Who are the rightful heirs of the land of Israel?

My response to Stephen Sizer’s article, “Bible Prophecy – Promised Return of Impending Exile”,  regarding the return of the Jews to Israel

A number of years ago I read an article written by Stephen Sizer, a former vicar of the Anglican Church in England, regarding Christian Zionism. Christian Zionists believe that the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 is a direct fulfillment of Bible prophecy and that the tensions we are witnessing that region today can be attributed to this and other end time prophecies regarding Israel. Sizer who is known for his opposition to Christian Zionism believes that what is happening in Israel has little if anything to do with Bible prophecy.

The following are some statements Sizer made regarding this and my response to them. The page numbers refer to an article Sizer wrote regarding Christian Zionism that was published by the Christian Research Journal in 2006. A copy of his article can be found at the link above.

 A growing number of Christians…are left uneasy about the idea that God would bring the Jews back to Palestine while they are in unbelief since that is why they were exiled from it in the first place. (Page 35)

Here are some passages in the Bible that bear on this:

  1. God’s covenant with Abraham, the “Abrahamic covenant”, which included a promise that they would be given the land in and surrounding modern day Israel, was unconditional (Genesis 15). God asked Abraham to split a calf in two and to let its blood run down a channel between the two halves. In those days two parties making a covenant in this fashion would walk through the blood shed by the calf signifying that if either broke the covenant, the other could do to one violating the covenant what had been done to the calf. In Genesis 15:17, God, symbolized by a smoking pot, was the only one who passed between the halves signifying that He alone was responsible for upholding the covenant.
  1. God’s covenant with Abraham was never revoked. Galatians 3:17-18 says, “The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise, but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.”
  1. Another covenant was introduced through Moses. It is referred to as the “Sinaic covenant” as it was at Mount Sinai where it was given and confirmed. The Sinaic covenant was conditional. The Israelites had to obey the laws of God to reap its rewards. It is impossible to obey every aspect of God’s laws however. Jesus did something to remedy this. When He was crucified, the law was symbolically nailed to the Cross negating the power it and the Sinaic covenant, the Old Covenant, had to condemn people of sin (Colossians 2:13-15). The Sinaic covenant was replaced by a new covenant based on faith (Ephesians 2:8).
  1. One effect of the New Covenant is that that the Jews were no longer going to be held accountable collectively for their sin. Confirmation of this can be found in Jeremiah 31:27-37. Once the New Covenant was in effect, judgment for national sin would cease and “instead, everyone will die for his own sin” (vs. 30). When speaking about the effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death, the writer of Hebrews drew from this passage when he said, “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds … Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more (Hebrews 10:16-17 and Jeremiah 31:33-34).”
  1. Zechariah said that the Jews would experience a time when they would no longer be under collective judgment for their sin (Zechariah 3). Speaking for God, Zechariah said, “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day (3:9).” This “single day” seems in context to be referring to the day that Jesus was crucified.
  1. God did not bring the Jews back to the land of Israel for their sake or because they were good. God did it for His sake (Ezekiel 36). Ezekiel 37 describes the return of both Israel and Judah, the names of the northern and southern kingdoms after Israel split into two nations following the death of Solomon, to the land of Israel. In the process the “two sticks” become one once again (37:15-17). In describing this, Ezekiel speaking for God said, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my name which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among them. Then these nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes (36:22-23).” What God does to restore the Israelites to the land of Israel has more to do with Him then with them. He promised He would restore them to the land in spite of their disobedience so that He could be glorified.
  1. Zechariah prophesies that its opposition to the Jews after they’ve returned to Israel that ultimately leads to their collective spiritual redemption. Zechariah 12 describes a day when the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem are surrounded by those who want to destroy them and God miraculously saves them by destroying their enemies. When the Jews see that their victory has come from God, they end up mourning “the one whom they have pierced (12:10).” This may be the event Jesus had in mind when He wept on the Mount of Olives above Jerusalem a few days before His crucifixion and said, “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Matthew. 23:37-39).’”

I believe that the Jews as a nation were forgiven when Jesus died on the Cross, perhaps at the moment when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).” Although the suffering they’ve experienced since then could be due to their collective disbelief, I believe that what they’ve experienced is simply an extension of Satan’s continued efforts to undermine the work of God by destroying the ones God has chosen to represent Him. I believe that the Jews’ return to the land of Israel is part of God’s plan to reveal His nature to the world through the way He fulfills His covenant with Abraham. It also may be the beginning of God’s final efforts to redeem the Jews individually and corporately.

The covenant was primarily relational, not material (page 36)

It’s unclear when Sizer makes this claim if he is referring to the Abrahamic covenant or the Sinaic one. The covenant with Moses, the Sinaic one, does have material and relational aspects to it. The Jews had to be obedient to God in order to reap its benefits. But as pointed out earlier, this covenant was revoked when Jesus was crucified and it was symbolically nailed to the Cross (Colossians 2:14). There is no biblical evidence that the Abrahamic covenant was ever revoked. It was unconditional and depended on God’s character alone.

This does not mean that the Abrahamic covenant does not have some relational aspects to. But some of it is clearly material. God promised to give the land of Israel to the Jews as an eternal possession, and God said that if He doesn’t fulfill His promises that He is not God.

God stipulated through blessings and curses that repentance is always a condition of return (page 38)

Leviticus 26 does state that Israel would face exile if they refused to obey God (vs. 27-35). Daniel drew from portions of Leviticus 26:40-45 in a prayer he made on the Jews’s behalf when they were living in exile in Babylon (Daniel 9:1-19). Daniel understood that their  exile was going to last 70 years and near the end of this period asked for God to forgive his people.

God responded by telling Daniel that the Jews’ guilt for their transgressions would be removed but that it would take 490 years (seventy weeks of seven) “to atone for wickedness [and] to bring in everlasting righteousness (Daniel 9:24).” The beginning point of this time frame was “the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (9:25),” an event that occurred in 453 B.C. when Cyrus gave Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem so the city could be rebuilt (Nehemiah 1-2). 490 years after this would be 36 A.D. Most scholars agree that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred sometime between 30 and 36 A.D. It was at this point that both Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10 indicate that the nation as a whole would no longer be held accountable for its sin. Somewhere in this time frame or shortly afterwards could be the end of the 490-year period Daniel prophesied about.

Also, as noted earlier, the conditions described in Leviticus 26 are part of the Sinaic covenant and this covenant was canceled on the Cross (Colossians 2:13-15). Since the Sinaic covenant is no longer in effect, there is no longer any conditions the Jews have or had to meet in order to return to the land of Israel.

It is no longer appropriate to describe the Jews as God’s “chosen people” (page 39)

 Paul addresses this in Romans 9-11. Here’s a bit of what he said:

  1. Speaking for God he said, “All day long, I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” (10:21)
  1. “Did God reject his people? By no means … God did not reject his people.” (11:1,2)
  1. “All Israel will be saved. The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (11:26-27)
  1. “As far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” (11:28-29)

One thing that is consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments is God’s unconditional commitment to fulfill the promises He made to Abraham and his descendants. Jeremiah 31:35-36 says this, “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight, declares the Lord, will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” It’s as if God was saying, “If I don’t do what I’ve said I’m going to do for the children of Abraham, then I’m not God.”

Through the New Covenant, the exalted Christ rules sovereign over the entire world, from the heavenly Jerusalem. (Page 40) 

Sizer suggests that the Jews were never given an unconditional promise of a physical kingdom and that passages describing Christ’s eternal reign over one need to be interpreted figuratively rather than literally. But if references regarding the future Jerusalem and the eternal throne of Christ are figurative rather than literal – if they are only heavenly places and not real ones – then how do we make sense of the following verses?

  1. “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven which said, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever’ (Revelation 11:15).”
  1. “I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it…Then the Lord will go out and fight against these nations…On that day there will be no light, no cold, no frost… On that day, living water will flow out from Jerusalem…[and] The lord will be king over the whole earth (Zechariah 14:1-9).”

There are numerous passages in the Old and New Testaments that connect the coming of a messiah or the return of Jesus with a throne and a reign on earth. Although some of these could be interpreted figuratively, most cannot without significantly changing the context in which these promises were given. In addition, many don’t seem to fit events that have already occurred but seem to be referring to ones that happen in the future.

Jesus’ disciples were looking forward to the day when the kingdom God promised to the Israelites would be restored (Luke 24).  Many followed Jesus hoping that He was the one who would establish that kingdom. Their concept about this kingdom was not wrong. They just didn’t understand its timing. Isaiah prophesied about a time when God would sacrifice a lamb in order to forgive the sins of mankind (Isaiah 53). Jesus was that lamb. He was “the lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus’ disciples didn’t initially understand that this sacrifice must take place first. But their error doesn’t invalidate God’s promise that the Israelites would one day have a physical kingdom overseen by an actual ruler sitting on a real throne.

Why it Matters 

Speaking to Abraham God said, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse (Genesis 12:3).” I believe that this is a declaration by God that it matters how we respond to the promises He made to Abraham and his descendants. Believing that the Jews were given all of the land of Israel should not result in turning a blind eye towards what they’ve done to protect themselves if what they’ve done is unjust. But it should give us a better understanding from a biblical perspective of what’s happening in that region of the world and perhaps more important, why it’s happening.

That is as I see it today.

 

2 thoughts on “Who are the rightful heirs of the land of Israel?

  1. Comment and question from one reader: I admit I get really confused thinking through this issue because while I agree there is a literal promise and a literal fulfillment, the recipients of the promise are where I get confused.

    On the one hand there are the literal, genetic descendants of Abraham. At the outset, these seem like the most obvious recipients. However in order for them to receive the promise they would either have to have an earthly fulfillment of the promise, to be enjoyed only by those descendants who are alive at the time, or a “heavenly” fulfillment in the form of an eternal city/land (still material of course), which would be enjoyed by…all genetic descendants? Or would that be only those descendants who, like Abraham, believe and have it credited as righteousness? If it’s all, then does that mean genetic descendants are exempt from judgement? For if they are not exempt then presumably some descendants will not receive a heavenly reward at all, so doesn’t that make the promise somewhat conditional, at least as it distinguishes between recipients?

    On the other hand, there are Gentile believers which may be grafted into this family of Abraham. Are we also recipients of the promise? We certainly know there is a heavenly city waiting for us at the end. So are we to live there WITH Abraham’s family, since we are grafted in, or instead of, representing the “true Israel” of those who believe (including those who believed in the Old Covenant).

    I guess if I see a literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, which i agree is unconditional, my confusion is over who is to receive it and when. No disagreement with you persay, just honest confusion.

    What do you think?

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    1. My reply: The way I understand this, there is both a spiritual Israel and a physical one. There are also spiritual promises as well as physical ones tied to this. God did promise a specific geographical area to the actual descendants of Abraham (Genesis 15:18-19). God then explained in Ezekiel 36 and 37 why He returns those descendants to the land of Israel. Basically, it’s to show the world that He is God and that He keeps His promises even if those called to represent Him are unfaithful.

      The dispute over who owns the land today may in fact be a disagreement about who the rightful heirs of Abraham’s original covenant are. The Koran explicitly states that it is the descendants of Ishmael that are the rightful heirs of the promises to Abraham. The Bible clearly states that it was Isaac, Ishmael’s half-brother, who is the heir of all these promises including the one relating to the land (Mohammad by the way was a descendant of Ishmael).

      Paul does talk about Gentile Christians begin grafted into these promises in a spiritual sense. The difficulty is trying to separate the spiritual grafting which applies to our spiritual redemption and what God promised to the actual descendants of Abraham, something Paul addresses in part Romans 9-11. I believe that God promised both a physical and a heavenly kingdom. Understanding the difference between the two and who will benefit from each is challenging indeed.

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