Rev. Gijs Lammerts van Bueren
The creation of the new state of Israel in 1948 has greatly influenced church thought concerning God’s plan of salvation for the Jewish people and the land promise. Many ‘Church and Israel’ commissions rapidly followed one another and countless articles and books were published on this topic. Almost sixty years have passed, and while this continues, the last word has not yet been spoken.
(Rev. H.G. Lammerts van Bueren is a Baptist minister and director of the Near East Ministry. www.nemnieuws.nl)
In this presentation I aim to give an introduction to the development of thought in the Church relative to the land promise. Additionally, I will focus on some of the underlying expectations and presuppositions regarding the land promise. In conclusion I will share some considerations about (Christian) Zionism.
1. Acts 1:6 and church history
In the beginning of ‘the first book of the Church history’ we read about the apostles’ question and Jesus’ answer concerning everything that has to do with the promise of the land. ‘Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority’. Acts 1:6, 7 (NKJ)
After His resurrection Jesus taught the apostles about the Kingdom of God (verse 3) over a period of forty days. The apostles asked a question about the ‘kingdom of Israel’ because the topic was evidently discussed. After all, the kingship of Israel is a result of the Kingdom of God that is discussed in many Bible passages. The Kingdom of God is directed at earth in the sense that, if His will is the law on earth, His Kingdom will be realised. What portion of the law is not aimed at the land and people, at justice and property, at relationship and status on earth? The thoughts of the apostles of old and of present-day Jews include the physical land in the Kingdom of God and the kingship of Israel. Those thoughts have their origin in the Bible.
The first major change in expectation of the early Christian church was undoubtedly brought about by the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Arch of Titus in Rome painfully showed that the restoration of Israel’s kingship was not yet at hand. When the name of the land of Israel was changed to Palestine by Emperor Hadrian after the Bar-Kochba revolt in 135 A.D., it became quite evident that the restoration of Israel’s kingship would be eventful. This world’s high and mighty had their own agendas. Israel was never to be mentioned again. All and everything was employed in the attempted to eradicate Israel’s expected kingship.
The triumphalism of the church readily agreed with this. Augustine even once said that the Diaspora was the visible sign of God’s judgment of the Jews and His justification of the Christians. The land had disappeared from view…
And yet this does not complete the picture of the Church in the Middle Ages. That became evident with the onset of the Crusades. The Holy land was in sight! And was it not to be set free of Islamic rule? But the spotlight lingered on the past rather than on the future of the people of Israel. The crusaders concentrated on the holy places where Jesus walked and Biblical incidents occurred. If future events had been taken into account, it was limited to a one-sided view that the Mount of Olives was ‘merely’ the place to which Jesus would return.
The diminishing importance and authority of the Old Testament in the Church prevented corrective thoughts as far as the promise of land was concerned. This part of the Bible, in which so much had been written about the land, was rarely read and mainly used to illustrate New Testament truths. Israel had been replaced by the Church, and the land by the heavenly sphere.
But the Reformation on the European continent brought some changes. The translation of the Bible sparked a new interest in the Old Testament. English Puritans and individuals of the Revival in the Netherlands, such as Da Costa, gave the expectation of the kingship of Israel new life. The Chiliasts (Millennialists) and the Brethren Movement also made a contribution.
Yet these developments were mere preparation for what happened after 1948. the events of this period of time caused a revolution in the Church’s thinking. Who knows how many books about Jesus the Jew saw the light? Well-known theologians even wrote new commentaries and withdrew earlier declarations about Israel and the Church, such as the ‘International Critical Commentary on the New Testament’ on Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the Netherlands it was the Netherlands Reformed Church who dared to publish ‘Israel: people, land and state’ (1970). And in 2004 the Church Order of the Protestant Church of the Netherlands constituted the following:
‘According to her confession as one Apostolic and Holy Catholic or general Christian Church, the Protestant Church of the Netherlands shares in Israel’s expectation and eagerly awaits the coming of the Kingdom of God.’ (article1.1) and ‘The Church has been called to embody her unequivocal bond with the people of Israel. As Christ-confessing, religious community she pursues dialogue with Israel in order to comprehend God’s Word and in particular the coming Kingdom of God.’ (article 1.7)
With all due respect it is our opinion that, with this confession, the Church has returned to Acts 1:6 and the expectation of the apostles. It is quite shameful that it took (a part of) the Church 19 centuries to regain perspective on the people of Israel and the promise of land. This demands an attitude of humility and sobriety.
2. Our earth and the land promise
‘Higher, higher, lift your heart, down below is nothingness’. These words from an old hymn illustrate the expectation of a large part of the Church throughout the ages. Unbiblical Christian thoughts, that separated the earthly and heavenly, had been developing under the joint influence of Greek philosophy and the separation of Church and synagogue. The visible materialistic matters with which unbelievers occupied themselves, were considered to be earthly. And heavenly things would include dogmatics and all that concerns the church. In that way future expectation was altered to expect a new world that did not relate to life on earth. It was an escape route to a new creation, a totally different and new dimension. It stands to reason that, in view of this, the promise of land had no role or meaning.
For a Biblical distinction between heavenly and earthly, we have to look at Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In chapter 3:2 we read: ’Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth’. But, when we subsequently read what Paul portends with ‘things above’ and ‘things on earth’, we discover that it refers to earthly and heavenly thoughts, language and actions ‘Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry’ (verse 5), and ‘as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering’ (verse12)KJV.
This expectation is also found in 2 Peter 3:13: ‘Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells’. Although the elements are destroyed, the earth is renewed in order for life, according to God’s Law, to be actualized. And this image is portrayed in the book of Revelation. It is clear that this earth – these nations and these people in the coming world – will continue. The book of Revelation consoles us with the promise that the world will be redeemed. It will not disappear and a new one be created. It can, I believe, be compared with the old body that will be replaced by the resurrected body. The old body is the seed for the new body, according to 1 Corinthians 15:42-44: ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body’.
The exact meaning of this remains a mystery. But one thing is certain, there will be a continuity between our present life and life after our resurrection. We will remain to be the same person. Renewed, but the same. In the same vein we can also expect a continuation between the old and new earth, and the old and new Jerusalem. While discontinuity is afforded much attention in the comforting books of the Bible, it does not exclude the continuity that the same Bible talks about. Thank God there is still hope for this world! Look at the wonder of Israel!
3. The church, Zionism and the land promise
Nineteenth century Zionism was a non-religious movement. The pioneers of the modern state of Israel were generally not religious. And the motives of the United Nations, that voted for a homeland for the Jews in the land of Palestine in November 1947, had no religious flavour.
Of this the Church should take note. The restoration of the land, people and state of Israel came about by the efforts of the unreligious. The majority of Christians were ‘onlookers’ who were not yet engaged in intercessory prayer for Israel. At times we seem to think that God acts on our recommendations or conversion. We would distinguish, for example, between ownership of the land and the right to reside in it.
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