I've never been to Israel and I'm not really keen to go. If someone offered me a paid trip I'd take it, but my own holiday cash is more likely to take me to Minorca or Corfu, where's there's less chance of gunfire in the streets.

Some would question my priorities. A trip to Israel should be top of the list, they'd say. I am, after all, a Christian, and Israel is where our Lord himself lived and died—and rose again. It would do me good to peer at the site of the nativity, breathe the air of Galilee or stroll the Via Dolorosa.

Well, maybe it would, but I'm not the sentimental type. And anyway, if 'the earth is the Lord's, and everything in it',[1] my own neck of the woods in England can be as replete with his presence as any Holy Land.

Others offer me another reason for showing interest, even if I don't visit. Israel, they point out, is the Promised Land, given in perpetuity to the Jews, and the return of scattered Jews since 1948 is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. So I should at least be praying for the peace of Jerusalem—which means, they seem to imply, Israeli subjugation of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

Some Christians take all this very seriously. Like the pastor who told me his church was committed to 'the conversion of the lost to Christ, and the return of the Jews to Israel.' I found this a strange pairing, a bit like being committed to world peace and the eating of Harrogate toffee. The two are simply not in the same league. Didn't the spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile come to an end with Christ and the foundation of his church?[2] Certainly the church—that redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’—is what Jesus loved and died for,[3] and that's what he's building.[4]  It's the church that matters, not Jewish ethnicity, and certainly not any Middle Eastern territory.

The New Testament, in fact, contains not a single reference to the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. That's for two reasons. First, because, while God's promise of the land was unconditional, their possession of it was always conditional upon their obedience.[5] The Old Testament records how they failed to meet the conditions and so lost the land. And second, because ‘Israel’ has been redefined in the light of Christ. Present-day Israel is a secular state unrelated to God's revealed purpose.[6] My view has been, therefore, that the whole 'Christian Zionism' thing is a gigantic red herring, diverting believers from their twin tasks of reaching the lost and nurturing the saints.

'Ah yes, but what about that famous passage on the Jewish question: Romans 9-11? Isn't it clear from Paul's words here that the Jews are a special case?'

On the contrary. Look at the context. The theme of the whole letter is an examination of the question: who are the people of God? And Paul's answer is unequivocal: God's people are those who put their faith in Christ. Whether they are Jews or Gentiles is immaterial. A Chinese, an Indian, a Swede or an Eskimo can, by trusting Jesus, be as much a descendant of Abraham as a thoroughbred Jew.[7]  And the point of Romans 9-11 seems to be not that the Jews are a special case for God's favour but that—wonder of wonders—in spite of their obstinate refusal to recognise their Messiah, they are still in with a chance. God in his mercy has not slammed the door on them. They are still candidates for salvation as much as any Gentile!

In fact Paul ends up redefining what 'Israel' means. While recognising Jewish ethnicity, of course, his more basic point is that the real 'chosen people', the real Israel, is the redeemed community: the church.

'Ah, just as I thought!' claims someone. 'You're into Replacement Theology, pushing Israel aside and saying the church has taken its place. And it's heresy!'

Here I permit myself a few groans, then quickly gather my wits for a reply. I don't believe in Replacement Theology, at least not as just defined. My position—and that of virtually all mainline biblical scholars—is a different one: not that the church replaces Israel but that the church is Israel. The real Israel, that is. The true people of God, the ultimate 'chosen people' of which the Jews in their national 'chosen' capacity were merely a type and shadow.[8] The church has not replaced Israel; God’s promises to ancient Israel have been fulfilled in the church.

Here's where we have to check our hermeneutical bearings. We believe in progressive revelation: that God has made himself known gradually, culminating in Jesus Christ.[9]  The New Testament reveals truth unknown in the Old Testament, and the New Testament writers are the Spirit-inspired interpreters of the Old. No longer now can we afford to read the Old Testament—including its ‘land’ promises—as if the New Testament didn't exist. If we do, we shall become bogged down in a quagmire of doctrinal confusion.

Let's apply this principle to the Promised Land. That God gave it to the Jews no-one in their right mind can deny. According to the Old Testament he promised it to Abraham and his descendants [10] and, after the exodus, that's where those descendants went. Later, when ousted from it at the Exile, they headed back to it—or at least a remnant did.

But what does the New Testament say about the Jews and the land? Zero. Absolutely nothing. For a start, that in itself should make us massively cautious about Christian obsession with Israel and Middle Eastern territory. And sure enough, when we look closely we see the New Testament writers pointing us in a quite different direction.

First, we see Jesus signalling a departure from Jewish centrality by choosing twelve apostles as the foundation for the new people of God in an obvious alternative to ethnic Israel with its twelve tribal ancestors. Then we see those apostles themselves adopting the same 'new people' line. Peter—that Jew par excellence—takes Old Testament phrases precious to Israel and applies them, without excuse, to the church. It is redeemed Jews and Gentiles together, he says, who are in the final sense 'a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.' And not just a people, for he goes on: 'Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.'[11]

In the Bible, 'the people of God' and 'Israel' are synonymous.

Paul is equally clear. He takes, for instance, a bundle of Old Testament promises originally addressed to the Jews and, writing to chiefly-Gentile Christians in Corinth, declares, 'Since we have these promises, dear friends…'[12]  And in case we have any lingering doubts he tells the Galatians, 'Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision[13] means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.'[14]  Rare is the serious biblical commentator who sees that phrase as referring to anything but the church.[15] And again, 'It is we who are the circumcision'—it is we who are true Jews—'we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.'[16]

So it's no wonder 'the land' is absent from the New Testament picture. The real people of God, the church, are so numerous you would never fit them into that tiny country in the Middle East, even if they wanted to live there.

Instead, the New Testament writers give a global application to those Old Testament promises originally limited to the Holy Land. Abraham would be 'heir of the world',[17] his descendants in every land, not just in one. The meek now 'inherit the earth',[18] not Canaan. Christian children who honour their parents will 'enjoy long life on the earth',[19] not, as originally, 'in the land the LORD your God is giving you.'[20]

That the church is the real Israel is so patently obvious that, to me, it's not even up for debate. And I'm apparently in good company because, over the centuries, 'the majority view within the church has been that the church is the New Israel and that the Jews have lost title to that claim.'[21]

'But surely,' you insist, 'you accept the fact that the return of Jews to Israel in our own day is a wonderful fulfilment of prophecy?

Not in the least. The prophecies usually quoted in support of that view are capable of a more obvious interpretation: they refer to the return of a Jewish remnant from exile in Babylon around 500 BC.

'But the return from exile was a return from a single country—Babylon. The promise that God would bring them back from among "many nations" can only be fulfilled in the return of the Diaspora in our own times.'

Well, that's not what Jeremiah thought. He saw the Babylonian Empire for what it was: a conglomerate of 'many nations', and the return of Jews from Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah fulfilled those prophecies perfectly, as he himself makes plain.[22]

'Well, then, what about Isaiah's prophecy that God will bring his people back "a second time"?[23] The return from Babylon was clearly the first, so the second has to be today's re-gathering.'

A look at the context knocks that one on the head, too. Isaiah states that the first return was, in fact, Israel's arrival in the Promised Land from Egypt after their earlier escape from slavery at the exodus.[24]  Against that background, the 'second time' is the return from Babylon after all. And there's no mention of a third time to cover events since 1948.[25]

That's it, then. All the 'Jews to Israel' promises were fulfilled in the distant past. There's no reason at all to look for any further fulfilment today.[26]

'Ah, but what about the principle of double or multiple fulfilment of prophecy? Isn't there room there for the Zionist return?'

No, because all prophecy finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus and his church. He's what life, history, the Bible and prophecy are all about. Once Jesus came on the scene, all the strands of Old Testament prophecy came together in him.[27]  We have no business looking for rogue strands due to be fulfilled in ways unrelated to him or to the church which is his body. The only homecoming that matters now is the exodus of sinners from the 'Egypt' of sin through the blood of Jesus, God's Passover lamb,[28] and their gathering into the real and ultimate Israel which is the redeemed community, the church. That is what all the Old Testament 'return to the land' prophecies were ultimately about.

And what a relief it is to get into that land! After those wearisome struggles to earn our own salvation, the 'rest' of receiving it freely by God's grace is wonderful—more wonderful, even, than the relief of the desert-weary Israelites when they at last set foot in Canaan, the land that God called 'my rest'.[29]  The letter to the Hebrews develops this theme, underscoring yet again that a patch of Middle Eastern territory for the Jews was merely a picture of a spiritual homeland for all God's people in Christ and the church.[30]

'But that's all very spiritual. Don't you believe there's room for physical and geographical fulfilments as well? Surely there's a heavenly people with a heavenly destiny—the church—and an earthly people with an earthly destiny—the Jews?'

No, because the Bible makes the progression clear: the natural comes first, then the spiritual.[31]  The one doesn't run alongside the other; it supersedes it. Now that Christ has come, turning back to the natural (Jews in Middle Eastern territory) is unthinkable. Everything is better in him. Why grasp at shadows when the reality is here?[32] Why should the man who has just won millions on the lottery continue busking for pennies on cold street-corners? Even Abraham never saw Canaan as his ultimate destiny. He had grander prospects: a heavenly country, a city whose architect and builder is God himself.[33]  That's the church—Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. And it's not just a future prospect, inaccessible until Christ's return. Already those who are in Christ 'have come to' it.[34]

The old Jerusalem is doubtless a fascinating place, with its Western Wall, ancient streets and souvenir shops selling olive-wood carvings. But it's not a patch on the new one! [35]

So I'm not fussed about whether ethnic Jews live under the Israeli flag, or in New York, or Leeds, or wherever. Like Cambodians, Welshmen, Hottentots, Greeks and Kashmiris, they're candidates for the gospel wherever they live. König is right: '[There can be] but one conclusion about the Jews' future in the New Testament. The message expressed most fully by Paul is that, despite Israel's rejection and merited judgment, God continues to hold open the doors of his mercy so that the Jews can again be ingrafted through faith in Jesus.'[36]

Well over half the world's Jews live outside Israel and, today, emigration continues to outstrip immigration.[37]  But if God is the God of all the earth, he can use the fact that lots of Jews do live in Israel to further his saving purpose. May he do so! But let's not get all misty-eyed and pseudo-spiritual about Zionism. It's a deceptive sideline, nothing more. And the mainline? 'Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.'[38]

Fancy a piece of Harrogate toffee?

Copyright © David Matthew 2001


P.S. Experience tells me that some people get very emotional about this subject. So before you lose your cool, please note the following:

  1. I am not anti-Semitic. I have as much time for Jews as I have for anyone else. They stand in as much need of God's grace as Gentiles do. According to the New Testament that grace—praise him!—is equally available to both.
  2. I am supportive of those who feel God has given them a particular call to evangelise the Jews—as long as they don't condemn those of us who may, instead, be called particularly to evangelise the British, the Moroccans, the Guatemalans or the Palestinians.
  3. The present-day State of Israel is a reality, even if there are serious doubts about the wisdom of its creation. I take the view that the Arabs need to accept its existence and withdraw their determination to wipe it off the map. At the same time, some sort of Palestinian state is needed, existing alongside Israel and living in peace with it. The current mutual killing by both sides remains unacceptable, and Christians should certainly not adopt an unthinking support for Israel in the conflict on the mistaken assumption that the State of Israel somehow enjoys divine support. It does not.

For more on this subject see:

1. Psalm 24:1

2. Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:11

5. Jeremiah 18:7-11; Deuteronomy 28:62-63; Joshua 23:16. The unbelieving spies, along with a whole generation of Israelites, were kept out because of their unbelief (Numbers 14:21-23); Moses was kept out because of his pride (Numbers 20:12). And one certainly cannot argue that the present State of Israel exists because its citizens have turned to God. It is a thoroughly secular state, with only a very small number of practising Jews and Christians.

Red Herring in Galilee

Israel and prophetic promise

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.


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3. Ephesians 5:25

4. Matthew 16:18

6. Only about 15% of Israelis are even observant [of Judaism], much less Orthodox.' Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p28

7. Romans 4:16. See also Galatians 3:7

View over Jerusalem

8. God’s way of moving from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is not to replace the old with the new, but to remodel the old into the new. The earth after the Flood, for example, was still in many respects the same earth, yet new in the sense that it had been radically reshaped by the waters. For further detail see my Shades Of Grey article: The Same But Different.

9. Hebrews 1:1-2

10. Genesis 15:18

11. 1 Peter 2:9-10, referring to Isaiah 43:2 and Exodus 19:6

12. 2 Corinthians 6:16 - 7:1

14. Galatians 6:15-16

15. Some have tried to argue that the Greek word kai doesn’t mean ‘even’ here but ‘and’. The weight of scholarly linguistic opinion is solidly against them. Paul is saying—controversially for the Judaisers who opposed him—that those who have been born again (i.e. have experienced the ‘new creation’), whether they be of Jewish or of Gentile stock, constitute God’s true Israel. He makes a similar plain statement in Romans 11:26 where, after using ‘Israel’ in the ethnic sense from the beginning of chapter nine, he then deliberately shocks his readers by using the phrase ‘all Israel’ to mean the church. N.T. Wright comments: ‘Paul is clearly offering a deliberately polemical redefinition of “Israel”, parallel to that in Galatians (6:16), in which the people thus referred to are the whole company, Jew and Gentile alike, who are now (as in chapter 4 and 9:6ff.) inheriting the promises made to Abraham.’ (P. W. L. Walker, ed., Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God [2nd edn. 1994] Carlisle: Paternoster. Grand Rapids: Baker, pages 53–77)

16. Philippians 3:3

17. Romans 4:13

18. Matthew 5:5 cf. Psalm 37:11

19. Ephesians 6:2

20. Deuteronomy 5:16, from which Paul is quoting in Ephesians 6:2

21. Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p4

22. Jeremiah 29:10-14

23. Isaiah 11:11

24. Isaiah 11:16

25. Some see a third homecoming of a sort at Pentecost—the Jewish feast that, at the time of Jesus, annually brought Jews back to Jerusalem from their homes throughout the Roman Empire. It is interesting that Luke’s list of their home areas echoes those mentioned in the homecoming promise of Isaiah (Acts 2:5-11 cf. Isaiah 11:11). Apparently some who became Christians when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost sold property in the places from which they had come and settled in the Jerusalem area. It was these Jews who, in submitting to baptism and receiving the Spirit, fulfilled in a minor sense God’s homecoming promise through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:24-27).

26. There has always been a school of thought among the Jews that the return from Babylon under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah did not in fact fulfil the many OT promises of restoration, and that the real exile continued long thereafter. Paul seems to sympathise with this view in his treatment of the subject in his letters. On his view, the restoration of the Jews to God is tied up with Gentile salvation and its provoking of Jews to jealousy. But it is a purely spiritual restoration, which is why references to ‘the land’ in the Middle East are notable by their absence in the NT. For more of this see the entry ‘The Restoration of Israel’ in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, eds., IVP, 1993.

27. Acts 3:24; 2 Corinthians 1:20

28. 1 Corinthians 5:7

29. Psalm 95:7-11

30. Hebrews 3-4

31. 1 Corinthians 15:46

32. Colossians 2:16-17

33. Hebrews 11:10-16

34. Hebrews 12:22

35. Revelation 3:12; 21:2-3

36. König A., The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology, Eerdmans/MMS, 1989, p170

37. According to The Jerusalem Post's online statistics, Jews in Israel in 2000 numbered 4.9 million. At the same period, over 6 million Jews were living in the USA alone. Also emigration of Jews from Israel in recent years has exceeded immigration by about 600,000 (see R.H. Curtiss, 'Year-End Statistics Gloss Over Israel's Biggest Problem' in the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, March 1997). The Sunday Telegraph of 30 Nov 2003 reported: 'The government wants to bring another million Jews to Israel by 2010. Yet figures released by the absorption ministry, responsible for helping new immigrants, have revealed that an estimated 760,000 Israelis are living abroad, up from 550,000 in 2000. Only 23,000 people are expected to move to the Holy Land this year, the lowest figure since 1989... Many families head for Canada. So far 6,000 Israelis have moved there this year, double last year’s total.'

38. Galatians 3:7. See also v26

Red Herring in Galilee

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13. A common shorthand for ‘Jewishness’ and ‘non-Jewishness’.