The Reformation and IsraelPublished on: 30.10.2017
Some Unfinished Business
Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President
This October 31st marks five hundred years exactly since the start of the Reformation, which dates back to that autumn morning in 1517 when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ on the doors of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The Evangelical movement today could hardly be imagined without the changes wrought by such reformers as Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and many other great reformers, who rediscovered old truths of Scripture and thereby helped revive authentic Christianity.
Ever since, the Church has continued to rediscover biblical truths and experience reformation. For example, we have returned to our founding call to world missions contained in the Great Commission. There was a time when most churches did not have a vision for the lost, whether locally or in distant lands around the world. But because of the Moravian brethren and later missionaries like Hudson Taylor and William Carey, nearly every Evangelical church today has a missions budget and other programs that seek to reach the unsaved, both near and far.
Yet there remains one major piece of unfinished business for the Reformation, and that is the Church stills lacks a universal recognition and acceptance of the enduring role of the Jewish people in God’s redemptive plans for the world. Luther actually opened the way for this sorely needed change by restoring the Bible to ordinary believers in their native languages, but he also perpetuated traditional Christian anti-Semitism late in his life, hindering the chances for this great re-awakening concerning Israel to take root.
The Israel Reformation
Of all the changes triggered by Martin Luther, his greatest and most lasting impact on the Church was his translation of the Bible from Latin into the common German tongue. This enabled ordinary Christians to once again read and interpret the Word of God for themselves. Previously, it was considered a sacrilege for uneducated lay people even to read the Holy Book. Only the priests and learned could read it, and they often twisted its truths to suit their purposes. But the widespread availability of the Bible would soon transform societies worldwide, as more biblical truths were rediscovered and whole new evangelical church movements were birthed.
As ordinary Christians studied the Bible, they found that one of the great truths of Scripture which had been hidden from them was God’s irrevocable covenant with Israel. With few exceptions, most churches down through history had little understanding or appreciation for the divine calling over Israel and the Jewish people. In fact, they taught that God had abandoned the Jews and even cursed them to endless wanderings. They insisted that the Church had replaced Israel as God’s redemptive agent in the world, and thus there was no national destiny left for the Jewish people back in their ancient homeland. For centuries, this was the prevailing view in most of the established churches of Europe. Any contrary outlook was brutally silenced. In 1589, one of the first clergyman to write openly about the promised restoration of Israel was the controversial Francis Kett, who was later burned at the stake for a number of heretical beliefs.
Yet today, we are in the midst of a mighty wave of reformation in the Church, and it has to do with Israel. The early Church understood God’s enduring purposes for Israel and of our spiritual connection to the Jewish people, and this understanding is being restored to mainstream Christianity today. I believe in coming decades there will hardly be a church which does not have some connection to Israel, and funding a budget to ‘bless Israel’ will be just as natural as having a mission’s budget.
This major shift is taking place because Christians are now aware that God has dramatically changed His own approach towards Israel. The restored Jewish nation testifies to this paradigm shift, exactly as the prophet Zechariah foretold: “‘Just as I determined to punish you when your fathers provoked Me to wrath’, says the Lord of hosts, ‘and I would not relent. So again in these days I am determined to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah…’” (Zechariah 8:14–15)
In other words, God shifts into different gears or phases in His dealings with His chosen people. Over the past 100 years, God has moved from reverse gear to fast forward. Instead of scattering Israel, He is restoring them just as the prophets foretold. No one can overlook any longer this incredible alignment of biblical prophecy and today’s events in the Middle East.
This means the teaching of Replacement theology (often masked these days as Fulfilment theology) is being proven wrong by realities on the ground. The reborn state of Israel is a prophetic fait accompli that fully demonstrates the Lord is a covenant-keeping God. And the Church has to come to terms with this new reality. For 1900 years, no one asked: “How do we deal with the restoration of the Jews back to their ancient homeland?” But today we must face this question. This has no parallel in Church history, as no prior generation of Gentile believers had to deal with it. This means the coming years of continued Jewish restoration, both physically and spiritually, will surely be some of the most exciting times in Church history!
Back to our Roots
The good news is that we do not have to invent a new theology. Most of the New Testament was written at a time when there was still a Jewish political entity in the Land of Israel. Therefore, if we look at how the Apostles taught Gentile churches about their relationship to the Jewish people, we will find that the Scriptures are quite clear on how the Church should relate to Israel today.
1. Remember your pagan past
The Apostle Paul first reminded Gentile believers in Ephesus and Rome about their previously hopeless pagan origins. Today, after 2000 years of Christianity expanding to even the remotest parts of the earth, it sounds strange to view ourselves as pagans. But Paul had to remind the church in Rome that as non-Jews, they were like the branch of a wild olive tree. Such wild olive trees produce inedible fruit and thus are little more than a useless shrub.
To the church in Ephesus, Paul appealed: “Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh… that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:11–12)
Paul also reminds both churches that only after they put their faith in a Jewish Messiah, could they be reconciled to God and become part of His people. Only the book of the Jews, the Bible, gave us hope of knowing a loving God.
This means every Gentile church needs to be humble and mindful regarding their own past.
2. Acknowledge the Hebraic roots of your faith
Paul declares to the church in Rome: “Do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.” (Romans 11:18)
That means Gentile Christians should not reject or ridicule the Jewish origins of their faith, but nourish them as one would nourish the roots of a tree. Adam Clark states it so beautifully that through the Jewish people “all the blessing and excellencies which you enjoy have been communicated to you”. Or, as Jesus himself declares, “Salvation is of the Jews!” (John 4:22)
This means every New Testament church needs to recognise the role of Israel as a source of “blessing for all the families of the earth” and to respect the Jewish roots of our faith.
3. Appreciate the irrevocable calling over Israel
The New Testament epistles strongly underline the eternal calling over Israel. Even though the Jewish people might not recognise Jesus as their Messiah and might even be ‘enemies of the Gospel’, Paul still calls them “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28).
That means if God still loves Israel as is, the Church should love her the same. Paul squarely contradicts every Replacement theologian today: “Will their [the Jews] unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar.” (Romans 3:3-4)
So even if they are unfaithful, God still is faithful to His covenants, as He cannot deny Himself. Anything else would be a lie.
This means every New Testament church needs to uphold and proclaim the enduring call over Israel.
4. Recognise your spiritual debt to Israel
Paul made clear to Gentile believers that the Jewish people already provided everything necessary for our relationship with God. The Bible is a Jewish book, we serve a Jewish Messiah and it was Jewish apostles who spread the Gospel to the Gentile world. Paul thus declares that Gentile believers are debtors to Israel.
“For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things.” (Romans 15:26–27)
This means every New Testament church needs to be very intentional in how we return the blessings received through the Jewish people.
5. Expect the restoration of Israel
In the New Testament, the Apostles not only affirm the enduring calling over Israel, but they strongly encourage the hope of Israel’s restoration. This is demonstrated in the last question they posed to Jesus before his ascension: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
Paul also conveys this hope to the church in Rome: “For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15) In other words, he maintains that a great calling and blessing still lays ahead for Israel.
This means every church should embrace a theology of hope regarding Israel and support her full restoration.
Connect with Israel!
Just as the vision for world missions was renewed within the Church, there needs to be a reformation which reconnects the Church with its Jewish roots. In times to come, a healthy church can no longer afford to ignore Israel. This needs to be taught from every pulpit and become an integral part of the activity, prayers and giving of every church. We see this happening around the world. Join with pastors and believers from around the world in this exciting and historic journey. It is time to complete the unfinished Reformation!