For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk by this rule, peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
Galatians 6:15 (ASV)
Many charge Evangelical Christians with being uncritically pro-Israel, and encouraging the oppression of the Falastin Arabs. Indeed, the prevalence of dispensational theology among Evangelicals lends a ring of truth to this accusation. But others will also loudly charge that the older covenantal theology confessed by the Reformed churches is "anti-Semitic". This essay is an attempt to meet both charges, for it holds that God's grace to Gentiles via Christ does not exclude the same grace to the Jews.
Of course, if one denies that all religions and cultural expressions are equally "valid", as our current multicultural environment demands, then it is probably impossible for a serious, Bible-believing Christian to completely avoid the charges of "supremacism", "anti-Semitism", "intolerance", and the like. But at the same time, one can believe in the absolute truth of the Gospel and Jesus' unique position as the Messiah, yet still feel charitably towards those outside the faith. The Scriptures teach us that we are all sinners in need of salvation, and as one famous minister--D.T. Niles, I believe--once said, evangelism is nothing but one beggar telling another where to find bread. Further, humility is a Christian virtue (even if it is seen more in the breach than in practice), for salvation by grace means that none of us have anything about which we may boast.
A charitable attitude towards the Jews can even be found in some of the fathers of covenantal theology. Ian H. Murray, in The Puritan Hope, quotes Edward Elton’s 17th century commentary on Romans 11:
“[Romans 11:25-26] should teach us not to hate the Jews (as many do) only because they are Jews, which name is among so many so odious that they think they cannot call a man worse than to call him a Jew; but beloved, this ought not to be so, for we are bound to love and honour the Jews, as being the ancient people of God, to wish them well, and to be earnest in prayer for their conversion.”
Thus, a Christian who takes every letter of the Old and New Testaments as God-breathed needs neither modern dispensationalism, guilt feelings over the Shoah, nor general modern American neighborliness to find a divine mandate for a charitable attitude towards the Jews—or anyone else—and criticize hatred.
Of course Elton’s desire for the conversion of the Jews cuts against the modern notion that religious communities should “recognize” each others’ “validity”—as did the Missions of the 17th century Netherlands Reformed Churches in the far-flung Dutch colonial holdings and John Elliot’s mission to the Algonquin Indians. But, on reflection, simple logic refutes this modern notion in that it is impossible for Jesus to be both Messiah and non-Messiah at the same time, or for the Theravada Buddhist denial of a supreme being and God’s words to Moses’ that God is what he is (Exodus 3) to be true at the same time.
Many dispensationalist brethren will charge that being skeptical of modern Israel's place as harbinger of the Second Advent "denies Scripture". A further point of this essay will be to remind Christians that there have been other, more consistent ways to read the Bible as a whole.
The Israel of God is not necessarily a state in the Middle East and its people. The biblical meaning of the name "Israel" is far richer, being a name bestowed by divine grace rather than race, and as such belongs more properly to those gathered about the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile, not those gathered in a particular land. This view has been labeled "supercessionism" and is charged with being the seedbed of anti-Semitism and the shocking crime of the holocaust. Yet when properly viewed it need not result in hatred for anyone. Rather, by calling us to focus on Jesus Christ rather than a land, it calls us to a deeper discipleship, including the command to love our neighbor--whether Jew or Greek, barbarian or Scythian--as ourselves.
(I) The meaning of "Israel"
The name "Israel" means "One who Wrestles with God" or "One Who is a Prince with God". It is a name that was given to the patriarch Jacob at Genesis 32:28, after he wrestles with a mysterious figure at Jabbok. This figure is one who does not reveal his own name to Jacob, at least at this time, but Jacob's reaction to his wrestling with this mysterious figure leaves no doubt about his identity:
"And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for said he, I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved" (Genesis 32:30, ASV).
Yes, the name "Israel" is later applied to the physical descendants of Abraham through Jacob and is used as such throughout the Old Testament. But to identify who is truly "Israel" requires finding those who grapple with God rather than identify a bloodline. Not a few Christians who have studied Scripture throughout the ages have recognized this. Prior to the work of John Nelson Darby and certain others in the 19th century, none had envisioned a restored Jewish polity in the Middle East as the focus of divine plans, nor had any envisioned a radical break between ethnic Israel and the Christian church, but had seen the church as growing from that portion of ethnic Israel that embraced the person and work of Jesus the Messiah.
This is why it is improper to call the view that the church is Israel "supercessionism". This term supposes that the way to grace is henceforth blocked to those who are Jews by descent, or that somehow the modern Jews are "Cosmically evil", as some opponents of Christianity such as Chaim Maccoby have charged. A proper understanding of Israelite identity frankly recognizes that the New Testament itself is a Jewish book, written by men who themselves identified as Jews, with the aim of bringing people of other nations to the Jewish God. To accept what the New Testament says about Israel is to recognize an eternal debt to the people and land of Judaea for giving us the Messiah, and recognize that "the door of the sheep", as Jesus called himself (John 10) remains open to both Jew and Gentile.
The career of the Apostle Paul is instructive. His letters make it absolutely clear that he saw himself as a Jewish missionary to Gentiles, proclaiming that God had brought salvation via the Jewish Messiah Jesus, and that in his name the Gentiles should turn from their idols. In writing to the Galatian church, he fought a temptation that is perhaps equal and opposite to modern dispensationalism’s position that there exists a radical separation between Old Testament Israel and the Christian church, believing that God will replace the former as the center of attention in the days prior to and during the millennium. The Galatians were tempted by an overly "continuous" identity, thinking that to be in Christ, Gentiles had to become Jews, including the adoption of the entirety of the ceremonial law (represented by circumcision). Paul argued that it is not Jewish identity, symbolized by circumcision, that unites us to God, but being in Christ, which is accomplished by faith. He argues that this is true for Jews like himself, Barnabas, and Peter (called Cephas in the letter) and for his Gentile Galatian hearers. Hence, he identifies those who walk by this rule as "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:15).
(II) The True Zion
In the Letter to the Hebrews, an unknown member of the apostolic circle addressed Jewish believers distressed by their exclusion from the synagogues and the services of the Jerusalem Temple. As in Paul's Letter to the Galatians, the burden of the letter is on the centrality of the Messiah and his work.
The Israelites of old were given the ministrations of the tabernacle, and later the temple, as a place of sacrifice, to recognize that without the shedding of blood, sinners have no access to God. This truth underlay the sacrificial system of the Torah, from the deaths of the animals whose skins clothed the newly fallen Adam and Eve through the elaborate sacrificial ritual prescribed in the Torah, by which the death of a sacrificial animal restored fellowship--atoned--for the sinner.
In the First Century, a group of Jewish Messianists found themselves excluded from these ministrations due to their loyalty to Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews reminds these brethren that Jesus is the true priest and true atonement. The letter reminds them, and us:
"For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. For they could not endure what was commanded: "and if so much as a beast touches the mountain it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow. And so terrifying was the sight that MOses said, "I am exceedingly afraid and trembling". But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling [that of Jesus] that speaks better things than that of Abel."
(Hebrews 12:18-24, NKJV).
Here, Jesus and his work are the true Zion.
(III) The end of the Sacrificial System
Many today believe that in the end times, the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem and the sacrificial system re-instated. Yet this is to supercede the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
When John the Baptist identified Jesus as the "Lamb of God", he did not mean that Jesus is cute and fuzzy--indeed, a cursory perusal of the Gospels shows that there is nothing "cute and fuzzy" about Jesus. Rather, John was using the language of sacrifice:
"Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29).
John spoke to people who knew that the temple still stood, and still offered up the blood of bulls and goats, and every year still offered up the unblemished lambs at Passover. John's declaration identifies Jesus as the true passover lamb whose blood on our doors turns away the angel of death; and the final sacrifice who, standing in the place of sinners, opens a door whereby we may again approach and fellowship with God.
For this reason, the church observes the Lord's Supper, proclaiming Jesus' death till he come in the bread and wine shared by the congregation. This is itself a repeat of the Passover meal.
The finality and perfection of Jesus' sacrifice for us on the cross is also why the Christian church no longer sacrifices animals (or people, for that matter). As far back as God's refusal of Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22), it has been plain that sinful man is not an acceptable offering to God. But Jesus, the sinless one, offered himself in the place of sinners, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God (I Peter 3:1).
This means that an animal sacrifice, whether the last such ministrations in the Jerusalem temple between 30 and 70 A.D., the Graeco-Roman pagan’s killing an ox in honor of Zeus, the Chinese Daoists sacrificing swine in their Bai Bai, or Muslims offering a sheep or goat for Eid, are no longer necessary. Sacrifice is there to open fellowship between God and man, and Jesus, through his work on the cross, has opened a final and permanent access to God. This, not anti-Semitism, is what causes non-dispensational Evangelicals to doubt that there will be any restoration of a physical temple in Jerusalem, or that even if such a thing should be done, that it will have any redemptive significance.
Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians have commemorated his sacrifice in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. This ordinance is also a sign of our being gathered together as one with Christ and with each other. It tells us that just as ancient Israel was gathered by the words of prophets, the ministrations of priests, and the protection of kings, so are we gathered by the Word, sacrifice, and protection of Jesus Christ, who himself bears all three anointed offices of prophet, priest, and king.
The New Testament makes it clear that this message went forth from the Jews to other nations. Rather than call it “supercessionism”, it is perhaps better to call it “additionism”. To Jews like John, James, Andrew, Simon Peter, and several Judases “not Iscariot”, the Gospel call added Gentiles such as Luke, Titus, Lydia, and many others. If the church became “Gentile”, it was only because Gentiles have always outnumbered Jews, and the success of God’s saving plan will ever mean that even in the Jewish-founded church, this will be so.
Along these lines, there was a droll story from the days after the Russian Revolution. A Hebrew Christian history student named Solomon Moisevich Mandelbaum found himself arrested by the Cheka, and sharing a cell with a former White officer and anti-Semite, Andrey Ivanovich Kursky. After coming to know each other, Andrey asks Solomon a question:
“Is it true that there is an international Jewish conspiracy to put the world under Jewish rule?”
“Indeed there is, Andrey Ivanovich. It is very ancient, and hatched even while the Temple of Solomon was still standing,” Solomon answered.
“Ah-hah! I knew these Marxes and Trotskies and others had to be part of something bigger than a bunch of mere rabble-rousers!” Andrey grunts.
“Nonsense, Andrey Ivanovich. You mention only moderns, and who is Trotsky compared to Lenin and Stalin? I mentioned a very ancient conspiracy.”
“Ah-hah! You must mean the freemasons, who tell me that Solomon himself launched the craft!”
Again, Solomon shook his head. “Andrey Ivanovich, if we ever get out of here, I will not tell the Reverend Father that you have dabbled in freemasonry,” for Solomon knew that Andrey regarded himself as a good Eastern Orthodox Christian.
Andrey, like many others, was indeed guilty of such a flirtation, which was frowned on by his church, and blushed. “But what is it, then?”
“Why, it’s Christianity itself,” said Solomon. “It was proclaimed in the shadow of the Temple back in 30 A.D. by the Jews Peter, James, and John themselves, and has been growing ever since.”
Perhaps it is so that God will restore the Jewish nation to its historical patrimony. Such a belief was indeed common among the 17th century Puritans and their heirs, based on their reading of Romans 11:25-26. But these post- rather than pre-millennial Puritans also supposed that the place of this restored Jewish nation would ultimately be as one Christianized nation among many. Their view of the true “Israel” was that it included all, Jew as well as Gentile, gathered at the feet of the Messiah.