What is really at stake? A response to John Piper’s question: “Do Jews Have a Divine Right in the Promised Land?”

Before I address Dr. Piper’s thought provoking article, let me introduce a problem that first became a reality for me in Bible College. I saw in the classroom of godly and seasoned professors a propensity to interpret the Bible to solve modern dilemmas in what I believed to be an awkward way. I was taught the post-prohibitionist line that Jesus “turned water into grape juice”. It came from men of deep conviction that alcohol was intrinsically wrong, and the text was altered by the ethic. My reaction was this: “There may be moral and ethical reasons to believe one should avoid alcohol, but we should not change the literal reading of the text because we feel strongly about that!” Now –  in my view – a number of my evangelical friends are doing the same thing with Israel’s claim to the land: allowing their deep convictions about the behavior of the modern State of Israel to retool their approach to Scripture. John Piper is not among them, but he is being used by them in citation. I believe something is at risk that those who are doing so may not understand. What is at risk is the literal interpretive view of the text of Scripture.

No doubt there has been a long standing support for the Jewish people based on the literal interpretation of the Word. With the founding of the modern State of Israel, many literalists felt it was a vindication of their theology as well as the fulfillment of the next stage of their prophetic understanding. In response, classical Covenant theology and its offspring “replacement theology” have been making a surge in the evangelical community, with the effect of removing support from the Jewish people who are both openly opposed to the Christian understanding of the Person of Jesus, and often represented in the news as a people unfairly occupying a victimized Arab population – a small number of whom are our very own brothers in Christ. Now, younger men and women in ministry, some without strong understanding of the historic collision of two grand theologies and beckoned by the victimized cries of brothers, find themselves ready to move toward a theology represented by John Piper and many others – without the understanding (in my view) of what they will leave behind. As a Pastor who has spent much of my life living in or traveling back and forth to the region, I want to offer a word of caution.

One more thing, I want to offer a caveat that must be understood – what is NOT at stake. At no time should you read that I have anything less than the highest respect for the godliness of the original author of the article I am reviewing. Dr. John Piper is a mature and knowledgeable brother is Christ. He has offered, both in writing and in speaking, many an encouraging word to the beloved bride of Christ. Mine is a deep academic debate about theological foundation, not a personal attack. I do not make it lightly, because the time spent on this “classic apology” for the literalist position is not a slight thing.

My simple point is this: if the evangelical community adopts wholesale the position of covenant understanding contained in the original article, it will give up a literal view of the text of Scripture, and join the ranks of allegorical interpreters. That is my central issue. What follows is my response (in red) to John Piper’s article (in red, bold type my addition) on Israel and the Arabs in land conflict.

 “Do Jews Have a Divine Right in the Promised Land?

April 17, 2002 | by John Piper | Topic: Middle East

Piper: How should Bible-believing Christians align themselves in the Jewish-Palestinian conflict? There are Biblical reasons for treating both sides with compassionate public justice in the same way that disputes should be settled between nations generally. In other words, the Bible does not teach us to be partial to Israel or to the Palestinians because either has a special divine status.”

First, I am not sure that we should “align ourselves” in this conflict (per se) – beyond the author’s second sentence – “compassionate justice”. Though I clearly disagree with the author’s covenantal views (as you shall see), I don’t think God’s special place for Israel’s future requires me to accept bad behavior from those civil leaders the present Jewish state. Modern Israelis don’t accept their behavior without question. When Israel is wrong nationally in some policy, we should freely say so – with two qualifiers. First, like the wrongs committed by our own US soldiers in Iraq, we must have some understanding of the nature of conflict when surrounded by hostile parties. Failure to take that into account is second guessing from the cheap seats of comfort those who are up to their neck in real and perceived dangers. That should inform our criticisms.

Second, we as believers must bear in mind that a significant portion of the pain that Jewish people have experienced in Western history has been because of the church – not in spite of it. When those who wore our church costumes and held our banners freely hurt Jewish people in example after historical example, the church moved from being a bystander to a participant in historical Jewish suffering. (For those who think I refer to Catholicism, listen to the counsel in “Concerning the Jews and Their Lies” by Martin Luther for perspective). That does not stop us from speaking about wrongs committed – but it should inform our sensitivity and cause us to be careful in our deportment. At the same time – wrong is wrong whether committed by Israel, or by anyone else.

I take particular issue with the end of the paragraph that “the Bible does not teach us to be partial to Israel”. I think the author intended to say exactly what I said in my paragraph above, but he went further than our Scriptural example. Paul looked forward to Israel’s restoration and saw them as nationally saved in the future. He honored even his lost brothers with a special honor before God (Romans 11:28) the title “beloved” used of no other national people. He looked toward the day when: “ALL ISRAEL WILL BE SAVED”. They were just as LOST at the time of the writing as modern Israel is now (and Paul personally suffered because of them), but he was still anxiously awaiting Israel’s eventual redemption – but still he honored them with words that show he saw the promise as irrevocable and special. Again, that doesn’t excuse them from misbehavior, but we should recognize that they continue to be the “apple of God’s eye” as He awaits the return of His estranged bride (still a future reality anticipated by Paul). Failure to do so is becoming the very arrogant one Paul was writing to squelch in Romans 11 – that was his argument!

Piper: “I do not deny that Israel was chosen by God from all the peoples of the world to be the focus of special blessing in the history of redemption which climaxed in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). Nor do I deny that God promised to Israel the presently disputed land from the time of Abraham onward. God said to Moses, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring'” (Deuteronomy 34:4). But neither of these Biblical facts leads necessarily to the endorsement of present-day Israel as the rightful possessor of all the disputed land. Israel may have such a right. And she may not. But that decision is not based on divine privilege. Why?”

If this were a court case, I would argue the author is offering conclusions based on facts not presented into evidence. If Israel was titled to the land, when did the title get revoked? On the contrary, I submit that the Scripture says that the land belongs to God, not to Abraham, nor any other man (Leviticus 25:23) and therefore was not open to sale by Israel. At the same time, the land TITLE of stewardship was given to Abraham (Genesis 12:7; 13:15) through Isaac and Jacob. It was a genetic passing of title (cp. Gen. 15:2-4 “from your loins”; also Genesis 12:7 uses the term “descendants”, the physical nature of which is attested to in the symbol of circumcision in Genesis 17). I mention this because most covenant theologians refuse any distinction between distinction between the “sons of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph” and the “sons of Abraham by faith” – two designations which seem significantly different in careful reading. Their articles show they read the Galatians 6:16 “Israel of God” in the awkward way of “replacement Israel, that is the church” rather than the simpler “Messianic Jew” (real believers in Messiah that were born of Abraham’s physical seed) that appear to be in the firing line of the subject of much of that Epistle.

The notion that the HUMAN TITLE to the land was part of the conditional covenant does not match the reality that God made the land contract of title at a time when Abraham was asleep, and took no active role in agreement to the gift of God – a perpetual title (called “everlasting” in Genesis 17:7-8). It makes the conditional Sinai covenant  THE SAME as the one to Abraham, when clearly they were separated by more than 400 years of Egyptian bondage. The TITLE COVENANT of Abraham and the MOSAIC COVENANT (which IS a conditional covenant) are clearly not one and the same in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul agreed that the “gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29) – a statement taken from an argument concerning the condition of lost Jewish people in the first century. Only in a scenario that allowed “everlasting” to mean “until Jesus comes” can one revoke the title – and I see no grammatical justification for that replacement position.

The clear rendering of Genesis 13:15 “for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants FOREVER.”  The casual way one can dispense with this statement should shake any member of a church that is resting salvation on the same word – “forever”. If there is in fact a perpetual title to the land as stated in Genesis 17:7-8 and the title was passed genetically to the sons of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, the title of the land still belongs to Israel, regardless of their current spiritual condition. The issue of DOMICILE (that is – whether or not they will live in the land successfully and peaceably) is clearly separated in the covenant from TITLE – because in the original promises to the permanent title there were promises of captivity and removal from the land (Gen 15:13ff). The gift was made because of God’s nature, not Israel’s faithfulness (Dt. 7:7-9). This idea that a covenant with God is not based on works of man should not be problematic to the modern church – as we teach that we possess one for eternal salvation. We all agree that there are conditional promises in the Mosaic covenant, but neither the covenant promise of land title in the Abrahamic covenant nor our own salvation textually fit into the same mold of conditional promises of the Mosaic covenant.

Piper: “First, a non-covenant-keeping people does not have a divine right to hold the land of promise. Both the blessed status of the people and the privileged right to the land are conditional on Israel’s keeping the covenant God made with her. Thus God said to Israel, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5). Israel has no warrant to a present experience of divine privilege when she is not keeping covenant with God.”

“Holding the land of promise” and “owning the land of promise” are not the same thing. To be succinct, the issue of Israel’s TITLE cannot be based on their obedience, but the issue of their DOMICILE (living on the land) can. They have no right to expect God to give them the land if they refuse to follow Him. So how can I support their return to the land now? Simple. Jeremiah 31 promised they would return to the land (Jer. 31:35-37) and at a SUBSEQUENT TIME have their heart changed by God. Paul saw that as a FUTURE time of salvation for the Jewish people (Romans 11:28-36). Zechariah 12:10 offered that will come at a time when they “look on Him whom they have pierced”. If one takes the book of Revelation to be literal, the battle for Jerusalem is yet ahead (Revelation 16-19). I have no issue with the notion that we should not be endorsing bad behavior, but that is not the same as denying the Biblical reality that God titled the land to a people and called it ISRAEL (Ezekiel 37:11-12) and not Palestine.

Why should Christians who believe the literal view of the Bible forsake that view because a covenant theologian (who has been historically forced to allegorize passages of Scripture) with arms locked to local Palestinian Christians who have been firmly and completely taught nothing but a replacement theology (that the church is Israel in the New Testament) give up their literal view? I can both believe that Israel has an unshakeable right to the TITLE of the land AND believe that God loves the Arab people of the land and has a future plan for them. We need not be forced to give up a literal view of the texts of our Bible to stand both morally and judicially with brothers who are hurting in the Arab community while understanding God’s broader program with the Jewish people. Paul thought that God’s fulfillment of the program to the Jewish people was SO IMPORTANT that he spent as more words on this in Romans (9-11) than he did on justification (3:21-5:21). It was no small issue to the first century Apostle, and it should not be quickly brushed off by us.

The fact is that either God was at work bringing the Jews back into the land today or this was a total human fabrication of the Zionist mind. Either their return was half step of Jeremiah’s (Jer. 31) promise to return the Jews BEFORE their heart was changed to be intimate with Him, or it was not. Either they will be nationally saved at some point in the future (Rom. 11:26), or they will not. Covenant theologians historically have taught the promises are not related to the modern Jew, and literalist have believed they are taking steps toward their eventual literal fulfillment of the promises of Scripture. Neither position is without Biblical foundation, but both have radically different implications. Sadly, many who claim one theology (but are unfamiliar with its foundations) seem to be trying to be on both sides of the issue – probably because they have failed to examine where their actions lead.

Piper: “More than once Israel was denied the experience of her divine right to the land when she broke covenant with God. For example, when Israel languished in captivity in Babylon, Daniel prayed, “O Lord . . .we have sinned and done wrong . . . To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame . . . to all Israel . . . in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you” (Daniel 9:4-7; see Psalm 78:54-61). Israel has no divine right to be in the land of promise when she is breaking the covenant of promise. This does not mean that other nations have the right to molest her. She still has human rights among nations when she has no divine right. Nations that gloated over her divine discipline were punished by God (Isaiah 10:5-13).”

I beg to differ that Christians that begin to side with the Palestinian cause will not molest Israel. For thirty years I have watched Christians come into Israel and the surrounding region and do just that. In a short time they choose sides, based usually on love for whoever they are ministering to. In short order they join the “corps of hatred” – a never ending banter of exchanges of blame from Israel to the Arabs and back. Read their facebook posts and blogs and you will hear their adopted anger and the vacillation between deep hurt and anger in their charges, etc. It has happened to many of my friends. I have found only a few who could minister in love to Arabs and not slip into deep distrust (read: hatred) of Jewish people. I have seen the same equal abuse among those who out of love for the Jewish people become angry partisans against the Arabs – distrusting even those who know Jesus Christ as personal Savior. In my view, it is naïve to suggest that covenant and replacement theology had – and has – nothing to do with historical Anti-Semitism, (a case which I am more than willing to make). At the very same time, the belief that Israel’s title is irrevocable does NOT lead me to support any form of oppression – as has happened by some of my more radical believing friends. Israelis fight over the behavior of their government, why should I give them a blank check?

Perhaps I am mistaken, but I can think of no other people on earth that can currently claim the distinction of drawing from thousands that desire to blow themselves up to destroy a genetic group of people – simply because they are genetically Jews. To think this is not also a deep and abiding spiritual battle – to suggest that it is “just another people” on the earth is at least naïve and at worst blind. Right now, a group of men is meeting somewhere plotting to kill Jews because they are Jews. It happened when they held no territory, and it happens when they hold a land they believe to be theirs. If these harsh plotters are like most who have left a record in the past – they may not even know any Jews and may have never met any Jews. A recent new report offered testimony of Indonesian Moslems who claim to be ready to pledge suicide bombings against Jewish people – and they are not in the Near East. My point: the conflict is also a spiritual staging ground – not just a territorial dispute. Before we join into the chorus of voices against a people like Israel, we may want to ask who our friends are, and what is motivating them to stand at the side of our protest of Israel’s “rights”. This should give the spiritually mature a pause.

Piper: “Secondly, Israel as a whole today rejects her Messiah, Jesus Christ, God’s Son. This is the ultimate act of covenant-breaking with God. God promised that to Israel “a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6-7). But with tears this Prince of Peace looked out over Jerusalem and said, “Would that you . . . had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. . . . You did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44). When the builders rejected the beautiful Cornerstone, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43). He explained, “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11-12).”

It is easy to read Matthew 21 as though Jesus were handing off the “everlasting and irrevocable possession” of Israel to someone else – but that is not so. Jesus was referring to offering the choice to a future generation of Jewish leaders, not the one that was standing there at the time. Evidence? First, a massive number of Jews were not in the land at the time of Jesus’ visitation. If God meant to overturn His Word concerning them, He did so with a minority presence. That alone isn’t enough, but it should give us pause. Is the majority of “the church” today walking in obedience such that we should feel secure about God using the term “everlasting” in such a manner? For greater evidence which is textual, let me add: Ask the men who were listening to Jesus in Matthew 21 if they thought Jesus was moving the blessing to non-Jews and replacing it with the church or any other entity? I suspect their question to Jesus later in Acts 1:6 “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Did they misunderstand Jesus’ pronouncement of removal, or did they appear to understand that He was pushing it off to a future time but maintaining it for the Jewish people? The answer seems clear enough to one who takes the Bible literally.

Piper: “God has saving purposes for ethnic Israel (Romans 11:25-26). But for now the people are at enmity with God in rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ, their Messiah (Romans 11:28). God has expanded his saving work to embrace all peoples (including Palestinians) who will trust his Son and depend on his death and resurrection for salvation. “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Romans 3:29-30).”

That paragraph is a great one, and reminds us of the truth that the Gospel is the hope forward. I wonder in what way the author believes God has saving purposes for a people replaced by the church. In addition, if it is true that God has such ethnic purposes, why should we get involved in trying to sort out every decision that political Israel and its Arab neighbors make when we are to be spreading a message of a “Kingdom not of this world”. It seems unwise for us to enter the region and try to get involved in the political affairs when we have so many to reach and so much love to offer. Why not care for Israel and the Arab peoples, and keep saying that Jesus loves them? What benefit to the Kingdom is there to take a political side among two people groups that are divided even within their own societies?

Piper: “The Christian plea in the Middle East to Palestinians and Jews is: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). And until that great day when both Jewish and Gentile followers of King Jesus inherit the earth (not just the land), without lifting sword or gun, the rights of nations should be decided by the principles of compassionate and public justice, not claims to national divine right or status. © Desiring God” (Please don’t hesitate to view all John’s work (much of which is nothing short of excellent) at: www.desiringgod.org

In the end, the Dr. Piper is correct in my view that we cannot decide “principles of compassionate and public justice” while willfully blinded because of our prophetic view. Behavior is right or wrong based on what it is, not who does it. At the same time, there is another mistake that can creep into the church when we take this author’s “high road” of principle. Many decide what the Bible meant based on what they see on the ground. If God isn’t done with Israel, and the TITLE is revoked, that truth cannot be removed because we don’t like some particular behavior of the holders of the title.

As I have tried to state, what is truly at stake, in my view, is the literal fulfillment of God’s promises. Daniel and Revelation in the literal view promise a full restoration of Israel to an intimate walk with God. Paul saw it as a future even to the church age he was living it. In point of fact, the Millennium (whose purpose is to fulfill the land contract to Israel) makes no literal sense to a replacement theologian, and therefore he is forced to allegorize the six times the term “1000 years” are found in the first seven verses of Revelation 20. He has no need of a time for God to fulfill the land covenant promises to Abraham – for the church has taken her place. A literal seven years of Tribulation to get Israel to bow her neck quickly becomes allegories of morality – for Israel is stripped of any special relationship to the future.

I am not concerned that covenant and replacement theology will simply move the church to join an anti-Jewish and pro-Arab view – though I believe that it will. I am more concerned it will press the demise of the literal rendering of the text of Scripture – an issue that is worth an open disagreement among loving brothers in Christ. It is with that in mind I write, and I respectfully offer that I have a fundamental disagreement with this noted author. I believe that genetic Israel is special currently (albeit not exempt from moral scrutiny), and that she will be saved – literally. I think she should behave herself now, but don’t expect behavior different than any other people currently at enmity with God. If the Bible is literally true, the good news is that those days are numbered – the estranged wife of the Father is coming home to Him some day soon. One job given to the espoused bride of the Son is to show her what the relationship is supposed to be like and make her jealous of the loss of intimacy (Romans 11:11)  – and we won’t do it if we are constantly joining the chorus of those who desire to beat her.

Note the original article is not entitled, “Should believers support Israel when their government misbehaves?” but a broader argument: “Do they have any lasting claim to the land. ” Either “everlasting” means everlasting when it comes to God’s love and promise – or it doesn’t (Isaiah 59:21). Either “sons from your loins” means genetic children, or it artfully means “people with a spiritual designation of ‘sonship’ that has nothing to do with the gene pool”. Either “one thousand years” of Kingdom on the earth means a literal fulfillment of a land agreement or it is a spiritual marker of a spiritual battle of light and darkness. Either seven years of tribulation is a literal feature of time or some unspecified allegory of judgment.  What is at stake is nothing less than how we read the Bible – literally or allegorically.

4 thoughts on “What is really at stake? A response to John Piper’s question: “Do Jews Have a Divine Right in the Promised Land?””

  1. Randy
    Thanks for a great article on an important subject. Some dispensationalist are being drawn toward this covenant view, or a related hybrid. I like to recommend a book by Renald Showers called There Really is a Difference.

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