inhabit the new earth and Christians the new heaven, he called them respectively God’s ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’ peoples.”15
Modern writers like John Hagee continue this idea drawing a parallel from the promise of Abraham:
the church is the stars in the sky and Israel is the sand on the shore, since “stars are heavenly, not earthly. They represent the church, spiritual Israel. The ‘sand of the shore’ on the other hand, is earthly and represents an earthly kingdom with a literal Jerusalem as the capital city. Both stars and sand exist at the same time, and neither ever replaces the other. Just so, the nation of Israel and spiritual Israel, the church, exist at the same time and do not replace each other.”16
(This interpretation is despite explicit Biblical evidence to the contrary! See Neh 9:23.)
This understanding of the millennial age, which follows the rapture of the church into heaven and when Jesus will reign on the earth from Jerusalem as King of the Jews, means that the unfulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament made to the ancient Israelites are interpreted quite literally and remain in force for their Jewish descendants today.
Such literal fulfillment is very apparent from the numerous Zionist writers who make bold and extremely dogmatic claims about OT prophecies being worked out in contemporary events. For instance, Derek Prince writes, concerning Jeremiah 16:15-16
‘I will send many fishermen … and afterward I will send for many hunters’: “All this was exactly fulfilled in the years following 1933. First, God sent ‘fishermen’… who warned the Jews of Germany… After that, in fulfilment of his prophetic warning, God released the ‘hunters’ – the Nazis.”18 And again of Isaiah 43:5-6 ‘… I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth’
Prince makes the claim that,
“[the ‘north’ is] the western half of the former Soviet Union [and the ‘south’ is] the eastern half of Africa. In the years since 1989 there has been a dramatic fulfillment of these particular prophecies. By the end of 1991, almost 400,000 Jews had returned to Israel from the former Soviet Union and 20,000 from Ethiopia.”19
Similarly Lance Lambert asserts that the promise in Ezekiel 36:8-9 ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people Israel, for they will soon come home…. and you shall be tilled and sown’, has,
“come to pass in our own day: the Lord had spoken it and the Lord has done it” since “the land has been tilled again, and vineyards, orchards and gardens have once more been planted.” 20
Such speculative dogmatism is rife among dispensationalists who do not even qualify their assertions with a ‘might it be that this fulfills that’. Such authoritarian claims have done little to help the dialogue on Israel since to question their opinion is tantamount to heresy and anti-Semitism.21
This literal fulfillment of Scripture in ethnic Israel has resulted in Christian Zionists investing huge amounts of energy and finance into supporting Israel supposedly in order that they may speed the end of the age (and the battle of Armageddon!), the return of Christ and the new heavens and earth. Some of this support seems extremely misguided, if not downright foolish, and, as Sizer points out, could be a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”22 For instance, at the inaugural event of Christians United for Israel, and before four US Senators and the Israeli Ambassador to the US, John Hagee declared,
The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive attack against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which would lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and the Second Coming of Christ.”23
Such talk is inflammatory to say the least and while it might please militant Jews, the alignment with the broader Zionist agenda is a substantial hindrance to the evangelisation of Arabic peoples. As David Wagner points out:
[through television and radio broadcasts] Christianity is projected into a predominantly Muslim world as a Western, Zionist religious movement rather than an indigenous Arab religious community that predates the arrival of Islam. When the identity of Christianity becomes that of a Western, Zionist fundamentalism, local Palestinian Christians (and other Middle Eastern Christians) find their identity and historic continuity under suspicion.”24
Thus, extreme forms of Christian Zionism emphasize a particular understanding of OT prophecies and promises for Israel while riding roughshod over the great commission to ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …’ (Mt 28:19)
In addition and perhaps most fundamentally, little or no allowance seems to be made by dispensationalists for how the NT reinterprets the OT which is surely a guiding hermeneutical principle for Christians.
For example, Prince writes
“We are left with only two possible conclusions: either these [OT] predictions are to be fulfilled in the destiny of Israel, or God has uttered prophecies that will never be fulfilled.”25
Prince, and many Zionists like him, leaves no room for interpreting the OT in the way that the NT writers seem to do so. Repeatedly the patterns and types of the OT are seen in the NT to be fulfilled in Christ and in the Church: the Passover sacrifice, the Law, the temple, the city, the priesthood, the children of Abraham, the ‘people belonging to God’, one could go on and on. Even if one concedes at this point that there may be some continued fulfillment in ethnic Israel as believed by non-dispensational Zionists, the NT sees the primary fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in and through the Church.
It is my belief that the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant in Israel and through the Mosaic Law was ‘but a shadow of the heavenly things’ (Heb 8:5 10:1) which has been ‘rendered obsolete’ (Heb 8:13). It is worth noting at this point that many Zionists are confusing in their terminology since they refer to the Abrahamic Covenant as ‘the Old Covenant’ whereas the Bible uses this to denote the Mosaic Covenant.26
It may now be apparent that this view inevitably results in a positive view of Israel and often a negative, or at least critical, view of the church.This is not at all surprising since at the heart of the dispensational system is the view that each age comes to an end because it fails to deliver what God had hoped. Only in the final Millennium, the Kingdom (Jewish) Age, will people relate to God in the way he intended they should. Thus writings by dispensationalists are generally pessimistic about the future of this age (See for instance, the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye) and critical of the church in general, making little of Paul’s theology in Romans and Ephesians of the equality and unity of Jews and gentiles in one magnificent community of God.
Some have gone so far as to extend the dual fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (physical Israel, spiritual Church) to the point where Judaism stands alongside Christianity as an equally valid means of being ‘saved’, albeit only for the Jews.27
Krister Stendahl makes the claim that in Romans 11,
“Paul’s reference to God’s mysterious plan [in 11:25] is an affirmation of a God-willed coexistence between Judaism and Christianity in which the missionary urge to convert Israel is held in check.”28
In fact, I believe Paul’s point to be the very opposite: Judaism has failed as a means of gaining righteousness which can only be obtained, by Jew and Gentile alike, through faith in Christ. Thus Tom Wright concludes,
“The irony [of the two covenant idea] is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelisation of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.”29
Finally, it must be noted that a new group of dispensationalists, calling themselves ‘progressive dispensationalists’, has arisen in more recent years who have distanced themselves from a number of aspects of popular and traditional dispensationalism and are gaining a wide following.30 Grudem notes a number of key distinctions made by progressive dispensationalists:
“They would not see the church as a parenthesis … but as the first step towards the establishment of the Kingdom of God… God does not have two separate purposes for Israel and the church… [they] would see no distinction between Israel and the church in the future eternal state… [and] the church will reign with Christ in glorified bodies on earth during the millennium.”31
However, it is difficult to see how they avoid separate purposes for Church and Israel since they maintain that the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning Israel will be fulfilled in both ethnic Israel and in the church in quite different ways.32 In practice this progressive position is not far removed from classical Zionism which we will now explore.
To be continued..