Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Should the US Support Israel? (update)

A friend of mine recently posted some thoughts on our funding of the Israeli military. The question isn't are we? That's certain. The real question is should we be?

The argument could get very complicated and I'm not going to try to sort it out. There could be real, good, compelling reasons to support financially and militarily a friendly democracy (kind of - after posting this I saw a story on Israeli censorship. Not good.) in a part of the world where we don't have many friends (mostly because we support Israel so unquestioningly).

My point here isn't to dissect the whole debate, but to take one argument off the table. Please, let's not argue that Israel has a divine right to the land. Many have seen it as the duty of the US, as a Christian nation (which we aren't, and never were) to support Israel as God's chosen people in the holding/taking back of the land that is theirs by divine grant. This argument just doesn't hold water - Israel has no more divine right to the land than does Japan. I'm going to quote Piper on this (because he comes at it from a historical premillennial position. I'm amillennial. Piper's position is typical of those in the amillennial camp, but not as typical in the premillennial camp where dispensationalism has won the day for the most part):

"I do not deny that Israel was chosen by God from all the peoples of the world to be the focus of special blessing in the history of redemption which climaxed in Jesus Christ, the Messiah...Nor do I deny that God promised to Israel the presently disputed land from the time of Abraham onward...But neither of these Biblical facts leads necessarily to the endorsement of present-day Israel as the rightful possessor of all the disputed land. Israel may have such a right. And she may not. But that decision is not based on divine privilege. Why?"

First, a covenant breaking people cannot claim a divine right to the land. Only those who have perfectly kept covenant can claim any 'right' to anything. That the promises of the land are conditional is clear from Scripture: "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (Exodus 19:5, ESV).

But isn't the promise to Abraham unconditional? How can a conditional covenant at Sinai replace an unconditional promise give to Abraham (Gen 12 & 15)? Well, calling the Abrahamic covenant an unconditional covenant isn't entirely accurate. Certainly in Gen. 12:1-3 (where the promises are made) and Gen. 15 (where the covenant is more formally ratified) there are no stipulations, conditions or commands to keep. Just promises. Moreover, the 'everlasting' nature of the covenant promises is set out in Gen. 17:7-8.

Yet, in Gen. 18:9 God says, "For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him" (ESV). In addition, after Abraham demonstrates his faith and willingness to obey God, we read, "And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:15-18, ESV).

So the promises are both conditional and secure. Ligon Duncan says it forcefully, "A covenant by definition has conditions. There in no such thing as a wholly unconditional covenant. Don’t ever let anybody sell you a bill of goods that there is such a thing as an unconditional covenant. Why? Because you have to have two sides before you have a covenant. And if you have two sides, then you’ve got requirements. So a covenant by definition has conditions. And so the covenant of grace is both unilateral and bilateral. It is conditional and unconditional. It is monergistic and synergistic...God sovereignly fulfills the conditions of the covenant...the beauty of the covenant of grace is that God comes in and He Himself provides the basis of our part of the relationship." (You see this time and time again in the NT. For example, look at Jude 1-7, a passage I'm preaching on this Sunday. There's a seemingly paradoxical blend of unconditional promises, i.e. 'you are kept by God', alongside calls for vigilance and warnings for those who fall/apostatize.)

The covenant God made with the people of Israel at Sinai must be seen in light of the covenant with Abraham. There are differences in emphases between the two; however, there is great continuity. In fact, Exodus 2:23-25 sets the whole Exodus/Sinai event in the context of 'God remembering' his covenant with Abraham. The Sinai covenant advances the Abrahamic covenant in that it deals corporately and nationally with Israel. The law is set within the context of covenant, as a definition of what covenant keeping will look like (covenant is a bigger concept than law). The nation will experience God's blessing if, and only if, it keeps covenant. On the other hand, it's a mistake to call this a covenant of works. God's grace is all over the covenant at Sinai. Israel wasn't chosen because they kept covenant. Instead, keeping covenant was the proper response to having been chosen. Moreover, God graciously provided through the sacrificial system a means of dealing with the people's sins, which God knew were inevitable. Still, for the nation to keep the land and the blessing, they would have to be faithful. They were not. That leads me to the next point.

Second, Abraham's true descendant do receive all God promised. Did Israel's failures and faithlessness negate God's promises? Does the question sound familiar? Paul anticipates the question when he says, "it is not as though the word of God has failed" (Rom. 9:6a), and "has God rejected his people?" (Rom. 11:1a). The answer is NO. The people of God, the true heirs of Abraham will receive the blessings God promised. But the people of God are not defined merely by their ancestry or by the certain physical marks (i.e. circumcision). In other words, not all Jews are truly Israel. In fact, it was never a purely ethnic thing. Not all of the descendants of Abraham were heirs of the promise. Ishmael was not, nor was Esau. Moreover, the Old Testament contains clear witness that being a Jew outwardly through circumcision wasn't enough, circumcision needed to be of the heart also (Deut. 10:16, Deut. 30:6). Michael Williams writes in Far As The Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story Of Redemption, "True inclusion in the covenant came not to those who merely went through the formality of the circumcision rite but to those who bore it as a symbol of living faith in God who set Israel apart for his service" (see Gal 3:7-9, Rom. 9:8).

In the NT it becomes clear that Jesus Christ was the 'True Israel of God'. God's says of Israel, "Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, 'Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son' "(Exodus 4:22-23, ESV). Compare that to the teaching of the NT (Rom. 8:29, Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:6, Luke 3:22 and especially Luke 9:35).

Moreover, the 'out of Egypt' motif is very important. In the OT, the phrase 'out of Egypt' or some variation appears more than 140 times. Clark rightly comments, "It is one of the defining facts of the existence of national Israel." It is then quite significant when Matthew applies this theme to Jesus in Matthew 2:14-15, "And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'" (ESV). Again, Clark writes, "Matthew's inspired interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures must norm our interpretation of Scripture and according to Matthew's interpretation, it is our Lord Jesus, not the temporary, national, people who is the true Israel of God."

In addition, the promises made to Abraham are explicitly said to have been fulfilled in Christ. Galatians 3:16: "Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many, but referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' who is Christ." And the same chapter Paul makes it clear that these promises belong also to those who are in Christ Jesus, "the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." (Gal 3:22).

It is Christ who is the true Israel and those who are ingrafted into Jesus by faith are the true children of Abraham. In John 8 Jesus has an extended conversation about who the true children of Abraham are. Clark summarizes,"This, then is our Lord's definition of a child of Abraham, a Jew, or Israel: One who does the things Abraham did. What did Abraham do? According to Jesus, "Abraham saw my day and rejoiced" (v.56). According to Jesus the Messiah, a Jew, a true Israelite is a one who has saving faith in the Lord Jesus before or after the incarnation."

Given this, it shouldn't be surprising that the apostles refer to the church with language that had previously been reserved for national Israel. Paul refers to the church of Galatia, a church made up of Jewish and Gentile believers, as the 'Israel of God' (Gal 3:15). Peter uses the same kind of language of the mostly Gentile church in 1 Peter 2:-10, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." Also, the author of Hebrews refers to those who have faith in Jesus as the "House of Israel" (Heb. 8:8-10).

Does this mean that we as Christians are to inherit the land? Yes and No. Not the physical land, but the physical land was only a shadow of a heavenly, spiritual reality. Just as the ethnic, national people of God in the Old Testament (Israel) was a temporary foreshadowing of the eternal, spiritual and multi-ethnic people of God (the Church), so the physical land of was a temporary shadow of the heavenly land; the earthly city of the heavenly city (Heb. 11:8-16, Heb. 11:39). Those who are the true Israel by virtue of their faith will receive the promised reward, the reward that Abraham was looking for, the reward that was typified by the physical land of Palestine.

After all, Jesus clearly taught that his kingdom was a spiritual kingdom, not a physical one (John 18:36). In addition, it's an eternal kingdom, not a really long 1,000 year kingdom. He will always be on the throne as the true King, the true descendant of David.

That doesn't mean God is done with ethnic Israel. Paul teaches that that Israel's disbelief was not complete nor final. He, as an ethnic Jew is also a part of the believing remnant, a member of the enlarged People of God, the True Israel. Not all Jews rejected their Messiah. Moreover, Paul holds out hope that the people of Israel will not persist forever in their unbelief. Piper rightly contends, "God has saving purposes for ethnic Israel (Rom. 11:25-26). But for now the people are at enmity with God in rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ, their Messiah (Rom. 11:28). God has expanded his saving work to embrace all peoples (including Palestinians) who will trust his Son and depend on his death and resurrection for salvation."

So, as we discuss our nations relationship with Israel, let's do so on the basis of what is just, what is equitable, what will lead to peace. Let's do so on the basis of international law and not on the basis of a supposed Divine right.

For those who may want more reading, here's a few great links:
Sam Storms on "Romans 11 and the Future of Israel": Part 1, Part 2,
Sam Storms on "The Church, Israel, and 'Replacement Theology": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
R. Scott Clark on "The Israel of God"
John Piper on "Israel, Palestine and the Middle East" and "Do Jews have a Divine Right in the Promised Land?"

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