Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What about Israel?

I see that two of my friends are currently in Israel. I had a student last week actually ask me what my thoughts on Israel were (Don't they know that I expend considerable energy trying to be ambiguous about my own thoughts so they can make up their own minds? ;-) So here is my three point outline:

1. Jewish individuals have a special place of honor.
Here are some verses from Paul:
  • "Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!" (Rom. 3:1-3, NRSV)
  • "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah." (Rom. 9:3-5)
2. Currently, "not all Israelites truly belong to Israel" (Rom. 9:6)
That is to say, while ethnic Jews deserve a certain honor, Paul did not consider them truly part of the people of God if they had not accepted Jesus as Messiah. "Not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants." (Rom. 9:7)

Those Jews who have not accepted Jesus as Messiah, Paul would say, are not currently part of Israel. God has not rejected his people (Rom. 11:1), but those Jews who do not believe are currently grafted out of the tree (11:17, 21). Meanwhile, Gentiles who believe in Jesus have been grafted into the tree, into the people of God. In short, Gentile Christians are true Israelites according to Paul, while unbelieving Jews are not truly Israel.

What that means is that a Palestinian Christian who believes (of which there are many) is a true Israelite, while an Israeli who does not believe is not a true Israelite at present, according to Paul. The true children of Abraham, according to Paul and John, are those who have faith that God raised Jesus from the dead (e.g., Rom. 4:11-12). "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith." (Rom. 3:29-30)

I am quite willing to believe that God was behind the re-establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, but it is important to remember that Israel is not a Christian state. Jews deserve a certain honor from us as Christians, but the State of Israel is no more truly Israel from Paul's standpoint than the Sanhedrin was in his day.

3. "All Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:26)
Paul suggests that around the time of Jesus' return, there will be a mass conversion of Jews to Christ. Although some have tried to dodge this interpretation, I consider it contextually obvious. The verse previous speaks of a "hardening" that has come upon "part" of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles come in. Then verse 26 speaks of "all" being saved. The contrast between part and all suggests naturally that there will be a transition from part being hardened to all being saved.

This is corroborated by the verses that follow. The calling of God on Israel is irrevocable, Paul says in 11:29. So the enemies at present are still beloved because of their ancestors (11:28). They are now disobedient, but they will receive mercy (11:31). I remain befuddled that any competent scholar could interpret this series of verses any other way.

But it hasn't happened yet. That means that, while we must deeply respect Jewish individuals, the State of Israel has no special right standing before God. Its actions must be evaluated against the same standard of righteousness as the Palestinians or anyone, for "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6).

Indeed, Paul's very point in Romans 1-3 is not blandly that all individuals have sinned, but that, before the judgment seat of Christ, being a Jew does not give you a pass. "All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law" (Rom. 2:12) and finally, "all have sinned and are lacking the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

Christians thus should deeply respect Jewish individuals, but not confuse the current State of Israel with the Israel of promise. It is the Christians of the Middle East, of whatever ethnicity, who are our brothers and sisters, for in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek... or Palestinian (Gal. 3:28).

1 comment:

Patrick Bowers said...

Ken, it is a pity that your reading is in the minority in the Wesleyan Church (or even in the Holiness tradition). Why do you think that is? I would personally chalk it up to the undue influence of the past 30 years of fundamentalism.