A letter to the Church of Scotland
The following is a copy of a letter written earlier this year (June 2007) and sent to the Church of Scotland. It concerns the question of what the Bible has to say about modern-day Israel. The letter has now (October) been sent out to all Church of Scotland ministers.
The context of the letter is a response to a report presented to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly (May 2007) which comments critically on the ".... belief that sees the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, as being in accordance with – perhaps even in fulfilment of – biblical prophecy...."
The author of the letter is Rev. David W. Torrance - a senior Church of Scotland minister (now retired) and author. In his letter Torrance counters the interpretation commonly referred to as Replacement Theology which takes the view that the (gentile) church has "inherited" all the promises of God previously made to the Jewish people.
Israel, God's Servant
A Response to the Report by the Committee on Church and Society
When God called Abraham and said that in him ‘all the families on the earth would be blessed’ (Genesis 12:1-3, see 17:13), he was calling him and his seed after him so that they would be his People and his Servant for the blessing of the world. God would reveal himself to them and through them to the world, that he might redeem the world in Christ. That calling was constantly reaffirmed. It has never been cancelled. Likewise when God said to Abraham , I will give this land of Canaan to you and “to your seed after you for ever” (Genesis 13:15) that covenant was an everlasting covenant (Psalm 105:8. 106:45. Isaiah 55:3. 60:21.61:8. Ezekiel 16:60. 37:26. That promise and that gift have never been cancelled.
God’s covenant with Israel and the Land of Promise belong forever together. When God made an everlasting covenant with humankind, he made at the same time an everlasting covenant with all creation. He did not create humankind to live in an alien environment, but one for ever embraced by his grace and love. When Adam sinned all creation was spoiled. So, when Christ redeemed humankind he redeemed all creation and we await with assurance in Christ the renewal of heaven and earth. Likewise when God made his inner covenant of grace with Israel, for the outworking of his purposes of salvation for the whole world his covenant with Israel embraced the Land of Israel. “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).
Today, many Christians seem unable to accept what the Bible says, or they believe that it is saying something different from what seems to be so apparent. That is clear from the Report of the Church and Society Committee to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland this year, 2007.
Some argue that because of Israel’s sin, through the centuries and their rejection of Christ, God has rejected them as his chosen people. They argue that the Church has replaced Israel and inherited all the promises once given to Israel. Therefore the present State of Israel and the Land of Israel has ceased to have any spiritual significance. This is a misunderstanding of scripture.
In Deuteronomy (9:4-6) we read that God did not choose them and give them the Land because they were a righteous people. They were not. They were “a stiff-necked people”. That does not mean that they were more unrighteous than the other nations. They were called, simply, to be a representative people, who would represent before God all the nations of the world in their sin. They were also called to represent to the world the way that God revealed himself and dealt with human sin, for the sake of the world’s redemption (Isaiah 49: 1-7).
God’s covenant with Abraham was a covenant of grace. It was a covenant without any conditions attached. It was a unilateral (not bilateral) covenant. It was a covenant, which depended for its continuance, entirely on God, not on God and man together, as in a bilateral covenant. God is forever faithful to what he promises and never breaks his covenant promise. If God could or would break his covenant of grace with Israel, how could we, as Christians, ever have the confidence that God would keep and not break his covenant of grace with us, when we sin? God never breaks his covenant of grace.
Certainly we will not enjoy, any more than Israel, the blessings of God’s covenant of grace, if we do not obey him. There is nothing automatic about our, or Israel’s, receiving God’s salvation. God has given us freedom to accept or reject him and his salvation. Israel was warned many times that if the people rejected God, they would suffer and be driven from the Land of Promise. This happened in 586BC when they were taken captive to Babylon and in AD 70, when the Temple was destroyed and Israel ceased to be a nation. Even so, God said that he would never abandon them or break his covenant (Leviticus 26:44-45).
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…. For I will take you out of the nations, I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own Land…. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you…. Then you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices.”
(Ezekiel 36:22- 32. See also Isaiah 11:10-11. 43:5-6). In the Land they would repent and return to him. Something of that is happening today in the rise of Messianic congregations in Israel.
Other Christians wish to argue that because Christ has come and fulfilled all the OT promises, so everything concerning Israel, the Law and the Land, has been transcended and spiritualised. God has a continuing purpose for Israel, but only in her dispersion throughout the world. Because everything has been spiritualised in Christ, God has ceased to be concerned about a particular nation or particular Land. The Land of Israel has been spiritualised to become the whole world (See Colin Chapman or Gary Bruge).
Again this is a misunderstanding of scripture. The Law, that is the moral law, the laws of worship concerning priests and sacrifices together with the social laws, have certainly been fulfilled and transcended in Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus drew out the higher implications of the moral and social laws. The laws of worship have been fulfilled and replaced because Christ alone is our High Priest and baptism and Holy Communion have replaced the earlier sacraments of OT worship, such as circumcision and the Feast of Passover. This is the message of the Epistle to the Hebrews. As Paul says however in Romans chapter 4, circumcision and the Law were given long after the sealing of God’s covenant with Abraham. It was the Law that was transcended and replaced. The Covenant of grace was fulfilled and sealed (See Romans 3:1f. 9-11).
If we try to introduce a spiritualisation, of the kind indicated, then we are creating a dualism between what is spiritual and what is physical, between the way that God deals with us for salvation and the way that he deals with us today, as nations, or as individuals in our daily behaviour.
God is actively present in this world which he has redeemed in Christ. He is encountering the nations today in mercy and in judgement. He is spiritually/physically encountering them today through Israel.
Any kind of dualism, which separates what is spiritual from the concrete reality of our daily lives, and the lives of nations, is unbiblical. The presence of Israel, back in the Promised Land today by the hand of God testifies to the fact that God is concerned with the daily, physical lives of people and nations. It helps us to realise that the resurrection is not just spiritual, it includes the body. When Jesus rose, he rose in the body. Certainly, his body was transformed but he did rise bodily and physically, as well as spiritually. We cannot separate the spiritual and the physical.
That fact is integral to our faith. Unless he rose in the body, we are not spiritually and physically redeemed. For those who have eyes to see, the resurrection of the Jewish People points towards the resurrection of the body.
Prophecy does not map out the future for us. We are called to go forward in faith. Even so, when history unfolds, it allows us to say through the Holy Spirit, ‘This is what was prophesied in the Law and the Prophets. We have in our generation witnessed the Jewish People returning to the Land of Promise. The prophecies, about their returning from the isles and the distant places of the earth (Isaiah 11:10-11.41:8f.Jeremiah 31:8.), did not and could not refer to Israel’s return from Babylon. It has taken place, in our generation, so that we have a right to say that this is a fulfilment of prophecy.
We do not know precisely what this means for the physical Land of Israel, nor for Israel itself, and we do not know what lies ahead for Israel and the nations. We have to wait and see. Yet in so far as God has restored them to the Promised Land we can be sure that God is doing something great and powerful among the nations. We need with humility and in prayer to acknowledge the mighty hand of God.
Jesus said of the fig tree (the nation of Israel) which had been withered to the root, when you see it become green again, then know that summer is near (Mark 13:28-31.Matt.24: 32-33. Luke 21:29-31). We have seen Israel (the fig tree), which ceased to be a nation for nineteen hundred years, become a nation and a state once more in the Promised Land. Clearly God is at work. What he is about to do, can only keep us on our tiptoes in expectation.
David W. Torrance