In the last few decades, some Christian theologians and preachers have insisted that the people and land of Israel are not significant for either the New Testament or the Church. In response to my Public Discourse essay presenting “Fresh Theological Arguments for Zionism,” Pastor Shane Scott recently argued that “Christians Shouldn’t Be Zionists” because God has redefined biblical Israel to include the Gentile church, and the Promised Land has now become the whole world.
The problem with Scott’s arguments, and those of other anti-Zionists, is that they cannot be squared with the testimony of Scripture, properly understood.
Distinctions Between Jew and Gentile
Let’s look at Scott’s first claim—namely, that “God has redefined ‘Israel’ to include all those who share the faith of its father, Abraham.” Understood correctly, the New Testament—to which Scott appeals—simply does not support this claim. If God truly redefined Israel to include Gentiles who believe in Jesus, then the distinction between Jew and Gentile is so transcended as to be unimportant in the Christian church.
Scott suggests as much by citing Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As Scott puts it, “the New Testament writers often apply descriptions of Israel . . . to Christians” so that “this expanded family is defined in terms of grace rather than race.” He cites N.T. Wright’s claim that “Israel is now . . . both less and more than the physical family of Abraham.” In Wright’s words, “Abraham’s family, Israel, the Jews” is now quite different from what “Israel is now.” The logical implication is that, while distinctions between Jews and Gentiles were important for ethnic Israel, they should no longer be important for the New Israel that is the Church.
Yet Paul and the gospel writers wrote as if the distinction between Jews (the people of ethnic Israel) and Gentiles was still important in the church. One clue is in the verse just quoted. Paul says “there is no male and female,” but in other epistles he distinguishes between men and women and teaches that they have different roles in the church and the family (1 Cor. 11:1-16; 14:34; Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Tim. 2:12). Paul probably was thinking of Genesis 2:24, where man and woman become “one flesh” through marriage. Paul and other Jews believed this to be a composite unity in which two persons are distinct but also one. The unity of Jew and Greek was another composite unity, where being in Christ was more important than being Jewish, but in which distinctions were not obliterated. If distinctions between men and women were not eliminated by Christ, then neither were they eliminated between Jews and Gentiles.
Another clue that Paul did not think that Christ obliterated the distinction between Jew and Gentile is his discussion of Jews and Gentiles in the churches. He refers to believing Jews as “natural branches” in the olive tree (a common Old Testament symbol of Israel) of the Church, and Gentile believers as “wild olive shoots” (Rom. 11:17-24). He warned the Gentiles not to “be arrogant toward the branches” by thinking that “the nourishing root of the olive tree” does not “support you.”
If Christ had expanded Israel to include Jews and Gentiles without distinction, as Scott and Wright suggest, there would be no separate Jews or Israel to support anyone. Yet Paul wrote not in the past tense but in the present tense. The Jews were still “beloved” by God, and their “gifts and calling” were “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29). If Paul believed that faith in Christ obliterated distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, why would he detail what is distinct about Judaism and insist that these things were still relevant after Christ’s resurrection?
The gospel writers also wrote as if Jewish-Gentile distinctions were still important. Luke’s angel told Mary of the messiah who would “reign over the house of Jacob forever” (1:33). In Luke’s account, Simeon saw a light that was a “revelation to the Gentiles” but also “for glory to your people Israel” (2:32). In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus himself says that when he comes to sit on his glorious throne the apostles will judge “the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). The author of Revelation says the 144,000 from “every tribe of the sons of Israel” will be distinct from “another great multitude that could not be counted from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:4-9). Even in the End of Days, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles will have some significance.
By insisting that “the restored Israel is expanded to include everyone who believes in Christ,” Jew or Gentile, Scott suggests that the Jew-Gentile distinction no longer makes sense in the Church. All believers are now members of Abraham’s family, sharing his faith in the God who justifies regardless of circumcision. But Scott overlooks a critical biblical distinction. The Gentiles of Romans 4 who accept the gospel are called children of Abraham, not children of Jacob or Israel. Like Abraham, they are not descended from people under God’s primary covenant, but are justified without circumcision. Their spiritual status before God is equal to that of Jewish followers of Jesus, but they are nevertheless distinct. This is why in Paul’s most mature presentation of his theology, toward the end of his life, he still distinguishes between “the circumcised” and “the Gentiles” (Rom. 15:8-9).
The Land and the New Earth
Scott’s second major claim is that, in the new covenant, the land of Israel is expanded to include not just “a small tract of property 150 miles long and seventy-five miles wide” but “the entire planet.” By saying that the entire-planet-as-promised-land is “the fulfillment of all of the great themes of Old Testament expectation,” Scott seems to imply that the physical land of Israel no longer has any theological significance.
This does not seem to be the understanding of the authors of the New Testament. Consider, for example, Jesus’ beatitude in Scott’s translation of Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” For Scott this is proof that the “small tract of property” has become a whole world. But more and more scholars are recognizing that a better translation of this verse is “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” Matthew was no doubt translating into Greek the Hebrew in Psalm 37:11, where it is universally recognized that the Hebrew eretz refers to the land of Israel. In fact, four other verses in Psalm 37 repeat the phrase “inherit the land,” with the clear meaning of the land of Israel. The implication was that Jesus’ disciples would be able to enjoy the land of Israel in the era that he described later in this same gospel as the paliggenesia, or “renewal of all things” (19:28).
When Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus just before his ascension, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), Jesus did not challenge their assumption that one day the kingdom would be restored to physical Israel. He simply said the Father had set the date, and they did not need to know it yet. As Oxford historian Marcus Bockmuehl noted, “the early Jesus movement evidently continued to focus upon the restoration of Israel’s twelve tribes in a new messianic kingdom.”
Paul, Peter, and the writer of the book of Revelation had similar expectations. Paul used the prophecy of restoration in Isaiah 59 to declare that “all Israel will be saved” at the end of history, when “the deliverer will come from Zion, [and] he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom 11:26). In Acts 3, Peter looked forward to “the times of restoration of all things which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3:21). The word Peter uses for “restoration” is the same word (apokatastasis) used in the Septuagint for God’s future return of Jews from all over the world to Israel.
In Revelation, the Lamb stands “on Mount Zion” in the final stage of history (14:1), and the new earth is centered in Jerusalem, which has twelve gates named after “the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (Rev 21:2, 12). In chapter 11, the nations “trample” upon “the holy city for forty-two months.” What city is this? It is the one “where their Lord was crucified” (11:2, 8). Scott is right to say that the new earth is to be a whole world, but what he misses is the biblical evidence that this new earth will be centered in Israel.
In Scott’s view, his understanding of Israel is not supersessionist, because it universalizes Israel rather than superseding it. This is a distinction without a difference.
Within the framework Scott lays out, it is difficult to see how either the people or the land of Israel could have any theological significance after 33 AD. To be fair, Scott does rightly insist that we not “divorce the story of Jesus from the story of Israel.” But after “the pivotal moment” of Christ’s coming to create the Church, there is no special place for the people or land of Israel. The Church is a “new humanity” where Jews as Jews don’t matter unless they assimilate to a de-Judaized gospel and Church. The so-called New Israel of the Church has swallowed up biblical Israel so that nothing distinctively Jewish remains. This conception of Church has truly superseded Israel—and replaced the eschatological vision of the New Testament authors, for it omits the Zion that they believed would be at the center of the world to come.
I thank Scott for distinguishing my proposal for Zionism from those forms of Christian Zionism that set dates for biblical prophecies and refuse to criticize today’s Israel. My essay here, which seeks to correct Scott where I believe he errs, should not be confused with a case for Christian Zionism. Such a case would require a complex series of arguments relating Jew-Gentile distinctions and the land of Israel to biblical eschatology and soteriology. For those, I refer the reader to the book cited below.
In this essay, I have only tried to show that the two arguments made against Christian Zionism do not do justice to the New Testament witness. And, as Karl Barth argued, it is not enough for theology to create elegant systems. They must wrestle with the strange new world of the Bible.
Gerald R. McDermott is Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and editor of The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (InterVarsity Academic, forthcoming).