January 2018 Pulse
On 6 December 2017, US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced plans to relocate the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. This move not only overturned more than seventy years of US Foreign Policy. It also has the potential to inflame tensions and de-rail the peace process, threatening the prospects of an amicable solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some Christians in America and elsewhere – including Singapore – see this move as a confirmation of their own reading and understanding of Scripture, especially in relation to Israel and Jerusalem. In America, some conservative Christians also see this move as the President making good the promise he made during his 2016 campaign when he said that this would be one of his first acts as president if he won the election. However, despite the media portrayal that evangelicals have only one position concerning Israel (and Jerusalem), the fact is that there is a broad range of viewpoints.
This paper seeks to briefly present a perspective on the significance of the city of Jerusalem according to Scripture. The paper also seeks to present what I consider to be the most reasonable approach to the status of Jerusalem, given the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
A Brief History of Modern Jerusalem
Before discussing the significance of Jerusalem from the standpoint of the Bible, it would be helpful to appreciate the contours of the history of modern Jerusalem. Understanding this history would also enable us to see why many have viewed President Trump’s decision as controversial and provocative.
In 1948, when the state of Israel attained independence, Jerusalem was a divided city. The western half became part of the new state of Israel, while Jordan occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem, including the Old City. The early Israeli leadership accepted the idea of international control of Jerusalem, and explored possible alternatives for Israel’s capital. Most foreign governments set up embassies in Tel Aviv and avoided Jerusalem.
The 1967 Six Days War radically changed the situation as Israel occupied the eastern part of Jerusalem and the suburban neighbourhoods, sparking an international outcry. This is because by occupying eastern Jerusalem, Israel has violated international law cemented by a series of United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions that defines the eastern part as the inalienable part of Occupied Palestinian Territory. In 1980, Israel unilaterally declared a united Jerusalem as its capital. Most experts in international law are of the view that Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of Jerusalem, which modifies its status, is illegal.
In December 2009, the Foreign Affairs Council states that the EU ‘will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties’. It urged Israel to cease all settlement and dismantle all illegal outposts. In concert with the international community, the EU states that ‘if there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states’.
It is therefore not difficult to see why President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his intention to move the US Embassy there is not only controversial but provocative. As some have rightly argued, relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem is tantamount to recognising the city as the undivided capital of Israel. This is certainly how the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu sees it.
In addition, this move could be seen as signalling the United States’ approval of Israel seizing the city by force. Put differently, it could be seen as a challenge to the international opposition to Israel’s claim of Jerusalem by military victory. Such an act could threaten the peace process whose progress requires the avoidance of provocation by all parties. It has the potential to destabilise the region.
Christian Perspectives on Jerusalem
Some Christians have applauded President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the US Embassy there. This is not surprising, given the prominent place that Israel and Jerusalem occupy in the Bible. In this section, I will briefly discuss a popular view espoused by some conservative Christians on the significance of Israel. I will call this view ‘Christian Zionism’. I will then offer an alternative reading of the Bible and present a different perspective on Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular.
Christian Zionism may be described as a theological vision in which much spiritual significance is accorded to the modern state of Israel and Jerusalem. Christians who embrace this vision are mostly theologically conservative, although they are of different stripes – from dispensationalists to charismatics. These Christians have a very high regard for Scripture as the written word of God, and it is from within its pages that they get the sense of the unique place that Israel – and ipso facto Jerusalem – has in the plan of God. From this premise they developed the view that Israel enjoys an exceptionalism that sets it apart from the rest of the world.
The Christians who embrace this vision believe that the promises that are found in the Old Testament, especially those made to Abraham, are still relevant today and apply to the modern state of Israel. For them, passages like Genesis 17:8 (‘And I will give to you and your offspring … all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God’) provide the political mandate for Israel’s privileges that she enjoys even today.
These Christians also maintain that God will destroy all who inflict harm on Israel, taking as their basis God’s promise to Abraham recorded in Genesis 12:3 (‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’). This is also understood as the mandate to bless modern Israel. And one way in which this can be done is to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Some Christians also believe that the promotion of the significance of Jerusalem would set the stage for the Second Coming of Christ.
Earthly and Heavenly Jerusalem
While I recognise the commitment of Christians who take this approach and embrace this vision, I am of the view that their interpretation of Scripture is fundamentally flawed. This has influenced their view of the significance of Israel and Jerusalem. In what follows, I will offer an alternative hermeneutics and a different evaluation of the significance of Jerusalem.
The first question that invites attention is whether it is hermeneutically and theologically legitimate to argue that the promises contained in the Bible about ancient Israel apply to modern secular Israel. Christians who embrace Zionism in one form or another defend the legitimacy of this hermeneutical assumption, but many Christian theologians and exegetes from the time of early Fathers of the Church have maintained that this approach is fundamentally unsound. In addition, in modern times this hermeneutics has been used to fuel political agendas that are questionable from the standpoint of justice and human rights.
At its root, this hermeneutics fails to appreciate the proper relationship between the Old and the New Covenants. Christians must read the Old Testament in light of the New, and not the other way around. Referring to the practices and festivals associated with the Old Covenant, the apostle Paul wrote: ‘These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’ (Colossians 2: 17). In failing to embrace this important hermeneutical assumption, some Christians arrive at the wrong conclusions about the prophecies of the Old Testament and their application to the modern state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem.
The failure to understand the relationship between the Old and New Covenants has also led some Christians to hold the view that the promised land is an end in itself, when in reality it is merely a foreshadow of the future redemption of creation. In fact, the place to begin our consideration of the image of the land in the Bible is not the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1 as some Christians maintain. Rather it is the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2). That paradisiacal land was lost because of the Fall – that rebellion of human beings that led to their alienation from their Creator. Seen in this light, the land promised to Abraham is simply a foretaste of heaven – a prefigurement of the transfiguration of this fallen reality into the new heavens and the new earth that God will bring about at the consummation of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
In the same way, the earthly Jerusalem – the city in the Middle East that sits on the plateau in the Judean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea – is not an end in itself, but points to the heavenly Jerusalem that will descend from above (Revelation 21:9-27). The author of Hebrews presents this insight with great eloquence and power when he writes:
10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:10-16, Emphasis mine).
God has prepared for those who belong to him a city, a real, heavenly city that will endure throughout eternity – the true homeland that Christians press towards. This is the place that Jesus said he would prepare for his disciples, and to which he will bring them when he returns (John 14:1-3). This is the place where Christians have their true citizenship (Philippians 3:20), the New Jerusalem that descends ‘out of heaven from God’ (Revelation 21:2). It is the goal to which they strenuously strain towards, ‘forgetting what lies behind’ (Philippians 3:13), Thus, although the earthly Jerusalem is important for Christians, it is the heavenly Jerusalem that they long for.
A Jerusalem for All
Even though it is the heavenly Jerusalem that Christians long for, the earthly Jerusalem is and will continue to be their religious and emotional capital. But Christians must not forget that Jerusalem is also the religious and emotional capital of Jewish and Palestinian life. It is the third-holiest city in Islam (after Mecca and Medina). Thus Jerusalem is shared and revered by three religions and two peoples.
Just hours after President Trump announced his recognition of the city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Christian leaders in Jerusalem issued an open letter warning that the move could have dire consequences. It reads:
We have been following, with concern, the reports about the possibility of changing how the United States understands and deals with the status of Jerusalem. We are certain that such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us rather farther from the goal of unity and deeper towards destructive division.
‘We are confident’, it adds, ‘that, with strong support from our friends, Israelis and Palestinians can work toward negotiating in a sustainable and just peace, benefiting all who long for the Holy City of Jerusalem to fulfil its destiny’.
I resonate with the sentiments expressed by these Christian leaders in Jerusalem, and agree with their view that just peace in the region can only be achieved by the political process and by patient negotiation. I also concur with these Christians leaders that Jerusalem is for Jews, Christians and Muslims and that ‘it can be shared and fully enjoyed once the political process helps liberate the hearts of all people, that live within it, from the conditions of conflict and destructiveness that they are experiencing’.