Margaret Thatcher managed to achieve so much in transforming the face of modern Britain because she was specially blessed by God. And she was specially blessed by God because, on becoming Prime Minister, one of the first things she did was to meet with the Israeli ambassador and state that she would actively support the State of Israel. This fulfilled the promise given to Abraham in Gen 12.3 ‘I will bless those who bless you.’ Or so I was taught by David Pawson.
This belief is one part of a complex of ideas usually called Christian Zionism, and its influence significantly shapes Christian views about the Israel/Palestine question, and becomes evident in the polarisation of views whenever there is another conflict, as there was this time last year. Indeed, this view could be seen as one of the key shapers of foreign policy in the US, and it therefore shapes world politics. If you have ever come across the idea that the State of Israel has a right to the land it now occupies, and that this right should trump normal ethical criteria in this area, then you have encountered Christian Zionism.
So when I was sent the pre-publication draft of Rob Dalrymple‘s new book, These Brothers of Mine, I wrote the following endorsement:
Rob Dalrymple’s book on understanding the theology of Christian Zionism is a remarkable tour de force. It offers a thorough engagement with the meaning of Israel in Scripture, and the significance of the consistent testimony of the New Testament that all of God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus—including promises about the temple, God’s people, and the land. Rob’s great strength here is addressing his opponents on their home ground, and giving a thorough response to alternative views. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to connect Scripture with the contemporary political situation.
Why did I give such an enthusiastic endorsement? Primarily it is because the debate is marked by polarisation, and Rob’s book manages to avoid this, not least because he has been on both sides of the debate. Brought up in a fundamentalist Christian context where Christian Zionism was the unquestioned norm, he found his beliefs challenged through his own study but also through his own personal experience of the situation in Israel. But, unlike many, instead of rejecting everything he had learnt before, this led Rob to reconsider what he had been taught and sift it, rather than swinging from one extreme to another. So this book continues to engage with ‘conservative’ positions and scholarship—the most ‘liberal’ he gets is citing Tom Wright.
The second thing that marks this book out is that Rob’s argument is theological, rather than either being political or cherry-picking individual verses to prove a point.
My thesis is simple: Jesus is the fulfilment of all God’s promises. I have found in my years of teaching and preaching that many Christians simply have too low a view of Jesus. The implications are significant: the people of God in the New Testament world are comprised of those from every nation and, as such, we are not to give allegiance to any one nation as superior to another, but to the people of God (“These Brothers of Mine”) who dwell in all the nations. (p ix)
This means that, along with an engagement in Christian Zionism, you will get from this book a fascinating theological interpretation of the scriptural story, centred on the way in which Jesus is the fulfilment and climax of the purposes of God—and if that sounds familiar, it should, since this is the major theme of the NT!
The shape of Rob’s approach is interesting in itself. He starts by consider why Christian Zionism should be engaged with, tracing its widespread influence and impact. From the beginning he aims to avoid polarisation:
To side with Israel against the Palestinians, or the Palestinians against Israel, is not to stand with Jesus…We must renounce terrorism and the oppression of any people, regardless of who the perpetrator is…
The fear is that in responding to Christian Zionism, many will immediately assume that I am arguing for the opposite. I am not. (p 7)
He then sets out some issue in biblical interpretation, before recounting his own experience of visiting Israel and meeting Christian Palestinian Arabs. That then leads him into the second part of the book, which offers a theological reading of Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promises to his people. This starts with the exploring the purpose of the temple, and the way in which the NT sees the temple as fulfilled in Jesus. This is a key move; the temple is most clearly associated with Jesus in the NT, particularly in John’s gospel (in the language of tabernacling in John 1.14, and in Jesus’ claim in John 2.19 for example) and in Hebrews, and even the most conservative of evangelicals would agree that Jesus has fulfilled the purpose of the temple in giving access to the presence of God.
Jesus not only fulfilled the OT prophecies regarding the temple, but he himself embodies the very nature and purpose of the temple. It is here that Christian Zionism fails in its assertions that the Bible requires that a physical temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem. (p 28)
He then, in the following three chapters, looks in turn at the temple, the people of God and the land. These chapters are marked by three distinctive things. First, Rob offers some important and detailed exegesis of key passages, but does so in an informed way which takes seriously the way that the NT reads the OT. Second, he is reading theologically, not atomistically, and so a key question at each stage is not simple ‘What is the temple?’ but ‘What is the purpose and goal of the temple?’ In this way he is able to make sense of the claim in the NT that both Jesus and the people of God in the NT are seen as the fulfilment of God’s purposes for temple, people and land in turn. The third distinctive comes from Rob’s PhD interest in the Book of Revelation (on which he has also published)–he puts his concerns in the context of their ultimate fulfilment in the vision of the New Jerusalem in Rev 21–22.
In the final section, Rob returns to the question of Christian Zionism, and engages with it on the basis of his reading of the biblical texts. He responds to some anticipated objections, including whether he is advocating a ‘replacement theology’ and whether the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 really was a ‘fulfilment of prophecy’. His final step is quite unexpected—a detailed study of the meaning of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. He defends the reading I advocate here, that ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ refers to Jesus’ followers (and not the poor in general) but does so in much more detail, offering a convincing reading taking seriously the place of the parable within Matthew’s gospel and within this fifth, eschatological, collection of Jesus’ teaching within the gospel. This then leads into some suggestion for practical involvement in the situation in Israel and with Palestinians.
Along the way, there were some fascinating insights into the shape of the OT promises of God and how they are seen in the NT—and there are some things which could strengthen Rob’s case even more. In the chapter on Jesus as the fulfilment of the people of God, I was surprised he did not mention Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’, which in Daniel 7 is an image of God’s people coming before him for vindication. On the subject of the land and its fulfilment, this has been studied in depth by Chris Wright in his Living as the People of God. But I was fascinated by thinking about the land as providing a place of identity, of security, and providing the nourishment God’s people need (‘a land flowing with milk and honey’) all of which are now provided by Jesus. I think this might be why Paul talks so often of being ‘in Christ’ when in the previous dispensation he would have used the language of ‘in Israel.’ The one argument I was not convinced by was the idea that ‘olam’ (the land is promised ‘olam’) might not mean ‘forever’ but only ‘for a long time.’
To suggest that 1948 is a fulfilment of prophecy “is to read the Old Testament as though Jesus Christ had not come into the world, and as though the New Testament had not been written, for the New Testament shows that these oracles of salvation find their fulfilment in Christ and his church.” (p 135)
If we want to invoke the promise of blessing in Genesis 12.1–3, we must understand two points. First, the promise of blessings and curses applies to those who bless or curse God’s people…Second, the people of God today are not restricted to a nation but are comprised of people from every nation. (p 154)
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