If you have been following this series so far, on “Christian Zionism”, it should be reasonable at this point to conclude that a stalemate is at hand. The question of Christian Zionism; that is, “Does the land, for national ethnic Israel, continue to play a role in Biblical prophecy?,” probably belongs in the category of “disputable matters,” in the language of the Apostle Paul, in Romans 14:1. Different sides on this debate have their Scriptural proof texts, to support their argument. Thus far, we have seen that the Bible lacks a clear, consistent witness that rules either a pro-Zionist or non-Zionist position completely off of the table.
As a general rule, when different godly Bible teachers, who seek to honor the Bible as God’s Word, are unable to agree on particular details of Scripture interpretation, then some discretion is in order. Believers should avoid unnecessary dogmatism.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the underlying issues in the debate are inconsequential. God often uses vigorous discussion to open our eyes more deeply to His Truth.
When it comes to God’s promises, Israel plays a central role in Holy Scripture, so we need to listen to what God’s Word is telling us. Plus, there are still geo-political, cultural issues in the background that often obscure what Scripture teaches in these debates. Therefore, we need to facilitate good conversation in our churches to try to grapple with the larger, broader themes of our underlying interpretive “grids.” So, now we begin to approach the promise of the land, starting from the interpretive “grid” of dispensationalism.
Dispensationalist Approach to Israel
When it comes to how Christians understand the Abrahamic promise of the land, there are basically two schools of thought. The more recent and most popular view, dispensationalism, broadly argues that that there is a theological principle that undergirds our approach to Zionism: God made specific promises to national, ethnic Israel, regarding the land, that remain relevant for God’s purposes in the future.1
Throughout church history, there has been an undercurrent, that every now and then, comes to the surface in Christian thinking: Is there still some sort of special status, in the mind of God, concerning Israel, the Old Testament people of God, whom we consider as Jews today? Might this not have something to do with God’s promise to Abraham, regarding the land?
In the early 19th century, a number of Bible teachers in Britain began to come together to see that, yes, the Bible makes a distinction between Israel, as the Old Testament people of God, and the church, as the New Testament people of God. In the 20th century, this theological focus on Israel, in contrast with the church, received great attention, particularly within the United States. With this Israel-church distinction in mind, dispensationalists have viewed themselves as Christians with a high view of Scripture, “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV).
Surely, God has made promises to His church, both Jew and Gentile, that impacts our salvation. God wants both Jew and Gentile to come to know His Son, Jesus, the Messiah, and enter a saving relationship with Him.
However, dispensationalism takes a step further by saying that God has also made particular promises to Israel, the Jewish people going back to the Old Testament. Many of these promises have not yet been fulfilled, or they only have been fulfilled partially. In this way we see how God dispenses His grace and truth, in different ways, at different times, with different peoples. This is where we get the “dispense” in dispensationalism.
The story goes like this: God made particular promises to Israel, and He has obligated Himself to keep them. His reputation and honor is at stake. If He does not keep His promises to Israel, then on what basis do believers in the church have the hope that God will keep His promises towards them?
The error of Christianity in previous generations is that the notion of these God-given promises to Israel has been forgotten among Christian believers. As a result, Christians have been robbed of the blessings that God would have for the church. To borrow from Numbers 24:9 (Good News Translation):
Whoever blesses Israel will be blessed, And whoever curses Israel will be cursed.
In dispensationalism, the destiny of the church, as the New Testament people of God, is bound up in the destiny of Israel, as the Old Testament people of God. Classic versions of dispensationalism that I heard as a young person even insisted that we are living now in what some call the “church age,” where the affairs of God, bringing Jews and Gentiles to salvation in Christ, is the current focus of God’s attention. However, the church age is yet but a parenthesis in God’s larger plan. God’s main plan is all about Israel, which existed before the church. Once the “church age” ends, God will dispense with his dealings with the church and pick back up where he left off with Israel, God’s “Plan A,” and continue on in bringing world history to a climax.2
In the past thirty years or so, the dispensationalist movement has modified quite a bit, but the above general narrative gets at the main idea. God is a God who keeps His promises, and it all begins and ends with Israel. Next, we explore a different approach, covenant theology.
1. Zionism, as you may recall, is the belief God is fulfilling and/or will fulfill the Abrahamic promise of land in the Middle East, to the Jewish people. Christians who support this view are “Christian Zionists.” However, other Christians do not support “Christian Zionism.” I am intentionally oversimplifying the opposing views for next couple of blog posts. It is important to get the broader contours before diving into the various and subtle nuances associated with the different views. We will explore some of those nuances in later blog posts.↩
2. For an excellent set of presentations that make the case for dispensationalist view regarding Zionism, I would recommend the following lectures from Joel Rosenberg’s Epicenter conference, 2012. Joel Rosenberg is a popular Christian author, who promotes Zionism through his books. At this conference, Rosenberg introduces Norman Geisler, a prolific Christian apologist, to give an Old Testament perspective on the land promise, as well as Michael Rydelnik, a Messianic Jew and professor at Moody Bible Institute, to give a New Testament perspective on the land promise. In my analysis, both speakers lean more towards a progressive dispensationalist view of Zionism, making the argument that the land promise for Israel has NOT yet been fulfilled. That promise will only be fulfilled when the Messiah returns. Norman Geisler’s presentation can be viewed here, at Joel Rosenberg’s website, along with a downloadable copy of his Powerpoint notes. Michael Rydelnik’s presentation can be viewed here, at Rosenberg’s website, along with the Powerpoint notes. For YouTube viewers, you can watch the presentations below:↩
Alternate link to Norm Geisler’s presentation at Epicenter 2012 (There was a YouTube version of this talk, but it has since been taken down.)