As Israelis mark their 57th Independence Day, many Christians view this occasion as reason to celebrate the faithfulness of God. Yet much of the Christian world still struggles with the theological significance of Israel’s stunning re-emergence as a nation on May 14, 1948. Nearly six decades later, some churches are slowly coming to terms with the extensive biblical credentials behind the promised ‘restoration of Zion,’ while others still cling to antiquated doctrines about the Jews being cursed to endless wandering.
The reformer Martin Luther was once asked whether the Jews of his time were still children of Abraham. His answer: “If the Jews are Abraham’s descendants, then we would expect them to be back in their own land… But do we see that? We see them living scattered and despised.”
So what would Luther do with today’s reality of over 5.5 million Jews now living back in their national homeland? If it is not part of a promised restoration, is it a political accident or fluke of history?
First and foremost, the modern-day Jewish return to the land of their fathers is testimony to the faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God. In Genesis, the Patriarch Abraham was promised not only a “seed” to bless the whole earth, but also the physical land of Israel as an “everlasting possession” for his natural descendants. Thus both the land and people of Israel were chosen for the purpose of world redemption, and to strip away either one undercuts the whole redemptive plan. Though the Lord has exiled the Israelites from the land for appointed seasons as a corrective measure, their underlying title deed remains intact and He has sworn to deliver the entire land to them one day in abiding rest and peace. This is vouched for in both the Mosaic and Davidic covenants.
The Hebrew prophets then appear as servants of the covenants to keep the land and people of Israel together in the timings of God’s redemptive plan. When one reads their interspersed mix of poetry, fury, compassion and despair, the key to understanding their ministry is to realize that every prophetic utterance has to fit within the terms and conditions of the covenants already established with Israel. God is not a man that He should lie or change His mind about a sworn oath.
Thus the words of warning and doom flowed from the prophets’ anguish that Israel was in breach of the conditions God placed on their right to actually reside in the land given to them. Yet their accompanying poetic joy was in realization that God nevertheless was duty bound to return them to the land again one day because of His solemn oath to Abraham, and confirmed to David as a reward. For in order to eventually wind up back in the land permanently, the cycle must go ‘scatter and return,’ not ‘return and then scatter.’ Thus at nearly every point that the prophets speak of exilic judgment, they also sound the hope of return.
“For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” says Isaiah. “‘In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment: But with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer.” (54:7-8)
Even so, some Christians contend that the two prophesied Jewish exiles and returns were completed in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah and that Old Testament promises of an end-day ingathering and exaltation of Israel in her land were fulfilled in the birth and ‘triumph’ of the Church. In challenging Christian Zionists, they argue that the New Testament is basically ‘silent’ regarding the ‘land,’ and thus Christians have scant biblical basis to support the secular State of Israel in the face of Palestinian suffering. To them, the events of May 1948 were undoubtedly a nakba (Arabic for “disaster”).
Yet there are numerous clear references to the land in the New Testament. Most importantly, every mention of the covenants or ‘promises made to the fathers’ – meaning the Patriarchs – necessarily includes the land. It is not implied or inferred, it is intrinsic, since the land is subsumed or embedded into the terms of the covenants due to its central role in furthering the redemptive plan.
In Romans 15:8, the Apostle Paul says that Jesus came “to confirm the promises made to the fathers.” Then in Hebrews 6, Paul urges New Testament believers to take “strong encouragement” that God will keep His promises to us by observing His faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant. His “immutable” name and character are at stake, Paul insists, and thus if the Almighty is not able to bring the Jews to their promised destiny back in the land in the fullness of time, we cannot trust Him either.
In addition, New Testament writers and figures, including Jesus, repeatedly invoked the Jewish hope of a future ‘restoration’ in the land, a widely held concept drawn from numerous promises in Scripture about restoring the “fortunes” (or “captivity”) of Jacob/Israel [See for example, Psalm 14:7; 77:7; 85:1; 106; 126:1; Jeremiah 30:18; 33:25-26; Ezekiel 39:25; Hosea 6:11; Joel 3:1]. This Jewish hope in liberation from Roman rule and “restoration” of the Davidic kingdom was so prevalent in those days that the words “for the redemption of Zion” or “the freedom of Zion” were even imprinted on many Judean coins in the First Century.
It was these times of favor or ‘restoration’ for Israel that are alluded to in Acts 1:6-7, when Jesus tells his disciples not to be so concerned with the nation’s fate at that moment, but instead concentrate on preaching the Gospel to all men. And yet, the Apostle Peter is able to stand in that same Jerusalem not many days hence and boldly declare that the “times of restoration of all things” spoken of “by the mouth of His holy prophets” will indeed come before Messiah returns (Acts 3:21). In so doing, we see that Peter’s preaching included a marked hope in that future time of favor and final ingathering for Israel.
Paul as well is quite clear about this future time of ingathering and recovery for Israel in Romans 11.
Isaiah 66:8 ponders, “shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children.” The modern-day restoration of Zion indeed has proven painful thus far for many – Jews and Arabs – and more has yet to be birthed. But the reappearance of a sovereign Jewish nation in their ancient homeland on that momentous day in 1948 is truly cause for Christians to rejoice in a faithful God.
The writer is public relations officer for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.