Monday, 3 August 2020

Book Response - The Other Side of the Wall by Munther Isaac

Book Response - The Other Side of the Wall by Munther Isaac

Dr Isaac writes about how Christian Zionism either wishes him invisible, or even non-existent. He also chides western theologians with telling him what his theology should be, saying that as a Christian Palestinian, he should have input into this. He then mentions how, as a child he disliked reading God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament. He has since endlessly sought out other ways of viewing Scripture, western or not, which might enable him to reject how he first read the Scriptures.

The sad thing is that he never seems to have asked, “where might I, as a Christian Palestinian, fit into a Christian Zionist theology?” All this time opposing it, but never even an attempt to do his own theological work, to discover where his own people might fit into this theology, into this first, simple, child-like reading of the Scriptures.

So. Where do Christian Palestinians fit in Christian Zionism? Do Christian Zionists wish that the Palestinian Christian community did not exist? How does the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel affect the Palestinian Christians? What comfort can Christian Zionism offer to this community? What part might they have in God’s plans of salvation? Are they unwanted, or could they be honoured, vital and even transformational? Is Christian Zionism exactly what this community does need? The answer to this question lies in a specific application of the general, foundational principles of Christian Zionism.

1.      The Jewish people are brought back to be a universal blessing

2.      The Jewish people being brought back to be blessed and saved!

3.      The Jewish people are saved with the aid of Gentile Christians

God has brought the Jewish people back to the land for their blessing and for the blessing of the nations, he has brought them back for their salvation, and for the salvation of the nations! Like the prophets of old, we need to search intently and with greatest care concerning this salvation. We need to examine the time and the circumstances, prepare our minds for action and be self-controlled, as we all live as strangers here in reverent fear!

As for Christian Zionists, the presence in that land of a pre-existing Christian community should always have been viewed as an act of grace.

“What we need is not so much a theology of the land as a theology of salvation!” 

As a Christian Zionists we need to move beyond a discussion of a theology of the Land, and focus rather on a theology of salvation. As we look at Romans 15, and its theological predecessor, Acts 15, we find something vital. God promises to restore the fallen tabernacle of David, to confirm the promises to the Patriarchs, why?? In both cases, so that the Gentiles might glorify God! So that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name,

Romans 15:8-11; "For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs SO THAT the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy. Likewise, in Acts 15:13-17 James declares that the Gentiles are included in the Gospel on the basis of a promise to restore Israel; “Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: " 'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, SO THAT the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things'

These verses are about the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles! The restoration of Israel is not irrelevant to Gentiles, rather they are its goal. Israel is restored so that Gentiles may be blessed! (God obviously loves the Jewish people also!!, but the thrust of these verses is clear.) As Evangelicals either we take the word of God seriously, or we do not. Both James and Paul declare that God will restore Israel SO THAT Gentiles might seek and glorify God.

This was always central to God’s promises to Abraham – “And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, 'Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.' (Acts 3:25 - a long time before Acts 15!) This is why Christian Zionism would hold that the regathered Jewish nation will be a blessing to all the world. It was never an end in itself! Micah 5:7 “The remnant of Jacob will be in the midst of many peoples like dew from the LORD, like showers on the grass.” Do we believe this is true for the Palestinians?? As the community closest to the Jewish community, the Palestinian Christians could have been in a place of exceptional blessing!

They were also in a place of great responsibility! That is, rather than being irrelevant or unwanted, they were given great responsibility and potentially great blessing, if they could only recognise and fulfil their calling.

Their glorious calling

"I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding." (Deuteronomy 32: 21, quoted in Romans 10:19)

So, where do Christian Arabs appear in Christian Zionism? What is their role in all this? Or, put another way, what is the role of Gentiles in the salvation of Israel?

Romans 11:11 Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.

Christian Zionism sees a role for Gentiles in the salvation of Jews. Jesus says you will not see me again until you say; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” As the Christian community with the greatest exposure to the re-gathered Jewish community, might not God have a special role for the Palestinian Christians in provoking Israel to envy through their showing of love to them?

Romans 11:30Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you.

All they had to do was show love and mercy to the stranger, the refugee, their neighbour. Has the Palestinian Christian community lived in such a way as to make the Jewish people envious of their grace and faith and kindness??? Have they in humility loved and blessed their Jewish neighbours?

While they may have been ignored by Western evangelicals, the Arab believers were never ignored or unwanted by God! 

Rather they could have been used to bless Israel, and then in turn become the first fruits of universal blessing! They could have found that God had given them special promises to help them through this difficult time; see Isaiah 14:1 “The LORD will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. Aliens will join them and unite with the house of Jacob.” And Isaiah 56:6-8 “And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.’ The Sovereign LORD declares-- he who gathers the exiles of Israel: ‘I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.’"

Frustratingly, on page 87, Dr Isaac quotes from a number of these passages, including Ezekiel 47, to prove that a restored Israel (as envisioned in the Bible and affirmed by Christian Zionism) would be inclusive of righteous others! Look at how God himself introduced these verses!! Ezekiel 47:13-14 “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: "These are the boundaries by which you are to divide the land for an inheritance among the twelve tribes of Israel, with two portions for Joseph. You are to divide it equally among them. Because I swore with uplifted hand to give it to your forefathers, this land will become your inheritance.” Dr Isaac later contradicts God, and rejects the idea that such verses apply to Israel, even after having shown that if they did, then he might be included as an honoured member with them! He argues against his own case, and shows that real Christian Zionism should indeed be inclusive of righteous others!!! The very case that he should be making!! Dr Isaac also claims (88-94) that all God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled in the person of Jesus. This ignores the clear teaching of Romans 15:8 and Acts 3:21. 2 Corinthians 1:20 confirms this. Will God restore Israel as he promised? Yes! Because of Jesus!! He is the Messiah after all! It is only because of him and through him that God’s promises will be realised. He does not do away with those promises, he guarantees them!

Dr Isaac skims too quickly over Romans 11 (Paul’s central teaching on the present and future of Israel). The unbelieving Jews have been broken off, the believing gentiles have been grafted in, but that is not the end of those unbelieving branches! At present they remain beloved of God on account of the Patriarchs, and in the future, they will be grafted back and all Israel will be saved! The implications of these verses should not be ignored.

The tragedy is that the Palestinian Church leaders largely chose to side rather with their ethnicity, with the Moslem community, rather than with the commands and promises of their God. This is their shame and this is their tragedy. 

First fruits – the more excellent way

In the Song of Moses and elsewhere, we see a restored Israel being a blessing to the nations (“Rejoice, O nations, with his people”). All this occurs after the return of Jesus. At present, we see only a remnant of Jews saved by grace, and across the nations we see only the scattered children of God (John 11:51-52). And so we read, Deuteronomy 32:21 “I will make them envious by those who are not a people.”

Let us now look therefore, not at the denominational splendour of the Palestinian churches, but rather at the still, small voice of the remnant.

In his article; “the 21st century Palestinian church in Israel” [found in “Israel, the Church and the Middle East”] Tom Doyle writes of meeting with a small group of Palestinian Christians in Gaza in 2002. He speaks of their vibrant faith. They were led by Ali, a guitar-playing former Muslim from the West Bank. He also noted that the guitar had bullet holes through it. Ali explained that while he was entering through the crossing, he was speaking to a soldier, Aaron, whom he had gotten to know as he crossed back and forth. Aaron was concerned about his guitar case, as the week before, a terrorist had tried to smuggle a bomb through that way. He had the IDF robot put the bullets through it.

“Aaron was just doing his job. I didn’t get mad, and the Lord used it. I was able to tell this young Jewish soldier that I was no longer a Muslim. He asked if that was possible, and I said; “yes, I’m a Jesus follower now. … the Jewish messiah changed my life!” I then hugged him and told him he had a rough job and that I would be praying for him. Aaron was speechless. The Holy Spirit as dealing with him. How privileged I was to tell a young Jewish Israeli about Jesus. The bullet holes? Totally worth it!”

Another young Gazan, Sami, shortly after his conversion, was convicted by the Sermon on the Mount to pray that he would love his enemies. “I expected Jesus to forgive me for my hatred, and to change my heart in the process. He could do that, of course, but I thought I might merely tolerate Jews, and that would be the end of that. I was not prepared for the complete fulfilment of this prayer. Jesus not only took away my hatred for Israel and the Jews, but he replaced it with a love for them. This was unexpected. How could I love the Jewish people while living in the Gaza Strip?” When another young Palestinian Christian in Gaza was murdered by Islamic extremists, Palestinian churches and Messianic congregations came together to establish a trust for his wife and children.

Sami himself, along with the other young members of the Gazan Baptist Church, was relocated to the West Bank by Israel, for their own safety. “By the time I reached Jerusalem, I’d read through the Scriptures several times. How could I doubt that God loved the Jewish people? It was all over the Bible.” Today, Sami is passionate about reaching Jews. He is learning Hebrew and has a heart to reach out to Orthodox Jewish men. “Jesus has called Jews and Arabs in Christ to serve him together. This is deep within the heart of God. I used to hate Jews and run from them. Now I run to them. God has called me, a humble Palestinian to reach the lost sheep of Israel. I have trouble fathoming this at times. Recently, I shared with an Orthodox man on a bus. I told him I was from Gaza and used to hate him and all Jews. But then Jesus, the Jewish messiah came into my life and gave me a deep love and respect for Jewish people. I think he was in absolute shock. He finally asked me if I would come to his house that night and share my story with his family. I did come and was overwhelmed with the opportunity to share Jesus with an Orthodox family at their Sabbath meal. Me, a Palestinian from Gaza in an observant Jewish home in Israel and being invited to tell them about Jesus? Only God could have orchestrated this one.” Sami also speaks of a harvest among Muslims in Gaza. Speaking of witnessing to Jews, Sami stated that, rather than presenting the proofs for Jesus as Messiah, “I aim the Gospel at me, and tell them how Jesus changed me and took away my hatred for Jews and the State of Israel. … Can you imagine being Jewish and seeing how anti-Semitism is growing in Europe and soaring in the Middle East? Then to have someone confess their hatred to him or her from Gaza like us and ask for their forgiveness? The question I am always asked is ‘what caused your change of heart? Was it being in the West Bank and actually seeing Jews for the first time, other than just soldiers?’ Then I tell them that my change of heart happened when I lived in Gaza. The Jewish messiah set me free from my hatred of Jews and Israel. My wife and I have this deep burden for Jews to come to know Yeshua!”

Tom then asked him; “The team you serve with and lead in the West Bank has many former Muslims. Do they have the same heart you have to reach Muslims and Jews?” “Yes, one of the brothers named Mahmoud is also learning Hebrew like us. He has the Shema tattooed on his forearm in Hebrew. It is hard for Jewish people to fathom this on a former Muslim!” 

Hanna, again a Gazan Christian, said “I knew in my heart that God was not finished with the Jewish people because of what I read in the Scriptures. Then, at a meeting, a messianic believer stood up and prayed; “Lord, give me so much love for my Palestinian brother here that I would be willing to die for him.” A Palestinian brother then stood up as well and said; “Lord, give me so much love for my Jewish brother that I would be willing to die for him too.” That is the body of Christ in action. Every time I meet with my messianic brothers and sisters The presence of the Lord falls upon us when we are together and we are overwhelmed by the love of God.” This is the new man the apostle Paul talked about. “If the world can see Jews and Arabs come together in love peace and harmony in Israel because of our Jesus, how can they doubt that this is a work of God?”

God has always chosen the things which are not to shame the things which are (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). The poor and despised to reach the rest. Might He not now choose the tiny faithful remnant of the Palestinian church (“I will make them envious by those who are not a people”), along with the tiny Messianic community to proclaim his love and mercy to Israel? The Messianic community, Simeon, held captive by Joseph (“I Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ”) in an attempt to draw the sons of Jacob back to him?

Think of the blessing Palestinian Christians could be! To the Jew first, and also to the Gentile (God loves Muslims also!!!) Think too of the Palestinians killed in Gaza – how quick we are to say “80% were Hamas!” So its all OK?? What might a Palestinian Christian say? “They are my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh – I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart because they are not saved!”  God desires all be saved – have we indeed ignored or dismissed the Palestinians in our love for Israel, or do we cry out to God for them? This does not mean we agree with or support Hamas!! Rather it means our God loves sinners!

What an incredible blessing the Palestinian Christians could become!! Pray for them!!

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