Recently, I had the privilege and joy of spending several days at a conference with evangelical Palestinian Christians. They seek to follow Christ and be subject to the word of God, just like other evangelical Christians. I met some with a passion for evangelism who shared exciting stories about how people from the majority religion (Islam) were coming to Christ, especially through dreams and other divine interventions.
These brothers and sisters belong to the same body that we do. Paul says about this body, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). We should feel their pain. But they typically feel abandoned by the evangelical Christian community. This is wrong! Our solidarity with members of the body of Christ should be deeper than with political structures which do not accept the lordship of Christ. We must honestly make an effort to listen to them.
Fresh off my time with these dear Palestinian brothers and sisters, consider first the nature of the modern state of Israel and the biblical prophecies, then the plight of evangelicals in Palestine, along with some concluding reflections and a challenge.
Israel and Her Prophecies
God’s sovereignty was evident in the establishment of the Jewish people as a nation. I marvel at the way this small nation has progressed through the hard work and competence of its people and rulers. But we should not let that surprising historical development keep us from careful thinking about Israel today and the nature of biblical prophecies.
I repudiate the view that God’s plan for Israel has been completely replaced by the establishment of the new covenant under Christ. However, as Christians, we now view everything from the perspective of the person and work of Christ. Of course, Christians have had many different interpretations of the prophecies that relate to Israel, especially in the Old Testament. And such has always been the case with predictive prophecy. The fulfillment of many prophecies took place in ways that most believers did not expect. It is not surprising, then, that devout students of the Bible disagree on how to interpret prophecies made about the future of the Jewish people.
The differences of interpretation are especially evident regarding the hope of the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem. The New Testament, especially the book of Hebrews, is clear that, after the work of Christ, we have no need for a temple. Based on some Old Testament prophecies, some Christians say a physical temple will be rebuilt.
Others, who are equally committed to the Scriptures, disagree and look instead for the fulfillment of the prophecy in Romans 11 about the Jews acknowledging Christ en masse. Then they would be part of the body of Christ, the temple which Christ rebuilt in three days, thus fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies regarding the Jews and the temple. Much disagreement here exists among Christians.
In history, the nonfulfillment of assured anticipated prophetic fulfillments has resulted in a serious loss of credibility among Bible-believing Christians. When Bible teachers express their opinions as infallible biblical truth, and their predictions don’t come to pass, people can lose faith in the trustworthiness of the Bible itself. I suspect this was a contributing factor to the rapid rise of liberalism in the early twentieth century.
So we must be tentative when it comes to the interpretation and application of prophecy to present-day situations. Sometimes instead of saying, “This is the fulfillment of this prophecy,” we will say, out of respect for the sacredness of Scripture, and of fear of misinterpreting it, “This may well be the fulfillment of this prophecy,” or “This may be the kind of thing this prophecy is talking about.”
Our Prayer for Israelis
It is important for us to remember that most of the prophetic writings in the Bible deal with moral issues. On those there is little ambiguity. We can be sure that God hates all unrighteous and unjust behaviour, and we can speak about those things with confidence as heralds of God.
Using the words of Paul, I would say that our great desire and prayer for Israelis today is that they would be saved by yielding to the Savior of the world (Romans 10:1). Without Jesus, they are lost eternally. The number of Messianic Jews who have received Jesus as Savior and Lord is increasing, and may it continue to be so. The prophecy of Romans 11 that the whole nation (probably the vast majority of the population) will yield to Christ motivates our prayers and hopes.
In the meantime, we maintain the horror and pain that Paul expressed over the fact that the Jews have rejected Christ (Romans 9:1–3). I do not believe, as some do, in a separate covenant for the Jews which takes away the urgent need for them to experience salvation through faith in Christ. When we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, our most earnest prayer is that the people of Jerusalem would find their peace with God through justification by faith alone (Romans 5:1).
Genuine Old Testament prophets (and John the Baptist) questioned and challenged Jewish officials about injustice in the nation. It was the false prophets who always agreed with the leaders. Those who love Israel should challenge the nation over unrighteousness and injustice that may be found there. After all, in the Bible, the blessings promised by the prophets are for a righteous nation. Christians should be careful in endorsing all the decisions made by the Israeli government — or, for that matter, any government.
Plight of Palestinian Christians
God is a God of justice and, especially in the era of the new covenant, we must reckon with his deep concern for the welfare of all peoples. While the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 was a miracle for the Jews, the Palestinians call it a “catastrophe” (nakba). Hundreds of thousands had to flee their homes, including an estimated 50,000 Palestinian Christians. Those who stayed have integrated with the new nation, and some are doing well. But those who fled were not able to come back. They remain refugees in neighboring nations.
At the conference, I met a pastor whose family lost land of which they can trace ownership back seven hundred years. I met another Christian whose family owned olive orchards and vineyards. That family lost 92% of their land. Yet he is now working hard to develop programs that foster harmonious understanding between Palestinians and Jews.
This situation is most severe in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where there is a lot of unrest at the moment. There is a blockade, and a population of about 1.8 million are confined to this small space. Sixty-five percent of the people living there now are those who were displaced, and Gaza was not the home of their parents.
Palestinians, many of whom are in refugee camps, see Jews living in lands they once owned. And that grieves them. Some of the refugee camps are fairly comfortable, but they live with the ongoing pain that others are living in their lands. This is particularly true of the settlements where, despite international protests and United Nations resolutions against it, Jews are building houses in lands considered Palestinian. There is heavy security for these settlers, and the inconvenience to the Palestinians is severe.
Another point of grief is the wall separating Palestinian areas. It may have improved the security situation, but it has increased the grief of the Palestinians. When it comes to the allocation of water (always a precious commodity, but especially in the Middle East), there is a heavily weighted advantage to Jewish populations. This is true of other commodities also.
Prayer for Brothers in Christ
However, I did not find a single Palestinian Christian who refused to accept the right of the nation of Israel to exist. I asked several people about the issue of using violence as a means to achieve their goals. They assured me that all evangelical Christians (and almost all other Christians) and a significant percentage of Muslims among the Palestinians do not condone violence. Many seem to be willing to live in a single state with the Jews. I asked several Palestinians Christians what they wanted. The usual response was that they want to live with dignity and to be treated as equals — a desire that clearly resonates with Scripture.
The fact that many evangelical Christians give strong endorsement to decisions made by the Jewish-led government makes life difficult for the Palestinian evangelicals who are a small minority. In areas under the Palestinian Authority, Orthodox, Catholic, and older mainline denominations have official rights like registering marriages. Newer evangelical groups do not have those rights. They had been making progress in earning their rights, but those negotiations ceased after the United States embassy moved to Jerusalem and many vocal evangelicals in the United States expressed support.
Oppressed and Needy
I hope Christians who love the modern nation of Israel would use their acceptance in Israel to speak on behalf of the rights and needs of their Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters.
I am reminded of the situation in eighteenth century Britain where affluent people influenced by the revival under the Wesleys realized the pain of their poorer working-class brothers and sisters in Christ. The rich and the poor were in the same Bible study groups (called Class Meetings), and that’s how they found out about the situation. They spoke up on behalf of the poor and helped enact legislation that brought them justice.
Some analysts feel that this helped prevent a bloody revolution like the one in France which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. In Britain, rich, influential Christians spoke up for the poor. Often people resort to violence because they think that there is no other way to achieve their legitimate rights.
Living as we do in a fallen world, we can expect disagreement on national issues among Christians. Our cultures and histories influence the way we interpret Scripture and the prevailing situation. Today we are shocked to hear what some of our heroes, like Martin Luther, said about the Jews. Luther has, possibly with some justification, been labelled anti-Semitic.
During the war in Sri Lanka, I often found sincere Christians praying for opposite solutions to the problems we faced. One group focused on one aspect of the problem and neglected another. And the other group did the opposite. So I often heard different sincere Christians praying for different, sometimes contradictory, outcomes. And I often found that both sides were right.
Challenge for Evangelicals
We find injustice and selfishness everywhere. And when we focus on one side, we can neglect the other. This makes us humble about our opinions and slow to reject and attack our brothers and sisters on the other side. At the conference I attended, I found some things I did not agree with and other things I did agree with. Even among Palestinian Christians there are a variety of positions on their attitude to the Jewish leaders. Some are even quite positive about the Israeli government.
We can expect every earthly structure to be tinged by sin and injustice. Christians whose allegiance is primarily to the kingdom of God, and only secondarily to earthly structure, will demonstrate this priority by speaking up for what they see as right and by speaking against what they see as wrong — even when their side is in the wrong. Because our primary commitment is to the kingdom of God, our focus is primarily on the rightness or wrongness of issues, and only secondarily on the party or group we support.
As an evangelical, writing to fellow evangelicals, I ask you to consider afresh how we might express our solidarity with our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters as members of the body of Christ — as members of our body.