Last Wednesday, Dr. Douglas Farrow, Professor of Theology and Christian Thought at McGill University, presented a lecture at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. titled, “Why Israel Matters: A Theological Perspective.” The event was timely, coming a day after British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn had claimed it was not “antisemitic [sic] to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist.” The lecture was well attended, with standing room only.
Farrow urged Christians to take a balanced view towards Israel, and to not go beyond what the Bible says.
He explained that Christians often infer views about Israel from their beliefs on eschatology (end times) or Biblical covenants, even when those views diverge from Biblical teaching. One such error, which Farrow traced back to the early church, encourages Christians to persecute Jews because they killed Christ. The professor noted this idea has misled such varied persons as Augustine, medieval Catholics, and the Christians in 20th-century Germany who tolerated Hitler’s regime.
On the other hand, Farrow decried unconditional support for Zionist nationalism, which he blamed on postmillennial English Puritans. This view promotes Israel’s political existence in order to hasten the end times. This doctrine justified the creation of the current nation-state of Israel after the Second World War, while the contemporary persecution inspired by erroneous beliefs in Europe incentivized Jews to return to the Holy Land.
However, Farrow continued, it does not follow that the existence of the nation-state of Israel is or was contrary to God’s plan. He compared Jews escaping ghettos, pogroms, and the Holocaust to the woman escaping the dragon Satan in Revelation 12. Further, he described how the creation of Israel has “scandalized” the world, particularly secular and Islamic nations. Israel has been a lightning rod for international disapproval, particularly at the United Nations. Farrow compared this to Zechariah 12:2-3, where the Lord declared that Jerusalem would become a “cup of staggering to all the surrounding peoples,” and that “all the nations of the earth will gather against it.”
He quickly noted that it would be presumptive to assert that Israel in its current form fulfills these prophecies; we mere humans should not sit in judgment on God’s purposes in history, he said. However, “only God can give the land,” he reasoned, perhaps thinking of Jeremiah 27:5.
Instead of relying on human theories about Israel’s current and future significance, Farrow implored listeners to consider a more central question: What does God’s Word say is the future purpose of Israel? The Apostle Paul described Israel’s future purpose in great detail in Romans 11, which contains a parable in which the people of God are like a tree. All who attain to the promise of salvation through faith made to Abraham are branches, but Israel’s apostasy led to their removal from the promise so that non-Jews could be grafted into their place (the gentile church). However, Paul prophesied that Israel will finally be re-grafted into the tree.
In his discussion of Romans 11, Farrow concentrated on two specific points. First, verses 2-5 make clear that God has not completely rejected his people because a remnant is saved by grace. On account of that remnant, said Farrow, the whole people of Israel remain under God’s providential care. Second, verse 18 warns gentiles to not treat the Jews as inferior, which Farrow interpreted to mean that we should labor for their salvation just like other non-believers.
Farrow then applied his reasoning on Romans 11 to analyze the current Israeli state. He warned Christians against the secular trend in modern philosophy to isolate history from theology. “Israel is a people,” he said, “a people requiring a place.” He wondered why any place would be a more fitting home for the Jewish people than the ancient land God promised them. Furthermore, he reminded the audience that God has “unfinished business” with Israel because when Jesus returns he will appear to Israel.
Does that mean that Christians should support the current Israeli government? Farrow said the answer is a prudential political judgment to which his theology provides no clear answer. However, he criticized “our own apostate societies who think we can make good prudential judgements without any reference to God”—so theology should still play some role.
Additionally, Farrow reinforced the significance of the theological divide separating Jews from Christians. He said Christians proclaim Jesus as Messiah, while Jews reject him as Messiah. Christians, he said, “cannot be neutral” to Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah without sacrificing the entire Gospel.
So why does Israel matter? Farrow answered it should matter to Christians because it still matters to God. The land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem have been and will be the center stage in the war between good and evil. And the people matter because God will open their eyes to accept Jesus Christ in the future. However, Farrow cautioned that these theological realities do not automatically justify full-fledged support for the current Israeli state.
While sincere Christians may draw different conclusions than Dr. Farrow about Israel, all Christians would do well to imitate his humble approach to Scripture and his respect for the people of God.