As Israel and Hamas go to war, many Christians have suddenly begun to wonder about our relationship to Israel today and what we should think about the current events in it. Obviously, this war is terrible, and what has been done to Israel is horrific. We should all condemn the attacks made by the Hamas terrorists.
But with this blog post, I just want to lay out something of a Christian understanding and response to Israel in general, not specifically with regard to the war. I want to ask and answer two simple questions: (1) What is our relationship to the Jews as Christians today? And (2) what should our heart be toward the Jews?
What Is Our Relationship to the Jews as Christians?
This is actually a question that the Apostle Paul dealt with regularly, since he, a Jew, was called by God to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. We will briefly list and consider some points from Paul’s writing about the status of Jews and Christians.
- Salvation for the Gentiles came through the Jews and God’s dealings with them through the ages. Gentile Christians should recall all of God’s covenant-dealings with Israel in the Old Testament, and how the Lord Jesus, according to the flesh, came through the line of Abraham and David (see Matt 1). Without Israel, there would be no stage for the Saviour to come to the world. Jesus himself said, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). They are the original root, or the natural branches of God’s tree of salvation (Rom 11:16-24). Paul even encouraged Gentile Christians to share their material blessings with poor Jewish Christians because they owed it to them for sharing spiritual blessings with them (Rom 15:27). Though being in covenant with God in a physical sense did not ensure that all the Jews were saved (see passages like Heb 3-4; 1 Cor 10), it did bring many benefits, and it does mean that God will not forget them as a people. “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” (Rom 3:1-4a). “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Rom 9:4-5).
- God has made salvation available for Israelites as well, and has a future plan for them as a nation. Paul asks, “has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:1-2). He then goes on to note that there is a remnant of Jews who believe in Christ (think of Paul himself, Peter, James, Mary, etc.), though the majority have hardened themselves against him (vv. 2-10). He also goes on to explain (in brief) a real mystery, that God will restore the ethnic Jews in a major way before the great resurrection (vv. 11-32). When the fullness of the Gentiles has come into God’s fold, Christ will banish ungodliness from Jacob, and “all Israel will be saved” (vv. 25-27). This seems to mean that there will be a great turning of ethnic Jews to Christ before the end of the world. (Though some have disputed this interpretation of Romans 11, it has been an interpretation held by many faithful pastor-theologians throughout history. This was even the majority view of the 17th century Puritans.) Though the Jews often show themselves to be enemies of the gospel even today (like in the first century), there will be a great conversion of Jews before Christ returns.
- Jew and Gentile Christians are both equally the people of God in Christ. Christ has come and broken down the “dividing wall” of the ceremonial laws and reconciled all believers to God and one another by his death on the cross so that Jew and Gentile can be one new people together with no barriers: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:14-16). As such Gentile believers have full status as God’s covenant people, and are co-heirs with Christ and all believing Jews (Eph 2:11-22; Eph 3:6; Col 3:11). In fact, Paul can even say that the true Israel is a spiritual Israel. True Jews are inner Jews: they have the faith and regenerate heart of Abraham. “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:28-29). “He [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Rom 4:11-12). “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:7-9). Gentile Christians are also sons of Abraham and spiritual Jews!
So our relationship to the Jews is somewhat complex. Not all of them are saved, and in fact, a great general hardening has come upon them. For all their privileges, many have not found salvation through faith in Christ. But the same salvation we enjoy is still available to them, and God has his sheep among them. Believing Jews are part of the same family as believing Gentiles. What distinguishes us both is that Christ is in us and he is everything to us. And we have hope that when the gospel has been proclaimed to all Gentile people groups and the full number of the elect among them has been saved, then the Jews will also return in mass to their Messiah.
What Should Our Heart Be toward the Jews?
Paul the Apostle also helps us with this question. In some of the same passages cited above, Paul displays his heart to the Jews and gives us instruction on what our heart should be toward them.
- An intense desire for them to be saved. Paul’s desire to see Jews saved is intense; so intense, he could wish himself accursed so that they might be blessed with salvation. “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom 9:1-3). Paul is grieved at their hardness towards Christ, and would give everything to see them return to the God who so blessed them in the past. That should be our heart too!
- An attitude of prayer for them. Paul says, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:1-4). What many of the Jews did not understand was that salvation is through the righteousness of Christ received by faith, not by their own righteousness. This is the gospel, which he explains at length in Romans 1-4. But he longs and prays for them to be saved by faith in Christ, receiving the righteousness of God that comes through faith. We should pray more regularly for the Jews, especially in light of what God has revealed about their future salvation.
- An evangelistic heart towards them and all peoples. In Romans 10:5-21, Paul goes on to describe the task of the evangelist. If no one is sent with the gospel, and no one preaches, and no one hears the gospel, how will anyone be saved, Jew or Gentile? So we must continue to preach the gospel to all peoples, Jews, Palestinians, Canadians, etc., that God’s plan to save people from all nations would be fulfilled. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:12-13).
- A humble attitude toward them. Paul encourages Gentiles to be humble toward the Jews (even those who were hardened against God) because God can cut off Gentile branches from his tree of salvation as well as Jews. And in fact, Gentiles are not natural branches, but are wild branches that had to be grafted in (Rom 11:17-24). The fact that God is dealing largely with Gentiles right now should not make us look down upon or despise the Jews. We are also included in God’s plan by sheer mercy and grace, by God’s calling and election (see all of Romans 9-11). And again, God has a plan to bring back many Jews before the end.
Therefore, let us continue to desire and pray for the Jews to come to Christ, support the evangelization of all nations including Israel, and be humble toward them. Let us hope and pray for them (and the Palestinians) to know the Prince of Peace, that there might be peace in their land and peace in their hearts.
Pastor Rory St. John