Tim Price



Israel and Zion(ism)’ are two words that raise passions in our world today, yet why should these words which fill the pages of Scripture have come to be regarded as pejorative by so many within the church?  The prophet Isaiah said:



The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land.  Aliens will join them and unite with the house of Jacob.  Nations will take them and bring them to their own place.  And the house of Israel will possess the nations as menservants and maidservants in the Lord’s land. (Isa. 14: 1-2)



For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. (Isa. 62: 1)



In these two readings lies the redemption of these names that have become the source of such bitterness.  They hold out both the hope of reconciliation between Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian, and also the glorious destiny of Jerusalem within the eschatological purposes of world redemption, when, instead of being a source of division, she becomes the centre of the kingdom of God.  Isaiah writing of this time said:



In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria ... The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together.  In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth.  The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.’ (Isa. 19: 23-25)



This glorious vision of reconciliation has clearly yet to be fulfilled.  The whole of biblical revelation finds its focus in this one nation Israel.  Our theological understanding is shaped by the story of Israel and centres on the person of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, who embodies and represents Israel.  Around Him, the people of God, both Jew and Gentile, find their identity, mission and goal.  Israel is the name that Jesus uses to describe the Land and the nation of which He is both chief citizen and King.  It is the name that remained throughout the whole canon of Scripture.



Yet as I grew up, another name for the Land was in common usage.  Bibles and Bible reference books would refer, for example, to Palestine in the time of Jesus and this name, despite being post-biblical, is the generic name by which the Land has largely been known by the Christian world since Roman times.  The name Palestine as a description for Israel is not found in Scripture.  It only came into usage in 134 CE after the Romans finally crushed the second and last Jewish revolt against its rule.  They renamed Israel Syria-Palaestina, after the Philistines, Israel’s most implacable enemy, as a deliberate affront to Jews.  There began the great Jewish exile from the Land and the battle for the soul of the Land.



Today the names of Israel and Palestine have become powerful symbols around which the church has become polarised, as Israelis and Palestinians each seek to assert national sovereignty and to claim the moral, historical, physical and indeed spiritual right to the Land.  The issue of the restoration of Israel has become the focus of appalling disunity within the body of Christ.



5th International Sabeel Conference 2004



At the 5th International Sabeel Conference held in Jerusalem in April 2004, the theme of the conference was ‘Zionism, Christian Zionism and the Challenge to the Church’.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in his keynote paper ‘Holy Land and Holy People’ wrote this:



The subject of this conference is one that goes deeper than simply the critique of a deeply eccentric form of Christian theology, and it should take us further than yet another analysis of the cyclical patterns of violence and injustice in the conflicts of the region.  It should also be an opportunity for us to clarify something of what as Christians we can say about Israel, as one dimension of a ‘liberation theology’ that will carry good news to all in the Holy Land and more widely.



The two extreme positions with which we are wearily familiar will fail to carry such good news.  At one end of the spectrum, there is the view that argues for unconditional support of any decision made by the Israeli government (whose claims for maximal territory and security are based on grounds whose relation to both Hebrew and Christian Scripture is tenuous to say the least).  At the other is the view that there is essentially nothing to be said about the Jewish people and the State of Israel from the standpoint of Christian theology, a view which runs up against the complexities of much Christian Scripture, not least Paul’s great and tormented meditation in Romans 9-11.


In other words, Archbishop Rowan concludes: ‘I am not at all sure that we best respond to distorted theologies by denying that there could be a good theology of Israel.’



A tale of two theologies



None of us who witnesses the ongoing crisis between Israel and the Palestinians comes to it from a neutral stance.  The church’s attitude both for or against Israel is shaped by two theologies whose roots go back to the early church.  Before the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) the church substantially believed in the restoration of Israel.  They believed that God would restore the kingdom to Israel in response to the disciples’ question: Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ and Jesus’ enigmatic reply: It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority’ (Acts 1: 6-7), a verse which itself has been interpreted down partisan lines to defend or detract from a literal or physical restoration of Israel.



Certainly up to 100 CE, the time at which Jewish believers formed the majority within the church, the prevailing view was that the restoration of Israel would be both literal and physical, and that the Messiah would reign bodily, with the church, as King over a restored Israel.  They would play a centre-stage role in evangelising the nations.  This view was held subsequently by the Puritans, who themselves believed that the greatest world evangelisation would take place only when Israel was restored and in her own Land.  Much of Jewish thought until 100 CE mirrored that of the church, which believed in a literal restoration of the kingdom to Israel, of a human Messiah who would reign as King in Jerusalem and of a literal reign of 1,000 years.  It was classic historic pre-millennialism from which dispensationalism would eventually emerge in the nineteenth century under the Millerites and J. N. Darby and which today has been popularised in the writings of Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth) and Tim La Haye (Left Behind series).



However, for much of the last 2,000 years, and certainly since the Council of Nicaea, the historic church has itself been dominated by a theology shaped by the early church fathers.  They sought to put ‘clear blue water’ between the emerging rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, and so asserted the supremacy of church over synagogue.  As we shall see later, the marginalisation and the gradual withering of the Jewish wing of the church following the two Jewish revolts against Rome in 70 and 134 CE, led ultimately to the dominance of the Gentile expression of Christianity at the expense of its Jewish origins.



The increasing enmity between church and synagogue fuelled the belief that the church had replaced or superseded Israel within the purposes of God, and indeed was now herself the ‘new Israel’.  This significantly contributed to the view that the church, as the inheritors of the kingdom of God and thus the new people of God, would extensively grow and expand until all the nations were ‘Christianised’.  The church would then hand over the kingdom to Christ as His inheritance, and they would then reign with Christ over the nations. This view was substantially post-millennial in outlook, with Christ coming again only at the end of the ‘Church Age’, or at the end of an indefinitely timed millennium in which the church rules with the unseen Christ, until Christ comes in person to usher in the new heaven and new earth.



This view by the church has significantly shaped the church’s attitude to Jewish people, breeding an arrogance towards them in which they are but the ghosts at the Christian banquet, consigned to be damned and cursed for ever, and denying them any future role within the purposes of God or even as an independent nation.  Any ongoing theological role for them is restricted to that within a Gentile-dominated church, in which any Jewish expression has been marginalised or excluded.  It has been the dominant theology that has led to Christian anti-semitism and paradoxically to the very Zionism about which it is often so voluble and vitriolic today.



Today the church is polarised around two theological positions whose origins go back to the early church.  On the one hand we have dispensationalism, which has its roots in classic pre-millennialism, and on the other hand covenant or replacement theology, whose roots lie in the traditional teaching that the church has now superseded Israel.



The Christian world largely mirrors that divide, with one end advocating the restoration of Israel to its full biblical borders, and the other coming to the rescue of a beleaguered part of the church, oppressed by a nation that it regards as having no ongoing spiritual significance and indeed scarcely any legal or moral right to exist at all.  For one, the Land is covenanted to Israel, the Jewish people, for ever; for the other, the Land only has significance as it relates to all the people of God, rather than to an ethnic group whose historic claim has been forfeited by divine decision and as the outcome of their long departure from that Land.  This powerful polarisation can be expressed by two leading proponents at opposite ends of the divide.  Naim Ateek, Canon of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, and a leading figure within Sabeel, for example, in the 2003 winter edition of Cornerstone says in his article ‘The Dark Side of Religion’: ‘Without any shadow of doubt, Christian Zionism is one, if not the most dangerous, biblical distortion that is challenging us today.’  By contrast the late Derek Prince, in probably his final message ‘A Call to Britain’, gives a warning of judgement to the church if it persists in its belief that the church has replaced Israel.  He says: ‘The truth of the matter is, we determine our destiny on how we respond to what God is doing for Israel.’  He goes on to quote from Isaiah 60: [12] The nation and the kingdom that will not serve you, (re-gathered Israel,) will perish.  Those nations will be utterly ruined.’



The vision



How have we got into this position and is there any way in which those differences can be reconciled?



Perhaps an appropriate place to begin is to look at the bigger picture of God’s great purpose for world redemption, the bringing of the nations under the lordship of Christ through the whole people of God, Jew and Gentile.  That is the vision of Psalm 2 when the Lord promises to give to the Anointed One, literally the Messiah (Hebrew) or the Christ (Greek), the nations as His inheritance.



The overarching message of Scripture is not about either Israel or indeed the church; it is about the restoration of our [sin cursed] world to God’s rule.  It concerns the establishment of the kingdom of God in which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of God and of His Christ.  It is epitomised in that image from Daniel 2 of the huge statue representing the empires of this world being brought to nothing by the stone from heaven, which eventually grows to fill the whole earth - a similar picture to the gradual in-breaking of the kingdom of God, which like a grain of mustard though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows it is the largest of garden plants’ (Mt. 13: 32).



The establishment of God’s kingdom then is played out in the theatre of nations and through the instruments that God has brought into being to fulfil His purposes, namely Israel and the church.  The final outcome of that work is seen in pictures given both in Hebrews and in Revelation.  The [W] writer of Hebrews, recording the faith of Abraham, says of him that he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Heb. 11: 10).  John, in Revelation, describes that city as the New Jerusalem on whose gates are inscribed the twelve tribes of Israel, and on whose wall’s foundations are inscribed the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev 21: 12).  In this profound picture of the new heaven and earth we see the ultimate goal of God's redemptive purpose in which God comes to dwell with humanity.  It marks the reconciliation of earth and heaven, of nature and spirit, of Israel and the church.  It marks the goal of redemption when God indeed dwells on earth with man.



Jesus said: I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Mt. 19: 28). This passage is significant because it encapsulates the core issue that divides the church today - the restoration of Israel.  In two separate commentaries on this passage, the authors reach very different conclusions about the relationship between the twelve tribes, Israel, and the twelve apostles, the church.  R. T. France concludes that the twelve apostles supersede the twelve tribes and rule over them as the new Israel, whereas Edward Schweizer sees the apostles as being installed as regents over Israel, which itself will be restored, during the last days, to its full complement of twelve tribes.  The climax or goal is reached when, as 1 Corinthians 15: 24 states: Then the end will come, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.’  God’s purpose in establishing His kingdom under the rule of Christ is to bring the nations of the earth back under His sovereignty and once He has established God’s undisputed title, so His ‘servant’ role is completed as He hands back the kingdom to God the Father.



As I have made clear from Revelation, on the new earth that parity of relationship between Israel and the church is restored, as symbolised by the gates of the tribes of Israel and the walls of the apostles of the church in the new Jerusalem where dwells the presence of God.  This wonderful picture of reconciliation, renewal and transformation is depicted by John so well:



I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it ... the glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it. (Rev. 21: 22-26)



The descent of the new Jerusalem to the renewed earth marks the culmination of God’s completed work where God Himself comes to dwell with mankind.  It answers that question of Solomon after the dedication of the Temple: But will God really dwell on earth?’ (1 Kings 8: 27).



God’s plan of redemption is far bigger and greater than we can imagine, and is global in concept, encompassing all the nations of the world.  It concerns the ultimate restoration of our world to its right and lawful rule under God.  Although God is sovereign over the whole cosmos, the kingdom of God has to be seen first in the mending then the renewal of creation, and concerns the expulsion of sin and the bringing of the [whole] world under God’s direct rule and authority.



Both Israel and the church are God’s chosen instruments for bringing in the kingdom, and are therefore the agents and executives of His government under Christ.



Israel, the church and the kingdom



The overwhelming emphasis in the teaching of Jesus is on the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, for both mean the same thing.  The thrust of Jesus’ ministry was always to teach and display what the reign or rule of God means in practice. The signs and demonstrations of power, whether through the stilling of the storm, the feeding of the five thousand, the diverse array of healings, the deliverance from the demonic, the raising from the dead, His ethical and moral teaching, the parables of the kingdom were all to describe the nature of the kingdom and to show the meaning of life under the rule of God.  So often when we think about the kingdom of God, we think of it in territorial terms, yet time and again in Scripture the emphasis is first and foremost on the person of the King.  The kingdom is present when the King is present.  Kingdom events happen when the King comes and the [bodily] presence of the King is seen and observed.  At present the kingdom is displayed through the indwelling presence of the King in the life [and heart] of the believer, but one day that kingdom will expand to fill the whole earth with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.



Kingdom teaching set against the backdrop of Israel



Jesus’ kingdom teaching is always set against the backdrop and context of Israel, because Jesus saw His mission as exclusively to Israel.  Israel is the dominant motif throughout the whole of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, and the kingdom of God relates to the outworking of both the mission and the task of Israel. It is noteworthy that there are only two references to the church throughout the gospel accounts, and in both cases they can be seen as relating to the community of Israel.  Yet today the emphasis is on the church rather than on the kingdom of God, and Israel is seen as an embarrassment, a relic of God’s earlier purposes and of a nation whose services are no longer required.  What a travesty of the truth!



Kristell Sandell, writing in Christ’s Lordship and Religious Pluralism, says: ‘It remains a fact worth pondering that Jesus preached the Kingdom while the Church preached Jesus.  And thus we are faced with a danger.  We may so preach Jesus that we lose the vision of the Kingdom, the mended and restored creation.’



One plan



The church needs to rediscover its mission of being an agent and an instrument of God’s kingdom whose purpose is to bring this world under the rule of its King and to share in that rule.  As the body of Christ, we are not only called as co-heirs with Christ, we are also called to co-reign with Him [Rom. 8: 17b].  We need to understand that both the election and choice of Israel and the church are not Plan A and Plan B, but are complementary to one another in the outworking of God’s one and only plan. This plan began with its announcement in the Garden of Eden, known as the proto-gospel, where God promises to rescue and restore mankind and indeed the whole [of this sin-cursed] creation, and concludes with its culmination in the new heaven and the new earth.  The whole of biblical revelation then concerns the outworking and fulfilling of this great plan of redemption.  Paul commentating on God’s original curse on creation and anticipating its glorious liberation says:



The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.   For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Rom 8: 19-21).



The ultimate goal of world redemption is then the lifting of the original curse over creation and its ultimate liberation within the kingdom of God.  The prophet Isaiah indicates what that will mean in terms of the nations of the world when he says of the Servant: On this mountain [Zion], he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations’ (Isa. 25: 7).  Just as Paul says there is a shroud or veil preventing Israel from recognising its own Messiah (2 Cor. 3: 14-15), so there is a veil over all the nations, and this veil is only lifted as God brings to completion His goal of world redemption and liberation of the creation under the sons of God.



Paul gives the reason as to why this veil hangs over all the peoples when he says: The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers,* so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (2 Cor. 4: 4).  For nearly 2,000 years there has been a veil covering the Jewish people caused by their unbelief, but Paul says that one day that veil will be lifted and all Israel will be saved (Rom 11: 26).  Perhaps this is a foretaste of God’s final strategy for bringing the nations under His lordship.  And just as the veil over Israel is even now being lifted, so this will happen among all the nations.


[* NOTE.  The “unbelievers” must also include multitudes of His own redeemed people; those whose minds are being blinded by Satan relative to the “gospel” (good news) “of the glory of Christ.”  The good news of a future time, when “He cometh in His own glory” (Lk. 9: 26), to built up Zion, and “the peoples are gather together” when He will appear “in His glory,” (Psa. 102: 13-22, R.V.).]



This brings us to the priority of mission, for just as the priority for individual salvation and incorporation into the kingdom of God is ‘first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ (Rom 1: 16) so too, of nations, Israel first then the nations.   Christ will receive all the nations as His inheritance and the very glory of those nations is taken into the new heaven and new earth!  However, for the time being, the focus of God’s work lies elsewhere.



The ecclesia (church) - kingdom people



For the present, God is drawing out a community of people, kingdom people, who live and walk by faith, and who are making His kingdom purposes their primary consideration, transcending their Jewishness or Gentileness.  They are called to reign with Christ in His kingdom, first [in their hearts] under His unseen rule and then [upon this earth] later as it becomes visible and manifest.  Waiter Riggans has commented that when Jesus urges His followers to seek first the kingdom of God this is tantamount to saying, ‘seek first the outworking of God’s redemptive plan.  When we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,’ we are praying principally for two things: first, for the manifestation of God’s kingly presence now among the community of believers gathered in Christ’s name, but secondly we are anticipating the glorious day to come, when His kingship is acknowledged by the whole world, as the kings, the rulers of this world, throw their crowns at His feet.



A principal feature of the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) is the manifestation of God’s redemptive power at work in the affairs of humanity.  At present this is partial - now but not yet.  The kingdom is embryonic, but one day we will see it in its full maturity.  For the present we see small outbreaks of His kingdom, but one day we will witness it in its totality as John records:



And they [the elders], sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.  You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.’ (Rev 5: 9-10)



As the Life Application Bible puts it: The song of God’s people praises Christ’s work.  He was slain and through that act purchased men by his blood sacrifice and so gathered a kingdom of priests who are appointed to reign on earth.’  Jesus has already died and paid the penalty for sin.  He is now gathering us into His kingdom from every ethnic group, language, people and nation, and making us priests.  In the future - [if “accounted worthy” (Lk. 20: 35, R.V.)] - we will reign with Him when He fully establishes His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Someone has remarked that the church, in its truest expression, is shown as colonies of heaven where the evidence of God’s reign can be observed through the kingdom lifestyle of its citizens.



America was once just a series of small and disparate colonies, but today it is a whole nation, indeed a superpower.  One day the colonies of heaven on earth will give way to the full expression of God’s reign in the affairs of men.  The kingdom will be as real and substantial on earth as it is at, present in heaven when he will rule the world in righteousness and his people with the truth.  We are not short of examples of what this means, for times of revival are evidence of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, where whole communities are transformed by the manifest presence of God.  During the Welsh Revival of 1904/5, the last major revival in Britain, public houses were closed, police and magistrates stood down, because there was no need for them. The rule of God was tangible and real!



So then the kingdom of God is literally the reign of God as King in the affairs of men.  However, God has chosen two vehicles, two instruments, to bring in His kingdom: Israel and the church.  Although often perceived as two separate and unrelated entitles, they are intricately connected and dependent on one another. To have the church without Israel is not the church, and to have Israel without the church is not Israel.  In a sense they are two sides of one coin.  This is a fact largely overlooked by the church during the church era. We need to see, in a much more holistic sense, both the election or choice of Israel and the election of the church.  In the Old Testament, the church or ecclesia was present but hidden.  As Paul said: ‘The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints’ (Col. 1: 26).  The writer of Hebrews records the great Old Testament saints.  Similarly in the New Testament, though the ecclesia or church is to the forefront, Israel does not cease to have relevance.  There cannot then be one without the other nor, if they ever did, could one replace or supersede the other.  There is mutuality in their calling and election.






Election’ and ‘choice’ are unfortunate words because they often imply favouritism, and sadly that has been true in the way the church has regarded itself as having gained or acquired God’s favour from Israel.  However, in the biblical understanding of election or choice, it is not because either is special in or of itself, though time and again God describes both Israel and the church as His ‘beloved’.  They are special primarily in relation to the function and purpose for which they have been chosen or elected.  Their ‘belovedness’ is related to the person who has bestowed that ‘belovedness’.  God makes it quite clear that His choice is not based on any intrinsic merit on the part of Israel (Dent. 7: 7) or indeed the church.  Their value is the outcome of their election and choice by God.  Indeed the Bible makes clear that the choice of Israel is not because they are the greatest or the most powerful of all the nations, but because they are the least.  Paul makes a similar point to the Corinthian church, who were caught up in factionalism, when he says: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong’ (1 Cor. 1: 26-27).  Election or choice in God’s book is never intended to be a source of pride, arrogance or superiority, but simply the means through which God accomplishes His purposes.  It is meant to instil a sense of humility and complete dependence upon God.



When Paul quotes Malachi 1: 2-3 in Romans 9: 13, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated, this is not a statement of God’s emotional reaction to these twin sons of Isaac, but a statement of God’s intention to prefer the younger to the older for the carrying forward of His elective purpose.  It could then be translated: Jacob I loved, but Esau I loved less.’  We need to look at Israel and the church with this in mind.



The election of Israel



Why did God choose Israel and for what purpose?  The first indications are given in the promise made to Abraham: ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.*  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Gen 12: 1-3).  Here we see announced God’s intention to bless all the peoples on earth through Abraham.  This promise is later confirmed by the covenant, which itself is later ratified through circumcision:


[* NOTE.  There is only one satisfactory and biblical explanation of this divine promise to Abraham concerning “the land” of promise.  Only after the time of Abraham’s resurrection from the dead, when Christ will return to establish His messianic Kingdom, can he, once again, be placed back in “the land” which God promised to him as an inheritance.  Only then will “all peoples on earth” be blessed “through” him.  1 Thess. 4: 16; Heb. 11:13, 19, 39, 40.]



I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.  I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.  The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting* possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.’ (Gen 17: 6-8)


[* That is, “an everlasting possession” in the sense of as long as this earth remains.]



Of course, Abraham’s decision to accomplish God’s promise by having a child by Hagar has complicated the issue.  The Arab nations base their claim to the Land through the line of Ishmael.  Indeed in Islamic tradition it is not Isaac that is offered up on Mount Moriah, but Ishmael (Q. Sura 39: 97-110).



However, that may be Islamic tradition, but it is not biblical, and in fact God makes it clear that the covenant will be through the union of Abraham and Sarah, through Isaac.  Indeed it is just after Abraham offers up Isaac that God reaffirms the covenant, and says:



I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son [Ishmael is not recognised], I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore ... and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’ (Gen 22: 15-18)



Then, as if to leave us in no doubt as to the line, God renews the covenant with Jacob at Bethel, making it very specific that the covenant relates to his family line:



And God said to him, I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number.  A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body.  The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.’ (Gen 35: 11-12)



Later, when God encounters Moses at the burning bush, He makes Himself known through linking His name to that of a particular lineage: I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ (Ex. 3: 6).



The covenant is unconditional and everlasting



If we are left in any doubt as to whom the covenant is for, and how permanent it is, other passages make this clear: For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath’ (Deut. 4: 31), or Jeremiah: ‘This is what the Lord says: ‘Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done, declares the Lord’ (Jer 31: 37).



Ezekiel, one of several of the post-exilic prophets, speaking of a future restoration declares:



This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, 0 house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.  I will show the holiness of my great name ... the name you have profaned among them.  Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes. (Ezek. 36: 22-23).



The central calling of Israel then is that she should be a blessing to the nations and the means through which God’s name will be sanctified, made holy, among the nations.  God’s faithfulness to Israel is ultimately linked to the manifestation of [Himself and] His holiness to the nations.  That is why, despite [false teachings by those within the Church and] Christian tradition, there is ultimately no discontinuity between the two Testaments, for the New Testament bears witness that God has never and will never break covenant with Israel.



Of special significance then for Christians is the fact that in the New Testament Luke includes, in the opening words of his Gospel, the testimony of Zechariah that the covenant with Abraham was still in effect, coming now to its great fulfilment but not its completion: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people ... to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham’ (Luke 1: 67-73).



For those who insist that these verses now apply to all* the people of God in Christ, Paul asks: Did God reject his people?  By no means!’ (Rom 11: 1).  He then goes on to stress his own Israelite pedigree and so identifies himself as part of national or ethnic Israel, Israel according to the flesh.  And later: ‘As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable’ (Rom 11: 28).  Let’s look then at how this calling was to be expressed.


[* NOTE. The divine promise will not include ‘all the people of God in Christ’: because it applies only to those who are obedient!  See Gen. 22: 15-18 above, and compare with 1 Pet. 1: 22: “Ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth” - (concerning our “hope” and “the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Christverse 13.).  Again in 1 Pet. 2: 7, 8:  “… they stumble at the word (of the thousand-year - Messianic Kingdom) being disobedient.”  It is an overcomer’s promise with reference to ‘the thousand years,’ and is therefore conditioned by a Christian’s faith in that Kingdom, and his obedience to the precepts of its coming King: Matt. 7: 21; 8: 11, 12; Rev. 2: 25, 26; 3: 21.]



Mosaic covenant



It is at Mount Horeb, or Sinai, that Israel’s central calling is articulated, in the covenant God makes with Israel: Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Ex. 19: 5-6).



This covenant is very different from that made with Abraham.  It is a conditional covenant.  There are clear conditions attached to it, which result in consequences if it is broken by either party.  The most serious consequence was exile, but not banishment from the Land.  This has happened only twice with the Babylonian exile and what has become known in Jewish tradition as ‘the Great Exile’, the nearly 2,000-year exile which began in CE 70 and only ended with the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.  The hymn writer J. M. Neale picks up this theme in his Advent hymn: ‘0 come, 0 come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.’  Israel had and still has a high calling to be a priest to the nations, as the imagery within the verses of this hymn depicts.  On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest offered a bullock as a sacrifice on behalf of the nation of Israel.  During the Feast of Tabernacles the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem offered up 70 bullocks on behalf of the nations (goyim), thus demonstrating their priestly role to the nations.



One of the titles the Lord gives to Israel is ‘firstborn’, showing just how intimately His name is associated with the Jewish people, but perhaps more profoundly still that Israel is the primus inter pares, holding a unique but not exclusive position among the nations.  Although they may be His firstborn, in this respect, they are not His ‘only’ born. God’s longing is for all the nations to acknowledge His fatherhood.



A paradigm nation



Israel out of all the nations of the world belongs exclusively to God and has a high calling over all the nations of the world.  Archbishop Rowan Williams, in ‘Holy Land and Holy People’, says:



It helps to ask what covenantal promise is thought to be for in the Hebrew Scriptures.  And the answer is given in various forms in parts of Leviticus, in many strands of the prophetic tradition especially Isaiah, in aspects of the Wisdom literature and might be summarised by saying Israel is called to be the paradigm nation, the example held up to all the nations of how a people lives in obedience to God and justice with one another.  This is how a nation is meant to be: living by law, united by a worship that enjoins justice and rev­erence for all, exercising a special concern for those who have fallen outside the safety of the family unit (widows and orphans) and those who fall outside the tribal identities of the people (the resident alien, ‘the stranger within the gates’).  What is more, as Deuteronomy insists (Deut. 4: 5, 6, 32-34; 17: 7, 8), this is a people, a community, that exists solely because of God’s loving choice; they have been called out of another nation, specifically to live as a community, whose task is to show God’s wisdom in the world.



This is maybe the reason why we become so offended when we see Israelis mistreat Palestinians, behaving as if they have no right to be within the Land; why we are shocked that Israel has the highest abortion rate in the world.  The millions of unborn aborted children greatly exceed the loss of life experienced by Israel in all its many wars.  We somehow know that God has called Israel to be that paradigm nation and we want to hold it to account for its actions when it steps over what we regard as acceptable bounds.



This covenant then outlines how God expects Israel to live under His kingship; it does not abrogate His earlier covenant with Abraham.  The writer of Galatians, commentating on the relationship between the two covenants, says: ‘The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise’ (Gal. 3: 17). Clearly then the Abrahamic covenant is not nullified at Sinai.  It is stated that Israel is God’s firstborn son (Ex. 4: 22; Deut. 8: 5), and this call came through Abraham.



The national constitution: Israel and Torah



One way of putting it is to say that it is as if God formed a people through Abraham, and then created a national constitution for that people through Moses.  They are to be a holy people called to serve a holy God. In Leviticus this is articulated: ‘I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy’ (Lev. 11: 44).  In order for the people to live in a holy way, God needs to provide directions to make His will known, to teach His people about Himself and His requirements, and this revelation of God’s will is precisely what is conveyed by the Hebrew term ‘Torah’.



The standard translation of this word is ‘Law’, which not only falls to do justice to the original Hebrew, but it has become positively harmful.  Why? Because Christians see the word ‘Law’ and then conjure up images of Jewish legalism and bondage to the Law.  However, although Torah does contain laws, it contains far more than just laws.  Torah comes from the root word ‘to fire at a target’.  The best single word is ‘Instruction’.  It conveys a sense of direction, directions on how to get to a goal, but also a sense of authority; when your leader gives a directive, then you make sure you do it.  Christian theology has too readily forgotten that the Torah was God’s idea!  As Paul writes in Romans: ‘So, then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good ... the law is spiritual.’



At this point it is important to clear up a major misunderstanding that has dogged our understanding of the relationship between grace and Law.  Law’ is not an Old Testament concept and ‘grace’ a New Testament one. The Abrahamic covenant is entirely of grace.  There was nothing that Abraham had to do to keep covenant with God.  Everything within this covenant is accomplished by God from start to finish.  Abraham is even put to sleep when it is put into effect!  What more definite illustration of the unilateral action of God in effecting this covenant is required?  Grace precedes Law by at least 430 years, and even earlier with Noah: For Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.’



One of the most deeply ingrained Christian stereotypes is that Israel’s relationship with God is based on living a life of righteousness, constantly in fear of God, whereas the New Testament (Christian) way is said to be based entirely on the gracious love of God.  This perception and teaching is not only mistaken, but insulting and damaging to Jewish people, not to say a distortion of the New Testament witness about Christian lifestyle.  The truth is that both Testaments present the same teaching about a covenant relationship with God.  It is always based on God’s prior grace and will, and it always makes demands on the people who are involved, with respect to how they must live their lives once they are in a special relationship with God.



Christ the goal of the Law and the embodiment of Israel



Christians often say that the coming of Christ marks the end to the Law, and justify their stance from Romans: Christ is the end of the law’ (Rom. 10: 4).



However, the choice of the word ‘end’ is unfortunate, because it implies termination.  The Greek word for ‘end’ is telos, which also means ‘goal’.  Christ is the goal, fulfilment or culmination of the Law, and the purpose of the Law is to bring us to Christ.  The Christian is no longer ‘under the Law’ since Christ has freed us from its condemnation, but the Law still plays a role in our lives.  We are now set free by the Holy Spirit to fulfil its moral demands.  As Christians our lives centre on the one who kept the Law perfectly, and who fulfils it entirely in His person.  In this respect Jesus embodies the Law, showing what it truly means to be Israel. Ultimately He is the only true Israelite.  As Christians we are under a greater obligation than Israel of old.



Obedience to God is as central to New Testament teaching as it is to the Old Testament.  However, while Israel sought to obey God by keeping the Law, the church is required to obey God through recognising the lordship of Christ in every aspect of its life.  To come under the lordship of Christ is the only way we can keep the Law of God and not come under its judgement.  Jesus requires of us a far higher standard: If you love me, you will obey what I command’ (Jn. 14: 15).  Jesus did not ignore the Torah, the Law of Moses; He obeyed it fully and increased our understanding of its true intent.  As John says, the keeping of His commands enables us to know we are His children (see 1 Jn. 3).  Jesus as the true Son of Israel embodies the Law, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are empowered to obey Him and so to keep the Law.



Israel’s election and calling is to be that paradigm nation through whom all the nations of the world will [one ‘Day] be blessed, and whose election and calling is supremely embodied in the one who personifies Israel.  The church, by contrast, is called to ‘flesh out’ what that means, through becoming a community of believers drawn from Israel and the nations, who by their lives reflect the Messiah of Israel, becoming, to use Paul’s analogy, the body of the Messiah, with Messiah himself as its head.  Messlahship is both individual, located in the person of Jesus, and corporate in so far as the church, the ecclesia, is called to model and demonstrate the kingdom values of the Messiah.  To understand that, we need to look at Israel’s relationship to God as King.



Royal Israel



Perhaps one of the saddest verses of the Bible is where the Lord says to Samuel: Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they nave rejected, but they have rejected me as their king’ (1 Sam. 8: 7).  As we have seen earlier, Israel’s calling was supremely to be a theocratic nation living under the rule of God.  This was the very purpose for which Israel was called out from among the nations, to model what a nation under God means.  However, the very rejection of God as King was the catalyst to bring about God’s kingdom in our world.  God granted Israel’s request for a king, and later, through a covenant with one king in particular, He pushed forward His strategy for world redemption and divine sovereignty over the nations.



King David longed to build the Lord a permanent dwelling place in Jerusalem, yet the Lord made clear that it would not be David who built the Temple, but his son, Solomon.  Yet through that seeming rejection, God promises to David something far greater:



The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you.  When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom.  He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever.  I will be his father, and he shall be my son. (2 Sam. 7: 11-13)



The reigns of David and Solomon were seen as the golden age of Israel.  Under David the tribes were finally united and the borders of the Land reached their furthest extent.  It is no wonder that years later, when the nation yearned for a Messiah, they looked to the reign of David as their model.  He united the country against enemies, established peace throughout the kingdom, exercised justice and laid the foundations for the great prosperity of the nation under his son, Solomon.



Later, through the writings of the prophets, the role of the Messiah became defined with clear expectations of what He would do, and by what line He would come.  Luke, announcing the birth of Jesus, describes the descendant of David in this way: ‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David* and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.  His kingdom will never end’ (Luke 1: 32-33).  This prophecy, if for no other reason, should convince us that Jesus is supremely Israel’s Messiah, who has yet to establish His universal reign of peace.


[* That is, from David’s throne in Jerusalem, (Psa. 2: 6; Zech. 8: 3); not from His Father’s throne in the Heavens, as multitudes of regenerate believers imagine!]



Stephen Travis, in End of Story, says:



And there is one Messiah for all.  This is a hard thing to say.  Isn’t it arrogant for Christians to say to Jews, ‘You are missing the heart of your faith.  The Messiah for whom you’re waiting has already come, and his name is Jesus’?  Aren’t we disqualified from saying such things by centuries of Christian anti-semitism and persecution of the Jewish people?  Didn’t Hitler think he was speaking for ‘Christian civilisation’ when he wrote in Mein Kampf: ‘By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work’?



Yet to give up on Christian witness to Jewish people would be to saw off the branch on which we are sitting.  Christian faith rests on the conviction that Jesus came to be the Messiah, and we are committed to sharing that faith with Jews whose Messiah He came to be.  Deny that He is the Messiah and there is no reason for Christianity to exist.  If Jesus is not the Messiah of the Jewish people, He cannot be my Saviour or the Saviour of the world.



It is significant that at the beginning and end of His life, Jesus is given the title King of the Jews.  In the birth narratives it is the Magi who enquire of Herod the Great: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’ (Mt. 12).  In the superscription above the cross is recorded the crime for which He is convicted: The King of the Jews’ (Mk. 15: 26).  There is one in heaven who is not only the Saviour of the world but who remains King of Israel, entitled to take up the earthly throne of His father David.   During His earthly ministry Jesus never asserted His physical kingship over the pretenders to the throne, or to those appointed to rule over Israel by the Roman occupying power.  Israel has yet to acknowledge His Messiahship over them - something Jesus Himself alludes to in His prophecy over Jerusalem when He declares: You will not see me again [0 Jerusalem] until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” [until you greet me as Messiah]’ (Mt. 23: 37).  A prophecy of hope after judgement.  It follows the prophecy of desolation and dereliction of both the people and the Land of Israel, but anticipates that glorious [millennial] day to come when the very nation that once rejected its Messiah will receive Him.  Earlier Jesus had warned the leadership of Israel of impending judgement in the Parable of the Tenants when He says: ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit’ (Mt. 21: 43).



Certainly this passage speaks of the transfer of that which hitherto had been Israel’s prerogative to the new community forged around Israel’s Messiah.  That was not to the exclusion of an ongoing national expression of Israel.  The kingdom may now be invested in the community of the Messiah, but Jews formed the exclusive and core nucleus of that community until the grafting in of Gentile believers.



Paul makes clear that Israel as a nation has been set aside but not removed from God’s purposes.  The kingdom of God may have been transferred and now be expressed in the Messiah, but God has not forsaken or rejected His covenant people.  Did God reject his people?’ asks Paul, to which he emphatically replies: By no means!’  And again: God did not reject his people’ (Rom. 11: 1-2).  The stumbling of Israel was to draw in the Gentiles, who had previously been excluded from Israel, and as a consequence to make Israel envious.



The Gentile church owes a deep debt of gratitude to Israel, and she has been warned that if she becomes arrogant she will suffer a similar fate to Israel.  Israel has been set aside for the benefit of the Gentiles.  Paul goes on to say that if her rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will her acceptance mean but life from the dead?  If her transgression means riches for the world and her loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will her fullness bring?  The desolation of Israel has led to great blessings for the Gentiles, but Paul says that even blessings as great as these will pale into insignificance when the Jews return to centre stage.  For the last nearly 2,000 years we have seen a largely Gentile body of the Messiah, with only a very faint glimmer of Jewish expression.  The kingdom of God is incomplete.



The Puritans believed that the re-gathering and restoration of Israel would lead to the greatest evangelisation the world has ever witnessed, and would indeed usher in the fullest expression of the kingdom of God and the return of the King to reign.  Perhaps when Paul speaks of ‘the salvation of all Israel’, he is speaking of the coming together of Israel according to the Spirit, the body of the Messiah, the ecclesia, together with a large part but not necessarily all of the nation of Israel.  The prophet Zechariah reinforces the view of a national turning by Israel to her Messiah: I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication.  They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son’ (Zech. 12: 10).



That is the ultimate goal of the gospel: to bring in the kingdom of God.  Israel could not do it, as it rejected its own Messiah and so rejected its own King, around whom the kingdom would be gathered.  The Gentile church can only bring it in so far.  It requires both Jew and Gentile together, united under the [bodily presence of the] Messiah of Israel, to bring in the kingdom that will renew the face of the earth. National Israel may be subordinate to the body of the Messiah for the purposes of completing world redemption and to bring in the kingdom of Christ, but in the ageto come, both Israel and the church come together as the walls and gates of the celestial city which descends to the renewed earth and where the God and the Lamb will reign for ever.



-         From ‘Israel His People, His Land, His Story’ pp. 15-37.