Should Christians support Israel?

One of the things I find most difficult about modern politics is the question of Israel. Should I, as a Christian, support Israel or not? Should I support Palestine or not? I think a lot of Christians have the idea that all Christians should support Israel unconditionally – or at least, should mostly support Israel. This stems from a belief that the Jews are still important to God’s plans – they are still God’s people, even if they have mostly rejected the Messiah up until now.

The events of October 7th have, once again, brought questions about Israel to the fore. I have been finding it extremely difficult to know what to say: it seems to be highly divided among political lines, with most of the people on the right supporting Israel, and most of the people on the left supporting Palestine. It all seems very tribal.

Part of the problem with a topic like this is that it’s enormously complex, not to mention the fact that people have strong feelings on the matter, plus the matter of people being killed in the Middle East as we speak. It’s difficult to think of an issue right now where the stakes are higher.

I am not capable of unpicking all the complexity and nor would a single blog post be the right way of doing it. However, I do know something about the Bible, and I do think there are real problems with the way some Christians approach the Bible when it comes to the Jews. What I’d like to do in this post is, firstly, explore why I am not a Christian Zionist, and then (tentatively) suggest how this might affect our position on Israel today.

Why I am not a Christian Zionist

For most of my Christian life, up until a few years ago, I never heard the phrase ‘Christian Zionism’. I think it’s a bigger thing in the USA than it is in the UK. In fact, a big part of the problem is that the Christian Zionists in the USA have got real political clout. (There is a large block of Zionist evangelicals in America who will vote for who will best support Israel, and they have a strong lobby at the White House).

However, when I was a child I do remember coming across the idea that the Jewish people were still part of God’s plans and they would be needed before Jesus returned. I didn’t realise at the time that this was a part of Christian Zionism. Other conversations I’ve had since then have made me think that this is common amongst UK Christians, even if they wouldn’t call themselves “Christian Zionists”.

My problem with Christian Zionism is that I think it is based on a simplistic and ultimately flawed reading of the Bible. It’s easy to read the Bible and pull out a few proof texts to show that we should support Israel. At the same time, as Christians we should do better: I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once remarked that the Bible is a book for grown-ups. It will not do to simply take a few texts out of context. This becomes doubly important when people are losing their lives – both Israelis and Palestinians. The stakes are too high for poor theology.

The organisation Christians United for Israel has a page on their website, “Why support Israel?” I thought the best way to begin was to go through these reasons and explain why I disagree. After looking at the Biblical angle, I want to outline a few points for how this might relate to the current situation.

1. Israel was created by God

I, of course, have no argument with the fact that Israel was created by God. However, for this exact reason, I think we need to be careful: because Israel belongs to God, his rules apply. So, are there any rules we need to be aware of?

They support their point by quoting Genesis 17, but I think Exodus 19:5 might be even more appropriate:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.

Exodus 19:5

This verse demonstrates exactly what I mean. God does promise that Israel would be his “treasured possession” out of all nations. However, the promise is conditional – there’s an “if” attached to it. God says IF you obey me fully and IF you keep my covenant. Which leads to the question, what if Israel have not obeyed God and kept his covenant?

I want to raise here at the outset that obedience to God has always been required of his people. Disobedience to God leads to separation from him, and consequently his judgement. This is what Isaiah said:

But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.
For your hands are stained with blood,
your fingers with guilt.
Your lips have spoken falsely,
and your tongue mutters wicked things.

Isaiah 59:2-3

2. God promises a blessing to those that bless Israel

God did indeed promise Abraham that he would bless those who blessed him. However, let’s think about that word blessing. What is blessing? We know from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) that blessing is not simply a material thing.

Sometimes blessing involves material things, but I would argue that the supreme blessing is to know God and walk in obedience to him. That is the most good that it’s possible to want for someone. Blessing someone is helping them to know the Lord and to walk in his ways – which sometimes means pointing out where they are going wrong (i.e. their sins) and calling them to repent. In fact, Jesus summarises the gospel message as “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47).

The idea of blessing as largely being a material thing (i.e. supplying money, goods, weapons and so on) is something which could only have happened in a materialistic world, like the Western world we live in. If we really want to bless Israel, we should pray for them to seek the Lord first and foremost.

We should remember that God fulfilled his promise to bless the Israelites throughout the Old Testament – and yet that often involved rebuking his people when they sinned. They were eventually taken into exile by Assyria and Babylon because of their stubborn sinfulness. This was, in a sense, all part of God’s blessing. If we are to take blessing seriously, we need to remember that God is the one who defines what blessing is – not Western materialism.

3. Jesus considered Jews ‘his family’

This is the only point where I disagree outright. Jesus told us explicitly who he considered his family:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:33-35

Jesus said that “whoever does God’s will” is a member of his family. As we know from elsewhere, this includes anyone who repents and believes the good news. This fits with what we read elsewhere in the New Testament, for example Hebrews 2:11 says, “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (speaking of all those who have been saved).

I believe the church is Jesus’ family – the church being comprised of both Gentile and Jewish believers. The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians: “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two [Jew and Gentile], thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” In Christ, Jew and Gentile become “one new humanity”, reconciled to God by the cross, which enables them to put away their hostility. There is only one family of Jesus’, and that is the church.

This has a direct bearing on how Christians should relate to the modern state of Israel. Loyalty between fellow Christians is greater than any other kind of loyalty. If the state of Israel today are doing things which oppress Christians, then Christians should stand against it. I find it baffling how Christians could side with the Jews over against their own brothers and sisters in Christ.

Think about how the apostles reacted when the early church was being persecuted by the Jews. They didn’t think “well, the Jews are God’s special people, so we have to help them persecute us…”

4. Christians are called to be ‘watchmen’

I’m not sure I even know what this means. They quote Isaiah 62:6-7, which mentions watchmen, but I’m can’t understand exactly what action we should be taking on the basis of it.

This does, however, lead to a serious point about their usage of the Bible. They say that Christians are called to be ‘watchmen’, and then go on to quote from Isaiah – which is part of the Old Testament (addressed to the Israelites). This raises the question of how the Old Testament relates to the New. How DO commands which were given to the Israelites relate to Christians – if they still apply to the Jews?

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that Christian Zionists do not think deeply enough about how the two testaments relate – especially, how the New Testament fulfils the old. (This is the strength of Rob Dalrymple’s book). We need to reckon seriously with verses like 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.” Every promise God has made is fulfilled in Christ. At the very least, that should stop us from giving simplistic interpretations of Old Testament prophecy.

5. Christians have a duty to bless Israel

The verse they quote is Romans 15:27, “if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” I’ll come back to Romans in a moment, because I want to address it separately. I already addressed the question of ‘blessing’ back in point #2.

6. Christians should pray for Jerusalem

Once again – as in point #4 – we have the problem of how the Old Testament relates to the new. Psalm 122:6 does indeed say to pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and, in fact, I have no problem praying for the peace of Jerusalem. (As I would pray for the peace of any earthly city!)

However, for Christians, we need to think a bit more deeply about this. Jerusalem is not just a physical place – it’s a symbolic place. God put the temple in Jerusalem as the symbol of dwelling with his people. That’s why it was such a significant place for the people of Israel. The temple was central to the Old Testament understanding of the people relating to God.

However, where is the temple now? The physical temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD – as Jesus predicted. However, Jesus himself is now our temple (John 2:21). Those who are united to Christ by faith have access to God in a way which was never enjoyed by the Israelites. This was symbolised by the curtain temple being torn in two when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51). Now we can enter into the Most Holy Place through the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:20).

Although there is still an earthly Jerusalem, this is no longer how we have access to God. Instead, there is a heavenly Jerusalem which all Christians come to (Hebrews 12:22). This new Jerusalem represents God dwelling with his people, and one day it will be complete – John sees a vision of the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven in Revelation 21.

The point of all of this is to say that, for me as a Christian, ‘Jerusalem’ in the Bible doesn’t represent a city on earth, so much as where God dwells with his people – in the hearts of every believer. Again, this is not to say that we shouldn’t pray for the peace of earthly Jerusalem – but rather that the earthly city of Jerusalem doesn’t have the same theological significance it once did.

7. God has not forsaken his people

Once again the quotation is from Romans, which I will come on to. In general, I think this is a good point, which is that God does not neglect or go back on his promises. I would say though, as in point #1, that these promises came with the condition of obedience.

God’s faithfulness to his promises means that he will always save those who are trusting in him – but he will punish those who are disobedient. He punished the Israelites many times throughout the Old Testament for turning away from him – and in fact, this is Paul’s point in Romans 11:5 when he talks about a “remnant chosen by grace”. On that note, let’s move on to think about Romans.

What about Romans?

I have just finished preaching through the whole book of Romans, and I feel that I’ve learned a lot along the way. A lot of the debate about the place of the Jews in God’s plans centres around passages in Romans, none more so than 11:26: “all Israel will be saved.” What does this mean?

I’d like to offer up a few thoughts.

Firstly, the church in Rome was made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, and they seemed to have real problems with unity. The Jewish Christians looked down on the Gentile Christians (as was customary for Jews of the day), and the Gentile Christians could be contemptuous of the Jews (Romans 14:3, 10). Paul’s response to this is to focus both groups on Jesus. His point is that the gospel requires everyone to repent and believe – it humbles us all. The problem with the Jews is that they were too proud of their law-keeping abilities. They didn’t think they needed Jesus. The Gentiles, on the other hand, became proud because they thought God had chosen them over his own people.

The point that Paul emphasises over and again is that of unity. Jewish Christians are part of the same body as Gentile Christians – and they should worship together and support one another. He makes the point in Romans and Galatians that those who have the faith of Abraham are his descendants (Romans 9:8; Galatians 3:7) – i.e. both Jews and Gentiles alike who have faith in Christ share in God’s promises. In the gospel, God does not distinguish between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28).

Secondly, Paul’s expression “all Israel will be saved” is a puzzling one. He also says in the same letter, “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Romans 9:6). In another letter, he describes the church as the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Whether this is what Paul means here is unclear. I think on balance that Paul is talking about the full number of Israel who are appointed to salvation – the elect – rather than all Israel without distinction. But it’s hard to say exactly and I wouldn’t like to be dogmatic about it. Paul’s overall point is to hammer home the message of unity in Christ, that was his overriding concern and it should be ours too. I should also add that, whatever one thinks about the verse, it does not entail any specific political or military action in the 21st century.

Thirdly, and perhaps most controversially, I am not convinced that the group Paul refers to as “the Jews” still exists. Romans was almost certainly written before the destruction of the temple in 70AD. Christianity at that time had not really emerged as something separate – it was still seen as a movement within Judaism. In other words, there were still faithful Jews who could keep all the Old Testament laws including sacrifices. This is no longer the case. You actually can’t be Jewish today in the way that Old Testament Israelites could be. As I said, Old Testament Israelite religion was centred around the temple – you can’t just take the temple out and everything else remain the same.

Modern day Judaism is very different to what Paul would have been familiar with, and it’s hard to imagine what he would have made of it. I don’t think that, when Paul referred to the Jews, he would have intended a group of people who only saw themselves as Jewish “culturally”, by physical descent, and not religiously. I’m sure he would have thought it anathema to say that a Jewish person could be a secular, atheistic Jew.

The main point I’m trying to make here is that, when it comes to the Jews in the book of Romans, “it’s complicated”. In particular, I don’t think it’s possible to draw a straight line from anything Paul says in Romans to political action today related to the state of Israel.

Other Biblical prophecies

One of the things which Christian Zionists sometimes refer to is prophecies which they believe have been fulfilled by events of the last hundred years. You could obviously write a book about this, and some people indeed have (see e.g. Rob Dalrymple’s book which I mentioned above). I’d just like to add that, in God’s world, prophecy does not need human beings to decide what that prophecy is and act upon it for it to be fulfilled. God’s words will be fulfilled, regardless. He knows the end from the beginning.

Furthermore, I do not believe it is appropriate to take some contentious (and that’s being charitable) interpretations of prophecy from the Old Testament and the book of Revelation, and then say they are being fulfilled in the creation of the modern state of Israel. Some Christian Zionists have the idea that Israel needs to be supported, to trigger the battle of Armageddon and the return of Christ.

All I will say is – as many Jewish people have pointed out – is this really fair to Jews, to use them as bait in the return of Christ? Is it really loving to them? Much more on this could be said but I don’t have time right now. Suffice it to say that I encourage interested readers to look into the topics involved and study the Bible for themselves with a decent commentary.

What did Jesus say?

I appreciate I’ve gone on for long enough, so I just want to close this section with one more point. What did Jesus have to say? Look at this exchange from John’s Gospel:

“Abraham is our father,” they answered.

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

John 8:39-47

Jesus could not be clearer here. “You belong to your father, the devil”, “the reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God”. Jesus puts these Jews, children of Abraham, squarely in the same camp as the rest of humanity. Physical descent from Abraham counts for nothing. Spiritually, they are as blind as anyone.

I believe this is how Jesus treated those Jews who rejected him – and we are not above our master.

So, what about Israel today?

I appreciate that this has been a long post already, and I haven’t said half of it! I will be much briefer in this section. What I’d like to do in conclusion is draw a few principles together.

#1: Everyone – including Jews – have the right to live in peace and safety. Not specifically because they are Jews, but because of our common humanity. Nobody – Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian – should live in fear. I know that many Jews do not feel safe after the events of October 7th. The police can and should clamp down on any antisemitic violence.

#2: It’s not my place to say whether Israel has a right to exist. I think there are some questions which are, as they say, ‘above my pay grade’. The question for me is not whether Israel has a right to exist, it does exist. There’s a joke about someone stopping to ask for directions, and the man replies “well, I wouldn’t start from here”. The fact is, I can’t change the events of the last hundred years or so. Those in this country who have a problem with Israel have the right to campaign peacefully and seek to change things via democratic means. But, regardless of the history of the British and Americans in the creation of Israel and other countries in the Middle East, what happens there is now their business.

#3: Israel should be held to the same standards as any other country. This is the part where I think a lot of people who are pro-Israel need to listen to people are pro-Palestine. Sometimes when I listen to pro-Israel people talking, you could be forgiven for thinking that Israel is the only country which cannot do any wrong. As a Christian, I believe there is one set of moral standards which governs us all. If any country – whether ourselves, allies, or enemies – violates those standards, it’s important to speak out about it. If Israel are doing what is wrong, then they should be held to the same standards as any other country.

The fact that what Hamas have done is evil does not excuse Israel. The fact that Jewish people experienced the terrible evil of the holocaust does not give them a license to commit evil acts. This is in no way to excuse Hamas or to say we should do nothing. But, in the pithy aphorism I learned when I was a child, “two wrongs don’t make a right”.

I do appreciate that many Western folks, myself included, are concerned about Islamist groups such as Hamas (and, indeed, I have written about Islamism before). I am not at all trying to give Hamas a free pass. However, I believe that we will only make headway against groups like this when we hold ourselves and our allies to an impeccable moral standard. If Israel are not acting rightly, then they should be called out. This does not exclude responding to Hamas or Islamists either, but we cannot have one moral standard for ourselves / our allies, and another for our enemies. One of the problems with the situation in the Middle East is the West (especially America’s) unstinting support of Israel (“The United States has given Israel more aid than any other nation since World War II”), driven in large part by the Christian Zionist lobby.

I do not wish to go into the rights and wrongs of Israel here, but I recently read Ben White’s book Israeli Apartheid and interested readers may wish to read it to see what all the fuss is about. I also found this Al-Jazeera documentary (two parts) helpful. (I know Al-Jazeera will not naturally be pro-Israel, but it’s helpful to hear from Christians in the region). There’s also an article about terrorism in Israel’s history by Tom Suarez, from a speech delivered in the House of Lords.

There are real problems with Israel which are simply overlooked. One of the biggest problems is the Israeli state’s definition of being Jewish. That is, you can become an Israeli citizen if you are Jewish (by physical descent) – unless you’ve converted to another religion. You can remain a Jew if you are an atheist, however. So you can be an atheist Jew, but not a Christian Jew. Explain that one to me?! … And those who are not Jewish cannot become Israeli citizens. There are many more examples.

#4: The only hope for peace is the Prince of Peace. I believe Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is the only hope for peace across the world – especially in the Middle East. My hope is that all Christians everywhere would seek and pray for all people to turn to the Lord Jesus, rather than trying to play political and military games in the Middle East and aiming to trigger Jesus’ return somehow.


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