Primer on Israel: What are the various views Christians have of Israel today?

(Originally posted October 2016)

Last week, Israel’s last living “Founding Father,” Shimon Peres, died. His death reintroduces into our American newscycle the very recent history of the nation of Israel and current realities facing the Jewish people in the Middle East. As believers and students of the Bible, we should be educated on what is happening in Israel and consider the very special nature of the Jewish people. Books have been and continue to be written on the complex subject of Israel, both ancient and modern, as well as the relationship of Judaism and Christianity.  This is an attempt to provide a very basic survey of some of the conversations surrounding those issues.

What do we need to know about Shimon Peres?

To understand the magnitude of this man’s life we’d have to imagine what it would have been like for George Washington’s right hand man to have served in American leadership for 67 years – into the Buchanan administration. We’d also have to imagine what it takes to build a nation today from scratch – and in a really hostile neighborhood where everyone on every side wants you not only to fail but to die. Shimon Peres not only cast the vision of a Jewish homeland he laid the political bricks to make it happen – for 70 years.

Although Peres never won an election, there is hardly a significant role in Israel that he didn’t occupy: minister of defense, minister of foreign affairs, minister of finance, minister of transportation, prime minister and, ultimately, president. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in creating a process for negotiating peace between Palestine and Israel, although the negotiations eventually stalled.

He was a controversial figure, but not easy to put into one of our current sectarian political boxes. He said, “It’s better to be controversial for the right reasons, than to be popular for the wrong reasons.”

Peres also knew the situation for the Jewish people was and remains precarious. He said:

“Look, we have existed for 4,000 years — 2,000 years in diaspora, in exile. Nobody in the Middle East speaks their original language but Israel. When we started 64 (now, 69) years ago, we were 650,000 people. So, you know, we are maybe swimming a little bit against the stream, but we continue to swim.”

Peres was too pragmatic to lead the Jewish people to hope for peace. But he was too hopeful to lead the Jewish state to settle for anything less than a thriving life and secure future.  He was able to see what others could not and he possessed the rare combination of determination, political creativity and (some would say) moral flexibility to brings those visions into reality.

What is the distinction between Israel as a people and a nation in the Bible and Israel as a nation state Peres dedicated his life to creating?

Historically and biblically, Israel is an ethnic people group, with whom God made everlasting covenants, those covenants include the Promised Land.  However, to equate the modern nation state with the biblical theocracy or even Davidic-era Judaism would be to err.  

As we read in the Bible, the Jewish people were distinctly called and chosen by God for His glory and purposes. This is a theme consistent throughout the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. Jesus reminds us in John 4:22: “for salvation is from the Jews.”

Certainly, the contemporary nation state of Israel is a distinctly Jewish state but it is also a decidedly secular and democratic state, organized after WWII as a refuge for ethnically Jewish people.  

Notably, not everyone in the nation state of Israel today is a Jew and not every Jew in the world lives in the nation state of Israel.  

What are the various views Christians have of Israel today?

When considering the nature and relationship between Jews and Christians, certain questions arise about the nature of Judaism and Christianity, Israel and the Church.

  • Do Gentile Christians become Jewish in some way when they are engrafted into the Body of Christ?
  • Do Christians replace Jews and does the Church replace Israel in God’s redemptive history?
  • How do we understand the modern secular Jewish nation state of Israel in relation to the Biblical theocracy of Israel?
  • Is it a people or is it a place or is it both? Then, now or both?

It seems there are at least three competing approaches when discussing the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, Israel and the Church. The first equates the Church with Israel, the second sees them as distinctly different and the third sees them as overlapping. The approach you adopt leads to vastly different conclusions for evangelism, interfaith work and eschatology.

Interpretation #1: The Church and Israel refer to the same group of people. You will hear this called fulfillment theology, replacement theology or supersessionism.

In this view, Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people and the Christian Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen instrument in the world. The New Covenant in Jesus Christ has replaced or superseded the Mosaic covenant as Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Old Covenant. Under this interpretation, the covenants and promises given to Israel are transferred to the Church and Jewish people are no longer God’s chosen people.

From this theological perspective, Jews must convert to Christianity in order to be a part of God’s covenant people – or in evangelical parlance: in order to be saved. Why? Because the New Covenant replaces the old, the Church replaces national Israel (and the land promises) as the true ekklesia of God.

This view is constructed upon the foundation of Covenant theology and requires that the unconditional nature of God’s covenant with the Jews be transformed into a conditional covenant.  According to this view, after the advent of Jesus, only those Jews who convert to Christianity are the legitimate “Israel of God.”

Interpretation #2: The Church and Israel are different groups of people: You will hear this described as dispensational theology which holds that God relates to humanity in a series of dispensations or periods in history.

Dispensationalists believe in an eschatological end times perspective in which God literally fulfills the promises to Israel contained in the prophecies of the Bible, including those in the book of Revelation. These promises include the land promises, a millennial kingdom and Third Temple where Christ, upon his return, will rule the world from Jerusalem for 1000 years.

Thus, the covenants and promises of ethnic Israel are not transferred to the Church. The Church is instead a new spiritual reality with a distinct purpose and destiny apart from and exclusive of the Jews.

For the dispensationalist, the modern nation state of Israel is a secular reality populated by people who, although being presently disobedient to the terms of the New Covenant (in that they deny Jesus is the Messiah), they are still the Chosen People of God and they have divine right to the land by means of the unconditional Abrahamic covenant.

This theological construct is criticized for dividing the people of God into groups who have separate programs of salvation (one for the Church and another for Israel). But dispensationalists believe that Israel will one day come into saving faith in the Messiah and that all Israel shall be saved (Romans 11:25-26).

Dispensational theology can have the effect of minimizing the relevance and importance of the Old Testament scriptures or at least subordinating them to a lesser status in the life of a Christian believer who sees the Church as living in a distinctly different period of history than that which was true prior to the coming of Jesus.

Interpretation #3: The Church and Israel overlap in some manner:  
This is called Remnant theology and serves as a more nuanced approach to the conversation.  In this theological model the Church partakes of the covenants of the promises given to Israel but does not replace Israel.

The metaphor here is the olive tree. The Church is understood as grafted into Israel. All saved Gentiles spiritually become Jewish (Romans 2:29, 4:16 and Ephesians 2:12-19) and all saved Jews are saved through Jesus Christ, the one and only Messiah of God.

To understand Remnant theology, we have to also understand in the Bible there is a distinction between the nation of Israel and Remnant Israel. The nation of Israel exists in a period of history but once in diaspora, the Jews exist largely outside of Israel. Just because a person was geographically located in the nation of Israel did not guarantee they were a believing Jew. It is equally absurd to say a person could not be a believing Jew outside of the nation of Israel. God always preserves for Himself a Remnant.

Remnant Israel is a body of believers, engrafted into this body is the Church. The two become one in a way that remains a mystery. How so? Look at Paul. He considered himself part of remnant Israel (Romans 11:1-5), part of Christ (Romans 9:3), and part of the Church (Ephesians 5:29-30).  There is no replacement, no different dispensation but something congruent, even synonymous.  

Why does it matter?

Understanding the nature and relationship of Jews and Christians, Israel and the Church is important for those who want to participate in the conversations of the day related to Israel/Palestine, U.S. support for Israel, and related to our Jewish neighbors. People want to know you understand their religious and ethnic perspective and they want to know that you’ve thought about how your religious perspective bears on them.  

We will continue these discussions so check back to The Reconnect for more. In the meantime, our friends at the Philos Project promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East and offer resources and events to help better understand what is happening on the ground. If you are in the DC area, you can attend their upcoming event: THEOLOGICAL APPROACHES TO ISRAEL: THE NEW CHRISTIAN ZIONISM