How Should Christians View Israel? Part Three

This is the third post in our series on “How a Christian Should Israel?” Part One is here: 
Part Two is here. 

As I already mentioned,  I will expand on R. Kendall’s Soulen’s  The God of Israel and Christian Theology which has shown the long history of supersessionism in Church history.  Soulen, Professor of Systematic Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC. has written on  the standard Christian “canonical narrative”—i.e., our view of the Bible’s overarching narrative framework—in such a way that avoids supersessionism and consequently is more coherent. Soulen identifies three kinds of supersessionism: (1) economic supersessionism, in which Israel’s obsolescence after the coming of the Messiah is a key element of the canonical narrative, (2) punitive supersessionism, in which God abrogates his covenant with Israel as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus, and (3) structural supersessionism, in which Israel’s special identity as God’s people is simply not an essential element of the “foreground” structure of the canonical narrative itself. Soulen sees structural supersessionism as the most problematic form of supersessionism, because it is the most deep-rooted. He identifies structural supersessionism in the “standard model” of the canonical narrative, which has held sway throughout much of the history of the Christian church. This standard model is structured by four main movements: creation, fall, Christ’s incarnation and the church, and the final consummation. In this standard model, God’s dealings with Israel are seen merely as a prefigurement of his dealings with the world through Christ. Thus, the Hebrew Scriptures are only confirmatory; they are not logically necessary for the narrative (see Lionel Windsor’s  Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations (New Testament after Supersessionism Book 2)

In this post we will discuss punitive supersessionism, in which God abrogates his covenant with Israel as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus.

Punitive supersessonism has mostly resulted from Gentile Christians  assuming  the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and 135 are God’s permanent rejection of Israel. According to Philip S. Alexander, the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem handed Christians “a propaganda coup” in that it gave them the opportunity to argue that the catastrophe was “a divine judgment on Israel for the rejection of Jesus.” (see Philip S. Alexander, “‘The Parting of the Ways,’” in Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways A.D. 70 to 135, ed. James D. G. Dunn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 20.

The same was also true concerning the failed second Jewish revolt in AD 135. Marcel Simon asserts that the destruction of Jerusalem in 135 “appeared to Christians as the confirmation of the divine verdict on Israel.” (see Marcel Simon, Versus Israel: A Study of the Relations Between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (135–425), trans. H. McKeating (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 65

A common  proof text  used for punitive supersessionism is Matt 21: 43: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing its fruits.”

Many have read this out of context and assume that this teaches God divorced and judged unfaithful Israel (who had murdered the Messiah) and married a faithful bride: His Church. But once again pre- 70 ad, there is new religion what was separate from the Jewish world called “Christianity” nor was there something called the “Christian church.”  Even Reformed scholar Michael Kruger says the following:

“There is little doubt that the very earliest Christians were, in fact, Jews. They believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah who would fulfil God’s extensive promises to Israel and usher in the kingdom of God. Thus, Jesus was understood quite naturally within the categories. Sure, something new was happening with Jesus – the inauguration of a new covenant, in fact (Luke 22.20). But the first Christians would not have conceived of this as the beginning of an entirely new religion; on the contrary, they would have seen it as the completion of something very old, namely the story of God’s dealings with Israel (cf. Jer. 31.31). Thus, early Christians were quite content, at least at first, to continue worshipping at the Temple (Acts 2.46) and following the laws of Moses.” –Michael Kruger, Christianity at The Crossroads, How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church.

Furthermore, regarding Matt 21:43,if we read it in context, the “you” of Matt 21:43 is identified in Matt 21:45 not as Israel or the Jewish people but as ‘the chief priests and the Pharisees,”—the temple authorities who confronted Jesus in Matt 21:23-27. The “people” referred to in Matt 21:43 is not the church in contrast to the Jewish people, but the new leadership group that will replace the old.Thus, Jesus is judging the corrupt leadership. If we read Matt 21: 45, it is clear the leadership even knew Jesus was speaking to them.

Furthermore, Craig Keener notes that “nation” here probably recalls Ex 19:6 and strict Jewish groups that characterized themselves as “righteous remnants” within Israel (e.g.,Qumran) could also view themselves as heirs of the biblical covenant community. In this period “ethnos” applies to guilds, associations, social classes or other groups or even orders of priests: urban Greeks used the term for rural Greeks, the LXX for Gentiles, and Greeks for non Greeks. Matthew implies not rejection of Israel but of dependence on any specific group membership, be it synagogue or church (The Gospel f Matthew: A Social Rhetorical Commentary), pgs,515, 516.

Romans 9-11

We already mentioned Romans 9-11. We know anyone that has read Romans 9-11 knows no possibility of Paul teaching Israel’s rejection by God. Now when I say rejection, I mean the consequences of God’s judgment on Israel would mean  Israel, was an the “earthly” people of God in the Old Testament, has been replaced, expanded, or fulfilled  in the divine plan not by another “earthly” people or peoples, but by a “spiritual” people, the church of the New Testament.

But to assert this, we need to remember that by the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans (about 57 C.E.), it was clear that most Jewish people at that time were rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. Paul called them branches of the cultivated olive tree which had been cut off. Yet he warned the Gentile believers that they must not take undue pride in being grafted into the olive tree or think themselves better than the cut-off branches, since they hold their position only by faith and without it will themselves be cut off.

But regarding Romans 9-11, despite Israel’s unbelief in Jesus, “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2). Israel remains God’s beloved chosen people “on account of the patriarchs” (Rom. 11:28). Paul also says God’s gifts and callings to Israel are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). Also, in Romans 11, the “riches” Gentiles are experiencing now during the state of Israel’s “stumbling” will escalate with the “full number” of national Israel’s salvation (see Rom. 11:26). The 10 references to “Israel” in Romans 9-11 refer to ethnic/national Israel so the Israel who will be saved in Rom 11:26 must refer to ethnic/national Israel. Israel will experience a national restoration and salvation at some point in the future.

It is clear that the Lord made the new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (see Jer. 31:31–34, quoted in Heb. 8:8–12) and not with the nations of the world, which leads us to ask the question: How do Gentiles get to partake in the new covenant? In response, God’s plan for Israel was to be a light to the nations and be a conduit for Gentiles to come to faith in the one true God. The only way Gentiles get to partake in the new covenant is that they grafted in as Paul talks about in Rom. 11: 13-24.. Israel will be grafted back in when the fullness of the Gentiles leads it to respond (Rom 11:11-12; 15, 30-32).

As we just said,  in punitive supersessionism, God abrogates his covenant with Israel as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus. But this view seems to contradict Romans 9-11. Furthermore, by the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans (about 57 C.E.), it was clear that most Jewish people were rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. In Romans 11, Paul called them branches of the cultivated olive tree which had been cut off.  Yet he warned the Gentile believers that they must not take undue pride in being grafted into the olive tree or think themselves better than the cut-off branches, since they hold their position only by faith and they can be cut off as well.  Thus,  Jewish people who have rejected the Messiah (cut-off natural branches), and  Jewish people who have come to faith in the Messiah,  (natural branches attached to the tree), and Gentile believers (grafted-in wild branches) each have their own kind of ongoing participation in the one Israel. If anything, punitive supersessionism is a display of Gentile boasting that Paul had warned about.

In the next post, we will pick up the controversial topic of Zionism and why Christians are divided on the topic.

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The Relationship Between Arguments and Persuasion

Anyone who has done a fair amount of apologetics can easily end up saying to themselves “I don’t understand why this person doesn’t accept my argument.”

Just yesterday, I spent a long time engaging a student who’s a Unitarian Universalitst yesterday. After going over every possible alternative to the resurrection, he finally admitted most of the naturalistic theories fail. But then he said he said he wasn’t persuaded which basically translates as “my will is in the way.” This discussion made me think of a wonderful book by the late Ronald Nash who noted the  following:

 “It is important to distinguish between arguments on one hand and personal persuasion on the other. People come to their beliefs about reality and truth based upon various factors, some rational and some nonrational. A good argument provides reasonable and truthful support for its claim. Just because a person is not persuaded by a given argument doesn’t necessarily mean that the argument is somehow logically defective. Nonrational factors such as ignorance, bias, self-interest, fear, or pride may stand in the way of a person genuinely understanding and feeling the full force of a powerful argument and thus being persuaded by it. A person’s noetic (belief-forming) faculties are seldom as neutral, detached, and coolly objective as many people-including especially “intellectuals”-would like to think. This subjective, egocentric predicament is shared by all people, regardless of educational level.Persuasion, then, seems to be “person-relative,” and no single argument will likely persuade everyone-especially when it comes to the big issues.” – Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason

In the end, while evidence might be rationally compelling, for some, it
may not be emotionally or willfully superb, and able to overcome the human heart. Hence, for many people, they may understand an argument, but still may not believe, due to the lack of a one size-fits-all approach for people who have various intellectual, emotional, and willful obstacles to belief.

 

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Apologetic Issues and the Resurrection of Jesus

When it comes to the Christian faith, there is no doctrine more important than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christianity is not simply centered in ethical and religious teachings but on the person and work of Jesus Christ. From a soteriological perspective, if Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead, Christians are still dead in their sins (1Cor.15:7). Jesus said in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even of he dies.” An important aspect of possessing eternal life is the ability to raise the dead. The Jewish people knew the God of Israel as the only one who could raise the dead (Job 19:26; Ps. 17:15; 49:15; 73:24; Is. 26:19; 53:10; Dn. 12:2;12:13).

Therefore, by claiming the authority to raise the dead, Jesus was exemplifying both the same actions and attributes of the God Israel. Through the resurrection, Jesus took on the role as advocate and intercessor (1 John 2:2; Rom. 8:34). Jesus’ resurrection also guaranteed the Christian the opportunity of having a resurrected body’s like Jesus’ (1Cor. 15:20-23, 51-53; 1 Pet. 1:3; Phil. 3:20-21; John 5:25-29). Since Jesus did predict his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34), if Jesus did not rise from the dead, he fails the test for a true prophet (Deut. 18:20). The resurrection demonstrated that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel and the whole world. The resurrection also marked Jesus Christ as the one who will be the judge all men (Acts 17:31).

Evidence/Historical Apologetics

When it comes to evidence, the skeptical issue in our culture mostly enters into the religious dialogue in the following way: “Do we really know what we think we know-especially in religion- when our beliefs are not properly based on evidence?” And in the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine being, what kind of evidence should we expect to find? Verification has to do with how to test the meaning or truth of a claim. It is true that Christianity is a historical faith and it has been common for apologists to appeal to the historical evidence of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a verification of its claim to be true. Within apologetic methodology, the classical apologist says it is futile to speak about the resurrection as an act of God unless it is established that there is a theistic God who can act within human history. Historical apologetics overlaps with classical apologetics. However, historical apologists believe that the truth of Christianity, including the existence of God, can be shown from the foundation of historical evidence alone. In examining the resurrection of Jesus, one must utilize a variety of disciplines. Some of them include:

1. Philosophy of History/Historiography: What tests do historians utilize when examining written documents in antiquity? What approach do they use in approaching a miraculous claim such as the resurrection of Jesus?

2. Metaphysics: Any attempt to examining a claim such as the resurrection of Jesus will involve a metaphysical commitment. Without metaphysics, a person would be incapable of constructing a worldview. A worldview must explain all of the pieces of the puzzle we call reality. What tends to be forgotten is that evidential claims must be interpreted in light of one’s worldview. An apologist can give all the evidence for a historical claim such as the resurrection of Jesus, etc. However, the apologist may have to deal with a philosophical or metaphysical issue as well. If one has a commitment to philosophical or metaphysical naturalism, the resurrection of Jesus will be interpreted in a naturalistic way.

The naturalistic worldview came to be more prominent during the Enlightenment period. Philosophical or metaphysical naturalism refers to the view that nature is the “whole show.” For theists, miracles (which are paramount to the Christian faith) are supernatual but not anti-natural. Biblical theism does acknowledge that while God is the primary Cause of all things, He also works through secondary causes. In other words, God acts in the world through direct intervention (a miracle such as creation or the resurrection of Jesus) and natural casues or indirect actions (preservation).

In the debate about the resurrection of Jesus, the word “fact” needs some clarification. If one argues the resurrection of Jesus is not a fact, there needs to be a clear definition of the word “fact.” As Norman Geisler says,

If “fact” means original event, then neither geology nor history is in possession of any facts. “Fact” must be taken by both to mean information about the original event, and in this latter sense facts do not exist merely subjectively in the mind of the historian. Facts are objective data and data are data whether anyone reads them or not. What one does with data, that is, what meaning or interpretation he gives to them, can in no way eliminate the data. There remains for both science and history a hard core of objective facts. The door is thereby left open for objectivity. In this way one may draw a valid distinction between propaganda and history: the former lacks sufficient basis in objective fact but the latter does not. Indeed, without objective facts no protest can be raised either against poor history or propaganda. If history is entirely in the mind of the beholder, there is no reason one cannot decide to behold it any way he desires.” (1)

And since history has a large role in the evidence for a miracle the resurrection of Jesus, one must always realize the following. As Geisler says:

“Every historian interprets the past in the overall framework of his own Weltanschauung (the German word for worldview). The Weltanschauungen will determine whether the historian sees the events of the world as a meaningless maze, as a series of endless repetitions, or as moving in a purposeful way toward a goal. These world views are both necessary and inevitably value oriented. So, it is argued, without one of these world views the historian cannot interpret the events of the past; but through a world view objectivity becomes impossible. A world view is not generated from the facts. Facts do not speak for themselves. The facts gain their meaning only within the overall context of the world view. Without the structure of the world-view framework the “stuff” of history has no meaning.” (2)

3. Epistemology: is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of knowledge. People rely on the testimony of others on a regular basis. Also, the historian knows it is difficult to know much of anything in history apart from eyewitness testimony. Testimony as an epistemological enterprise plays a large role in examining the eyewitness testimony to the resurrection in the New Testament.

4. Linguistics/Hermeneutics: When examining resurrection passages, an individual will have to utilize the original languages. Biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation. When a person assumes the resurrection of Jesus is not to be taken literally, hermeneutics helps answer what is to be taken literally and non-literally in the Bible. Hermeneutics also enables the reader to understand what the author of a text meant when he wrote it to his original audience.

5.  Genre Studies: It is important that an individual understands the genre of the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament before interpreting it. If someone makes the claim that the Gospels or other parts of the New Testament are myth (meaning half-truth, folklore, fantasy, or a fictionized account of history, etc), genre studies help clear up the confusion about this issue).

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How Should a Christian View Israel? Part Two

This is the second post in our series on “How a Christian Should Israel? Part One is here: 

As I already mentioned,  I will to expand on R. Kendall’s Soulen’s  The God of Israel and Christian Theology which has shown the long history of supersessionism in Church history.  Soulen, Professor of Systematic Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC. has written on  the standard Christian “canonical narrative”—i.e., our view of the Bible’s overarching narrative framework—in such a way that avoids supersessionism and consequently is more coherent. Soulen identifies three kinds of supersessionism: (1) economic supersessionism, in which Israel’s obsolescence after the coming of the Messiah is a key element of the canonical narrative, (2) punitive supersessionism, in which God abrogates his covenant with Israel as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus, and (3) structural supersessionism, in which Israel’s special identity as God’s people is simply not an essential element of the “foreground” structure of the canonical narrative itself. Soulen sees structural supersessionism as the most problematic form of supersessionism, because it is the most deep-rooted. He identifies structural supersessionism in the “standard model” of the canonical narrative, which has held sway throughout much of the history of the Christian church. This standard model is structured by four main movements: creation, fall, Christ’s incarnation and the church, and the final consummation. In this standard model, God’s dealings with Israel are seen merely as a prefigurement of his dealings with the world through Christ. Thus, the Hebrew Scriptures are only confirmatory; they are not logically necessary for the narrative (see Lionel Windsor’s  Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations (New Testament after Supersessionism Book 2)

Structural Supersessionism

We just noted that “structural supersessionism” says Israel’s special identity as God’s people is simply not an essential element of the “foreground” structure of the canonical narrative itself. There has been a slew of books that attempt to help readers understand the grand narrative of the Bible. Books such as Living God’s Word: Discovering Our Place in the Great Story of Scripture,  by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hay, or The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright are just a few of them. There is no doubt that once Christianity became a ‘separate’ religion outside of the Jewish world, one of the primary ways it began to define it’s belief system was through the use of creeds and confessions.  It is noteworthy that the two greatest creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene, jump from creation and fall to redemption through Jesus without even mentioning the history and people of Israel. I will offer two pictures to show the difference.

Almost every Christian and almost every church has recited the Apostles Creed. I am not against this. But let me ask you a question: If you read this creed, how much would you find out about the humanity of Jesus? While there is a mentioning of his death under Pilate and his burial as well, would you ever read this and realize Jesus was Jewish or that he is Israel’s Messiah?   “Messiah” is directly related to the Davidic King in Jewish tradition (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:2, 7; 89:19-21, 26-27; Psalms of Solomon 17.32). Paul explicates this gospel “regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4). Here is the creed:

“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

 While the Apostles creed is helpful to some, it really leaves too much out. Anyone who reads it probably won’t walk away seeing any historical connection between Jesus and Israel. It leads me to this pertinent comment by Anthony Saldarini:

“Does Jesus the Jew—as a Jew—have any impact on Christian theology and on Jewish-Christian relations? . . . To wrench Jesus out of his Jewish world destroys Jesus and destroys Christianity, the religion that grew out of his teachings. Even Jesus’ most familiar role as Christ is a Jewish role. If Christians leave the concrete realities of Jesus’ life and of the history of Israel in favor of a mythic, universal, spiritual Jesus and an otherworldly kingdom of God, they deny their origins in Israel, their history, and the God who loved and protected Israel and the church. They cease to interpret the actual Jesus sent by God and remake him in their own image and likeness. The dangers are obvious. If Christians violently wrench Jesus out of his natural, ethnic and historical place within the people of Israel, they open the way to doing equal violence to Israel, the place and people of Jesus.”- A. Saldarini, “What Price the Uniqueness of Jesus?” Bible Review, June 1999: 17. Print.

In this picture, we see a more comprehensive picture of the biblical narrative:

 

 The Problem of the Old Testament/New Testament Divide

The other problem with structural supersessionism is it can lead to an unnecessary divide between both Testaments. We can tend to forget there was no  New Testament at the time of Jesus. Paul stated: “All scripture is given by the inspiration of God and is profitable for  doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the  man of God may be  perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works”  (2 Timothy  3:16-17).  Here “Scripture” (graphē) must refer to the Old Testament written Scripture, for that is what the word graphē refers to in every one of its fifty-one occurrences in the New Testament.

As Walter Kaiser states so clearly:

“God never intended that the two testaments should result in two separate religions: Judaism and Christianity. The Tanach (= OT) was meant to lead directly into the so-called New Testament and thus be the continuation of one plan from creation to consummation. When the divine promise-plan of God is ruptured and divided into two distinct parts, with the climax triumphing over the earlier revelation, then we have introduced a division where God had revealed the fulfillment of what he had revealed in earlier texts! Therefore, we must investigate further how this disparity appeared among the people of God”- Walter Kaiser, Jewish Christianity: Why Believing Jews and Gentiles Parted Ways in the Early Church

N.T Wright’s Corrective?

N.T. Wright is one of the most popular New Testament theologians today. A ways back, he wrote a popular book called “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. In this book, he rightly noted that Christians have forgotten that the final destination for the Christian is not heaven. But instead, salvation in the Bible is not the deliverance from the body, which is the prison of the soul. The believer’s final destination is not heaven, but it is the new heavens and new earth- complete with a resurrection body. Wright notes that while heaven is wonderful, resurrection is even better. Thus, as Wright says, resurrection is “life after life- after- death.” With this corrective, many Christians now realize they will eventually be on a renewed earth. With Wright’s corrective, a slew of books has emphasized that God has called humans to be priests and stewards of the physical environment of the earth, and not to be fixated with our souls that are hopefully on a journey to a disembodied heaven.

But, the question becomes the following: if God’s covenant with humanity eventually will be finalized on a renewed earth, are there geographical boundaries of any kind? And if so, does Israel exist as a nation and does the land called ‘Israel’ exist?  I have come across more than enough Christians who say there is no purpose with the land of Israel.  Thus, when Jesus came, the land has no present nor future significance in the mind of God. It is no more different than Africa, Russia, or any place else. But for those that have written Israel out of the canonical narrative, where is Israel in the new heavens and new earth? Rev 21: 1 discusses the new heaven and earth (also see Isa. 65;17; 2 Pet. 12-13). But if the new creation has a place for the earth, and especially for resurrected human life living under the lordship of the Messiah, what about the political landscape of the new creation (Rev. 21: 22-22:4)?  What tends to be forgotten is the Bible has always been a story of God, Israel, and the nations. The words “goyim” and “ethnos” refer to “peoples” or “nations” and are applied to both Israelites and non-Israelites in the Bible. In the eschaton, Israel is still in the picture along with the nations. You can’t have one without the other.

 

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The Human Desire for an Ordinary World

In the mid 1990’s, a band that I followed as a teenager released probably what is considered the best song they ever did. I remember reading that the British band Duran Duran had said their hit song “Ordinary World” had apparently struck a nerve with many people.

The letters came in from the fans telling them the song had touched them in a very deep way. But why? The lyrics are as follows:

Came in from a rainy Thursday on the avenue
Thought I heard you talking softly
I turned on the lights, the TV, and the radio
Still I can’t escape the ghost of you

What has happened to it all?
Crazy someone say
Where is the life that I recognize?
Gone away

But I won’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive

Passion or coincidence once prompted you to say
“Pride will tear us both apart”
Well now prides gone out the window
Cross the rooftops, run away
Left me in the vacuum of my heart

What is happening to me?
Crazy someone say
Where is my friend when I need you most?
Gone away

But I won’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive

(Just blown away)

Papers in the roadside tell of suffering and greed
Fear today, forgot tomorrow
Besides the news of holy war and holy need
Ours is just a little sorrowed talk

And I don’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive

Every world is my world
(I will learn to survive)
Any world is my world
(I will learn to survive)
Any world is my world

The impact this song has had really demonstrates that people long for a world that is ‘better’ or what they  might to define as ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal.’  But who gets to define what ‘better’ or ‘ordinary,’  or ‘normal’ is?  Most likely, people want a world where there is justice, equality, and where humans are treated with value and dignity.

But now we have an issue: How do you know what the world should look like unless you have some clue as to what is just and unjust? People complain that real evils — both moral and natural — take place in the world around them. They fight for justice as if they know how things ought to be, but are not. They assume a standard of justice and goodness. On a secular worldview, things just happen. There is no grand plan or purpose behind the evil/injustice we observe. Evil is just a social construct. On a theistic worldview, there is a design plan that has gone wrong because humans violated a standard of goodness and justice that has been established by God. To say something is evil in the world already points to a standard of goodness that’s being violated.

 Theism has a clear teleology which is the belief in or the perception of purposeful development toward an end, as in nature or history. Many atheists adhere to a naturalistic worldview which has no teleology. In other words, humans are a blind cosmic accident who came from a process that has no meaning, no purpose, no goal, no directions. Therefore, teleology has a goal in mind and evolution has been seen to run down dead ends many, many times. As Richard Dawkins says: You would have to assume there is a world out there that should display these the things that were just mentioned. As we celebrate Independence Day, we shouldn’t overlook The Declaration of Independence. In it, we see that God’s revelation in nature itself allows for the grounding of human rights and human dignity. As Stephen Meyer points out,  Jefferson  wrote the Declaration, asserting the inalienable rights of human beings derived from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. Also, from a Biblical standpoint, all human beings enjoy the right to life and the resources to sustain it, for life is a gift from God. Thus all humans have a right to human dignity (i.e. the right to receive respect irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or rank or any other way). NOTE: I chose to the use the word ‘ethnicity’ instead of race since the Bible doesn’t teach there are races. There is only one race which is the human race.  We also have a responsibility to secure/protect/establish the rights of others.

Humans have always wondered about the meaning of life…life has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of DNA…life has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference-Scheff, Liam. 2007. The Dawkins Delusion. Salvo, 2:94.

A ways back, my friend Wintery Knight posted this on his blog:

“If you love to listen to the Please Convince Me podcast, as I do, then you know that in a recent episode, J. Warner Wallace mentioned a blog post on an atheistic blog that clearly delineated the implications of an atheistic worldview. He promised he was going to write about it and link to the post, and he has now done so.

Here is the whole the whole thing that the atheist posted:

“[To] all my Atheist friends.

Let us stop sugar coating it. I know, it’s hard to come out and be blunt with the friendly Theists who frequent sites like this. However in your efforts to “play nice” and “be civil” you actually do them a great disservice.

We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time. They served some purpose in the past. They got us here. That’s it. All human achievement and plans for the future are the result of some ancient, evolved brain and accompanying chemical reactions that once served a survival purpose. Ex: I’ll marry and nurture children because my genes demand reproduction, I’ll create because creativity served a survival advantage to my ancient ape ancestors, I’ll build cities and laws because this allowed my ape grandfather time and peace to reproduce and protect his genes. My only directive is to obey my genes. Eat, sleep, reproduce, die. That is our bible.

We deride the Theists for having created myths and holy books. We imagine ourselves superior. But we too imagine there are reasons to obey laws, be polite, protect the weak etc. Rubbish. We are nurturing a new religion, one where we imagine that such conventions have any basis in reality. Have they allowed life to exist? Absolutely. But who cares? Outside of my greedy little gene’s need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me. Some of my Atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population. They live in suburban homes, drive Toyota Camrys, attend school plays. But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. So be nice if you want. Be involved, have polite conversations, be a model citizen. Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife. I know it’s not PC to speak so bluntly about the ramifications of our beliefs, but in our discussions with Theists we sometimes tip toe around what we really know to be factual. Maybe it’s time we Atheists were a little more truthful and let the chips fall where they may. At least that’s what my genes are telling me to say.”

And Cornell University atheist William Provine agrees: (this is taken from his debate with Phillip E. Johnson)

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Even Ron Bonteke says the following:

“Human beings cannot be deserving of a special measure of respect by virtue of their having been created ‘in God’s image’ when they have not been created at all (and there is no God). Thus the traditional conception of human dignity is also undermined in the wake of Darwin.”–Ron Bontekoe, The Nature of Dignity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 15– 16.

In his book An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off With Religion Than Without It, author Bruce Sheiman gives a general outline of how atheists account for how we got here:

Human Life = Laws of physics X chance + randomness+ accidents+luck X 3.5 billion yrs. In other words, the laws of physics for our present universe arose by chance (from a multitude of possible universes); the first forms of life developed by chance (arising by primordial soup combinations that resulted from the laws of physics plus accidents); the first concept of life developed purely by chance (genetic mutations and environmental randomness); and humans evolved by more improbable occurrences.

So if we look at these comments by Dawkins, Provine, Bontekoe, as well as the model here proposed by Sheiman, it is obvious that theism has better explanatory power in grounding human rights and human dignity and the need to fight for equality and justice. This doesn’t mean atheists and skeptics can’t treat people with respect and dignity and fight for equality and and a just world. But for those who are so adamant about fighting for a just world, how do they know what just is?  And where does the moral obligation come from to do this, and what in the heck makes humans suddenly have so much value and dignity?

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A Closer Look at Acts 5: 33-39 and Gamaliel’s Criteria for whether Jesus is the Messiah

Over the years, I have heard the objection that Jesus is just one of many messianic figures in the first century. In this objection, it is assumed that there is nothing unique about Jesus. In other words, He is just another messianic figure that challenged the political powers of his day.

Quite frankly, the statement, “Jesus is just one of several messianic figures in the first century” is not only patently false but also a gross oversimplification. Just because someone leads a messianic revolt does not qualify them as “the Messiah” (notice the capital “M”).

There is a significant comment made in Acts 5: 33-39, by Gamaliel I, who was a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin:

“But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing “After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. “So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”

It can be observed that Gamaliel was aware that there had been other Jewish revolts that featured a messianic element. Unfortunately, these revolts had all failed. Even the Jewish historian Josephus mentioned that Judas of Galilee had rebelled against Quirinus’s census and ended in defeat. (Antiquities 18: 1)

Josephus lists some of the figures who claimed royal prerogatives between 4 B.C.E and 68-70 C.E but are not called “the” or “a” Messiah.

1. In Galilee 4 B.C.E.: Judas, son of bandit leader Ezekias (War 2.56; Ant.17.271-72) 2. In Perea 4 B.C.E.: Simon the Herodian slave (War 2.57-59;Ant 17.273-77) 3. In Judea 4 B.C.E.: Athronges, the shepherd (War 2.60-65;Ant 17.278-84) 4. Menahem: grandson of Judas the Galilean (War 2.433-34, 444) 5. Simon, son of Gioras (bar Giora) (War 2.521, 625-54; 4.503-10, 529; 7.26-36, 154) (1)

Out of the all the messianic movements within Judaism, I will mention some that I believe are rather significant.

Simon bar Giora of Geresa (as mentioned above)

According to Josephus, Simon led a rebellion against the Romans in the spring of 69 C.E. (J.W. 4.9.12 §577). Among the leaders of the rebellion “Simon in particular was regarded with reverence and awe . . . each was quite prepared to take his very own life had he given the order” (J.W. 5.7.3 §309). Finally defeated and for a time in hiding, Simon, dressed in white tunics and a purple mantle, made a dramatic appearance before the Romans on the very spot where the Temple had stood (J.W. 7.1.2 §29). He was placed in chains (J.W. 7.2.2 §36), sent to Italy (J.W. 7.5.3 §118), put on display as part of the victory celebration in Rome (J.W. 7.5.6 §154), and was finally executed (J.W. 7.5.6 §155). (2)

Simon Bar Kochba

It is still disputed whether Simon Bar Kokhba ever made an open proclamation to be the real Messiah who would take over Rome and enable the Jewish people to regain their self-rule (A.D. 132-135). Even a prominent rabbi called Rabbi Akiba affirmed him as the Messiah. Justin Martyr even noted that Bar Kokhba commanded Christians to be led away to terrible punishment unless they denied Jesus as their Messiah.” (Apology 31.6) Unfortunately, the revolt led by Bar Kochba failed and as a result and both he and rabbi Akiba were slain. Even though it is said that Rabbi Akiba hailed Bar Kokhba as the Messiah, (cf. y. Ta‘an. 4:5), the slaying of Bar Kokhba had nothing to do with any accusation of blasphemy. He did not make the same messianic claims of Jesus by asserting His authority to be the Son of Man, nor did he ever claim to have the authority to forgive sins. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. The war ended in 135 CE. Simon was subsequently remembered as Simon ben-Kozebah (“son of the lie”). (3)

Sabbatai Sevi

Another messianic figure was Sabbatai Sevi. Sevi was a seventeenth-century Jewish teacher who claimed to be the Messiah and was heralded by a contemporary named Nathan. It is said after Sevi’s death in 1676 that his brother found his tomb empty but full of light. If anything, the Sevi story sounds like it was borrowed from the resurrection story about Jesus. The Sevi story has little historical backing. In contrast to the resurrection claim of Sevi, in the case of Jesus, there are multiple eyewitness appearances after his resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15). What is more ironic is that Sevi later left the Jewish faith for Islam.

 Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Within Judaism, there is a sect called Hasidic Judaism. Within Hasidic Judaism, there are leaders who are called a “tzaddik” which is Hebrew for “righteous men.” A tzaddik is sometimes viewed as a Rebbe which means master or teacher. By the way, in the book of Acts, it was during Stephen’s famous speech that he refers to Jesus as a tzaddik : “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers.” (Acts 7:52)

Such an example of a present day tzaddik was seen in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1951-1994), the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidim. Some of the followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson think He is the Messiah and that He will come back from the dead (Schneerson died in 1994). Some in the Lubavitcher movement have even asserted that Isaiah 53 can be used as a proof text that the Messiah will rise from the dead. Of course, this has led to great controversy. Some in the Orthodox community have complained that the attempt to portray Schneerson as one who will rise from the dead and return a second time has too much in common with the Christian claim about Jesus.

What About Jesus? 

The Tanakh discusses the timing of coming of Messiah (Gen. 49:8-12; Deut. 18:15-18; Dan. 9Haggai 2); Gen 12:1-3: Forming of Israel will lead to Jewish Messiah who will enable millions of non-Jews to come to know the one true God; the manner of Messiah’s death and rejection: (Isa. 52:13-53:2Psalm 22); divinity of Messiah (Gen. 49:8-12Dan 7:13-14; Isa. 9:1-9).

To see additional reading:

See our page called Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus:

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How Should a Christian View Israel? Part One

Obviously, one of the most challenging issues within Christian apologetics is the accusation that in many cases, Christianity has been associated with anti-Semitism. Several years ago, I remember reading Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith. In one chapter he interviews John Woodbridge about Christian history.  Woodbridge agreed that “One of the ugliest blights on Christianity’s history has been anti-Semitism.” Woodbridge readily conceded that, regrettably, “anti-Semitism has soiled Christian history”(The Case for Faith, pg 297).

There have been numerous books written on this topic such as Dan Cohn- Sherbock’s The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism, and Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany as well as Michael Brown’s Our Hands Are Stained with Blood.  I know Christians sometimes can say “How in the world could any Christian be anti-Semitic? Ronald Diprose says the following: “Whoever denies that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah is in fact denying the gospel which was announced to Abraham (Galatians 3:8–16; Romans 1:1–5, 16–17)”  (see Israel and the Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology, by Ronald Diprose, pg 182). 

When a Christian or someone is accused of being anti-Semitic, we can break it down into these three categories:

1  Anti-Semitism can be based on hatred against Jewish people because of  their group membership or ethnicity.

2.  Anti-Zionism is criticism or rejection of the right of Jewish people to have their own homeland. I should note that not all Jewish people are supportive of modern Zionism. Also,  Christians are divided on this issue.

3.  Theological anti-Semitism: critical rejection of Jewish principles and beliefs.

I should also note that  the Jewish community has at least three ideas that most, if not all, Jewish people have been socialized into:

(1) The Holocaust – to deny the Holocaust is to remove oneself from the Jewish people.

(2) The State of Israel – its right to exist and some allegiance to it.

(3) The rejection of Jesus.

Of course, many Jewish people don’t know why part of their identity is to reject Jesus as their Messiah.  But  the history of anti-Semitism has been a huge stumbling block.

Sadly, some very well-known Christian leaders such as John Chrysostom (Against the Jews.  Homily 1) and Martin Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies  contain statements that can be perceived as fitting into one of the anti- Semitic categories that were just mentioned.

Anti-Semitism is alive and well in many parts of the world. Given Israel is continually in the news, I have been wanting to do a series of posts on the topic. This will be the first part of a series of posts on how Christians might view Israel today. But why would a devout follower of Jesus care about Israel? As David Stern says:

“For years all the disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) were Jewish. The New Testament was entirely written by Jews (Luke being, in all likelihood, a Jewish proselyte). The very concept of a Messiah is nothing but Jewish. Finally, Yeshua himself was Jewish—was then and apparently is still, since nowhere does Scripture say or suggest that he has ceased to be a Jew. It was Jews who brought the Gospel to Gentiles. Paul, the chief emissary to the Gentiles was an observant Jew all his life. Indeed the main issue in the early Church was whether without undergoing complete conversion to Judaism a Gentile could be a Christian at all. The Messiah’s vicarious atonement is rooted in the Jewish sacrificial system; the Lord’s Supper is rooted in the Jewish Passover traditions; baptism is a Jewish practice; and indeed the entire New Testament is built on the Hebrew Bible, with its prophecies and its promise of a New Covenant, so that the New testament without the Old is as impossible as the second floor of a house without the first.”- David Stern, Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel, Kindle Locations, 963 of 1967.

Israel’s Election

What does it mean to say Israel was elected? Scott Bader-Saye says:

“Election is the choice by one person of another person out of a range of possible candidates. This choice then establishes a mutual relationship between the elector and the elected, in biblical terms a “covenant” (berit). Election is much more fundamental then just freedom of choice in the ordinary sense, where a free person chooses to do one act from a range of possible acts. Instead, the elector chooses another person with whom she will both act and elicit responses, and then establishes the community in which these acts are done, and then promises that for which the election has occurred. The content of these practical choices is governed by Torah, but there could be no such coherent standards of action without prior context of election, the establishment of covenantal community, and the promise of ultimate purpose.”–  (see Scott Bader-Saye, The Church and Israel After Christendom: The Politics of Election(Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1999), 31).

 What was Israel elected to do? 

1. Be a Holy People (Deut. 7:6 [3x]); (Isa. 62:12; 63:18; Dan. 12:7)

2.Be a Kingdom of Priests (Exod. 19:6)

3. Be a Redeemed People (Joshua 4:23-24)

4. Be a Light to the Nations (Isa. 60: 3)

5. Bring the Scriptures to the world: “To them were entrusted the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2)

6. Be the Vehicle by Which the Messiah will Come into the World (Rom 15: 8-9).

We also need to remember Israel’s election was only because of the grace of God: 

 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.  It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples,  but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”- Deut. 7: 6-8.

Supersessionism in Church History

Before I expand on R. Kendall’s Soulen’s  The God of Israel and Christian Theology which has shown the long history of supersessionism in Church history, we should note that according to to Mary Boys, this idea of the church replacing the Jews in the divine economy has eight main features: the assertion that the revelation of Christ supersedes the revelation to Israel, that the New Testament fulfills the Old Testament, the church replaces the Jews as God’s chosen people, that Judaism is obsolete, the notion that postexilic Judaism was legalistic, assertions that the Jews did not heed the warning of the prophets and did not understand the prophecies about Jesus), and finally accusations that the Jews killed Christ. These might be thought of as the basic tenets of supersessionism (see  “The Road to Reconciliation: Protestant Church Statements on Jewish-Christian Relations.” In Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation, edited by Mary C. Boys ( Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 2005), 241-251.

After the Holocaust,  many Christian theologians had to rethink the relationship between the Church and Israel

Supersessionism is sometimes seen as another word what is called “replacement theology,” “transference,” “expansion” “absorption” or “fulfillment theology.” The term supersessionism comes from two Latin words: super (on or upon) and sedere (to sit). It carries the idea of one person sitting on another’s chair, displacing the latter. Hence, one religion, Christianity, permanently displaces the other, Judaism.  By the way, Islam is viewed as a new religion that ‘supersedes’ both Judaism and Christianity.  Given I have already written a post on whether Jesus came to bring a new religion (i.e. Christianity), I won’t deal with that issue in great detail here. But suffice to say, it is fallacious for Christians to assume there was one clear Judaism in the first century—viewed through the lens of Paul’s critique of the law and represented by the Pharisees as depicted in Matthew—and then Jesus came along and started a new religion called ‘Christianity’ as a new entity that separated from Judaism.  As Craig Evans says so well:

“Did Jesus intend to found the Christian church? This interesting question can be answered in the affirmative and in the negative. It depends on what precisely is being asked. If by church one means an organization and a people that stand outside of Israel, the answer is no. If by a community of disciples committed to the restoration of Israel and the conversion and instruction of the Gentiles, then the answer is yes. Jesus did not wish to lead his disciples out of Israel, but to train followers who will lead Israel, who will bring renewal to Israel , and who will instruct Gentiles in the way of the Lord. Jesus longed for the fulfillment of the promises and the prophecies, a fulfillment that would bless Israel and the nations alike. The estrangement of the church from Israel was not the result of Jesus’ teaching or Paul’s teaching. Rather, the parting of the ways, as it has been called in recent years, was the result of a long process”—Craig Evans , From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation.

Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century wasn’t seen as a single “way.” There were many “Judaisms”- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc.  The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5).  Josephus refers to the “sects” of Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees. The first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism. Even James Dunn says the following:

“Prior to Paul what we now call ‘Christianity’ was no more than a messianic sect within first-century Judaism, or better, within Second Temple Judaism — ‘the sect of the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24.5), the followers of ‘the Way’ (that is, presumably, the way shown by Jesus)”- James Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Gospels, pg 119

The title “replacement theology” is often viewed as a synonym for supersessionism. As of today,  because the title “replacement theology” is not well received by some, some scholars/theologians prefer  to be called “fulfillment theologians.”  Thus, the emphasis is on the “promise/fulfillment” theme in the Bible. However,  while one can use fulfillment terminology, the end the result is really the same— we see the following:

Israel, the “earthly” people of God in the Old Testament,  which includes their land, temple, and identity as an ethnic or national people, has been replaced, expanded, or fulfilled  in the divine plan not by another “earthly” people or peoples, but by a “spiritual” people, the church of the New Testament.

As I just mentioned, a  leading voice in this issue is R. Kendall Soulen, Professor of Systematic Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC. Soulen’s theological project is to reconceive the standard Christian “canonical narrative”—i.e., our view of the Bible’s overarching narrative framework—in such a way that avoids supersessionism and consequently is more coherent. Soulen identifies three kinds of supersessionism: (1) economic supersessionism, in which Israel’s obsolescence after the coming of the Messiah is a key element of the canonical narrative, (2) punitive supersessionism, in which God abrogates his covenant with Israel as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus, and (3) structural supersessionism, in which Israel’s special identity as God’s people is simply not an essential element of the “foreground” structure of the canonical narrative itself. Soulen sees structural supersessionism as the most problematic form of supersessionism, because it is the most deep-rooted.

He identifies structural supersessionism in the “standard model” of the canonical narrative, which has held sway throughout much of the history of the Christian church. This standard model is structured by four main movements: creation, fall, Christ’s incarnation and the church, and the final consummation. In this standard model, God’s dealings with Israel are seen merely as a prefigurement of his dealings with the world through Christ. Thus, the Hebrew Scriptures are only confirmatory; they are not logically necessary for the narrative (see Lionel Windsor’s  Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations (New Testament after Supersessionism Book 2)

Economic Supersessionism 

In this view, Israel is not replaced primarily because of its disobedience but rather because its role in the history of redemption expired with the coming of the Messiah. It is now superseded by the arrival of a new spiritual Israel, the Christian church. Thus, Israel was never in God’s mind more than a temporary reality ultimately to be superseded by “a new Israel,” the church.

Thus, the ethnic, national, and territorial promises to Israel have to be spiritually interpreted in order to discern their true meaning.

In his book Israel in the Apostolic Church, Peter Richardson notes that Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD), an early Christian apologist, was the first Christian writer to explicitly identify the church as “Israel.”  Justin declared, “For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham . . . are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.”.He also said, “Since then God blesses this people [i.e., Christians], and calls them Israel, and declares them to be His inheritance, how is it that you [Jews] repent not of the deception you practice on yourselves, as if you alone were the Israel?. Justin also announced that “we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelite race”(See Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 11, ANF 1:200. 17. Ibid., 1:261; 18. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 135, ANF 1:267).

In my experience, when I have brought up Richardson’s work about Matyr, Christians can immediately get defensive and attempt to point to all kinds of texts in the New Testament that seem to teach economic supersessionism or fulfillment theology.

Israel in the Scriptures 

Now when we say “Israel” we have to define what we mean. Do we mean Israel the land, Israel the people, or the government of Israel? We know that Jacob experienced a theophany and was given a new name  (Yisrael) meaning he had persisted with God.  There are 15 references to Jacob’s children as the sons of Israel (b’nai yisrael) (Gen 45:21; 46:8; 50:25; Exod. 1:1; 13:19; 28:9; 11-12; 21, 29; 39:6-7,14; Deut. 32:8;1 Chron.2:1). Israel is national name that is used when they were delivered by God for Egyptian bondage (Exod. 1:9; 12; 2:23; 25) and for those who came out afterward (Exod. 10:5-6). Israel is also seen as a political entity or nation state (1 Sam.15;28; 24;20; 1 Chron.11:10); the royal monarchy under the rule of David, Saul and then his descendants.

The ethnic origin of Israel as expressed in the concept of “people,” can be traced back to Abraham (cf. Ge 12:2; 17:6; 18:18).  “Israel” is used seventy-three times in the New Testament, and it is always used of ethnic Jews. Thus, of these seventy-three citations, the vast majority refer to national, ethnic Israel. The passages that are generally disputed are the “Israel of God” reference in Galatians 6:16  and Romans 9:6 which both speak of a believing remnant within Israel. Thus, there is an ‘Israel’ within ethnic ‘Israel.’ But neither of these texts teach Gentiles become spiritual Jews.

Even in Acts, after the title “church” (ἐκκλησία/ekklēsia)  is established, Israel is still addressed as a nation in contrast to Gentiles (Acts 3:12; 4:8, 10; 5:21, 31, 35; 21:28).  Sometimes, it is asserted that the imagery for Israel is used for the “church”/ekklēsia.  Perhaps, like Israel, if the ekklēsia.  are “a people that are his very own” (Tit 2:13; Ex 19:5; Rom 9:25; 2 Co 6:16; . 1Pe 2:9–10), they are now called “Israel?”

However, to assume just because the “people of God” has been enlarged to include those from nations other than Israel means that the ekklēsia  is now Israel leads to some exegetical problems. For example, in 1 Peter 2:9–10, was Peter was addressing Gentile believers in his epistle or was it written to Jewish Believers in the Diaspora? If it was written to Jewish Believers, Peter could be addressing a similar group Paul was referring to in Gal 6:16—a remnant of Israel made of ethnic Jews who placed their faith in the Messiah.  One way or the other, there is no possibility anyone should be able to infer from any of these texts that Israel has been irrevocably rejected by God and replaced by Gentiles (see Rom. 9–11).

Furthermore, what can be forgotten is that though when most Christians hear the word ‘church” they assume this means “Christian church,” the reality is that in the first century, “ekklēsia” could refer to  synagogue intitutions, public assemblies or what our English translations refer to as “assembly.”

As I have already said, to assume there is an actual Christian church that is outside the Jewish world is to read our modern understanding or ecclesiastical tradition back  into the first century.

I should also note that Philippians 3: 3 is another text that is seen as supporting the ekklēsia as being Israel. The NASB translates it as “for we are the true  circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” (NASB) Unfortunately, the word “true” isn’t in the Greek text. Phil 3:3 simply refers to those Jews and Gentiles circumcised in their hearts in the new covenant. In the new covenant, both Jew and Gentile who follow the Messiah may experience circumcision of the heart and are spiritually “one in Messiah” (Gal 3:28). Thus, both Jew and Gentile can  have a heart that can be circumcised!

Jesus as the True Israel?

Another place where economic supersessionism is apparent is the common saying that “Jesus is the true Israel.”  I see this come up a lot. In this view, in the idea of corporate solidarity, one person can represent a whole group. In other words, Jesus as the Messiah is the culmination of the characteristics within the positions. Given the Messiah is the ideal representative of his people (Israel), Jesus as their head, is seen as Israel! Another way to view this is if our current president went to meet the leadership of Russia and he said, “I am the United States.” In other words, he is saying the president is the head of the country.

Some examples are the following: Since Israel is a son of God (corporately), Jesus is the ideal “Son of God/The Davidic King.  Or, as Israel is called to be “ a kingdom of priests and a holy nation( Exod. 19:5-6), Jesus, as their ideal representative fulfills the role of priest, as being exalted to a permanent priesthood by his resurrection and enthronement at the right hand of God in the heaven (Hebrews 8:1). Or, as Israel is the Servant of the Lord and Jesus is the Servant of the Lord,  He embodies everything Israel was called to be and do!  Some of the passages about the Servant of the Lord are about the nation of Israel (Is.41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:21; 45:4; 48:20), while there are other passages where the Servant of the Lord is seen as a righteous individual (Is.42:1-4;50:10; 52:13-53:12).

Granted,  no New Testament author ever calls Jesus “Israel” or “True Israel.” The real question is whether Jesus is called to ‘restore’ Israel, or ‘absorb’ Israel. Is he called to fulfill (which sadly,  translates as ‘end’ as many Christians see it) everything about Israel? Remember as Evans just said:

Jesus did not wish to lead his disciples out of Israel, but to train followers who will lead Israel, who will bring renewal to Israel , and who will instruct Gentiles in the way of the Lord. Jesus longed for the fulfillment of the promises and the prophecies, a fulfillment that would bless Israel and the nations alike. The estrangement of the church from Israel was not the result of Jesus’ teaching or Paul’s teaching. Rather, the parting of the ways, as it has been called in recent years, was the result of a long process”—Craig Evans , From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation.

Even if Jesus did demonstrate he was the corporate head of Israel, to say this means He has “replaced” “expanded” or “fulfilled” or “ended”  Israel’s role as the “earthly” people of God (which  includes their land and identity as an ethnic or national people), takes some serious exegetical work.

In Jeremiah 31:35–37,  God links Israel’s perpetual existence as “a nation” with the sun, moon, stars, and foundations of the earth. With Romans 9:4–5 Paul explicitly affirms that the “covenants,” “promises,” and “temple service” still belong to national Israel, even when Israel as a whole was characterized by unbelief.  The context makes it clear that Paul is speaking of Israel in unbelief. Michael Rydelnick points out the following:

“ In Rom. 9:1–3 the apostle makes plain his compassion and concern for the lost condition of his unbelieving brethren. So great was his love that he makes the remarkable statement that he would be willing to be accursed and separated from the Messiah, if this could provide spiritual life for his people. There is no question that Paul is speaking of unbelieving Israel here. Nevertheless, he describes them as having a significant national status: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. The ancestors are theirs, and from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all, praised forever. Amen” (HCSB). The present tense verb in verse 4 demonstrates that all the benefits described still belong to Israel. As Thomas Schreiner writes, “The present tense verb εισιν (eisin, they are) indicates that the Jews still ‘are’ Israelites and that all the blessings named still belong to them.” (see Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998).

Of these benefits that God has granted to Israel, two are significant to this discussion. The Jewish people still have covenants and promises to claim, both of which include God’s grant of a specific territory. There is no way to separate the territorial promises found in the covenants or to think that Paul now views them as belonging to an alleged new spiritual Israel (the Church). Nor did he mean that these promises have been expanded to refer to the whole world and not the land of Israel. It seems Paul still believes that the God of Israel has granted the people of Israel covenants and promises, and thus that God has given them a specific territory. The third crucial passage reaffirming Israel’s covenant status is Romans 11:28–29: “Regarding the gospel, they are enemies for your advantage, but regarding election, they are loved because of the patriarchs, since God’s gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable. Here are three observations to be derived from these verses. First, Paul is speaking of Israel in unbelief, a reference to the Jewish people who, for the most part, are opposed to the gospel.

This does not mean that all Jewish people are clinging to unbelief as Paul has already identified a remnant of faithful Jewish people (Rom. 11:1–5) who are followers of Jesus. Nevertheless, the majority of Jewish people do not believe Jesus is the promised Messiah. God used this in an advantageous way for the Gentiles as Jewish nonbelief has mysteriously led to the gospel spreading to the Gentile world (Rom. 11:11). Second, the Jewish people remain God’s chosen people. The word “election” used here means “chosen.” Therefore, the NASB translates it as “from the standpoint of God’s choice,” indicating that the Jewish people remain chosen (see the chapter called “The Hermeneutics of Conflict” in Israel, the Church, and the Middle East, by Darrell L. Bock, Mitch Glaser).

Gentile Inferiority?

I can only reflect on my own experience. That means I don’t speak for everyone. But I have seen a lot of Gentiles who simply don’t understand the election of Israel or feel they are inferior to Israel. With the coming of the Messiah, I have no idea why this continues to happen. One passage that continually gets misinterpreted is Gal 3: 26-29: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[ nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (ESV).

I have seen many Christians assume this text is saying God has wiped out all ethnic distinctions. But all one must do is read it in context. For that matter, a rule of thumb is to never ignore the immediate context and the wider context. Thus, we would have to look at all the passages that discuss the issue. Obviously, if we read it in context and assume God has wiped out all ethnic distinctions, than males aren’t males anymore and females aren’t females. With the coming of the Jewish Messiah, spiritually speaking, Gentiles are equal with believing Jewish people. But we see Paul goes onto to speak of Jews and Gentiles as distinct ethnic groups in his letters (Rom. 1:16; 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:24; 12:13; Gal. 2:14, 15). Paul expresses the relationship of Gentiles to Jews/Israel by saying Gentiles are “fellow citizens” (Eph. 2:19), “joined together” (Eph. 2:21),  “built together” (Eph. 2:21), “heirs together” (Eph. 3:6), “members together of one body” (Eph. 3:6), as well as “sharers together” (Eph. 3:6). The Gentiles are brought near to Israel in  the Jewish Messiah to share with Israel in its covenants, promise, hope, and God. But they  do not become Israel; they share with Israel.  So when looking at individual salvation, there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Galatians 3:28), no distinction between them (Romans 10:12), no dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14-19). But being unified as one in the Messiah does not nullify functional distinctions.

This should be no surprise given that the Abrahamic covenant was to not only bless Israel, but the the Gentile groups of the world (Gen. 12:2–3; 22:18).  The original words “goyim” and “ethnos” refer to “peoples” or “nations” and are applied to both Israelites and non-Israelites in the Bible. The Jewish Scriptures had already revealed that Gentiles will be restored to God as a result of Israel’s end-time restoration, and will become united to them (Psalms 87:4-6; Isa. 11:9-10; 14:1-2; 19:18-25; 25:6-10; 42:1-9; 49:6; 51:4-6; 60:1-16; Jer. 3:17; Zeph. 3:9-10; Zech. 2:11). In the Tanak (Old Testament) even though non-Jewish people could become part of the commonwealth of Israel as proselytes, the physical element is never abolished. Non-Jewish people were already seen as were seen as joining themselves to the Lord as “others,” rather than joining Israel through conversion. A clear distinction between Israel and the nations is seen in  Isaiah 56:6; Micah 4:2. Thus, nations could become part of Israel, but they worship God as foreigners because God’s house is now a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa. 56:7).

Even at the  “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15  the conclusion was God had accepted the Gentiles as Gentiles in accordance with the Old Testament prophecy ((Amos 9:11, 14), and also of “all the nations who are called by my name” (Amos 9:12). God’s work among Gentile believers in Jesus by the Holy Spirit shows Gentiles don’t  become Jews nor even spiritual Jews  (Acts 15:8–17a; cf., 11:1–18).

Debating  Systematic Theology and Why It is a Challenge

There is no doubt that the debate about the role of Israel in the Bible has been debated primarily by two theological systems: Dispensationalism/Progressive Dispensationalism and Covenantal Theology.  Both camps have made several modifications in their views. Having read quite a bit of literature on the topic myself, I have seen this debate for many years now. If you like systematic theology, these are the two main choices. But for many biblical scholars, they tend to think that trying to start with a system and then to try to make the Bible fit into a school of thought can be a risky endeavor.  After all, the Bible isn’t a systematic theology. Rather, we take the Bible and make into a systematic theology. Then we can spend our lives defending our systems. When the Bible was written, obviously, no author was familiar with any of the modern systematic theologies that are taught in Christian seminaries. It is not as if they sat around arguing about whether Ἰσραήλ “Israel”  is the “church” (ἐκκλησία/ekklēsia). Let me give an example by looking at Matthew’s Gospel where he mentions both the church and Israel.

Matt 2:6 And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah: because out of you will come a leader who will shepherd My people Israel.

Matt 2:20 saying, “Get up! Take the child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, because those who sought the child’s life are dead.”

Matt 2:21 So he got up, took the child and His mother, and entered the land of Israel. Matt 8:10 Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, “I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith!”

Matt 9:33 When the demon had been driven out, the man spoke. And the crowds were amazed, saying, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel!”

Matt 10:6 Instead, go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Matt 16: 18 And I tell you,  you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the  gates of hell shall not prevail against it

Matt 18:17 If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.

So is Matthew saying  Ἰσραήλ “Israel”  is the same thing as the “church” (ἐκκλησία/ekklēsia)?

Fortunately, scholars are working on new paradigms which should help with this discussion. But Christians  like labels and old paradigms don’t easily die. There is a group of scholars working on post-supersessionist thought. 

In a future post,  I will discuss the over reaction to the dispensationalism camp/Left Behind Series pop eschatology as well. But the question is the following:  if someone does hold to holds to economic supersessionism, does this mean they are anti-Semitic? I would say it depends on the individual. I have encountered Christians who quote texts to try to prove their point about the Church superseding Israel. Some of them are quite aggressive and some make some very anti-Semitic comments. But even though economic supersessionism was endorsed by people such as Matyr, Tertullian, Origen, St. Hillary, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Prosper of Aquitaine, Cassiodorus, Preniasius, St. Gregory the Great, St. Isidore, Venerable Bede, St. Anselm, St. Peter Damian, and St. Bernard and others, what is ironic is that many of these same figures believed in a future salvation or even restoration of Israel. I will define these issues more clearly in our next post.

Even though  popular or modern theologians such as Wayne Grudem and Millard Erickson hold to a economic supersessionism, they also affirm a future for Israel. As Grudem says:

Many New Testament verses . . . understand the church as the ‘new Israel’ or new ‘people of God.'” Yet he also says: “I affirm the conviction that Rom. 9–11 teaches a future large-scale conversion of the Jewish people” (see W. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 861).

Erickson says:

“To sum up then: the church is the new Israel. It occupies the place in the new covenant that Israel occupied in the old. . . . There is a special future coming for national Israel, however, through large-scale conversion to Christ and entry into the church.” He also says, “There is, however, a future for national Israel. They are still the special people of God” (see Milliard Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker. 1998), 123-124.

Or, you can see the long history of interpretation of Romans 11:26. here. It shows how many ancient and modern commentators have viewed Israel in that text.

In the next post, we will discuss structural supersessionism. 

In the third post, we discuss  punitive supersessionism

 

 

 

 

 

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