Sorting by

Skip to main content

As I write this blog on a snowed-in Sunday, the war between Israel and Hamas centered in Gaza has hit the 100-day mark.  The death toll, including vast numbers of children, is beyond devastating.  But in this time some of us have witnessed a recurrence of a perennial theological confusion among many in the church, including in traditions like the Reformed one whose theology is solid on precisely this point.  But some of us have heard pastoral prayers in worship services praying about the war but largely leaving prayers for the Palestinians out.

Instead the prayers are for Israel.  “Dear God, be with your chosen people, Israel.  O God, we know Israel is close to your heart.”  Of course, what needs to be pointed out is that the chosen people of Israel has now become the New Israel of the Church.  As Matthew more than the other evangelists worked hard to point out, that New Israel is now transnational and includes all people (Matthew is careful to include four foreign-born women in Jesus’s family tree and brings the Persian Magi in as the first to honor the incarnate Son of God).  The Church is what Paul calls at the very end of the Letter to the Galatians “the Israel of God.” 

But ever since 1948 Israel came into existence after World War II and particularly in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, this has been a point of fundamental confusion for many Christians.  Some from the more dispensationalist theological camp have it all worked out in terms of how a political Israel now will somehow be a key player when the end comes and Christ returns.  Many of us disagree with dispensationalism but at least they are up front about why they think support of Israel is theologically and biblically necessary.  Israel has to exist or the End Times cannot come as they are supposed to.

Before I go any further in this blog let me be clear: the political nation of Israel founded in 1948 has, as a sovereign country, the right to defend itself.  The October attack by Hamas was a wanton attack of terrorism and was brutal in slaying men, women, and children who were doing no more than going about their daily lives.  Israel had to respond.  But yes, there has been a sad track record of how Israel displaced and has subsequently treated the Palestinians who had been living there for centuries.  And lest we forget, many of the Gazans and other Palestinians who have been killed are sisters and brothers in Christ with whom we share a bond of faith in ways we do not with Jewish people who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  How can we fail to pray for our fellow Christ followers in our worship services?

Back to the larger point, however: people in the Reformed tradition (and any tradition that does not subscribe to dispensationalism) should know better than to treat the modern nation of Israel as “the chosen people” in ways that ignore how in Christ a New Israel has been formed.   Some call this “replacement theology” or some kind of supercessionism.   But it is not precisely either of those things.  The New Israel builds on and includes many from Ancient Israel—many of the earliest Christians still saw themselves as Jewish but with a major added dimension to their faith and relationship with God.  The Church is not a replacement or a displacement but the next stage of God’s fulfilling his Genesis 12 promise to Abram that through his descendants all nations of the earth would be blessed, all nations would be included in the covenant.  The New Israel is a continuation of Ancient Israel.

It’s easy to see how this confusion, this eliding of Old and New, happens.  My preaching students have to be mindful of this whenever they preach from the Old Testament and particularly the Prophets.  Hermeneutically and homiletically preachers need to understand and keep at the forefront of their hearts and minds the proper connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the theology of Promise and Fulfillment, lest language about “Israel” in Scripture get misapplied.

Probably nowhere does the agonizing struggle of differentiating Old Israel and New Israel get displayed better than in Romans 9-11.  Paul loves his Jewish heritage and his fellow Jews.  And like Paul, many had embraced Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God after all.  But not all did.  And what of them?  Paul is tortured by this question.  He cannot countenance their being erased from the covenant but knows that a rejection of God’s Christ has consequences.  Big ones.  Yet he prays earnestly that somehow, some way, some day all Israel will be saved.  But in the end Paul can only hope.  He cannot know the mysteries of God’s plans and so long about the time his three-chapter-long tortured argument with himself on these matters comes to a climax, Paul just stops and sings a doxology.  “For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”  (When your theology hits a wall, just sing!)

If we are to share Paul’s hope that somehow, some way the people of “Israel” (broadly defined and not a political-only Israel) may yet be saved in Christ Jesus the Lord, then we need to do so keeping it straight as to who is the New Israel now and who is not.  To think otherwise and so to confuse and mix up our “Israels”–while at the same time in this difficult moment of war failing to pray for fellow Christians caught up in the conflict–is something we all need to guard against.

Again, this is difficult.  A pastor friend contacted me last month and wondered if even a line like “and ransom captive Israel” needed to be explained correctly before singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in Advent since many people might be thinking of “captive Israel” as the folks led by Benjamin Netanyahu.  And there are lots of songs about Zion and such that can contribute to leading people to theological errors.  There is work that needs to be done on this.  And it may be the case that there is no quick and easy way to straighten all this out.  But we do our best.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • RZ says:

    Yes to all of this timely clarification! Thank you, Scott. The blessing of God was to flow through Israel and not just to Israel. What does the Jonah story teach, after all? As to that tiny piece of promised land they were “given,” Its value to God’s purposes lies in its strategic crossroads location, not its milk and honey. It was theirs to live on and to steward but not to own exclusively for all eternity. The notion of ethnic and tribal entitlement to land has been used as motivation for war since the beginning of time.
    Most importantly though, the Middle East is consumed by hate vs hate. Israel’s vengeful response has played right into Hamas hands. Israel was initially the victim but it is now the hated avenger throughout the Middle East. This will NEVER be solved militarily.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Kudos for addressing this.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    When I was in seminary many students were attracted to various pre-millennial constructs of the end times. Students wanted to know “how far Reformed people can go” with these pre-millennial constructs and still be Reformed. Being the generous theologian he was, Professor Andy Bandstra distinguished between pre-millennial constructs in general and dispensationalism in particular. He saw dispensationalism as introducing three significant lines not to be crossed. First, Reformed people do not believe that the physical land of Israel any longer has a particular role to play in God’s ongoing economy of salvation. What a loaded statement and a key distinction! Thanks for reminding us of this Scott. Oh, the two other boundaries for Andy were: (1) No more shedding of blood. Don’t talk about future developments of the kingdom of God that involve reinstating the sacrificial systems of Israel. The blood has been shed once and for all. (2) And don’t talk about future developments of the kingdom of God in ways that that imply the crucial event of history for Christ’s victory over sin and death is still in the future. Christ has risen from the dead; the decisive event for Christ’s victory over sin and death has already taken place. Thank you Andy, and thanks for reminding me of all of this, Scott!

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      And of course this leads to a favorite Andy Bandstra anecdote. After delivering a stellar lecture on the Reformed view of the end times, amillenialism, etc, Andy said when class ended and as we were all stuffing our books back into our backpacks, “But then, if Jesus returns and starts talking about setting up a headquarters in Jerusalem, go along with it!”

  • Beverly Barry Sullivant says:

    Thank you, Scott! This certainly helps me deal with some of the “rather strange” comments and actions I’ve been witnessing.

  • Phillip Ippel says:

    Thanks, Scott
    That really puts it all into perspective for us as Reformed Christians.

  • Barbara Carvill says:

    Thank you Scott, very helpful and necessary.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank you for this excellent work. Thank you also for your courage.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    So happy you have addressed this matter from a biblical, Reformed perspective, Scott.
    We are Kairos West Michigan have been wrestling with this Christian Ziionism aberration for a long time. You have really added to the conversation. Jeff Sajdak and Gary Burge, at Calvin Seminaty, have been gathering some students there to explore it in depth.
    And Ruth Padilla DeBorst, newly at Western Seminary, is our liaison there.
    Next generations leaders need to be at the forefront to make clear God’s intention is human rights for all people in that region, not just the Zionist settlers who want the State for Jews only. Of course there are extremist Arabs who don’t want Jews there. We need leaders who will bridge the extremist divide that play off against each other, in endless warfare. Shalom/Salaam means a place at the Table for each and all in the conflicted region.
    Thanks again.
    Thanks again. John

  • Diane Plug says:

    Thank you everyone. This is such a timely topic. Unfortunately the local Christian Radio Station has filled the airwaves with lots of confusion.

    Diane Plug

  • L says:

    Does the CRC church have a statement about Israel and the end times?

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    This is not so much a statement as a summary of synodical actions related to eschatology. Not very helpful for the matter at hand.

  • Agnes Fisher says:

    So glad to have read your blog. Fully agree.

  • Michelle Chahine says:

    Thank you Scott for your courage to to speak the truth.

Leave a Reply