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

Click here for Part 3, published on 11 June 2024

Click here for Part 4, published on 25 June 2024

 

1. Does God intend the temple to be rebuilt and sacrifices reinstituted?

My interest in Christian Zionism stems from a visit to Jerusalem in 1996. It happened to be during the Festival of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:33–44), and we stayed one night at the King David Hotel where we ate our meals in a temporary shelter. We also encountered several American tourists who asked if we had “come up for the feast.” I had no idea what they were referring to, although I subsequently discovered that their tours were organised by the 

International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, timed for this festival.[1] On Sunday we worshipped at Christ Church in the old city, the oldest Anglican Church in Jerusalem, and the rector, Murray Dixon a New Zealander, preached on Zechariah 14:16–19 making the point that all Christians should be going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival. I had never heard this before, although I left the church scratching my head because I was sure that Hebrews 10:1–18 had said that Jewish ceremonies had been abolished. Ultimately that culminated in a PhD on the temple in Hebrews.[2]

Despite Hebrews 10:1–18, many Christians still believe that the temple will be rebuilt, and the sacrificial rituals reinstituted. This idea comes from several places in the New Testament. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3–4, the Apostle points out that the day of the Lord cannot come before the lawless one appears, who “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” In Revelation 3:12 God promises that he will make those who conquer a “pillar in the temple of God,” and in Revelation 11:1 John is instructed to measure the temple.[3] It sounds like there will be a temple around the time of the Second Coming of Jesus, and since it was destroyed in 70 AD, it will need to be rebuilt. Furthermore, it is argued that while Ezekiel predicted a rebuilt temple (Ezekiel 40–48), the temple built after the exile did not look like Ezekiel’s temple so it must await future fulfilment. Finally, Daniel 9:24–27 prophesies the destruction of the temple in Daniel’s seventieth week, which dispensational readers consider describes the events of the great tribulation. 

In response, I begin with a reminder that Jesus predicted that the temple would be destroyed (Matthew 24:1–2; Mark 13:1–2; Luke 21:5–6) and neither he nor any of the New Testament writers anywhere suggest that it would ever be rebuilt. If it was as important as some readers of the Bible suggest, you would think it would say so clearly, rather than having to be inferred from several texts that refer to a temple. On the other hand, Jesus did predict the rebuilding of the true temple, the temple of his body (John 2:19–22), God dwelling with his people in Christ. 

It would take far more space than I have here to respond properly to those who anticipate a third temple in Jerusalem. On Ezekiel’s temple, I quote Daniel Block at length:

While many features of chs. 40–48 commend an eschatological interpretation, this view is weakened considerably by the absence of eschatological language. Expressions like “on that day,” “in the latter days,” and “after many years,” … are lacking entirely. ʿôlām, “forever, eternal,” occurs three times, but in none of these does it carry a distinctly eschatological sense … Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, the description of the temple is not presented as a blueprint for some future building to be constructed with human hands. Nowhere is anyone commanded to build it. The man with the measuring line takes Ezekiel on a tour of an existing structure already made. Indeed, were it not for the present literary location of the temple vision, it is doubtful that the eschatological interpretation would ever have arisen.[4]

What about the temple in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4? While the authorship and date of 2 Thessalonians are debated, Gordon Fee suggests it is a Pauline letter probably written around AD 50.[5] If so, the temple is still standing in Jerusalem, and Paul may be talking about the “lawless one” taking his seat in that temple. As well as a reference to the Jerusalem Temple, Gary Shogren gives four other options that have been suggested for understanding this temple. Is it (1) A third temple yet to be built, (2) the temple as a metaphor for a claim to be God, (3) the temple as heaven, or (4) the temple as the community of believers?[6] With Shogren, I prefer option 2, the temple as a metaphor. As F. F Bruce suggests, 

Had they said, “so that he takes his seat on the throne of God,” few would have thought it necessary to think of a literal throne; it would simply have been regarded as a graphic way of saying that he plans to usurp the authority of God. This is what is meant by the language actually used here, although the sacral associations of ναός [naos, temple] imply that he demands not only the obedience but also the worship due to God alone.[7]

When Paul referred to the temple, the Thessalonian believers would have thought of the Jerusalem temple, and by extension the temple as the place where God dwelt and was worshipped. Since the Jerusalem temple was still standing, the idea of a third temple in the last days would hardly have occurred to them 

Of the two references in Revelation, 3:12 is clearly a metaphor for the community of God’s people with those who conquer being described as pillars in that temple. We still use this expression today when we describe a faithful believer as a “pillar of the church,” where “pillar” does not mean an actual physical pillar, and “church” does not mean a building. Revelation 11:1–3 may be the three most difficult verses in Revelation, so complex that Gregory Beale spends fifteen pages of his Revelation commentary explaining them.[8] I don’t have the space to deal with it properly, but I agree with Beale who concludes by identifying the “temple, altar, outer court, and holy city as the Christian community.”[9] As Tom Wright suggests, 

Just as Ezekiel’s measuring of his visionary temple was a way of marking out the place where God was going to come to dwell, so John’s marking out of this human temple, this community, is a way of signalling God’s solemn intention to honour and bless this people with his presence.[10]

When we put this together, along with Hebrews 10:1–18 which declares the abolition of the Jewish sacrificial system, it seems clear that there is no warrant to anticipate a third temple in Jerusalem and the resumption of Jewish sacrifices. Indeed, this view represents a deeply defective Christology in that it suggests that the death of Jesus was insufficient to achieve salvation and God intends to revert to the former arrangements. Those arrangements anticipated the life and death of Jesus, and now that the reality has come, they have forever been set aside.


2. Does God intend to save the world through Israel?

Randall Price writes, 

In the millennial kingdom the future blessings of restoration include not only the renewal of the Land as a result of the river flowing from under the altar of the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1–2; Zechariah 14:8), but also agricultural blessings connected with the divine bestowal of rain (Zechariah 14:16–17). This rain, so vital to an agrarian society, will be provided based on Israelite and non-Israelite faithfulness to worship at the Temple at the appointed feasts. Thus, the national blessings secured by the future Temple will be extended internationally to all of the inhabitants of the kingdom, fulfilling the mandate of the Abrahamic Covenant that all of the families of the earth would be blessed through Israel (Genesis 12:3).[11]

The key verse is at the end of this quote, Genesis 12:3 where God promises land and descendants to Abraham, and blessing to all the families of the earth through Abraham (not Israel as Price claims). As I noted earlier in this series, the New Testament expands the land promise to include the whole world (Romans 4:13) and Abraham’s descendants to include everybody who has faith (Galatians 3:6–9). But what of the blessing promised through Abraham to all the families of the earth? 

Clearly, God chose Israel intending to bless all people, and in this respect, Abraham and his descendants are vital. To quote N. T. Wright, in a discussion of Romans 11, “[Paul] …  has endorsed not only Israel’s election but also the purpose of that election in bringing about worldwide salvation.”[12] Nevertheless, Wright continues, 

Paul is neither denying the election of Israel as the focal point of God’s worldwide saving plan nor reducing it to a secondary place. He is interpreting it in the light of the Messiah’s death, in order to find a way forward to an equally reinterpreted eschatological hope. He is not abandoning traditional Jewish eschatology. He is redefining it … around the Messiah.[13]

Yes, God chose Israel to bring about worldwide salvation. But what God purposed to do in choosing Abraham, God has done in the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus the Jewish Messiah, the one true Israelite, and the “offspring” (singular, Gal 3:15) of Abraham. It is through him that all the families of the earth are blessed. To suggest otherwise is to make the death of Jesus of no consequence. The following diagram illustrates my point:

God began with Abraham and his descendants, who became the Israelite nation. After the exile of the northern kingdom, Israel was reduced to the two southern tribes and ultimately to a faithful remnant who returned after the exile of the southern kingdom. That faithful remnant was further reduced to Jesus the one true Israelite, who chose twelve apostles to take the story of salvation to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). This good news has spread to every whānau, hapu and iwi in the world, who are now counted as descendants of Abraham and incorporated into the one people of God. 

There is no separate programme for Israel and Israel is not God’s earthly people and the church God’s heavenly people. Nor do the arrows turn around and go back the other way. God has blessed all people in Jesus the one true Israelite. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that his death was insufficient for our salvation. Yes, God chose Abraham (and Israel) to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. But Israel must be properly identified. It is not the state of Israel or present-day ethnic Jews or even the Jewish people alive at the Second Coming or during the millennium who will bring this blessing. God has done it in Jesus, the one true Israelite.


3. Does All This Matter?

Before I answer this question, I need to make one clarification. In Part 3, I distinguished political Zionism from Christian Zionism. I traced the beginnings of political Zionism to Herzl in the late nineteenth century who advocated a Jewish state as a response to antisemitism. Several factors led up to the creation of that state including the 1917 Balfour Declaration and of course, the Holocaust and the 1947 United Nations Declaration 181 that divided the land then known as Palestine between Jews and Arabs. The Jewish minority (at that time) was allocated 55 per cent of the territory and the remaining 45 per cent was retained by the Arab majority. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that and of the way it was executed, it is important to recognise Israel as a sovereign state and a political entity with the right to exist.

Christian Zionism goes further by giving Zionism a theological underpinning, arguing that it fulfils biblical prophecy and that the possession of the land now (and in biblical times) called Israel is a necessary precursor to the second coming of Jesus. Most of this series is a critique of Christian Zionism, and if you have read this far you will probably recognise that I think it is based on faulty exegesis. I recognise that God is a God who moves nations and people (Amos 9:7; Acts 17:26–17) and I agree with Ian Stackhouse when he writes that “modern Israel is an expression of the sovereign purpose of God.”[14] But to say this is to say something quite different from saying it is the fulfilment of prophecy and a precursor to the second coming. 

In what has become this 5-part series, I have attempted to address most of the questions – or at least their underlying issues, that were submitted after the 29 April call for questions from people in our Baptist churches. I have not set out to question the right of Israel to exist. Nor have I engaged specifically with Israel’s conduct in its war on Gaza or the conduct and intentions of Hamas or the historical context for that conflict.[15] Admittedly, what this series has become is a critique of Christian Zionism. I now look to conclude the discussion by asking if Christian Zionism matters.

In Part 1, I mentioned nineteenth-century British politician Earl of Shaftesbury who was influenced by Christian Zionist ideas. He suggested that it was time for Jews to return to the holy land. I also mentioned Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary who penned the Balfour Declaration in 1917. He was a Scottish Presbyterian, and the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George was a Welsh Baptist. Their interest in Zionism grew out of their evangelical faith.[16]

But not only have British politicians been influenced by Christian Zionism. I suggest it is partly behind the United States of America being Israel’s strongest ally.[17] Ronald Reagan is one significant figure. he thought “we could be the generation that sees Armageddon.”[18] Recently it appeared during the Trump administration. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Jewish settlements in the West Bank (the towns where 800,000 Jewish settlers live in land allocated to the Palestinians), saying “As an evangelical Christian, I am convinced by my reading of the Bible that 3,000 years on now, in spite of the denial of so many, [this land] is the rightful homeland of the Jewish people.”[19]

Nikki Haley was US Ambassador to the UN during 2017–2018 and a former candidate for the 2024 presidential election. On 31 May 2024 (the day I wrote the first draft of this section), the NZ Herald reported Haley writing on an IDF (Israel Defence Forces) missile shell “Finish them! America [heart] Israel. Always. Nikki Haley.”[20] Haley claims to be a Christian, whose Christian Zionist sympathies are seen in her invitation to John Hagee the leader of Christians United for Israel to pray at her campaign opening event when she remarked “To Pastor Hagee, I still say I want to be you when I grow up”[21] This is John Hagee who said in November 2023 that a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians would be the work of the Antichrist![22]

Before 1948, Arabs and Jews lived alongside one another in what was then called Palestine in peace and harmony.[23] The formation and support of the state of Israel can be traced in part to Christian Zionist influences in Western halls of power that have existed for almost 200 years as British and American political leaders influenced by these ideas have expressed unwavering support for Israel, with devastating consequences for Palestinians. If the church is to be a prophetic voice in the world, we need to call this out. That is why Christian Zionism matters.

As I hope I have shown, Christian Zionism is a distortion of the Scriptures and has had devastating consequences for Palestinians. There will be no rapture, tribulation, or Armageddon. Israel does not need to be in the land before Jesus can return. A future 1,000-year millennium is a possibility, although, I take an amillennial view. The land of Israel is of no consequence for Christians, and Jerusalem remains a city under judgement because that is where Jesus met his strongest opposition and from where he was dragged out and executed. Jesus told the (Jewish) apostles to start their proclamation of the gospel in Jerusalem and take it to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). He did not suggest they would return to Jerusalem at the end of the age, for Jerusalem is the source, not the goal.


4. Loose Ends

I haven’t answered all the questions that were submitted by people in our Baptist churches. The following questions are not strictly related to biblical interpretation, but I will give a brief response, acknowledging that this moves more into the territory of opinion rather than scholarship. My opinion grows out of over 20 years of reflection on these issues as well as a couple of (brief) visits to Israel and Palestine. I am by no means an expert and am conscious that others will have different opinions from mine.

a. “How should we express our disapproval of Hamas and both the Israeli government and the IDF without appearing either anti-Semitic or approving of (perhaps even glorifying) Israel and their policies against the Palestinian people?” This question concerns criticism of Israel and Hamas without appearing to be anti-Semitic or to approve of the actions of the other. Two organisations that have been known to identify criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic are the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews.[24] Scot McKnight defines anti-Semitism as “irrational, personal, racial prejudice against Jews because they are Jews.”[25] If he is correct then criticism of the Israeli Government and the IDF is not anti-Semitic. All governments need to be called to account, and we should be able to express our disapproval of Hamas as well as of the Israeli government and the IDF, without fear of being labelled anti-Semitic or pro-Israel. I don’t think criticism of one side necessarily means approval of the other side.

b. “Given that most Israelis are not believers in Jesus, is it reasonable to expect them to forgive/extend grace to those who wish to exterminate them?” I think this question assumes that Israel is the victim, and the Palestinians the aggressor. Hamas indeed aims to destroy Israel but Israel by its actions is denying basic human rights to Palestinians and making life for them intolerable. In 2010 I sat in a synagogue in the Jewish settlement of Efrat a few kilometres south of Bethlehem and listened to a Rabbi with an American accent (he had emigrated a few years earlier from New York). He read from Isaiah 2:2–4 and suggested that his coming to Israel was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (notwithstanding that he was Jewish and Isaiah was referring to Gentiles). His synagogue was on land stolen from the Palestinians and he concluded by saying “If everybody was like us there would be peace.” But these Jewish settlements, where 800,000 immigrant Jews live on settlements in the West Bank are perhaps the biggest obstacle there is to peace. We also do well to remember that at the start of the current war on Gaza Netanyahu wrote to the IDF, “Remember the Amalekites.” It is a reference to Deuteronomy 25:17–19 where Moses told the Israelites to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek.” While Israel has the right to exist and that should not be denied, the Palestinians have endured over 75 years of aggression from Israel.[26] My experience of the few Palestinians I have met is that they are a people full of grace in the face of the daily denial of human rights. 

c. “Palestinians are Islamic by faith, why is it that all the Islamic states around Gaza do not want to have anything to do with the Palestinians? Where is the Islamic brotherhood message gone?” My first response is to say that while most Palestinians are Muslims, there has been a strong Christian presence there for centuries, although many have emigrated to the West in recent years. Acts 2:11 records the presence of Arabs in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, and today there are probably more Christian Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (maybe 45,000) than Messianic Jews in Israel (maybe 20,000). I suspect that lurking behind this question is the suggestion that the Palestinians should go and live in the surrounding countries to make room for Jews to live in Israel. It forgets the strong bond indigenous people have with their ancestral lands, and also forgets that there are already thousands of Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, having been driven there in 1948. Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary, “We must expropriate gently the private property on the state assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country . . . Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.[27] The question reflects Herzl’s sentiments and is part of numerous attempts to deny the existence of the Palestinian people or their right to live on their ancestral lands. This is a grave injustice that must be challenged. 


Concluding prayer

It is my prayer that with greater understanding Christians can work towards bringing about a situation where Jews and Arabs can live alongside each other again in peace and harmony in the land of the Holy One, with justice for all. I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, although I know that Jerusalem will have no peace until there is freedom and justice in Bethlehem, Hebron and Gaza.


This is the end of what has become a 5-part series answering questions with the aim of resourcing our thinking and our faith. We thank Philip Church for sharing his expertise in this way with the wider New Zealand Baptist family, and for all the time he has spent helping us in this way.


Previous questions answered

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

1. What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?

2. How should we read the Old Testament now that the New Testament has been written?

3. How are we to read the Old Testament Prophets?

4. Who are the People of God?

5. Are the citizens of Israel to be identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament?

6. Has God rejected his People (Romans 11:1)?

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

1. What is Replacement Theology or Supersessionism?

2. What does Paul mean when he says, “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26)?

3. What does the Bible say about the Promised Land?

Click here for Part 3, published on 11 June 2024

1. What is the significance of Jerusalem?

2. What is Zionism?

3. What is the Millennium?

4. What about Dispensational Premillennialism?

Click here for Part 4, published on 25 June 2024

1. What are Dispensational Hermenutics?

2. What is the Rapture?

3. What about the Great Tribulation?


Endnotes

[1] See online: https://feast.icej.org/

[2] My thesis has been published as Hebrews and the Temple: Attitudes to the Temple in Second Temple Judaism and in Hebrews. NovTSup 171 (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

[3] The temple appears sixteen times in Revelation, but the remaining references refer to the heavenly temple.

[4] Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 504–.5

[5] Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 237–41.

[6] Gary Steven Shogren, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 282–83.

[7] F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, WBC 45 (Dallas: Word, 1982), 169.

[8] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 557-71.

[9] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 571.

[10] Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, (London: SPCK, 2011), 98.

[11] Randall Price. The Temple in Biblical Prophecy: A Definitive Look at its PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE, rev. ed. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2005), 41. This book argues for the rebuilding of the third temple.

[12] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 4 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013), 1199 (ialic original).

[13] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1199 (emphasis added).

[14] Ian Stackhouse, Beyond Christian Zionism: A Travelogue of a Former Idealogue (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2024), 104.

[15] Robert Davidson has done some of that. See https://baptist.nz/pondering-the-historical-context-for-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/.

[16] See Donald M. Lewis, The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1–5.

[17] This is complex, and the Jewish political lobby is also a significant influence (see https://www.aipac.org/). In what follows I need to be selective, and while I refer to two Republican administrations, this support is bipartisan and also appears in Democratic administrations like the present one. 

[18] See Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester: IVP, 2004), 86–89.

[19] Chris McGreal, “Pompeo says Israel has biblical claim to Palestine and is ‘not an occupying nation’.” The Guardian, 16 February 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/feb/16/mike-pompeo-israel-biblical-claim-palestine-not-occupying.

[20] “Nikki Haley writes ‘finish them’ on IDF shells during Israel visit.” https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/nikki-haley-writes-finish-them-on-idf-shells-during-israel-visit/KOINBXCXXRAY3PSFUFE3DLOC5Y/

[21] https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2023-02-15/controversial-pastor-opens-nikki-haleys-first-presidential-campaign-rally. For Christians United for Israel, see https://cufi.org/.

[22] “The Gaza Call: An Open Letter to Christian Leaders, Churches, and Theologians in the West.” https://www.peacecatalyst.org/gaza-open-letter.

[23] See Alex Awad, Palestinian Memories: The Story of a Palestinian Mother and Her People (Bethlehem: Bethlehem Bible College, 2008), 92–95.

[24] See https://www.aipac.org/. and https://bod.org.uk/

[25] Scor McKnight, “A Loyal Critic” Matthew’s Polemic within Judaism in Theological Perspective,” in Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity: Issues of Polemic and Faith, eds. Craig Evans and Donald Hagner (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 56–57.

[26] I refer again to Robert Davidson’s article from November 2023 for the historical background to the current conflict. See https://baptist.nz/pondering-the-historical-context-for-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/

[27] The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, (ed. Raphael Patai; trans. Harry Zohn; 5 vols.; New York: Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, 1960), 1:88 (entry for 12 June 1895).


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

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