by Dr. Keith Megilligan
Church history has brought us to an interesting place in our theological understanding of God’s working out His plan. The outworking of this plan has been reviewed by church historians and theologians since the inception of the church. One of the mitigating factors has been, how does the church view the part of the Jew in this plan? Should the Jews be vilified for the crucifixion of Jesus (“His blood be on us and our children.”)? Such vitriolic language stuck in the “historical craw” of the anti-Israel, 2nd century and following, “followers” of Jesus. The early church had a spotty (at best) view and relationship with her Jewish neighbors beginning shortly after the first century apostles and other Jewish Christian leaders passed off the scene. In the subsequent 20 centuries or so, the view of the church toward Jews in general and Israel in particular have waxed and waned. How should Israel and the Jewish people be understood today in light of the dispensational framework in which scripture should be understood?
That understanding has been a fuzzy one when it comes to matters of biblical interpretation. From Origen to Augustine, to Gregory the Great through the Medieval period, the Renaissance and Reformation, the church’s hermeneutical (the science and art of interpretation of Scripture) mindset has been clouded by (at least) two factors:
1) It has been based on allegory.
2) It has been prejudiced against the Jew.
A somewhat tantalizing third factor exists as well: the composition of the church’s Bible. Jerome (who was commissioned by the pope of that day, 4th/5th century AD) compiled a Latin translation of the entire Bible. The Vulgate became the “King James” translation of its day (millennium!). The western (Latin-Roman) church was devoted to this translation. The problem was, in spite of Jerome’s monumental enterprise, the text was corrupt in many places. It wasn’t until the period of the Renaissance and into the Reformation that the church scholars and leaders “demanded” a return to the original languages of the Scripture (Hebrew and Greek) to replace the Vulgate edition. One of the “by-products” of this transition was the need of the church scholars to call upon their Jewish neighbors for help in accurately rendering the Hebrew portion of Scripture, a somewhat humbling and begrudging task!
What was “exposed” as a result of this translation exercise is the hermeneutical divergence between the church and her Jewish neighbors. Whereas the church had consistently looked at Old Testament Scriptures through the lens of allegory, types, and similes, the Jews maintained a steadfast literal view of the Hebrew text. So for well over a millennium, the church was painting everything with allegorical hues in its interpretation (meaning that the OT text only had spiritual application for the church), the Jews saw the Hebrew text as pointing clearly to Jewish interests with possible political, prophetical and (even) national overtones for a revived state of Israel.
We now live in a point of time that is extraordinary with regard to both church history and the Jews/Israel. The church has survived the languishing of the Middle Ages, rallied through the Reformation, and now stagnates over its identity: evangelical, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, liberal, conservative, etc. Nonetheless, the body of Christ survives and even thrives as internationally (Asia and Africa) she stands as a tribute to Christ’s words, “…and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (the church).”
Meanwhile, as a people and nation, the Jew and Israel, respectively, not only exist, but stand as a mocking bastion against those in history that would do them in (e.g. Hitler and Nazism). Those whose mind and heart are in tune with the written text of Scripture not only marvel but stand amazed at what God has resurrected post World War II. There, on the sun drenched Mediterranean shores of what was once a British mandated “Palestine”—slice of real estate, springs to life the modern State of Israel. Talk about dry bones coming to life (Ezekiel 37-39)!
But then, how does one see the modern State of Israel? Is she to be viewed as an ongoing thorn in the side of what is known as the “Palestinian State?” For that matter, where and how did the Palestinian State even come into existence? And, given the current political/international atmosphere, should the modern State of Israel be viewed as the antagonist or protagonist (or either) over against the so-called Palestinian State?
During the 1970’s, the seminary I attended taught us the following summary regarding how to view Israel: both prophetic and the modern state. The marvel of the post-WW II Jews returning to “Palestine,” and ultimately establishing their modern state of Israel, was a blessing to the biblical hermeneutic of a literal, grammatical, cultural, historical interpretation of the biblical text. First, what the Scriptures had taught us through their prophets indicated that indeed, God was going to put sinew and muscle on dry bones. Second, though the current state of Israel was certainly the substance of God’s doing, modern Israel, at least currently, is not a total fulfillment of God’s promises. That is, the Jews are definitely back in “the Land,” but are they there in belief or unbelief? No matter the answers to these questions, the main (theological) perspective we were taught is that the church is the church and Israel is Israel. The two should not be joined or confused in Scripture. This dispensational view of the word of God is buttressed today with the re-establishment of Israel as a nation among the nations of the world after two millennia of world-wide dispersion – just as the prophets foretold!
In other words, since 1947/8, did the re-birth of Israel as a modern nation mean that biblical prophecy had been fulfilled? Though there are many references that could be cited, let me just focus on Ezekiel 37:15-28. After establishing the fact that He would make the previously dual nations of Israel one (vs.15-20), God then describes how He will bring this “one nation” back to the Land of Israel.
- The Lord will gather his people from all the nations of the world (vs. 21).
- The Lord will bring them back to the Land as one people (vs. 22).
- The Lord will establish one king over them as one people (vs. 22).
- The Lord will save them from and out of all their sinful practices (vs. 23).
- As a result of this cleansing of their spiritual condition, the Lord will become their God (again) and they will be his people (vs. 23). The Lord will establish one king-Shepherd over his people in the Land, and he will be from the house of David (vs. 24).
- The Lord will establish them in the Land, their children with his king (David) forever and ever (vs. 25)!
- The Lord will make a (new) and everlasting covenant of peace with them (vs. 26).
- The Lord will set his tabernacle (temple) in their midst forevermore (vs. 26).
- The Lord will do all this so that Israel will be (and know) that He is their God and they are His people (vs. 27).
- And finally, the Lord will do all this also, so that the nations of the world will know that He has sanctified Israel as His people forever!
Given this brief check list, how would you evaluate the current modern state of Israel? Just by the measure alone that “the Lord will…” do all these things, you can see that there are some (many!) deficiencies. Further, the modern Jew is hardly back in the Land as a matter of belief. David is hardly their king (!) and their current parliamentary government is hardly theocratic.
Nonetheless, the very existence of the modern state of Israel flies in the face of historical theology that replaces Israel with the church. That is, how, biblically, can we diminish the place of Israel and supplant that place with the church? As has been pointed out, should the Hebrew Scriptures only be treated as literal/prophetic for the Jew; and only allegorically for the church? When we see events such as the re-establishment of the modern state of Israel, should we turn a blind eye to the biblical prophecies that point to such an entity? Has the hermeneutic of the church become so fuzzy as to leave us with allegory alone in our view of the whole of Scripture? Jesus made it very clear that all Scripture pointed to Him. And, at that point in history, the only recorded Scripture was the Tanakh. Jesus was at the least saying the Hebrew text was to be taken at face value, not allegorically.
Hence, we, as modern day Christians, should at least do the following:
- Pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6).
- Pray that modern Jews (whether in the Land or not) would come to seek Jesus as their Messiah and Savior (Romans 11).
- Support Israel as a people (not necessarily a particular government ruling coalition) against her enemies and those who in the name of anti-Semitism would despise her and do her harm.
- Recognize that, like any other government in the world, the government of the modern state of Israel is not perfect.
- As God gives you the opportunity, visit the Land. It is not so much the question of making a “spiritual pilgrimage” as it is getting a much better context of the classroom that is Israel as you read the Bible.
- Recognize that the world does not and will not see Israel as a biblical Christian does.
- Embrace a dispensational understanding of scripture which leads to the only consistent hermeneutic.
Embracing a hermeneutic of a literal, grammatical, cultural, historical interpretation of the biblical text will bring in focus Israel, the church, and the dispensational framework which allows a consistent interpretation and understanding of the word of God. It will make sense of the church and Israel being on the world scene in our time. In fact, those who argue against a literal interpretation of Israel and eschatology, at times, in moments of candor, admit that if we approach the text from this viewpoint then, “…we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just such a picture of an early reign of the Messiah as the pre-millennialists pictures.”1
1 Floyd E. Hamilton, The Basis of Millennial Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1942), p. 38.