How Christian is Zionism?

"Lord," the disciples asked the risen Jesus, "is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" His answer was: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority." —Acts 1:6-7

The question was a reasonable one for disciples who had earlier heard Jesus imply future glory for the city of Jerusalem when the times of Gentile political domination were past (Luke 21:24). Here in Acts such standard hopes of Jewish end-times theology (or "eschatology") that included political sovereignty were not denied but apparently deferred. For now the concern to which the disciples were directed was a worldwide evangelistic mission radiating out from Jerusalem, instead of a focus on political rule in Jerusalem.

Fast forward to the late 19th century. When nonreligious Jews sought to create a secular Jewish state, many Orthodox Jews objected that the Zionists were jumping the gun. The Zionists were "flying in the face of heaven," they said, and they should wait until the Messiah came to take the people of Israel back to their ancestral land.

The Orthodox Jewish stance has a remarkable affinity to Jesus' answer to the disciples, because both depend on traditional Jewish eschatology, which says it is the Messiah who will restore Israel to the land where justice and peace may be enjoyed. In Acts 1, Jesus, as the Messiah, is personally to restore the kingdom to Israel, and the timing is to be God's. The context suggests that when Jesus returns from heaven it will be his role to carry out this Messianic task: "This same Jesus, who has been taken up from you to heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).

Jewish eschatology looked for the establishment of the house of David in Jerusalem over an independent state. In the Old Testament, the concept of the land plays a prominent role. But the New Testament mostly tells a different story. By persistent appeal to Psalm 110:1, the New Testament claims that the rule of the risen, ascended Messiah is for now established in heaven rather than on earth. This emphasis and a focus on redeeming the Gentiles moved the early church away from a land-related agenda. The New Testament tends to reinterpret the land as the whole earth or as heaven.

The Plymouth Brethren, a group that began in mid-19th-century England, proposed a novel understanding of the "rapture" in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. There Paul regards the Second Coming as a time when Jesus, coming back to earth through the air, was to encounter Christians, both living and resurrected, who would be caught up to meet him. In the Brethren's new understanding, the purpose of this meeting was to take the church up to heaven, rather than seeing here the welcome given by a church that escorted its lord back to earth, as in the wedding parable in Matthew 25:6. Only if Jesus returns to earth, the Brethren believed, can he reign in Jerusalem, the very place where he was rejected.

God's Covenant with Abraham
Most Zionists claim that God's eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12, 15) means that Israel must have undivided political sovereignty over all the land mentioned there, which stretches from the Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates in what is now Iraq.

Their claim is biblically erroneous. God's covenant and promise of the land in Genesis is given to Abraham and his descendants, not only to Israel. Abraham is "the father of many nations," not only one nation (Genesis 17:3-6); Abraham's descendants are Jews, Arabs, and Christians. The mother of Abraham's son, Ishmael, was Hagar the Egyptian. Hagar produced descendants with Abraham and received a covenant promise: "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count" (Genesis 16:1-15). Those descendants were Arabs, settling in Arab territory (Genesis 25:13-18). Furthermore, Paul writes that Abraham's descendants include Gentile and Jewish Christians: "all who believe"—both Gentiles who "have not been circumcised" and "the circumcised" (Romans 4:11-12).

The prophets of Israel announce again and again that if Israel does not repent and do justice, it will be driven into exile. True and effective support for Israel is to join the call of the prophets for repentance, justice, and peacemaking. That is what will make life more secure for the people of Israel and Palestine. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, "If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless, or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place...then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever."

Leslie C. Allen was professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Glen Stassen was professor of Christian ethics at Fuller and co-author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, when this article appeared.

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