Jerusalem, Christian Zionism & the Gospel

In December 2017 President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the White House has announced that the U.S. Embassy will move there from Tel Aviv in May. Until then, no country had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital because the integrity and success of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process require the final status of Jerusalem to be determined through negotiations. The heads of the Christian churches in Jerusalem have criticized the decision, writing that it “will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us further from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division.”

Against the advice of his foreign policy team the President appears to have made this decision to reward his Evangelical Christian base. Much of the Evangelical support for Trump’s new policy is tied to a larger understanding called “Christian Zionism.” Not to be confused with a balanced support for Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, ideological Christian Zionists believe that God wills that the modern nation of Israel possesses the entire land area given by God in Scripture to ancient Israel, with Jerusalem as its exclusive God-ordained capital. Many understand this as a prerequisite for events preceding Christ’s Second Coming. This ideological “Christian Zionism” contradicts basic aspects of the Gospel. 

The New Testament tells us that the Jewish people — both those who believe in Jesus and those who do not — continue to have a vital calling in the purpose of God (Rom. 11:1-32). Accordingly, Scripture urges non-Jewish believers in Jesus to recognize that they are nourished by the “root” of God’s special relationship with the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and have been “grafted into” God’s historic covenant, renewed in the Messiah Jesus. Christian faith is incomprehensible apart from its ongoing rootedness in God’s work from Abraham through Moses to the prophets.  Non-Jewish followers of Jesus owe a profound debt of gratitude and honor to the Jewish people. Beyond this, Christians must reject all anti-Semitism, recognizing and always remembering the horrific persecution and murder that “Christian”-led governments with church support have perpetrated against Jews over centuries.

Has God ordained Jerusalem as modern Israel’s capital?

Today Jerusalem is considered holy for various reasons by Jews, Christians and Muslims.  But many biblical passages tell us that the importance of Jerusalem during the Old Testament period was that the Temple was located there. That’s what God ordained — not specifically that Jerusalem would be Israel’s political capital, but that that the Temple with God’s special presence would be there, uniting heaven and earth (e.g. 2 Chronicles 6:5-6; Deut. 12:5-6,11; 1 King’s 11:13,36). Jerusalem was chosen by God to be the center of Israelite worship. Yet according to the New Testament with the coming of Jesus the Messiah the Temple and the city where it was located no longer have that exclusive purpose. Jesus says that Jerusalem as an exclusive center of worship is obsolete (John 4:21-24). 

For both Jewish and Gentile Christians Messiah Jesus is the true and eternal Temple of God — God-with-us, the preeminent place where heaven and earth meet (e.g. John 1:14; John 2:19-21; Rev. 21:22). Indeed, Christian faith affirms that Jesus is the fulfillment and transformation of the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system (e.g. John 1:17; Heb. 8:13, 9:1- 10:18, et. al.) For this reason, according to the New Testament, the Temple sacrifices are no longer needed (Heb. 10:1-18). Similarly, the New Testament teaches that the landof Israel was a sign prefiguring and now gathered up into the greater promise of “the world”— specifically “the world to come” transformed and filled with God’s glory — for people from every nation, tribe, ethnicity and language in the Messiah Jesus (Rom 4:12-14; Heb. 2:5-9; Matt. 5:5;1 Cor. 3:22).

It is the New Jerusalem, the perfected people of God – Jews and Gentiles in union with Jesus the Messiah by faith — that is now God’s special City and dwelling place (2 Cor. 6:16-18; Heb. 11:14-16; Rev. 3:12; Rev. chap. 21). Modern Israelis have reasonable political and moral claims on earthly Jerusalem, as do Palestinians, but there is no basis in the New Testament for thinking that Jerusalem today has a divinely ordained status as Israel’s exclusive capital.

The Abrahamic Blessing and modern Israel

Christian Zionists oddly privilege certain Old Testament passages, taken out of context, over against the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. They point to the Genesis text that says God will bless those who bless the descendants of Abraham and curse those who curse them (Gen. 12:1-3; 27:29). This declaration was an element in God’s promise that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. Christian Zionists argue that this passage should be applied to how people and nations like the United States treat the modern State of Israel. God will favor countries that aid Israel and punish countries that harm Israel. Some Christian Zionists refer to this as “God’s foreign policy.”

We see in the New Testament, however, that Messiah Jesus applies the Abrahamic promise and warning to how others treat his followers. As he sends his disciples throughout Israel, Jesus says, “those who receive a prophet will gain a prophet’s reward,” and “those who give a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because he is a disciple of mine, will not lose his reward” (Matt. 10:40-42). As for Israelites who reject his followers, it will go better on the Day of Judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for them (Matt. 10:14-15). Then in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus applies the Abrahamic blessing and curse – judgment based on how they treat his followers — also to the Gentiles.

The Apostle Paul, a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5), repeats and elaborates on Jesus’ claim about his followers (e.g. Rom. 4:12-14 & 9:6-8, Gal. 3:26-29 & 4:25-28). This is no assertion that a Gentile Church has replaced or superseded the Jewish covenant community. Rather, Paul affirms that it is the Jewish believers in Messiah Jesus, joined by “grafted in” Gentiles, who are the heirs to God’s promises as the continuation of God’s covenant people on the basis of faith in Jesus.

For the New Testament it’s not Israel as a country — let alone the modern Israeli State — that is heir to God’s promises through Abraham, but the Jewish and Gentile disciples of Messiah Jesus. As they take up and fulfill God’s Abrahamic mission, all the nations of the world will be blessed through them (Matt. 25:34-40; 28:16-20; Luke 24:47-48).

Many Christians believe that the Jewish people as a whole continue to serve as special instruments of God’s blessings to the world. Paul writes that they have a vital calling and redeemed future. All Christians must honor Paul’s insistence that God has not abandoned the Jewish people, whom God loves. All Christians are bound to respect the Jewish people’s ongoing calling in God’s purpose, however diversely we may understand that calling (Romans chap. 11). But there is no basis in the New Testament to believe that the modern state of Israel has a special, divinely-ordained status or that other nations are divinely judged by how they relate to Israel.

A balanced support for modern Israel 

None of this means that Christians in the U.S. should oppose Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. Recognizing such a homeland makes sense as a matter of justice historically and politically. But the same principles also apply on behalf of Palestinians. American Christians should be aware that the Israeli government systematically mistreats Palestinians – including Christians — who have lived in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza for centuries. Most Palestinians are denied Israeli citizenship, their land is under military occupation, and many are being displaced from their homes. While the security needs of Israelis are a legitimate concern for U.S. Christians, equally so is the wellbeing of the Palestinian people.

In order to bring a just peace to this conflict, many Americans, Israelis and Palestinians favor a shared land and shared Jerusalem as a city open to all, with West Jerusalem the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem the capital of a viable Palestinian nation. Such a resolution is consistent with New Testament ethical teaching. Support for a shared land and shared Jerusalem is also a way that Christians can respect the importance of the land of Israel to Jewish theology and faith. Surveys show that most American Jews support this “two-state” solution and oppose Trump’s plan to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem as premature at this time. 

The alternatives are the permanent occupation, oppression and perhaps expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank by Israelis (what many Christian Zionists seem to want), or, on the other hand, a single secular, democratic state of Israel-Palestine where Jews, Muslims and Christians would have equal rights. For those of us who think that officially “religious” states (e.g. Iran and Saudi Arabia as “Islamic” states and Israel as a “Jewish” state) are not ideal, having an integrated Israel-Palestine as a democratic state with full freedom of religion and equal rights for all might seem preferable. But that may not give adequate recognition of the Jewish people’s historic aspirations or security needs. A two-state solution, rightly implemented, can meet the needs of both Israelis and the Palestinians.

Unfortunately, the Israeli settlement movement, which is taking over more and more Palestinian land, ongoing violent exchanges on both sides, and President Trump’s premature recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may have already made a two-state solution impossible.  Certainly, these realities are making it much harder to envision.

American Evangelicals who give one-sided support to the modern State of Israel to the exclusion of the legitimate needs and historical rights of Palestinians are not helping. Christians in the U.S. can serve as peacemakers through a balanced support for both Israelis and Palestinians. But Christian Zionism as it is usually understood is not compatible with the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the teachings of Scripture, Christian agape love or biblically informed human justice. It’s one of those non-biblical ideological distortions that some Christians are too often tempted to embrace. 

Martin Shupack

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