Does Israel Have a Future? – Part 1

Norbert Lieth and Johannes Pflaum

Some argue that through the New Covenant, the pending earthly promises made to Israel have been invalidated and are fulfilled spiritually only for believers. For this reason, we’d like to cite some biblical evidence that makes it clear that Israel is still God’s chosen people, and has a grand future from a biblical perspective.

Lack of a Vision for Israel in Church History

There is a not-insignificant number of believers and Bible interpreters who share many of our convictions, and yet reject a future for ethnic Israelis. These advocates of so-called replacement theology teach that the New Covenant replaced the Old Covenant, and so the promises made to Israel were likewise passed on to the Church. Israel squandered the promises through its unbelief, and therefore no longer has a future as a people. Proponents of this position often reference Galatians 6:15-16:

“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”

Replacement theologians argue that this passage and others make it clear that the Church under the New Covenant is the Israel of God, and for this reason, the people of Israel no longer have a promise as a chosen people.

They also refer to Romans 2:28-29 and Romans 9:6-11. In the first of these passages, Paul doesn’t call someone who belongs to Israel and is circumcised a Jew, but rather the one who has circumcision of the heart (righteousness through faith) in the Spirit:

“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:28-29).

The second passage isn’t describing the children of the flesh (Israel as a people) as Abraham’s descendants, but the children of the promise (those who believe):

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.’ And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (Rom 9:6-11).

Some argue that these passages show that through the New Covenant, the pending earthly promises made to Israel have been invalidated and are fulfilled spiritually only for believers.

Now, a whole segment of Bible-believing Christians is becoming increasingly under the influence of replacement theology. It’s raising the question of whether these believers have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Bible as far as Israel is concerned. For this reason, we’d like to cite some biblical evidence that makes it clear that Israel is still God’s chosen people, and has a grand future from a biblical perspective.

The Apostle Paul stressed that Gentile believers had no reason to be haughty, exalting themselves above the people of Israel and responding with pride or antagonism: “So do not become proud, but fear” (Rom 11:20b). But this specific admonition was promptly ignored, and an anti-Semitic storm broke out in church history.

Many of the church fathers concluded that God had eternally rejected the Jewish people as “Christ killers.” So Israel was disinherited, and the church took its place. And as their replacement, Christianity is now and forever the sole bearer of all of God’s promises and blessings. This attitude has contributed to a great deal of misunderstanding about Israel over the past two millennia, and has brought an inexpressible amount of suffering to the Jewish people. Greek theologian and philosopher Origen (185-254 AD) in particular, known as the first dogmatist in church history, laid the foundation for the transferring of the promises made to the people of Israel to the church. All of the Old Testament curses and judgment, however, he literally left exclusively and permanently to the Jewish people. This theme essentially ran through Christianity’s formative centuries, shaped the Middle Ages, and even influenced the Reformers. The book The Roots of Anti-Semitism, by Carsten Peter Thiede and Urs Stingelin, says:

“Today we’re overcome with unbelief and alarm in the face of such events. Even the most subtle attempts to explain why people thought, wrote, and behaved that way can’t avoid documenting and admitting to the eyesore that has lain on Christian history since the second century. Because anyone who thinks Christianity is anti-Jewish can rightly appeal to those who, as teachers in the church, helped establish the beginnings of Christian thought and deed.”

This deeply tragic development can be traced to the earliest parts of church history. Christianity didn’t patiently tolerate the fact that the Jews had become a major obstacle to missionary activity. Replacement theology and supersessionism stemmed from this. Some of the church fathers unfortunately contributed to the hatred that this teaching fueled. In the 4th century, John Chrysostom spoke of the synagogue as “the temple of demons … the cavern of devils, a gulf and abyss of perdition.”

The Bishop of Antioch also stated that Christians should flee the Jews like a plague threatening the whole world. He said that the church should imitate the martyrs, who the Jews hated because they loved Christ; that it’s impossible to love the victim without hating the murderer. He further said that the Jews are only good for slaughter, like a fattened animal that is unable to work.

Sadly, even the church father Augustine, who contributed some important insights, was a representative of disinheritance theology and expressed himself disastrously on the issue of the Jews. Bernard Lewis tells us, “St. Augustine explained how those who had once been God’s chosen people had now become the sons of Satan.”

New Testament scholars Carsten Peter Thiede and Urs Stingelin also draw attention to this church father’s tragic hatred of Jews. They point out that anti-Jewish barbs appear throughout his main work De Civitate Dei (“About the City of God”). He also argued that the Jews alone killed Christ and were punished as Christ’s murderers. Augustine’s anti-Semitic stance was clearly expressed in his Tractatus adversus Judaeos (“Treatise Against the Jews”). The aforementioned scholars believe his negative impact on church history to be significant in regard to this issue.

This course continued through church history. H. Weber rightly wrote: 

“The antisemitism of early Christianity exceeded any prior or concurrent non-Christian hostility toward Jews. From the fourth century onward, Christian hatred resulted in numerous acts of violence against the Jews and their synagogues in church and state legislation. Jews gradually lost their civil rights. Conversion to Judaism carried the death penalty (per a law passed by Constantine in 315). Jews were forbidden to make proselytes. Bishops and monks often instigated violent riots against the Jews.”

Outstanding figures appearing later in church history even caught this bug. Martin Luther was very friendly toward the Jews at the beginning of the Reformation, even advocating for them in 1523, counter to the trend in the church at that time. Luther very heartily denounced the anti-Semitic behavior of Christians. He even saw the Jews as being closer to Christ than we Gentiles due to their lineage. He also spoke of the entitlements granted to the Jews in Scripture. At the same time, he expressed his hope that the Jews would become good Christians if they were to be properly instructed in the Scriptures.

Unfortunately, the greatest of all Reformers wrote an extremely fateful paper on this issue later on in his tenure. Some believe that this writing came about because Luther had been anticipating that the Jews would be very open to the rediscovery of God’s Word, and this expectation was profoundly disappointed. Another theory is that the Reformer was warned in 1525 that a Polish Jew had allegedly been ordered to poison him.

This presumably false warning probably caused Luther to rethink the issue of the Jews as a result. Various researchers see evidence of the sharp change in Luther’s attitude in 1537, when he declined to meet with Josel of Rosheim, a Jew.

In his three-volume work on Martin Luther, Martin Brecht attempts to explain the development of the Reformer’s mindset on the question of the Jews. Although Luther initially distinguished himself against his time’s prevailing anti-Semitism, Brecht believes that the Reformer’s stance on the question of the Jews was already becoming more ambiguous. According to this explanation, the following issues ultimately led to his drafting the anti-Jewish treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies:

• The Reformer had bad experiences with Jewish agitation against Christians.

• Luther wanted to win the Jews over to the Messiah, but was rejected by the rabbis. When he reasoned from Scripture, the rabbis often responded using quotes from other rabbis, to his disappointment.

• Luther was influenced by Anabaptist extremists, who advocated for keeping the Sabbath, up to and including circumcision (known as “judaizing” the Sabbath). The Reformer recognized the danger of relapsing into Jewish legalism, and wrote the pamphlet Against the Sabbatarians.

• Luther recognized the parallels between works-based righteousness under both Judaism and Catholicism, as well as the rejection of justification through faith that naturally follows from it.

• Luther was deeply affected by the religious Jews’ blasphemy and rejection of Christ as God, as well as their description of the doctrine of the Trinity as polytheism. 

These points don’t by any means excuse or qualify Luther’s anti-Semitic writing. They are intended only to show the developments that led to his tragic aforementioned pamphlet in 1543.

News from Israel - 07/2022

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