God only has ‘Plan A’

2 April 2018

In a recent Bible-study group, a friend observed that, as he saw it, God started out with the nation of Israel. But they messed up, failing to go along with his intentions for them. That’s the Old Testament story—the bad bit. So God started again with Jesus and the church—which is the New Testament story, and the good bit.

noplanbNot true! The following is an extract from my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, that explains the ins and outs of it…

‘Too many Christians have lost touch completely with the Old Testament. They think that, because it is all pre-Jesus, it is unimportant. One outcome is that they separate Israel from the church. Their unspoken assumption is that, while God in Old Testament days dealt with the nation of Israel (Plan A), due to their failure he turned his attention to an alternative community, the church, founded by Jesus (Plan B).

‘This is not right at all! God has never had a ‘Plan B’. His ‘Plan A’, as we have seen, was the calling of Abraham and his descendants to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’. By this means, he would reach everyone and in due course put the whole world to rights. Paul constantly has this Old Testament narrative in mind in his writings. He insists that the fact that the Jews failed so signally in their mission did not throw God’s plan off track at all. The Messiah, Jesus, proved to be the true Israelite. He embodied everything that the nation had been called to be and, through him, Plan A remains on track. His resurrection vindicated him as God’s chosen one, through whom all who believe — Gentiles as well as Jews — are justified and partake in the new age he had inaugurated.

‘According to Paul, Israel thus continues but has been redefined. The children of Abraham — or to use synonymous terms, ‘Israel’ or ‘the people of God’ — are now all who believe in Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background. Justification breaks down the barriers. In this way God has honoured his covenant with Abraham. This is the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose fundamental topic is ‘Who are the people of God?’

‘All this means, of course, that the obsession of some Christians with Zionism and the current State of Israel, in the belief that the Jews have some separate role in the purpose of God, is completely misplaced. If you have held Zionist sympathies, that could be a wobbler.’

There’s more where that came from, and you may be wanting chapter and verse to back up the thesis. It’s all in the book, which you can download for free at http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/apitfdownload.htm

And if you want more on the role of today’s State of Israel, you will find food for thought in my blog post, Red Herring In Galilee.

Enjoy!

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The Same but Different: How God changes old to new

16 January 2018

She was no longer the beauty she had once been. Now the ageing film star, anxious not to lose her appeal, had resorted to major cosmetic surgery, and as the first pictures appeared in celebrity magazines, readers commented, ‘Mmm. She looks the same—but different.’ Fair comment. ‘The same’ because she was the person she had always been, but ‘different’ because she had been tweaked by the surgeon in ways intended to make a difference. The ‘old’ film star and the ‘new’ were in fact one and the same—but different.

Here we have an illustration of how God handles ‘old’ and ‘new’. He doesn’t obliterate the old and then start again; instead, he remodels the old to transform it into the new. Like the potter whom Jeremiah observed, God takes the clay of the original marred pot and reshapes it into a new one: same clay, different product.[1] The substantial element of continuity from the one to the other mingles with some elements of discontinuity, so that the later version, while in some respects the same as the earlier one, is also different.

flood with arkConsider, for example, the world before and after the Flood in Noah’s day. Peter records that ‘by these waters…the world of that time was deluged and destroyed’.[2] In what sense ‘destroyed’? Certainly not zapped into non-existence. Mount Ararat was still there afterwards, much the same as it had been before. God didn’t undo creation—rewinding the tape, so to speak—and start again from scratch. No, the original earth remained, but the receding waters revealed a new earth, that is, one so radically reworked by the Flood that it was fair to say the old earth was gone.

This way of divine working applies also to us at a personal level where, according to Peter, the Flood illustrates our new beginning as a Christian in general and our baptism in particular.[3] Paul describes this spiritual surgery in strong language: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!’.[4] The radical reworking here is spiritual and on the inside. ‘The old has gone’, yes, but you are still you, with the same body and the same personality. ‘The new has come’, yes, though it’s going to take a while for those deep inner changes to show on the outside. You’re the same but different, and the fact that there is an element of ‘the same’ doesn’t stop Paul describing the whole thing as ‘a new creation’.

We have every reason to believe that God will take the same approach in the future. He will apply this ‘remodelling’ principle—producing something that is ‘the same but different’—to the wider ‘new creation’ that will take place at Christ’s return. Peter says as much when, in his ‘Flood’ passage, he goes straight on to say: ‘By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men’. So it will be by fire this time, not by water, that the radical reworking takes place, as Peter goes on to explain: ‘The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare…That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’.[5] Again it’s the old giving way to the new, and we should expect this destruction, like that of the Flood that it parallels, to be a remodelling, rather than annihilation followed by a restart from scratch. A close examination of Peter’s vocabulary supports that thesis.

This reminds us that our own situation in the age to come will be much more ‘earthy’ than traditionally portrayed. The disembodied existence that some teach is not a biblical idea at all; its roots lie in Greek philosophy. But the common alternative isn’t much better—I’ve never really fancied parading through 24-carat gold-paved streets ‘up there’ in a long white robe and twanging a harp.[6] No, our future will be on a renewed earth [7] with, no doubt, plants and animals, mountains and streams and everything that makes it so marvellous even in its fallen state.

Some, I know, expect this ‘earthy’ phase of future existence to last for only the thousand years of an alleged millennium after which, they believe, a more ‘floaty’ period will kick in and last for ever in heaven as distinct from on earth. But I’ve long been convinced that the ‘earthy’ bit is in fact the eternal state, where the earth will be the ‘same’ as today’s earth but ‘different’ thanks to its purging by fire and God’s dwelling having descended to be among us here [8]. I love and enjoy this earth now and look forward to enjoying it even more in its cleansed and remodelled form.

Our bodies in that coming age will match it: they will be like Jesus’ body after his resurrection [9] And how did his resurrection body compare to the body he had had before? Again, it was the same but different: the same in that, according to the Gospels, Jesus was readily recognised by those who knew him. He looked the same, and they could talk to him and touch him. Yet at the same time his body was different, with new powers, like being able to appear in a locked upper room and disappear again without anyone unlocking the door. His resurrection body showed both continuity and discontinuity with his original body, sameness and difference, just like the earth after the Flood. And, as the firstfruits of the full harvest to come, Jesus in his resurrection body sets the pattern for the renewed state of affairs to be enjoyed after his return by the whole created order: the same but different.

This principle of ‘the old remodelled into the new’ holds good also in other respects, like the old covenant and the new covenant. Strictly, of course, the old one is the Abrahamic covenant with its promise of worldwide blessing, and this gets remodelled in Christ and the new covenant. The Mosaic covenant was a later, temporary expedient by which God related to Abraham’s Jewish descendants and it was meant to help in the outworking of the Abrahamic covenant, not to replace it. But in the thinking of many, ‘old covenant’ means Moses and the law, so let’s run with that for the moment.

The Mosaic covenant and the new covenant in Christ are two, yet they are one, with elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Some would challenge that, arguing that the two remain utterly separate, one a covenant of law, the other a covenant of grace, one based on works, the other on faith. But the overall message of the Bible is that the new covenant is— in line with the pattern we have observed—a radical reworking of the old one rather than a total replacement for it. The differences, such as works and faith, are merely to do with their respective outworking, and therein lies the aspect of discontinuity, but any covenant between God and his estranged creatures has to be an expression of grace, and that element of continuity remains the key one. So the new covenant is the old one remodelled and vastly improved, no longer restricted to Jews but made available to the expanded people of God that is the church.

Such a view of the covenants is confirmed by a closer look at the word ‘new’ in this context. ‘New’ as in ‘new covenant’—and in ‘new heavens’, ‘new earth’, ‘new creation’ and ‘the new has come’—is the Greek kainos, which has a different emphasis from another Greek word for ‘new’: neos. In general, the first indicates new in terms of quality, with the implication of ‘better’, and the second new in terms of time.[10] The New Testament in fact uses both with ‘covenant’. The covenant ratified by Christ’s blood is neos in Hebrews 12:24 (and only there), emphasising that it is more recent than the old one, but everywhere else it is kainos, which points to its being not just a later development of the old one but also a new, improved version, a radical reworking of God’s way of dealing with his creatures.

This understanding of the relationship between old and new has far-reaching implications. Those who like to keep the covenants separate emphasise that God’s dealings under the old covenant were with the people of Israel, whereas his dealings under the new are with all who believe, which is true. But the two covenants, they hold, are in separate, water-tight compartments. On that basis, every ancient promise to the Jews has to be literally fulfilled because, in their view, the old covenant continues to run parallel to the new one and God remains obliged to fulfil its promises to the letter. So events in the Middle East since 1948, for example, are seen as the fulfilment of God’s old-covenant promise of the land to the Jews.

But if the new covenant, in line with the principle we have identified, is in fact a radical reworking of the old one, we are forced to different conclusions in respect of the Jews and the land, for the new is bigger and better, at the same time both redirecting and reinterpreting the promises of the old one—which is exactly what the New Testament teaches. Just as the post-diluvian world superseded its antediluvian counterpart, the arrival in Christ of the new and better covenant signals that the old one has now been superseded—by being swallowed up into the new rather than continuing to run alongside it: ‘By calling this covenant “new”, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear’.[11]

God deals no longer with Middle Eastern territory; his programme has gone global—as was always his intention. The old Israel has been superseded by the worldwide new Israel that is the redeemed community. This is the new order of things in Christ, bigger and better in every respect. The butterfly of the new covenant has emerged from the chrysalis of the old and it is right and proper that we lose sight of that brown old obsolete thing as we rejoice in its remodelling into the beauty of the new.

Footnotes

  1. See Jeremiah 18:1-4
  2. 2 Peter 3:6
  3. 1 Peter 3:20-21
  4. 2 Corinthians 5:17
  5. 2 Peter 3:10-13
  6. This is the language of the book of Revelation. It reflects John’s efforts to find the most superlative language of his era to describe the indescribable wonders of the coming age, and as such is to be taken figuratively.
  7. Romans 8:19-21
  8. Revelation 21:1-3
  9. 2 Corinthians 5:1-4; Philippians 3:21
  10. For a detailed comparison of the two words see R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament.
  11. Hebrews 8:13. And notice how the NT takes several OT promises which, under the old covenant, referred to the Promised Land and reinterprets them under the new covenant to refer to the whole earth. See Romans 4:13; Matthew 5:5; Ephesians 6:2-3.

Red Herring in Galilee: Israel and prophetic promise

16 January 2018

I’ve never been to Israel and I’m not really keen to go. If someone offered me a paid trip I’d take it, but my own holiday cash is more likely to take me to Minorca or Corfu, where’s there’s less chance of gunfire in the streets.

Some would question my priorities. A trip to Israel should be top of the list, they’d say. I am, after all, a Christian, and Israel is where our Lord himself lived and died—and rose again. It would do me good to peer at the site of the nativity, breathe the air of Galilee or stroll the Via Dolorosa.

jerusalemsmallWell, maybe it would, but I’m not the sentimental type. And anyway, if ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’,[1] my own neck of the woods in England can be as replete with his presence as any Holy Land.

Others offer me another reason for showing interest, even if I don’t visit. Israel, they point out, is the Promised Land, given in perpetuity to the Jews, and the return of scattered Jews since 1948 is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. So I should at least be praying for the peace of Jerusalem—which means, they seem to imply, Israeli subjugation of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

Some Christians take all this very seriously. Like the pastor who told me his church was committed to ‘the conversion of the lost to Christ, and the return of the Jews to Israel.’ I found this a strange pairing, a bit like being committed to world peace and the eating of Harrogate toffee. The two are simply not in the same league. Didn’t the spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile come to an end with Christ and the foundation of his church?[2] Certainly the church—that redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’—is what Jesus loved and died for,[3] and that’s what he’s building.[4]  It’s the church that matters, not Jewish ethnicity, and certainly not any Middle Eastern territory.

The New Testament, in fact, contains not a single reference to the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. That’s for two reasons. First, because, while God’s promise of the land was unconditional, their possession of it was always conditional upon their obedience.[5] The Old Testament records how they failed to meet the conditions and so lost the land. And second, because ‘Israel’ has been redefined in the light of Christ. Present-day Israel is a secular state unrelated to God’s revealed purpose.[6] My view has been, therefore, that the whole ‘Christian Zionism’ thing is a gigantic red herring, diverting believers from their twin tasks of reaching the lost and nurturing the saints.

‘Ah yes, but what about that famous passage on the Jewish question: Romans 9-11? Isn’t it clear from Paul’s words here that the Jews are a special case?’

On the contrary. Look at the context. The theme of the whole letter is an examination of the question: who are the people of God? And Paul’s answer is unequivocal: God’s people are those who put their faith in Christ. Whether they are Jews or Gentiles is immaterial. A Chinese, an Indian, a Swede or an Eskimo can, by trusting Jesus, be as much a descendant of Abraham as a thoroughbred Jew.[7]  And the point of Romans 9-11 seems to be not that the Jews are a special case for God’s favour but that—wonder of wonders—in spite of their obstinate refusal to recognise their Messiah, they are still in with a chance. God in his mercy has not slammed the door on them. They are still candidates for salvation as much as any Gentile!

In fact Paul ends up redefining what ‘Israel’ means. While recognising Jewish ethnicity, of course, his more basic point is that the real ‘chosen people’, the real Israel, is the redeemed community: the church.

‘Ah, just as I thought!’ claims someone. ‘You’re into Replacement Theology, pushing Israel aside and saying the church has taken its place. And it’s heresy!’

Here I permit myself a few groans, then quickly gather my wits for a reply. I don’t believe in Replacement Theology, at least not as just defined. My position—and that of virtually all mainline biblical scholars—is a different one: not that the church replaces Israel but that the church is Israel. The real Israel, that is. The true people of God, the ultimate ‘chosen people’ of which the Jews in their national ‘chosen’ capacity were merely a type and shadow.[8] The church has not replaced Israel; God’s promises to ancient Israel have been fulfilled in the church.

Here’s where we have to check our hermeneutical bearings. We believe in progressive revelation: that God has made himself known gradually, culminating in Jesus Christ.[9]  The New Testament reveals truth unknown in the Old Testament, and the New Testament writers are the Spirit-inspired interpreters of the Old. No longer now can we afford to read the Old Testament—including its ‘land’ promises—as if the New Testament didn’t exist. If we do, we shall become bogged down in a quagmire of doctrinal confusion.

Let’s apply this principle to the Promised Land. That God gave it to the Jews no-one in their right mind can deny. According to the Old Testament he promised it to Abraham and his descendants [10] and, after the exodus, that’s where those descendants went. Later, when ousted from it at the Exile, they headed back to it—or at least a remnant did.

But what does the New Testament say about the Jews and the land? Zero. Absolutely nothing. For a start, that in itself should make us massively cautious about Christian obsession with Israel and Middle Eastern territory. And sure enough, when we look closely we see the New Testament writers pointing us in a quite different direction.

First, we see Jesus signalling a departure from Jewish centrality by choosing twelve apostles as the foundation for the new people of God in an obvious alternative to ethnic Israel with its twelve tribal ancestors. Then we see those apostles themselves adopting the same ‘new people’ line. Peter—that Jew par excellence—takes Old Testament phrases precious to Israel and applies them, without excuse, to the church. It is redeemed Jews and Gentiles together, he says, who are in the final sense ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.’ And not just a people, for he goes on: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.'[11]

In the Bible, ‘the people of God’ and ‘Israel’ are synonymous.

Paul is equally clear. He takes, for instance, a bundle of Old Testament promises originally addressed to the Jews and, writing to chiefly-Gentile Christians in Corinth, declares, ‘Since we have these promises, dear friends…'[12]  And in case we have any lingering doubts he tells the Galatians, ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision[13] means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.'[14]  Rare is the serious biblical commentator who sees that phrase as referring to anything but the church.[15] And again, ‘It is we who are the circumcision’—it is we who are true Jews—’we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.'[16]

So it’s no wonder ‘the land’ is absent from the New Testament picture. The real people of God, the church, are so numerous you would never fit them into that tiny country in the Middle East, even if they wanted to live there.

Instead, the New Testament writers give a global application to those Old Testament promises originally limited to the Holy Land. Abraham would be ‘heir of the world’,[17] his descendants in every land, not just in one. The meek now ‘inherit the earth’,[18] not Canaan. Christian children who honour their parents will ‘enjoy long life on the earth’,[19] not, as originally, ‘in the land the LORD your God is giving you.'[20]

That the church is the real Israel is so patently obvious that, to me, it’s not even up for debate. And I’m apparently in good company because, over the centuries, ‘the majority view within the church has been that the church is the New Israel and that the Jews have lost title to that claim.'[21]

‘But surely,’ you insist, ‘you accept the fact that the return of Jews to Israel in our own day is a wonderful fulfilment of prophecy?

Not in the least. The prophecies usually quoted in support of that view are capable of a more obvious interpretation: they refer to the return of a Jewish remnant from exile in Babylon around 500 BC.

‘But the return from exile was a return from a single country—Babylon. The promise that God would bring them back from among “many nations” can only be fulfilled in the return of the Diaspora in our own times.’

Well, that’s not what Jeremiah thought. He saw the Babylonian Empire for what it was: a conglomerate of ‘many nations’, and the return of Jews from Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah fulfilled those prophecies perfectly, as he himself makes plain.[22]

‘Well, then, what about Isaiah’s prophecy that God will bring his people back “a second time”?[23] The return from Babylon was clearly the first, so the second has to be today’s re-gathering.’

A look at the context knocks that one on the head, too. Isaiah states that the first return was, in fact, Israel’s arrival in the Promised Land from Egypt after their earlier escape from slavery at the exodus.[24]  Against that background, the ‘second time’ is the return from Babylon after all. And there’s no mention of a third time to cover events since 1948.[25]

That’s it, then. All the ‘Jews to Israel’ promises were fulfilled in the distant past. There’s no reason at all to look for any further fulfilment today.[26]

‘Ah, but what about the principle of double or multiple fulfilment of prophecy? Isn’t there room there for the Zionist return?’

No, because all prophecy finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus and his church. He’s what life, history, the Bible and prophecy are all about. Once Jesus came on the scene, all the strands of Old Testament prophecy came together in him.[27]  We have no business looking for rogue strands due to be fulfilled in ways unrelated to him or to the church which is his body. The only homecoming that matters now is the exodus of sinners from the ‘Egypt’ of sin through the blood of Jesus, God’s Passover lamb,[28] and their gathering into the real and ultimate Israel which is the redeemed community, the church. That is what all the Old Testament ‘return to the land’ prophecies were ultimately about.

And what a relief it is to get into that land! After those wearisome struggles to earn our own salvation, the ‘rest’ of receiving it freely by God’s grace is wonderful—more wonderful, even, than the relief of the desert-weary Israelites when they at last set foot in Canaan, the land that God called ‘my rest’.[29]  The letter to the Hebrews develops this theme, underscoring yet again that a patch of Middle Eastern territory for the Jews was merely a picture of a spiritual homeland for all God’s people in Christ and the church.[30]

‘But that’s all very spiritual. Don’t you believe there’s room for physical and geographical fulfilments as well? Surely there’s a heavenly people with a heavenly destiny—the church—and an earthly people with an earthly destiny—the Jews?’

No, because the Bible makes the progression clear: the natural comes first, then the spiritual.[31]  The one doesn’t run alongside the other; it supersedes it. Now that Christ has come, turning back to the natural (Jews in Middle Eastern territory) is unthinkable. Everything is better in him. Why grasp at shadows when the reality is here?[32] Why should the man who has just won millions on the lottery continue busking for pennies on cold street-corners? Even Abraham never saw Canaan as his ultimate destiny. He had grander prospects: a heavenly country, a city whose architect and builder is God himself.[33]  That’s the church—Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. And it’s not just a future prospect, inaccessible until Christ’s return. Already those who are in Christ ‘have come to’ it.[34]

The old Jerusalem is doubtless a fascinating place, with its Western Wall, ancient streets and souvenir shops selling olive-wood carvings. But it’s not a patch on the new one! [35]

So I’m not fussed about whether ethnic Jews live under the Israeli flag, or in New York, or Leeds, or wherever. Like Cambodians, Welshmen, Hottentots, Greeks and Kashmiris, they’re candidates for the gospel wherever they live. König is right: ‘[There can be] but one conclusion about the Jews’ future in the New Testament. The message expressed most fully by Paul is that, despite Israel’s rejection and merited judgment, God continues to hold open the doors of his mercy so that the Jews can again be ingrafted through faith in Jesus.'[36]

Well over half the world’s Jews live outside Israel and, today, emigration continues to outstrip immigration.[37]  But if God is the God of all the earth, he can use the fact that lots of Jews do live in Israel to further his saving purpose. May he do so! But let’s not get all misty-eyed and pseudo-spiritual about Zionism. It’s a deceptive sideline, nothing more. And the mainline? ‘Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.'[38]

Fancy a piece of Harrogate toffee?

 

P.S.

Experience tells me that some people get very emotional about this subject. So before you lose your cool, please note the following:

  1. I am not anti-Semitic. I have as much time for Jews as I have for anyone else. They stand in as much need of God’s grace as Gentiles do. According to the New Testament that grace—praise him!—is equally available to both.
  2. I am supportive of those who feel God has given them a particular call to evangelise the Jews—as long as they don’t condemn those of us who may, instead, be called particularly to evangelise the British, the Moroccans, the Guatemalans or the Palestinians.
  3. The present-day State of Israel is a reality, even if there are serious doubts about the wisdom of its creation. I take the view that the Arabs need to accept its existence and withdraw their determination to wipe it off the map. At the same time, some sort of Palestinian state is needed, existing alongside Israel and living in peace with it. The current mutual killing by both sides remains unacceptable, and Christians should certainly not adopt an unthinking support for Israel in the conflict on the mistaken assumption that the State of Israel somehow enjoys divine support. It does not.

Footnotes

  1. Psalm 24:1
  2. Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:11
  3. Ephesians 5:25
  4. Matthew 16:18
  5. Jeremiah 18:7-11; Deuteronomy 28:62-63; Joshua 23:16. The unbelieving spies, along with a whole generation of Israelites, were kept out because of their unbelief (Numbers 14:21-23); Moses was kept out because of his pride (Numbers 20:12). And one certainly cannot argue that the present State of Israel exists because its citizens have turned to God. It is a thoroughly secular state, with only a very small number of practising Jews and Christians.
  6. Only about 15% of Israelis are even observant [of Judaism], much less Orthodox.’ Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p28
  7. Romans 4:16. See also Galatians 3:7
  8. God’s way of moving from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is not to replace the old with the new, but to remodel the old into the new. The earth after the Flood, for example, was still in many respects the same earth, yet new in the sense that it had been radically reshaped by the waters. For further detail see my post: The Same But Different.
  9. Hebrews 1:1-2
  10. Genesis 15:18
  11. 1 Peter 2:9-10, referring to Isaiah 43:2 and Exodus 19:6
  12. 2 Corinthians 6:16 – 7:1
  13. A common shorthand for ‘Jewishness’ and ‘non-Jewishness’.
  14. Galatians 6:15-16
  15. Some have tried to argue that the Greek word kai doesn’t mean ‘even’ here but ‘and’. The weight of scholarly linguistic opinion is solidly against them. Paul is saying—controversially for the Judaisers who opposed him—that those who have been born again (i.e. have experienced the ‘new creation’), whether they be of Jewish or of Gentile stock, constitute God’s true Israel. He makes a similar plain statement in Romans 11:26 where, after using ‘Israel’ in the ethnic sense from the beginning of chapter nine, he then deliberately shocks his readers by using the phrase ‘all Israel’ to mean the church. N.T. Wright comments: ‘Paul is clearly offering a deliberately polemical redefinition of “Israel”, parallel to that in Galatians (6:16), in which the people thus referred to are the whole company, Jew and Gentile alike, who are now (as in chapter 4 and 9:6ff.) inheriting the promises made to Abraham.’ (P. W. L. Walker, ed., Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God [2nd edn. 1994] Carlisle: Paternoster. Grand Rapids: Baker, pages 53–77
  16. Philippians 3:3
  17. Romans 4:13
  18. Matthew 5:5 cf. Psalm 37:11
  19. Ephesians 6:2
  20. Deuteronomy 5:16, from which Paul is quoting in Ephesians 6:2
  21. Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p4
  22. Jeremiah 29:10-14
  23. Isaiah 11:11
  24. Isaiah 11:16
  25. Some see a third homecoming of a sort at Pentecost—the Jewish feast that, at the time of Jesus, annually brought Jews back to Jerusalem from their homes throughout the Roman Empire. It is interesting that Luke’s list of their home areas echoes those mentioned in the homecoming promise of Isaiah (Acts 2:5-11 cf. Isaiah 11:11). Apparently some who became Christians when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost sold property in the places from which they had come and settled in the Jerusalem area. It was these Jews who, in submitting to baptism and receiving the Spirit, fulfilled in a minor sense God’s homecoming promise through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
  26. There has always been a school of thought among the Jews that the return from Babylon under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah did not in fact fulfil the many OT promises of restoration, and that the real exile continued long thereafter. Paul seems to sympathise with this view in his treatment of the subject in his letters. On his view, the restoration of the Jews to God is tied up with Gentile salvation and its provoking of Jews to jealousy. But it is a purely spiritual restoration, which is why references to ‘the land’ in the Middle East are notable by their absence in the NT. For more of this see the entry ‘The Restoration of Israel’ in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, eds., IVP, 1993.
  27. Acts 3:24; 2 Corinthians 1:20
  28. 1 Corinthians 5:7
  29. Psalm 95:7-11
  30. Hebrews 3-4
  31. 1 Corinthians 15:46
  32. Colossians 2:16-17
  33. Hebrews 11:10-16
  34. Hebrews 12:22
  35. Revelation 3:12; 21:2-3
  36. König A., The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology, Eerdmans/MMS, 1989, p170
  37. According to The Jerusalem Post’s online statistics, Jews in Israel in 2000 numbered 4.9 million. At the same period, over 6 million Jews were living in the USA alone. Also emigration of Jews from Israel in recent years has exceeded immigration by about 600,000 (see R.H. Curtiss, ‘Year-End Statistics Gloss Over Israel’s Biggest Problem’ in the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, March 1997). The Sunday Telegraph of 30 Nov 2003 reported: ‘The government wants to bring another million Jews to Israel by 2010. Yet figures released by the absorption ministry, responsible for helping new immigrants, have revealed that an estimated 760,000 Israelis are living abroad, up from 550,000 in 2000. Only 23,000 people are expected to move to the Holy Land this year, the lowest figure since 1989… Many families head for Canada. So far 6,000 Israelis have moved there this year, double last year’s total.’
  38. Galatians 3:7. See also v26

‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’

19 August 2014

With the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians showing no let-up, Christians are quoting this phrase a lot, chiefly at prayer meetings. So it might be worth a closer look.

It comes from verse 6 of Psalm 122. This psalm is one of David’s ‘Songs of Ascents’, sung by ancient Israelites as they made their way up to Jerusalem for the three annual Jewish festivals.

jerusalem marketIt is hard for us modern people to grasp the importance of Jerusalem to the Israelites. For them, their country was the centre of the world, and Jerusalem was the centre of their country—‘the city of God’. Later, in the reign of David’s son Solomon, God would establish his localised presence in the Temple at the city’s heart. But even before that, Jerusalem encapsulated the presence of God. Jerusalem was everything.

In Psalm 122 the weary pilgrims had arrived at last. The long and tiring journey behind them, they were finally within the city walls, close to the presence of God, and it was with a sigh of contentment that they exclaimed: ‘Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem’ (v2).

The notion that this city might come to harm was unthinkable. If it were to be overrun by enemies, the Israelites would be separated not only from the city and its Temple, but from their God who lived there. Because maintaining Jerusalem’s peace and prosperity was so vital, the pilgrims would exhort one another, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity’ (v6-9).

Their worst fears, alas, were realised when in 586 BC the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar sacked the city, razed the Temple to the ground and took most of the citizens off into exile in Babylon. God had not answered the prayers for the peace of Jerusalem because Israelite prayers counted for nothing when Israelite lives were marked by blatant disobedience.

Some Jews returned to Jerusalem after the exile and, under Zerubbabel, helped build a smaller-scale Temple there. Later, around the time of Jesus, King Herod extended it, creating a huge Temple-complex of stunning scale and beauty. Standard Jewish worship continued there, and Jewish pilgrims still sang Psalm 122 as they made their way up to Jerusalem. Still they prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.

But once again, having rejected their peace-loving Messiah, they suffered violent disappointment. The armies of Rome destroyed both city and Temple in AD 70. Since then, while a few Jews have lived in Palestine, most have been scattered across the nations, maintaining their identity as the Diaspora.

That continued until the Second World War, when six million European Jews were gassed in Hitler’s extermination camps: the Holocaust. The western nations, conscience-smitten, took it upon themselves to exercise their imperialism by creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine in 1948—the project rubber-stamped by the UN.

This was the birth of the modern State of Israel. It was not universally welcomed. Even many Jewish leaders expressed their opposition to it. Certainly it quickly became a concern to the Palestinian Arabs who had been the majority occupants of the territory for centuries. They soon found the Israelis to be bullying and land-grabbing. When the Arabs had had enough and tried to stop it, American financial and military support for Israel ensured that they were decisively beaten—in the Six Day War of 1967—and Israeli expansionist policy moved into a higher gear. Tension and mutual suspicion multiplied, and continue to this day.

Jerusalem remains divided. The Muslim Dome of the Rock sits on the old Temple Mount. The Israeli capital is Tel Aviv, but many Israelis want to see Jerusalem take its place, which would require the Arab presence to be forcibly removed since it is hard to see it ever happening voluntarily.

Meanwhile, many Christians take upon their lips the words of the ancient Israelite pilgrims and tell us we should ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. What do they mean by that?

Some use it in its loosest sense to mean, ‘Pray that the tension and conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East will be resolved and that peace will come.’ That’s fine. We Christians need to pray for that just as we pray for peace in other troubled regions of the world. I myself pray along those lines often.

But many others use it in a sense loaded with dubious overtones. Some believe that the establishment of the modern State of Israel was a fulfilment of prophecy and that God is therefore on the Israeli side. So when they pray for the peace of Jerusalem they are really praying, ‘God, smash the Arabs. Crush the Palestinians. Drive them right out of Jerusalem so that the Israelis can have it as their capital, as you, Lord, have decreed.’

Personally, I find that appalling. For a start, having examined the Scriptures and sought to interpret them soundly, I can’t find the slightest connection between the fulfilment of prophecy and the current State of Israel. Those odd-ball, pro-Israeli American preachers on the God Channel who insist on a connection are hermeneutically challenged, to say the least. Sincere, no doubt, but sincerely up a gum tree.

But there’s worse. Some Christians mistakenly believe that a fearful conflagration in the Middle East is prophesied in Scripture. Many call it Armageddon. All of them see it spelling annihilation for the Arabs and the triumph of Jewish nationalism. If, as they believe, this is God’s declared will, then attempts to foster peace in the Middle East are working against it. So, for them, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ means, ‘God, stir up the tensions to the point that will trigger the final battle, because it’s only after this battle has taken place that peace can come.’

Is that what the Prince of Peace is really after? Never!

How the Middle East situation will work out is anybody’s guess. I don’t believe the Israelis have any right to the land based on now-superseded Old Testament promises. But they are there and we can’t turn the clock back. Every nation on earth has seen its boundaries change over the centuries, always through war, invasion and conflict. How far back do you go to establish the ‘right’ of a people to certain territory? There’s no answer to that question. One could argue forever.

What matters is the current situation and how it can be sorted out. For better or worse, the State of Israel exists, and a key ingredient for peace must surely be the acceptance of that fact by the Palestinian people in particular, and the Arabs in general, who must ditch their determination to wipe Israel off the map. At the same time, the Israelis must set aside their heavy-handed approach to defending their perceived rights and treat their Arab neighbours with a good deal more respect than they have shown so far. And those Arab neighbours, I reckon, would clearly be in a better position to negotiate if they lived in a properly-constituted and defined Palestinian state. So when I pray for the peace of Jerusalem I have something like that in mind.

More than that, I pray that both Israelis and Palestinians will turn in huge numbers to Jesus Christ, who is both Israel’s Messiah and the Lord of the whole world. Can you imagine what a massive turnaround in Arab-Israeli relations that would bring?

For me, praying for the peace of Jerusalem also requires me to widen my prayer-horizons beyond the Middle East. In one sense that tiny patch of territory has ceased to be central. It’s ‘Old Jerusalem’ stuff, whereas the New Testament shifts our focus completely onto something bigger and better: the New Jerusalem.

This is the redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’ that we call the church: the redeemed community. It counts both Jews and Gentiles among its citizens. Divided and denominationalised it might be. Its members hold a variety of views on a myriad issues, both doctrinal and practical. But the bottom line is that all are united in their commitment to Jesus Christ as Son of God, Saviour and King of the world. So I pray for the peace of that Jerusalem. I pray that the church’s influence will increase, and I believe it surely will!

I pray that its influence will touch every conflict-ridden corner of the globe—including Old Jerusalem.

For more on this, particularly in connection with biblical prophecy, see my article Red Herring In Galilee here.


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