On 29 April, we published an article seeking your questions on Israel and Palestine, the current conflict, the Bible, or anything you think is related to this that might be answered by one of our Aotearoa Baptist Biblical Scholars.

Philip Church is a member of Royal Oak Baptist Church and a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Theology at Laidlaw College in Auckland. He has a PhD in New Testament and has taught Biblical Languages and Old and New Testament courses at Laidlaw for 15 years. In his retirement he has taught block courses in several countries in the Majority World. Philip has a longstanding interest in the Middle East and has travelled there several times, he has a particular interest in the Hebrews and the temple.

Thank you to those who sent in questions. To answer them, some questions have been conflated or dissected to respond more easily to what has been considered the underlying issue. Due to the number of questions, this will be published as instalments over the next few weeks. Not every question submitted will get a response. 

Click here for Part 1, published on 18 May 2024.

Click here for Part 2, published on 28 May 2024.

1. What is the significance of Jerusalem?

This question sits alongside Part 2’s discussion of the promised land. The names Jerusalem and Zion appear around 800 times in the Old Testament. God loves Jerusalem and chose Jerusalem and Zion to make his name known (Psalm 78:67–72). Worship was centralised in the Jerusalem temple (Deuteronomy 12). In Psalm 122:6, a psalm filled with positive sentiments about Jerusalem, God’s people are called to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. However, not all is positive in the Old Testament. Micah 3:9–12 is one negative text:

Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! Its rulers give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple a wooded height. 

Here Micah announces that because of the wickedness of Israel’s leaders, God will forsake Jerusalem, and it will be razed to the ground and left as a forsaken wasteland. But this is not the end, for Micah 4:1–2 follows immediately:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s temple shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 

Clearly, Jerusalem will be restored and ultimately the nations will make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Care is needed, however, as we look to understand how and where this fulfilment will take place, remembering the principle I laid down earlier that the New Testament applies prophetic oracles of blessing for Israel to Christ and the church. So, what does the New Testament say about Jerusalem?

The Greek New Testament has two words for Jerusalem. One appears sixty-two times and the other seventy-seven times, a total of 139. Of this, 125 appear in the Gospels and Acts as the geographical background to the events recorded there, and Paul refers eight times to his collection for the believers in Jerusalem. Of the other six, five refer to the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22; Rev 3:12; 21:2, 10), leaving just one more. In Galatians 4:25 the present Jerusalem is contrasted with the Jerusalem above. The former and her children are “in slavery” while the latter is free. “For all his Jewish affiliation, Paul was convinced that Christian identity was markedly different; it was not bound up with the physical Jerusalem but with the ‘Jerusalem above.’”[1]

Thus, the New Testament represents a radical reversal of the significance of Jerusalem, something that is even seen in the Gospels. All four Gospels begin with the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark, usually held to be the first, explains that “the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). A first-century Jew would have expected God to have begun a new thing in Jerusalem where God dwelt in the temple. Ironically, it didn’t begin there but out in the Judean wilderness where “all the people of Jerusalem” were streaming away from Jerusalem to see what God was doing.

Further investigation of the Gospels shows the reason for this radical reversal. Jerusalem was where Jesus experienced his strongest opposition. Jerusalem was where Jesus was condemned to death. Jerusalem could not bear the presence of Jesus, dragging him out of the city to be crucified. Paul was arrested there and almost lynched (Acts 20:35), and the Jerusalem leaders (remarkably like those described in Micah 3:9–12) formulated a plot to murder him (Acts 23:12–22). No wonder the writer of Hebrews can say (of Jerusalem), “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Heb 13:13–14).[2]

Many Christians today are convinced that there is something theologically significant about Jerusalem. This does not accord with the consistent view of the New Testament that Jerusalem is a city under judgement for the wickedness of Jerusalem’s leaders (as in Micah 3:9-12). The blessing on Jerusalem of Micah 4 is completely absent. That has been transferred to the heavenly Jerusalem, a metaphor for the community of God’s people worshipping with all the saints and angels around the throne of God (Heb 12:22–44).[3]

2. What is Zionism?

This discussion of Jerusalem raises the question of Zionism. Zionism began in the second half of the nineteenth century with its origins normally connected with the secular Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl. Herzl considered the solution to the anti-Semitism he encountered in Europe was to establish a homeland for the Jewish people, and in 1896 he published Der Judenstaat where he argued for the creation of a Jewish state. Initially, he considered that it could be in Argentina, but finally settled on Palestine, saying “Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home … If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.”[4]

He did not need to wait for the Sultan of Turkey to give them Palestine (which had been under Turkish control since 1516). Turkey was driven out of Palestine after the First World War and the League of Nations passed control to Britain under the British Mandate. This British Mandate ultimately resulted in the Balfour Declaration, which declared, 

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.[5]

Herzl was a secular or political Zionist. Christian Zionism is different. Christian Zionism is Christian support for Israel on theological grounds. It can be traced back as far as the Reformation, although it flourished around the same time as Herzl was writing and was a powerful influence in the British Parliament in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[6] Ultimately it was this that led to the Balfour Declaration. A key figure is Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury), who anticipated the time when “The Jews … return in yet greater numbers and become once more the husbandmen of Judea and Galilee”.[7] That was in 1839. Then in 1840 he took out a full-page advertisement in The Times, where he said, 

A memorandum has been addressed to the Protestant monarchs of Europe on the subject of the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Palestine. The document in question, dictated by a particular conjunction of affairs in the East, and other striking “signs of the times,” reverts to the original covenant which secures that land to the descendants of Abraham.[8]

Shaftesbury read God’s promises in Genesis, particularly those concerning the “promised land,” as though they applied to the Jewish people of his day. Later Christian Zionists continue to read these promises with reference to the State of Israel and see the formation of that state as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Secular Zionism has some validity (although it has been devastating for the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”).[9] But once we recognise the ambivalence of the New Testament about the land and Jerusalem and the importance of reading Old Testament prophecies of blessing for Israel through the eyes of the New Testament, serious questions can be raised about Christian Zionism. 

3. What is the Millennium?

Many Christians believe that when Jesus returns, he will set up his kingdom on earth and reign for 1000 years from Jerusalem. This thousand-year reign is known as the “millennium”, the Latin word for 1000, and the idea of the millennium comes from Revelation 20:1–6. In that text, John (the writer of Revelation) had a vision in which he saw “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan” bound with a great chain for 1000 years in a bottomless pit. John also saw Christian martyrs resurrected and reigning with Christ for 1000 years. At the end of the 1000 years, the rest of the dead came to life, and the devil was released for a little while. Christian Zionists consider that the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 was a precursor to this and Jesus will reign in Jerusalem on the throne of David for these 1000 years.

The first thing to say is that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which contains considerable symbolic imagery. Consequently, it is unlikely that the 1000 years, the great chain or the bottomless pit should be taken literally (especially the bottomless pit).[10] I also note that while v. 9 refers to “the camp of the saints and the beloved city” that most likely refers to the heavenly Jerusalem.[11] The chapter does not mention the earthly Jerusalem, the land or the temple. The belief described above springs from what is called ‘dispensational premillennialism’. But this is not the only way to read Revelation 20:1–6, and in this section, I will discuss other readings of that text, followed by a separate section on dispensational premillennialism.

Three ways to understand the millennium

Throughout Christian history, there have been three ways to understand the millennium, known respectively as (classical or historical) premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism.[12]

Classical premillennialism views the 1000 years as a literal thousand-year period after the second coming (which occurs before – “pre” the millennium). It was the most common view in the early church. It does take the number 1000 literally, which is problematic when all the other numbers in Revelation are symbolic. Nevertheless, it has many followers among Bible-believing Christians today and is found, for example, in George Eldon Ladd’s Theology of the New Testament.

Postmillennialism suggests that the second coming is after (“post”) the millennium. As the gospel spreads throughout the world and triumphs, the world will continue to improve until millennial conditions eventuate. The theory was popular during the nineteenth-century time of social optimism, subsequently fading in the twentieth century, especially around the time of the First World War. Today postmillennialism is often connected with theonomy or reconstructionism, a theological position that argues that the entire Old Testament law has ongoing validity for Christians. When this law is consistently applied, millennial conditions will emerge (so it is thought).

Amillennialism is somewhat of a misnomer as the “a” prefix suggests “no millennium.” It is more accurate to say that those who subscribe to an amillennial perspective argue that there will be no future 1000-year reign of Christ on earth. Amillennialism emerged in the third century, was followed by Augustine and has been influential ever since. Amillennialism reads the 1000 years spiritually rather than literally, suggesting that the number 1000 refers to the long (and indeterminate) period between the exaltation of Christ and his return. Unlike postmillennialism, it does not see things improving as time progresses; rather, the gospel advances by the power of the Spirit along with opposition and suffering.

Disagreement

All these alternatives have their problems and perhaps it is for this reason that the church has never been able to agree on how eschatological events will unfold. All continue to be held by different theologians and biblical scholars. On the other hand, dispensational premillennialism is popular among Christians but is now only held by a minority of scholars.[13] Because it has significantly influenced how Christians view Israel and the church, I devote the next section to a separate discussion.

4. What about Dispensational Premillennialism?

In my experience, most Christian Zionists identify with dispensationalism, and, in particular, dispensational premillennialism. Dispensationalism is a hermeneutical system that effectively reads the Bible through the lens of a literal reading of Revelation 20:1-6 and conforms the rest of the Bible to that reading.[14] A key figure in the origins of dispensationalism is John Nelson Darby one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement in the 1830s (although dispensationalists argue that it is much earlier). Dispensationalism divides the history of the world into distinct periods the final one being the millennium. The current dispensation is “the dispensation of grace” or the church age. There are a variety of dispensational premillennial schemes, but all posit a secret rapture of the church, a seven-year “great tribulation” and the millennium where Christ will rule the world from Jerusalem. 

Dispensational hermeneutics rigidly separate Israel and the church, who are considered to be two peoples of God. Israel is God’s earthly people, and the church is God’s heavenly people. The Old Testament prophetic oracles of blessing for Israel relate to Israel and not to the church, of which these prophets knew nothing. This is because the “church age” is a parenthesis in world history between the sixty-ninth and the seventieth week of Daniel 9:24–27. The great tribulation is Daniel’s seventieth week, after which comes the millennium when God will begin again to work with Israel.

While this scheme was developed by Darby, it was popularised by Cyrus I Schofield who plagiarised Darby in the notes of his Schofield Reference Bible. Then in the twentieth century, it was further popularised by the three all-time best-selling Christian books. W. E. Blackstone wrote Jesus is Coming in 1878 (republished in multiple editions over the next fifty years and translated into more than forty languages), Hal Lindsey wrote The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970 and more than 28 million copies had been sold by 1990. Lindsey predicted that the rapture would happen in 1988, although in subsequent editions he has continued to modify the date. Lindsey was followed by the Left Behind series of novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, which sold over 80 million copies. With this coverage, dispensational premillennialism became extremely popular, especially in North America.

Those who have read Lindsey, and Jenkins and LaHaye will know that these writers consider that the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 fulfilled biblical prophecy and signals that the last days have arrived. The next event on the so-called biblical timeline will be the rapture, and then the millennium when Jesus will rule the world from the throne of David in Jerusalem. Some dispensationalists further predict that the temple will be rebuilt, and the sacrificial system reinstituted. Some farmers in Texas are even breeding a red heifer (see Num 19:1–10) to be used to consecrate the reinstituted priesthood (Google “red heifer” and you will see what I mean).

It is difficult to know where to begin when critiquing this scheme. One important principle of biblical interpretation distinguishes between what is central to Christian belief and what is peripheral. The resurrection is central, and to take that away is to destroy the foundations of our faith. Other things are peripheral, like whether Hebrews is a sermon or a letter, and the date of Job, which are inconsequential. Central things should remain central and peripheral things should stay on the periphery. The Bible contains just one reference to the millennium in a 6-verse paragraph that is difficult to understand as the varying schemes discussed above indicate. Dispensational Premillennialists effectively make this peripheral text central as the hermeneutical key for understanding prophecy and eschatology.

This scheme reads the Old Testament as though the New Testament had never been written (see part 1, question 1). The New Testament nowhere says that history will go backwards with the New Testament being set aside and God returning to Old Testament arrangements. Jesus told his first (Jewish) disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) and nowhere said they were to bring it back to Jerusalem at the end. Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and nowhere said it would be rebuilt. Ephesians 2:11–22 is clear that we Gentiles are “no longer strangers and aliens, [but …] fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19)? We have been grafted into the olive tree that is Israel (Rom 11:17–24). If the sacrifices are to be reinstituted, what are we to do with Hebrews 10:1–18 which says they are abolished?

I find dispensational premillennialism to be a dangerous misreading of the Bible, dangerous because of the impact it has on international politics, blinding the minds of many Christians people to the catastrophe that the Palestinian people are enduring because they consider that the Jewish people have a divine right to live on “the promised land.”

Next time

In the next instalment, I will look at the following two questions:

1. What is the Rapture?

2. What is the Great Tribulation?


Previous questions answered

Click here for Part 1, published on 18 May 2024.

Click here for Part 2, published on 28 May 2024.

 

Endnotes

[1] Peter W. L. Walker, Jesus and the Holy City: New Testament Perspectives on Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 131.

[2] It is debated whether “no lasting city” refers to Jerusalem. I have argued for this in Philip Church, Never Give Up! The Message of Hebrews. Tyrannus Textbook Series (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2023), 242–44.

[3] For an outstanding discussion of the place of Jerusalem in Christian theology see Peter W. L. Walker, “Centre Stage: Jerusalem or Jesus?” Cambridge Papers 5, no. 1 (1996). Online: https://walkwaybooks.com/blogs/articles/centre-stage-jerusalem-or-jesus.

[4] The German publication is Theodor Herzl, Der Judenstaat (Berlin and Vienna: M. Breitenstein's Verlags-Buchhandlung,1896). Online: https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_iyxWAAAAYAAJ/page/n15/mode/2up. An English translation is also available online, Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State [trans. Sylvie D'Avigdor; The American Zionist Emergency Council, 1946]. Online: https://archive.org/details/cu31924028579781/page/n5/mode/2up. This quotation is taken from the English translation. Neither online version has any page numbers.

[5] The full text of the (one page) Balfour Declaration is available online (and is worth reading). https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/text-of-the-balfour-declaration.

[6] Donald M. Lewis published two important works on Christian Zionism before his sudden untimely death in 2021. The first is an academic work, Donald M. Lewis, The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). His more popular work is Donald M. Lewis, A Short History of Christian Zionism: From the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021).

[7] Earl of Shaftesbury, “State and Prospects of the Jews,” Quarterly Review (1839): 189.

[8] This is cited in Donald E. Wagner, “Reagan and Begin, Bibi and Jerry: The Theopolitical Alliance of the Likud party with the American Christian ‘Right’.” Arab Studies Quarterly, (1998): 39.

[9] Quotation from the Balfour Declaration.

[10] In Psalm 50:10, God claims ownership of the cattle on a thousand hills. It would not have occurred to an Old Testament reader of Psalm 50 to ask who owned the cattle on the other hills.

[11] Ian Paul, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 20 (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2018), 330.

[12] What follows is summarised from Paul, Revelation, 49–50.

[13] See Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle over the End Times Shaped a Nation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2023).

[14] For a longer discussion of dispensational Christian Zionism see Philip Church, “Dispensational Christian Zionism: a Strange but Acceptable Aberration or a Deviant Heresy?” WTJ 71 (2009): 375–98. 


Photo: Screenshot from Google Maps, accessed 28 April 2024.


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