Gerald McDermott wants you to know that you don’t have to be a dispensationalist to believe that the Bible prophesies that Israel will again be restored to her land. You may have listened to our interview with him already. Here we let him introduce his thinking himself—the “Introduction” to his book.
Some months back, a young Christian leader wrote to me about Israel. She is an intellectually curious, committed Christian who attended an elite Christian college.
“I was raised in a conservative church,” she wrote, “and naively supported whatever Israel did. We were led to believe that God had given the land of Israel to his people, the Jews, and their fight for their land in 1948 was a religious act by a religious people looking to their God.
“But then in college I read The Promise by Chaim Potok. As I read the novel, it seemed that Israel reclaimed the land not as a faith-filled people finding their God-given inheritance but as a people who, crushed and disillusioned by the Holocaust, decided they could not and would not wait any longer for a messiah. They felt they had to take the land for themselves, and they did it by violence.
“So I have questioned whether that was right. Should the Jews have waited for the Messiah to return them to the land? Was their fight for the land perhaps turning their backs on God?”
Problems with Christian Zionism
There was a time when I had similar questions. I had serious misgivings about what was called Christian Zionism. There was a term used for the belief that today’s State of Israel was prophesied by the Bible and would play a major role in events at the end of the world, which was said to be coming very soon. I knew it was not the Jewish Zionism that some in the West unfairly associated with the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. (I say “unfairly” because there have been Jewish Zionists for thousands of years who denounce terrorist acts.) The Christian Zionism that I heard about in the 1970s and 1980s was inspired by a kind of dispensationalist theology that I did not share. I knew that in one sense all Christian theologies are dispensationalist insofar as they believe God works differently with people in different eras or dispensations. But one kind of dispensationalism in particular held that Israel and the gentile nations were running on two separate tracks, and the God dealt with each track separately.
I could not buy that. In the Bible, Israel’s history always intersected with the rest of the world. And in the early Church, Jews and gentiles usually fellowshipped together in the same churches.
There were other reasons I could not accept that kind of dispensationalism. Some proponents seemed to think the State of Israel was beyond reproach. For example, I wondered if Israel was breaking international law by its continued occupation of the West Bank.
I knew that the Palestinians claimed that it was their land too. Many of them said they were being cruelly oppressed by their Israeli occupiers. Was that true? If so, how could the modern State of Israel be a God-thing, a fulfillment of his promises?
The New Israel
Another reason I could not accept this sort of dispensationalist approach to Israel had to do with the confidence of some dispensationalists that they knew what was going to happen, event by event, in the end times. I knew of other kinds of dispensationalism that rejected these projections. But this more popular sort proposed elaborate schedules and date setting that seemed to be nothing more than fanciful speculation.
I had been convinced that the Church is the New Israel. This meant that after Jesus died and rose again, the covenant that God had made with Israel was transferred to those who believed in Jesus. The vast majority of Jews, who had refused Jesus’ claim to be Messiah, were no longer the apple of God’s eye. They were no different in God’s eyes from any other people who had heard the gospel and had rejected it. The old Israel was no longer the true Israel. The Church of believers in Jesus Christ had now become the New Israel.
Or so I thought. This was the Christian interpretation that I had learned from Reformed theologians such as John Calvin and that was now embraced by many Christian churches – mainline Protestant, Catholic, and a growing number of evangelical churches.
So it was difficult for me to believe that modern Israel was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The fact that most Jews in Israel were either secular or religious-but-non-messianic seemed to preclude any connection between their land and the biblical prophecies. I thought that might change if one day most Jews in Israel were to accept Jesus. But in the meantime, modern Israel did not seem related to the Bible.
Didn’t Christ End Distinctions between Jews and Greeks
There were still other reasons for not accepting dispensationalist or Zionist claims about Israel. I was struck by Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” This seemed to be saying that distinctions between Jews and gentiles, even between Jewish believers in Jesus and gentile believers in Jesus, no longer have relevance. In other words, nothing distinctly Jewish, unless it were to find its fulfillment in Jesus, is of relevance or interest to Christians.
This included the land and people of Israel today. They seemed to be of merely historical importance. I knew their history could help us appreciate Jesus’ context thousands of years ago, but I did not understand their relevance for Christians today.
But then I began to come across some startling discoveries. One of the first was that the New Testament never calls the Church the New Israel. That made me wonder what the relationship between the Israel of the Old Testament and the Church really was.
Then I looked further into Galatians 3:28. Paul did indeed say that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. But he also said there is “no male and female,” for all are “one in Christ Jesus.” I realized that there are still differences between male and female and that Paul himself referred to different roles for men and women in marriage.
Paul said wives should submit to husbands as the Church submits to Christ. He also wrote that the husband is the head of the wife. He never taught that the wife is the head of the husband. I knew that interpreters disputed the meaning of those words – whether marriage should be egalitarian or complementarian. But the fact remained that for Paul, male and female are one in Christ while remaining distinct and the two seem to have different roles.
If male and female distinctions persist, what about Jewish-gentile differences? Does that distinction also remain in the Church, where all are one in Christ Jesus? And if the Jew-gentile distinction is not obliterated by their unity in Christ, what about Israel’s distinction from the nations?
Still Beloved of God
I will never forget the day that I stumbled upon Paul’s insistence that Jews who rejected Jesus were still beloved by God and that God kept his covenant with them as a people. He told the church in Rome that “they are enemies of the gospel for your sake,” but they “are still beloved of God because of their forefathers” and “because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29 AT).
I had always assumed that Paul was talking only about Jews in the past, before Jesus came. But as I looked more closely, it became clear that Paul was talking about Jews in his own day who had heard his preaching of Jesus and rejected it.
These Jesus-rejecting Jews “are beloved” of God, he said. Not “were beloved” but “are beloved.” Not past but present tense. Even though they chose not to believe the gospel, they are still beloved of God. God still loves them. And not in the way that God loves all people, but with a special kind of love. That is clear from Paul’s long discussion of Jews in Romans 9-11.
Their “gifts and calling” were still in place. Their “calling” was their covenant, enacted when God called Abraham into a special relationship with himself, so that Abraham and his descendants would be God’s chosen people.
Paul used the word “covenants” explicitly in this passage where he discusses the majority-Jewish rejection of the gospel: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart…[for] my kinsmen according to the flesh…[because] to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants,…and the promises” (Rom. 9:2-4).
At first I was confused by Paul’s reference to (plural) covenants. Then I saw that Jesus spoke of the “blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24), suggesting there was one fundamental (Abrahamic) covenant and that the other covenants, such as the Mosaic and Davidic covenants, were aspects of that one basic covenant with Abraham.
A Future for Israel
This new understanding – that God continued to honor his covenant with Jews, even those Jews who rejected Jesus – opened my eyes to other things.
For example, I came to see more clearly that most of the major biblical prophets predicted a future return of Jews to their ancestral land. For a time I thought that must refer to the return from Babylon after the exile. But then I saw that both Jesus and the apostles said there would be a restoration of Jerusalem and Israel in their future, and that this restoration would affect the rest of the world.
Jesus said that sometime in the future all the Jewish tribes “of the land” would mourn him and that his apostles would judge those tribes (Rev. 1:7; Matt. 19:28). That did not happen in his own day and has not happened since. It can only mean, it seems, a future coming by Jesus to the land of Israel when the Jewish tribes will still exist.
It also means that at that future time, things will happen in Israel that do no happen in the rest of the world. That means there will be a distinction between Israel and the world – the very kind of distinction that I previously thought was impossible after AD 33.
Peter said in Acts 3:21 that a future restoration of all things was yet to come. For “restoration” he used the same Greek word for the return of the Jews from all over the world to the land of Israel that was used in the Bible of his day. So Peter was saying that after the resurrection of Christ there would be another return of Jews to their land.
That never happened until 1948 when the modern State of Israel was established. Could, then, the modern State of Israel have some connection to biblical prophecy?
When I started reexamining this question, I looked more closely at recent history. I discovered, among other things, that the founding of modern Israel was both secular and religious. There were secular Jews and religious Jews among the first Zionists. It was not a purely secular affair.
What about the Palestinians?
I also learned that while there are Palestinians who are unhappy with Israel and its occupation of the West Bank, there are two million Arab citizens of Israel, and most of them are thankful to be living in the only state in the Middle East with religious freedom. They were grateful to be able to participate in the most vibrant economy in the region, and one of the strongest in the world. Some of them even believe that Israel was chosen by God to have the land.
When my son and I hiked through Galilee on the Jesus Trail in 2009, Arab Christians told us privately that their real enemy was not the Israeli government but their “Muslim cousins.” They could not say this publicly because they feared retaliation from Arab Muslims.
By then I had learned more about the charge that Israel was breaking international law. The principal charge concerned, as it still does today, UN Resolution 242. I discovered that this resolution, passed just after the 1967 war, ordered withdrawal from “territories,” not all “the territories,” and stipulated that withdrawal should take place only after Israel’s neighbors recognized its right to exist and agreed with it on firm boundaries. Those who wrote the resolution knew that Israel would need to stay in some territories to protect itself. They probably suspected that its neighbors might neither recognize it nor agree on borders. They were right.
The Rest of This Book
Let me sketch the rest of this book for you. The first chapter explains how Christians have thought about Israel for most of the last two thousand years. Basically, they have thought the way I did before I started my investigations. This chapter will show why Christians have thought in these ways.
Then in chapter 2 we will see that the authors of the New Testament did not think in these ways. When they spoke of Israel, they always meant the Jews and any gentiles who wanted to join Jewish Israel. The term “New Israel” is absent from the New Testament. So is the content of the term – the idea that there could be an Israel that does not have Jewish Israel at its foundation.
Chapter 3 surveys the history of Christian Zionism in the Church. It shows that in the last two thousand years a minority of Christians have resisted the majority view. This chapter shows why they have believed, especially since the Reformation, that the people and land of Israel are still important to God.
In chapters 4 and 5 we will go to the Bible directly. We will look at the Old Testament in chapter 4 to examine in detail God’s covenant with Israel. There we will see that the land of Israel was at the heart of the covenant.
Chapter 5 is perhaps the most surprising chapter. We will see there that the New Testament has many references to the land of Israel and to the future of the people of Israel, the Jews. I say “surprising” because most Christians have thought that the New Testament is silent on both of these topics. But this chapter will demonstrate that the New Testament authors were Zionists. They believed that there would be a restoration of the people of Israel to the land of Israel at some point in the future.
Chapters 6 and 7 address the most common objections to this view, both political and theological. Chapter 6 focuses on the Palestinians. Did Jews steal their land? Does Israel now violate international law by occupying parts of the West Bank? Is Zionism racist? Am I saying we should support the current State of Israel no matter what it does?
Chapter 7 moves to theological stumbling blocks such as the book of Hebrews’ statement that the old covenant is obsolete. Other problems are confronted, such as whether Christ brought the end of the law, whether this new view that distinguishes Jews and gentiles undermines unity in Christ, and whether this implies that every Jew will be saved.
Chapter 8 discusses the implications of this new understanding of Israel – for how we read and interpret the Bible, how we think about the history of Christianity, and now we understand the history of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also discusses how we as Christians should relate to our Jewish friends.
Chapter 9 draws some final conclusions: that Israel shows who God is and who we are; that sacred history is not over; that the future is hidden as well as revealed; that we have not reached the end time yet; that Israel and the Church are inseparably linked; and that the history of the Jews shows us the mystery of iniquity.
This book is meant to be an introduction for those who have never heard a serious presentation of these matters. I cover many issues, but because of space limitations I do not address any one in depth. If you would like a deeper and more academic approach to many of these issues, see The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, ed. Gerald R. McDermott (IVP Academic, 2016).