Christianity, Judaism, and the Middle East
Probably no international issue has affected our lives more in the past 40 years or so than issues related to the Middle East. These issues are political issues, but they have religious undertones to them. The major reason for that is Christianity’s relationship with Judaism. And so I thought it would be good to examine the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.
The Old Testament, which was essentially taken from Judaism, is in the Christian Bible. The Old Testament is Jewish scriptures. But yet Christianity is not Judaism. So how has Christianity, traditionally, interpreted these Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament?
Jesus as Savior of the World
To understand that, we first need to remember who Christianity says Jesus is. Christianity says that Jesus is the Savior of the world, the Savior of all people, or at least the Savior of all the people of the world who believe in Him. This belief comes from things in the New Testament, including some things Jesus Himself said. In John 12 Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” John 3 says, “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” In Matthew 28, Jesus told His disciples to be witnesses unto Him “unto the uttermost parts of the world.” There are many other things in the New Testament that point to Jesus being the Savior of all people.
Christianity sees that as the purpose for which Jesus came. That is the work Jesus does, to be the Savior of the world. Keep that in mind as we think specifically about the Old Testament.
Jesus and the Old Testament
Christianity has traditionally seen the Old Testament as prophesying about and leading up to the coming of Jesus, both the first coming of Jesus, when Jesus was born as a human being in Bethlehem, and the second coming of Jesus, which is something Christians believe will happen in the future. Many of the prophecies about the future found in the Old Testament are seen as being about Jesus, either His first or second coming. Jesus is seen as the goal toward which the Old Testament leads.
God’s Promise to Abraham
It starts with God’s original promise to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12. It reads as follows, and this is God talking to Abraham: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Christianity sees this as the first step toward the eventual coming of Jesus, the first prophecy about the coming of Jesus. Let’s look at it one point at a time.
The first phrase is: “Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation.” The land referred to is what’s commonly called The Promised Land. God tells Abraham to go there, and God will make Abraham into a great nation there. On down a couple of verses later, God tells Abraham, “To your descendants I will give this land.”
Christians have traditionally seen this as being fulfilled. Abraham did go there and live. He was prosperous there and had many children and grandchildren who lived there. He and his descendants lived there in the book of Genesis.
Confusion sometimes comes with the word that’s usually translated as “nation.” Literally, in biblical times, that word did not connote nation like we think of a modern-day nation. It connoted “a group of people.” So what God promised Abraham was that his descendants would be a great group of people there. This biblical sense of nation is not the same as our modern sense of the word.
Moving on it says, “I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” Christians have traditionally seen this as a promise about the coming of Jesus, that it will be through the line of Abraham’s descendants that Jesus will be born. Christians believe that part of the promise was fulfilled when Jesus was born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.
Moving on it says, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you.” Christians have traditionally seen that as being directed to Abraham himself as he begins his new life in the Promised Land. That promise was also fulfilled in Old Testament times. As we’ve seen, Abraham did go there and live there for many years. He was very prosperous. He had at least two wives and had many children by at least three different women.
Moving it says, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Christians traditionally have interpreted this to be a prophecy about Jesus. Remember we saw that Jesus would come from the line of Abraham’s descendants. This part of the promise says that everyone in the world will benefit from what Jesus does. Christians believe that promise has also been fulfilled, for Jesus is the Savior of the world.
This is how God’s promise to Abraham has traditionally been interpreted within Christianity. It is essentially about Jesus, and it says that what Jesus does will benefit all people.
Old Testament Prophecies About Jesus
Now let’s look at some other Old Testament passages which Christians interpret as being about Jesus. First is a passage from Isaiah chapter 1. It reads like this: “I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her penitents with righteousness. The destruction of transgressors and of sinners shall be together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.”
Christians have traditionally seen this passage as referring to the second coming of Jesus. It basically talks about the same thing found in the New Testament book of Revelation—evil is destroyed, those who refuse to follow God are destroyed, and all that’s left is righteousness. It’s very similar to the first part of Revelation chapter 21.
Now let’s consider a passage from Isaiah 11: “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. His delight is in the fear of the Lord, and He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes nor decide by the hearing of His ears; but with righteousness He shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins and faithfulness the belt of His waist. The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze. Their young ones shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to the people, for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious. It shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people who are left. From Assyria and Egypt, from Pathros and Cush, from Elam and Shinar, from Hamath and the islands of the sea, He will set up a banner for the nations and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah.”
This passage has also traditionally been interpreted in Christianity as primarily referring to the second coming of Jesus. It says, “He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins and faithfulness the belt of His waist.” This is reminiscent of Revelation chapter 19, where Jesus is pictured returning to earth as a warrior on a white horse.
Think about this part of the passage: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze. Their young ones shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” This is seen as referring to the situation after the second coming of Jesus, when God recreates all things new. This is the same idea found in the New Testament, in Revelation chapter 21.
Then there’s the part that says, “It shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people who are left. From Assyria and Egypt, from Pathros and Cush, from Elam and Shinar, from Hamath and the islands of the sea, He will set up a banner for the nations and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah.” This is interpreted to refer to Christians who will be gathered together at the second coming of Jesus, when the dead are resurrected, about which time First Thessalonians says, “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.”
Christianity Interprets the Old Testament Metaphorically
This passage illustrates how Christians interpret the Old Testament. In this passage, it talks about “the remnant of His people” being gathered from far-off lands. It talks about assembling “the outcasts of Israel and the dispersed of Judah.” “The remnant of His people,” “Israel,” and “Judah,” are seen as metaphors for Christians.
“God’s people,” “Israel,” and “Judah” are interpreted to mean Christians, those who believe in Jesus, who, at the second coming of Jesus, will either be resurrected or taken alive directly into heaven. They are gathered from all parts of the earth.
This is traditionally how Christians have interpreted this passage from Isaiah.
There are numerous other passages we could look at in which the references to God’s people, Israel, and Judah are seen as metaphors for Christians.
So, traditionally, Christians have interpreted these Old Testament passages metaphorically. They are not literally about Israel and Judah; they are about Christians. The Old Testament is seen to be talking metaphorically about Christians.
Why has the Old Testament been interpreted that way? One reason is because of things the New Testament says. Galatians 3 says, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3 also says, “Know you therefore that those who have faith are the sons of Abraham,” and “In Jesus Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile.” And remember, earlier we saw the same idea from Jesus Himself. Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” John 3 says, “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but the world through Him might be saved.” Passages like this are why Jesus is seen to be the Savior of the world, and those Old Testament prophecies about God’s people, Judah, and Israel in the Old Testament are seen as metaphors for Christians.
The Old Testament in Light of Jesus
Christianity sees Jesus as primary. Everything, including the Old Testament, is interpreted in light of Jesus. The Old Testament never stands alone; it is always read in light of Jesus. This was true from the beginning. Early Christians realized the only way they could keep Jesus primary and interpret the Old Testament in light of Jesus was to interpret the Old Testament prophecies about God’s people, Israel, and Judah metaphorically, so that’s what they did.
That’s the way it stood for 1800 years.
John Darby and Dispensationalism
But in the 1800’s in Britain, a man named John Darby came on the scene. Darby was a priest in the Church of Ireland, which was part of the Church of England, the official state church of Britain. Darby became convinced that Christianity was totally wrong, that it was based on incorrect interpretations. He resigned the priesthood and, supported financially by a wealthy widow, devoted himself to completely reinterpreting Christianity.
Darby decided Christianity was wrong to interpret the Old Testament metaphorically and believed it should be interpreted literally instead. Here’s what he came up with: Christianity is wrong to think of Jesus as the Savior of the world. Jesus actually was a political figure sent to establish a worldwide Jewish kingdom. According to Darby, that was the purpose God had in mind when He originally created the world—to establish a worldwide kingdom ruled by Judaism. That’s how Darby interpreted God’s promise to Abraham. Darby said God’s promise to Abraham was about a worldwide kingdom ruled by Abraham’s literal descendants.
However, God’s plan to do that has been thwarted a number of times. God tried to do it back in Old Testament times when He led the Hebrews out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, but the Hebrews didn’t cooperate, so that plan failed.
Then God had to come up with another plan. God had worked through human figures like Moses, Joshua, and David, but since that failed, this time He would work through Jesus, a combination human/divine figure. God felt that this combination human/divine figure would succeed where the humans had failed. So Jesus came. However, the Jews rejected Him and killed Him. Now God came up with another plan.
Although the Jews rejected Jesus, there was a little group of people who did accept Jesus. These people developed a religion around Jesus, the religion of Christianity. These Christians had completely misunderstood Jesus, and the religion they developed was completely wrong, but God decided He could utilize them in a third attempt to establish a Jewish world kingdom. He would work with Christians, temporarily, to establish a Jewish world kingdom.
God would send Jesus back a second time, but God would wait until conditions were such that Jesus was more likely to succeed. God would wait until Jews were in political control of Jerusalem and the area around Jerusalem, until the basic framework of a Jewish kingdom was already set up Palestine.
The role Christians would play is that Christians would work to help set up this nation in Palestine controlled by Jews. That was the purpose God saw for Christianity. He would use Christians to set up a Jewish nation in Palestine.
But God knew there would be a lot of opposition to this; in fact, virtually the whole world would rise up against it, led by a figure Darby called the Antichrist. This Antichrist would assemble the entire world against the Jewish nation, and these forces would be so powerful that it would take the power of God to defeat it, so much power from God that much of the world would be destroyed in the process.
And so Darby developed the idea of the rapture. There would be so much destruction on earth during the time when God was defeating the Antichrist and the nations aligned against the Jewish nation that Christians might not survive. And so before all that happened, Christians would be suddenly removed from the world and taken up into heaven, where they would wait until the opponents of the Jewish nation were defeated. Darby called this the rapture, when Christians would suddenly vanish from the world and be taken to heaven.
These Christians have to be protected, for they will play a role in the establishment of the Jewish world kingdom. After the Antichrist and all opposition to the Jewish nation are defeated, the second coming Jesus will happen. Jesus comes, and He brings with him all the Christians who had been removed from earth in the rapture. Now, Christianity will vanish. The Christians who return with Jesus will follow Judaism. They will join with Jesus and the “real” Jews in setting up a Jewish world kingdom, headquartered in Jerusalem. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and animal sacrifices will be offered there, just as in Old Testament times.
This Jewish world kingdom will last 1000 years. Darby called that The Millennium, which means a thousand-year period. Judaism will be the only religion on earth during that time. At the end of that thousand years, the world will come to an end. The world will end because God’s purpose for the world, the establishment of a Jewish world kingdom, has been accomplished. As a reward to the Christians who helped set up the earlier Jewish nation and then helped set up the Jewish world kingdom and became subject to it, God will make Jesus their Savior, and they will receive eternal life in heaven.
You can see that this idea Darby came up with represents a totally different interpretation of Jesus and a totally different interpretation of Christianity. Keep in mind that it was not Jews who came up with this idea; it was John Darby, who was a Christian.
Darby and British Christianity
These ideas found fertile ground in Britain among many conservative Protestant Christians, and by the late 1800’s were very popular in British Christianity.
Why did those ideas become so popular in Britain? Well, back in 1799, the French general Napoleon had proposed putting Jews friendly to France in charge of Palestine. Napoleon felt having Jews friendly to France in charge of Palestine would secure the trade routes between France and India, Africa, and the Arab world.
That scared the British. That was back during the days of the British Empire, and the British felt their empire was threatened by the prospect of having French-backed Jews controlling Palestine. If anyone was going to control Palestine, it should be British-backed Jews.
Competition developed between France and Britain over control of Palestine. Both Britain and France wanted it for commercial reasons, for a direct land passage to India and as a way to open new commercial markets in the East.
The British Want Control of Palestine
By the turn of the 20th century, commercial interests in Britain wanted British control of Palestine. Religious interests, influenced by Darby’s ideas, felt it was their Christian duty to resettle Jews in Palestine and form a Jewish nation there. The commercial and religious interests combined to form a major sentiment in Britain for resettling Jews in Palestine and creating a Jewish nation there.
From the economic side, it kept France out of Palestine and secured British access to trade and economic influence. From the religious side, it was Christians doing what John Darby told them was their Christian duty.
The Balfour Declaration
And so, in 1917, during World War I, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain officially advocated resettlement of Jews in Palestine and the creation of a Jewish nation there. The idea received a lukewarm reception among the Allies in World War I, including in the United States, and the creation of a Jewish nation in Palestine did not happen until 1948, after World War II.
Darby and American Christianity
This reinterpretation of Christianity that John Darby developed in Britain, while widely popular there, did not gain much of a following in the United States. It did gain some following here, but not a lot.
During the time when John Darby’s new ideas about Christianity were becoming popular in Britain, Christians here were preoccupied with other things. There was controversy among Christians here about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Also, something called the “social gospel movement” had sprung up in the United States, which said the true mission of Christianity is solving social problems, problems like poverty, labor issues, education, and the like. The social gospel movement caused a great divide in Christianity in the United States.
As a reaction to all that, the fundamentalist movement arose in the United States. The fundamentalist movement emphasized salvation from sin through Jesus’ death on the cross and emphasized that as the only way to salvation.
There were two opposing sides in American Christianity. One side emphasized social problems. The other side emphasized the only way to salvation being Jesus’ death on the cross. It was hard to fit the ideas of John Darby in with either. Darby’s ideas just didn’t fit with what the two main factions of American Christianity were emphasizing.
And so in 1948, when the United Nations established the state of Israel, there was not a lot of religious support for it among American Christians. The only significant religious support came from a small wing of liberal American Christians, but they didn’t support it because they supported Darby’s ideas about a worldwide Jewish kingdom; they supported it because they felt they should always support the oppressed and those at the bottom rung of the ladder, and they felt that, given what had happened to Jews in Europe during World War II, Jews were oppressed and at the bottom rung of the ladder.
The Six-Day War Changes Everything
But then, in 1967, something happened—the Six-Day War. Using military force, Israel seized land the United Nations had allocated to Palestinians, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Desert. Liberal Christians in the United States considered that to be aggression on the part of Israel, so much so that in their eyes, the Jews were no longer the oppressed, they had become the oppressors. Liberal Christians now viewed Palestinians as the oppressed, with the Jews oppressing them. Since they felt their Christian duty was to support the oppressed and condemn the oppressors, liberal Christians condemned Israel, backed off from their support of Israel, and threw their support behind the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, over among conservative Christians, the fires of fundamentalism had pretty much flamed out. The fundamentalist movement had, in a sense, been like chains on these Christians, and once those chains began to loosen, as they had by the 1960’s, they were free to look around and consider other things.
One of the things they considered was the ideas of John Darby. The image of Israel using military force against helpless Palestinians didn’t turn them off like it had turned off the liberal Christians. Just the opposite, it was what got their attention and caused them to reconsider John Darby. Maybe prophecy was being fulfilled right before their eyes. Maybe Darby was right.
Prominent conservative figures began to talk about support for Jews in Israel, and it wasn’t long before, among many conservative American Christians, support for the nation of Israel was considered to be, more or less, a Christian duty.
American Variations of Dispensationalism
Very few American Christians, though, accepted John Darby’s views in their entirety. There was still enough emphasis on Jesus being the only way to salvation that American Christians could not accept Darby’s view that Jesus was not the Savior of the world, so they selected some of Darby’s views and inserted them into their own beliefs.
Many different versions of Christianity with some of Darby’s ideas inserted developed among American Christians after the 1960’s. It would take days to go through them all, and even if we tried that, we’d certainly miss some, because they’re so many of them. But I think, in general, most of them throw out Darby’s ideas about Judaism being established as the only world religion and instead say Christianity will be established as the only world religion. And, most retain Jesus as the Savior of the world but say that either before, at, or after the second coming of Jesus, all Jews will convert to Christianity or at least that all Jews will be given a special opportunity to convert to Christianity and most of them will.
American Christians selected some parts of Darby’s ideas and tried to weave them in to what they already believed. Darby’s complete idea never made much headway here, but it did to one important thing: it introduced two new things into some sectors of American Christianity—that God wants modern-day Jews to control the area of Palestine, and that God holds modern-day Jews in some way above non-Jews. Most of what Darby said was rejected, but these two ideas based on Darby did find a foothold in some sectors of American Christianity.
From there, the different sectors of American Christianity went in many different directions, with the result that today, there are many Christians in the United States who, for various and sundry reasons, believe that God wants modern-day Jews to control the area of Palestine and that God holds modern-day Jews in some way above non-Jews. It all came from John Darby.
Among the Christians who believe this, there are many different reasons why they believe it, but the why really doesn’t matter. The important thing is that some Christians do hold those beliefs. It is estimated that approximately 12 to 15% of Christians in the United States hold some variation of these beliefs. That’s by no means a majority, but these Christians comprise a very vocal and active component of Christianity in the United States, and so their voices are often heard in the public arena.
The belief that God wants modern-day Jews to control Palestine and the belief that God holds modern-day Jews above non-Jews are two beliefs that traditionally are not found in Christianity but that did develop in some sectors of Christianity over the past 150 years or so and are today accepted by around 12 to 15% of American Christians.