Tag Archives: Israel

Trump’s Decision on Jerusalem

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

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’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

God is Love

May 2017 Credo

In 1 John 4:8, we find the briefest but most profound description of God: ‘God is love’. Christian philosophers and theologians have long pointed out that the message that God is love is one that is totally new and unheard of in any culture or religious system. This idea cannot be harmonised with the Absolute of Plato, the Brahma of Hinduism and the Allah of Islam.

This has prompted theologians like Emil Brunner to assert in his Dogmatics that ‘God is love’ ‘is the most daring statement that has ever been made in human language’.

In God’s dealings with Israel recorded in the pages of the OT, God’s love is made manifest again and again in his faithfulness to his chosen people, despite their unfaithfulness towards him.

Thus Brunner could write: ‘God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people springs out of an incomprehensible love, for which the “foolish” love of Hosea for his unfaithful wife is both the most daring parable of the love of God and also one which is chosen by God himself’.

In the NT the love of God is demonstrated supremely in Jesus Christ. The oft-quoted verse from the Gospel of John shows the extent of the divine love: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).

It is important to note that God’s love is neither only lavished nor dependent on his creatures. To say that God is love is to underscore the fact that love is what God immutably and eternally is. Put differently, God’s love is not dependent or contingent upon there being creatures for him to love.

This means that in the eternal God there is that mutual self-giving that is love. This reminds us of just how important the doctrine of the Trinity is to our understanding and conception of God. Because the one God is Being-in-communion, the koinonia and mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is in the eternal life of the Trinity a love that is free, total and unconditional.

However, to say that in the triune God there is the mutual self-giving that is love is not to endorse the idea that God loves himself. Theologians like John Frame, for example, understand divine love as ‘God’s self-love’. There are attendant dangers in conceiving of divine love in this way.

Although in human experience, love is somehow always tainted with self-centredness, we must be careful never to project this onto God. To speak of the divine love as ‘God’s self-love’ is to suggest that God is in some sense self-centred. It is to suggest that God’s love is not directed at another, but is instead turned inward towards himself.

Put differently, to speak of the divine love in this way is to already push the Trinity into the background and to conceive of God – however unreflexively and non-deliberately – as a monad.

Thus, Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly asserts in the first volume of his three-volume systematics that we must oppose ‘the statement that God is he who eternally loves himself’. Because the one God is triune – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – our understanding of divine love must be understood in light of the eternal relationship of the three persons.

Thus, we should not conceive of God as loving himself eternally. We must say instead, with Pannenberg, that ‘from all eternity the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit loves the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father’.

However, even the concept of the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Godhead in each other (perichoresis) poses some dangers. Perichoresis should not lead us to think that the one loves the other only because he sees himself in the other.

Pannenberg explains: ‘If, however, the one loves self in the other instead of loving the other as other, then love falls short of the full self-giving which is the condition that the one who loves be given self afresh in the responsive love of the one who is loved’.

God is love. This means, as we have seen, that God’s very nature is love. This further means that God loves not because he has to answer to a law outside of himself. As Ron Highfield has put it so profoundly, ‘[God] is completely free and totally himself in his action’.

Finally, it must be pointed out that the God who is love is also holy. The divine love that the Bible refers to is the love of the God who is holy. But in the same way, the holiness about which Scripture speaks is that of the God who is love.

Some theologians are uneasy with placing holiness and love so closely together. This is because holiness suggests distance, while love creates koinonia. Holiness signifies glory and sovereignty, while love has to do with surrender, sacrifice and selflessness.

So great is the perceived contrast between holiness and love that theologians like Jack Cottrell ask: ‘How can God fulfil the requirements of both love and holiness towards sinners at the same time?’ Convinced that this is almost impossible, Cottrell argues that before the fall, the two attributes were in ‘perfect harmony’. But the fall has placed them ‘in a state of tension and opposition’.

But to think of God in this way is to over-anthropomorphize him – it is to impose human limitations on him. Just as nothing outside of God or other than him can determine or direct his love, so no contingent reality can compromise his holiness.

God is eternally and unchangeably holy love. There is no dilemma, no tension in God.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.


Divine Transcendence and Immanence

February 2017 Credo

In the Eastern Church, the Trisagon is usually sung before the Prokeimenon of the Gospel and the reading of the Epistle. Known as Ter Sanctus in Western Christianity, this ancient prayer celebrates the holiness and transcendence of God with the familiar words taken from Isaiah 6:3: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts …’

The transcendence of God is everywhere attested to in the Bible. In Psalm 113: 5-6, the psalmist declares: ‘Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?’

And in Isaiah 55, a passage well known to Christians of all stripes, the transcendence of God is depicted in light of his unfathomable ways: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (vv 8-9).

It was belief in the utter transcendence of God that marked out the Israelites from the ancient world, leading them not only to reject all forms of idolatry but also the reverencing of all earthly sovereigns as divine, even at great political and social cost.

To speak of the transcendence of God is to emphasise his absolute uniqueness. As Emil Brunner explains: ‘Transcendence of essence means that God is God alone, and that his “Godhood” is absolutely and irrevocably different from all other forms of being’. Put differently, divine transcendence points to God’s ‘wholly otherness’, his absolute distinction from the creation.

The concept of divine transcendence must always be accompanied by the concept of divine immanence if theology is to achieve a more balanced understanding of the God revealed in Scripture. For the Bible portrays God as the transcendent Creator who is also intimately involved in the world he has sovereignly brought into being.

As Donald Bloesch puts it: ‘If we conceive of God as infinitely other, we must at the same time envisage him as infinitely close. If we picture him as wholly transcendent, we must at the same time allow for the truth that he is radically immanent in the sense of being present with us and for us’.

The immanence of God has to do with his active presence in the whole of creation. Scripture attests to this in various ways. For example, in Jeremiah 23: 24, the Lord declares: ‘Can a man hide himself in secret places to that I cannot see? … Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ The divine immanence signals God’s closest and most intimate relationship with the world, but without ever compromising his transcendental otherness.

To quote Bloesch again: ‘… he is never immanent without being essentially transcendent, just as he does not remain transcendent without making himself for our sakes immanent’.

Understanding the relationship between the divine transcendence and the divine immanence is extremely important if modern theology is to navigate safely across the metaphysical labyrinth and avoid the Charybdis of deism and the Scylla of pantheism.

Deism so emphasises divine transcendence that the god it creates is for the most part an absentee deity, aloof to the affairs of the world. Pantheism, on the other hand, privileges divine immanence in such a way that the distinction between God and the world is erased.

In contemporary theology, it was Karl Barth, the great Swiss German theologian who emphasised the importance of the otherness of God – his utter transcendence – more than any other theologian in his long and bitter battle against the theological liberalism of his day.

Liberalism envisions the divine immanence in such a way that the work of God is often conflated with the historical and political processes. The gap between God and human beings is narrowed and even blurred, and the enterprises fanned by human ideologies and ambition are often confused with the divine purpose.

Such immanentism has made the liberal Protestant churches of Barth’s day susceptible to the Nazi ideology and agenda.

In response, Barth emphasised the infinite and qualitative distinction between God and the world, his utter transcendence. God cannot be gleaned from our observation of the empirical world – hence Barth’s rejection of the natural theology of liberal Christianity. He is only known by revelation, which comes from above.

For Barth, human beings can never succeed in domesticating God or coercing him into endorsing their most ambitious political and social projects. The transcendent God, who is ever immanent in his creation, remains forever sovereign.

Christians worship the God who is at once transcendent and immanent without attempting to unravel this unfathomable mystery. Christians worship the Creator and Sustainer of the universe who dwells in the hearts of human beings (John 14:23; 1 Corinthians 3:16), the God who is exalted but never remote.

As Gregory of Nyssa has declared: ‘God’s transcendent power is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens, or the luster of the stars, or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as in his condescension to our weak nature’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

The Forgotten Trinity

January 2017 Credo

In 1989, the British Council of Churches published a collection of essays with an interesting and arresting title: The Forgotten Trinity. The authors of these essays – prominent theologians in the UK – lament the neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity by the modern Church.

To be sure, the Trinity is given special mention at strategic points in Christian worship. The Church baptises her new members in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Great Commission set out in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 28:19). And at the end of the service, the minister often blesses the congregation by using the Pauline benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14) with its trinitarian formula.

But beyond these specific rituals and allusions, very little attention is given to the doctrine. By treating the doctrine of the Trinity as little more than a theological appendage, evangelical churches appear to be following in the footsteps of their liberal counterparts.

The doctrine of the Trinity must never be seen as an optional extra.

In his book entitled Wrestling With Angels Rowan Williams writes perceptively that ‘Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what “kind” of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding’.

Thus, far from being a doctrine that should be relegated to the far margins of orthodoxy Christianity, the Trinity must be placed at the very centre. In fact, we may say that it is the article upon which the Church stands or falls in the sense that without it there can be no Christianity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is based on God’s revelation, the divine self-disclosure, and not on the Church’s metaphysical speculations or imaginings.

Together with Israel, the Church professes that there is only one God. The formal form of this profession can be traced to the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 which declares: ‘Hear, O Israel, our God, the Lord is one’.

The monotheism of Israel is further underscored in the Decalogue, especially in the first commandments which says: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:1). This commandment is reinforced by the categorical prohibition and condemnation of idolatry that immediately follows it (Exodus 20:4-6).

The Church has always embraced and defended the monotheistic faith of Israel that is rooted in and shaped by the revelation of God in the Old Testament.

But as the Church reflects on the significance of Christmas and Pentecost, she begins to see that the one God she professes and worships is triune. For at the first Christmas, the eternal Son of the eternal Father (John 1:1-2) ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And at Pentecost, the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit was poured out to empower the Church to be Christ’s witness in the world (Acts 2).

Thus, through the revelation of God in salvation history, the Church realises that there is no plurality of gods – there is only one God, and all other claimants to deity are imposters and fakes – in a word, idols.

But on the basis of the same revelation, the Church also realises that the one true God is plural, or more precisely, triune.

In the one God, there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – who are co-equal and co-eternal. Each person is the whole of the divine essence and is therefore fully God. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Spirit is fully God.

Yet each person is distinct from the other in the sense that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. But because each person is fully God, each person possesses all the divine attributes. As the great fourth century theologian Athanasius has so insightfully put it, everything we say about the Father (that he is omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, etc) can be said about the Son, except that the Son is Father.

The concept of God as triune – as Being-in-Communion – is unique to Christianity. And this has led some of the most eminent theologians of the Church like Thomas Aquinas to conclude that knowledge of the triune God is possible only by divine revelation.

The doctrine of the Trinity therefore distinguishes the Christian concept of God from all human conceptions of deity. It rejects polytheism, so rife in the Greco-Roman world, and insists that there is only one God, not many.

But the doctrine also insists that Christian monotheism must be distinguished from the ‘bare’ or ‘generic’ monotheisms that we find in Islam and some versions of philosophical theism. God cannot be reduced to a simple monad, either of the Platonic or Islamic variety.

Yet, the Christian concept of God brings together the one and the many. The one true God is a relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are of the same essence (Greek: homoousious).

In guarding this precious truth concerning the being of God, the Church has resisted all easy solutions and opposed all metaphysical and philosophical compromises. In the process, she has also exposed and rejected numerous erroneous conceptions of God.

These battles were fought because the Church believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is of primary importance. It is not an optional extra.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us something true about God, based on the divine revelation. The doctrine can thus be described as an exact tracing of the being of God.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

What is the relationship between the Church and Israel?

Very few theological issues have been so contentious and hotly debated as the relationship between the Church and Israel. Wishing to preserve the integrity and significance of historical Israel (or the nation of Israel), some Christians have argued that God has established two separate covenants, one with Israel and the other with the Church. This view, however, has very little warrant in Scripture, a close reading of which will show that it in fact speaks only of one divine electing and saving activity.

Others maintain that the Christian Church has succeeded and therefore replaced Israel as Abraham’s true spiritual seed. This view is variously labelled as ‘replacement theology’, ‘fulfilment theology’ and ‘supersessionism’. The last is the commonest and oldest of the three labels and the one that I will use in this essay. The term ‘supersessionism’ comes from two Latin words: super (on or upon) and sedere (to sit). Therefore the term suggests the idea of one person sitting on another’s chair, thus displacing the other person. A supersessionist theology of the Church in relation to Israel therefore maintains that the Christian Church, which comprises both Jews and Gentiles, has replaced historical Israel as the people of God.

Although there are many versions of supersessionism, this view in the main has the support of the Bible’s most significant passages on this subject. The New Covenant inaugurated by Christ introduces a new understanding of the people of God, which is not established on ethnic or national grounds. In Romans 4:16, Paul maintains that the ‘seed of Abraham’ includes people who are ‘not only of the law, but of the faith of Abraham’. In addition, for Paul, the Jew is not defined as someone who has been physically circumcised, but he who has undergone the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit of God (Rom 2:28, 29). More explicitly, the Apostle in Galatians 3:29 teaches that those who ‘belong to Christ’ are ‘Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’. Thus by these and many other imageries, Paul seeks to show that the ‘seed of Abraham’ are those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul also takes great pains to show that all the privileges and blessings that were promised to Israel are now directed with renewed force and significance to the Church, the new people of God. The Church is therefore described as the children of God (Rom 8:14ff.; Eph 1:5), heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:29; 4:7), and sharing in the inheritance promised to Abraham (Rom 8:17; cf. 4:13; Col 1:2). Because of this, the Church may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2; 8:21; 2 Cor 3:7ff., 18; Phil 3:19), and enjoy the splendour and majesty of the very presence of God (Rom 9:4). Because all the variegated designations of historical Israel as the people of God are now applied to the Church, the latter may be called the new or true Israel.

If the ‘seed of Abraham’ are those who have faith in Jesus Christ, then, as Herman Ridderbos has put it, ‘only insofar as it believes in Christ may it lay claim to the name of Abraham’s children and to the promises given to Abraham and his seed. And insofar as it rejects Christ and trusts in the possession of the law, circumcision, and its own righteousness, it can no longer assert its right to the name and privilege of Israel in the redemptive-historical sense’. But does this mean that God has abandoned historical Israel and revoked his promises to them?

In order to answer this question, we must look at the whole expanse of salvation history revealed in the Bible and which is still unfolding today. Despite Israel’s unbelief, Paul is confident that God has not rejected the people whom he foreknew (Rom 11:1-5). This means that although Israel has rejected the Gospel, there is a remnant that will, in the end, through faith appropriate God’s promises. There is therefore, in the mind of the Apostle, a tension-filled unity in the rejection of Israel as God’s people on the one hand, and her election on the other. The Apostle emphasised this tension emphatically when he insisted that ‘God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable’ (Rom 11:28, 29).

For Paul, the hardening of Israel, her unbelief, has resulted in God’s redemption being extended to the Gentiles (Rom 11:11). But just as the stream of God’s saving grace flows from unbelieving Israel to the Gentiles, so now this grace must flow from the believing Gentiles back to unbelieving Israel. The salvation that has gone to the Gentiles will stir disobedient Israel to jealousy, and by the preaching of the Word by the Gentiles Israel will abandon their unbelief, put her faith in Christ and so obtain salvation from God. Thus, it was because of the hardening of historical Israel that the ‘full number of the Gentiles’ will come into the kingdom. And when this has happened ‘all Israel’, that is, the true, spiritual Israel, comprising both Jews and Gentiles, will be saved (Rom 11: 26). There is therefore no contradiction in maintaining that the Church is the people of God on the one hand, and holding that Israel is the object of God’s irrevocable gift and promise on the other.

Millard Erickson has summed up this view well: ‘the church is the new Israel. It occupies the place in the new covenant that Israel occupied in the old … There is a special future coming for national Israel, however, through large-scale conversion to Christ and entry into the church … [Israel is] still the special people of God’.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Methodist Message.