Last week (May 19, 2011), President Obama created controversy with his statement that any Israeli-Palestinian accord “must begin with a return to the 1967 borders.” Besides Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many evangelical leaders have been criticizing the statement over the last several days.
Foreign policy experts have been discussing and debating the conditions for a lasting accord, offering thoughtful analysis on complicated questions. However, they are often drowned out by the background voices of those who insist, on biblical grounds, that any pressure put on Israel to keep its past pledges is tantamount to heresy.
Lacking both the qualifications and the authority to pronounce on the policy questions, my focus here is on the argument that many evangelicals have made over the years since dispensational premillennialism gained ascendence.
In a recent post for Charisma Magazine Online, Jack Hayford, pastor of Church on the Way (Van Nuys, California), called President Obama’s announcement “a trumpet call from God’s Spirit: ‘Beware – Take Action!’” He adds, “We are living in a sobering moment in history that calls us, as believers in Jesus Christ, to take a stand with Israel. We could be people of the last hour.”
To his credit, Mr. Hayford warned against disrespectful or violent responses. However, he reiterated a familiar defense for a policy that would basically recognize Israel’s privileges as a “holy nation” and not simply as a secular nation that is one of the US’s closest friends. Inasmuch as it has been embraced (at least publicly) by several recent presidents, the “Bible-based” argument that Mr. Hayford offers has had some influence on foreign policy. But is it, in fact, biblical?
Like most dispensationalist brothers and sisters, Mr. Hayford’s main argument is the unconditional nature of God’s promise to Israel of an earthly land and kingdom. “Israel is a land about which God says uniquely, prophetically, redemptively and repeatedly in the Bible This is Mine. God refers to Israel as He does to no other land on Earth. Israel was raised up to be a light to the Gentiles.” He makes other arguments in favor of the special relationship of Christians and Jews. “Salvation comes from the Jews,” the first church was Jewish, and Gentiles are the “wild branches” grafted onto the tree. All of this is important to remember when we are thinking about the relationship between Christians and Jews. However, does it have anything to do with the nation of Israel and Palestine or the United States?
The deeper problem in the argument supporting Mr. Hayford’s urgent call concerns the nature of the promise that God made to Abraham. He writes, “The Lord selected a people … He began by selecting a man named Abraham. The Lord said that through the seed of Abraham (in relationship with his wife, Sarah, giving birth to the promised child, Isaac) all the nations of the Earth will be blessed … every human being having access to the divine blessing of Almighty God. In Genesis 12:3, the Lord says in the covenant He makes with Abraham: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
I can agree with the point that “This relates not only to a people (the Jews), but it also relates to a land (Israel),” and that God did in fact judge Israel’s enemies. Nevertheless, God’s covenant with Israel was itself conditional. It is not Israel’s land, but God’s, and if Israel breaks the covenant, then the land will “vomit out” Israel as well (Lev 20:22). God himself will lay the nation waste through other nations and send his people into exile “east of Eden.” The land will no longer be holy, but common, even though God continues to work through the holy line—the “stump of Jesse,” from whom David and eventually the greater David (the Messiah) would come. Throughout the law (especially in Deuteronomy), the temporal promise of “long life in the land” is conditioned on Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant it swore at Mount Sinai. It is distinct from the unconditional promise of everlasting life and peace through Abraham’s Seed, through whom all families of the earth will be blessed.
The way the Gospels, but especially Hebrews and Galatians, interpret these passages is to recognize that the Sinai covenant was temporary, conditional, and typological. It was a shadow of the things to come—namely, Christ and his kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announces a “regime change” from the civil laws of the theocracy. Instead of driving out the enemies of God, the True Israel—those united to Christ—are to endure suffering for the gospel and to pray for their persecutors. God’s common grace is shed on the just and the unjust alike in this age. Having fulfilled its job, like a trailer for a movie, the old covenant is now “obsolete” (Heb 8:13). Christ’s ministry, far greater than that of Moses, fulfills the everlasting promise that God made to Abraham. Now, blessing has come from the Jews to the ends of the earth in Jesus Christ, the true Israel, the true and faithful Son of David, the true Temple.
The church has therefore not replaced Israel; rather, the borders of Israel have now been extended. No longer a geo-political nation, limited to one people, it is an international remnant “from every tribe, kindred, and nation” (Rev 5:9). So while I do believe that Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 leads us to expect a great outpouring of God’s Spirit on ethnic Jews in the last days, this has nothing to do with the state of Israel.
A lot more could be—and should be—said (I treat this at length in The Christian Faith [535-47, 729-33, 919-90] and elsewhere). However, it’s worth concluding this brief response by mentioning that not even Orthodox Jews believe that the modern state of Israel is holy. The messianic kingdom for which they long is strictly “from above.” It comes with the Messiah and cannot be a secular democracy. So they too realize that the state of Israel is not in any way a revival of the Mosaic theocracy. They are still living in exile, even in Israel.
To conclude: God’s promise to Abraham included (1) and earthly land and (2) a heavenly land. The central claim of the New Testament, anticipated by the prophets, is that although Israel (like Adam—Hosea 6:7) has thoroughly violated the conditions for inheriting the first, God has been faithful to keep history moving beyond the sinfulness of his human partner—including us. Through Christ, he has fulfilled this promise, bringing blessing to all the families of the earth. All heirs of this kingdom are “a holy nation,” living in the common nations of this age.
Especially given the legacy of Christian persecution of Jews throughout the medieval and modern periods, there is a special obligation of Christians to defend the common rights of the Jewish people to a flourishing existence. Yet, by acknowledging that God’s promise of a temporal, geo-political theocracy and land were conditional and that this covenant now lies in the past, we are free to support our friends in Israel and Palestine in their pursuit of a stable peace that will doubtless require trust and negotiation on both sides.