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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Marching to Where?

The Temple Mount as it appears today.
I’m a bit cautious about the practice of grabbing verses out of the Old Testament and some parts of the gospels for the benefit of Christians living in the Church Age.

Notwithstanding the fact that there is centuries of historical precedent for appropriating Israel’s promises to ourselves in hymnology and liturgical language, this practice is quite unnecessary: the church has its own unique place and promises in the plans of God.

Generally speaking, when we replace our own promises with those made to national Israel, we are trading down.

Also, how is it we are free to swipe Israel’s blessings while leaving their corresponding curses behind?

Spiritual, Not Physical

The blessings of the Christian life are spiritual ones, not physical ones. There’s an old Isaac Watts hymn that goes like this:
“Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord, and thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.”
I sometimes wonder what hymns like this communicate to new Christians; hymns that are fundamentally biblical and accurate, but perhaps a little obscure without some clarification from our Bibles because the spiritual concept to which they refer has a firm basis in Israeli history or, in this case, geography. There are people with poetic casts of mind who grasp spiritual ideas quickly, just as Abraham looked forward to a city with foundations, of which God is both designer and builder. But I think a much larger number, especially people familiar with the news cycle and the words “Zionist” and “Zionism” must wonder what we’re on about.

I mean, are we all supposed to get out of our pews or chairs and head toward Israel en masse, or was Isaac Watts thinking of something a little less literal?

Despite the potential for occasional confusion, I am happy to do a little judicious application when a situation warrants it, as long as we understand that we are only using Old Testament concepts to remind ourselves of spiritual lessons unambiguously spelled out for us in the New. The literal interpretation of these prophecies belongs to the earthly people of God, even if we have a tendency to appropriate them for our enjoyment because they are often poetic and mysterious where Peter or Paul may seem comparatively obvious and prosaic.

But understanding the church’s calling and blessings to be spiritual and heavenly rather than literal, physical and earthly is the only way to read scripture coherently.

Spiritual and literal “Zion”, as I think the hymnwriter subtly suggests, are two very different things, though the Lord Jesus is very much connected to the blessings and promises related to both.

Isaiah speaks of the literal Zion:
“For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and
makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”
My Bible heads this chapter with a great big uninspired title that reads “The Lord’s Comfort for Zion”. Sure enough, by verse 3, Zion gets its first mention.

Literal Zion

When we speak of “Zionists”, we understand that we are talking about a national movement of the Jewish people from their dispersal throughout the world to their homeland in Israel. “Zion” is a word much loved and hated because of its very political modern day connotation.

Zion, as Wikipedia will tell you, refers to the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a literal, physical, tangible place. You can book a ticket on El Al and fly there, assuming you’re not a terrorist:
Zion (Hebrew: צִיּוֹן‎ Ṣiyyôn), also transliterated Sion, Tzion or Tsion, is a place name often used as a synonym for Jerusalem. The word is first found in 2 Samuel 5:7 dating to c.630–540 BCE according to modern scholarship. It commonly referred to a specific mountain near Jerusalem (Mount Zion), on which stood a Jebusite fortress of the same name that was conquered by David and was named the City of David. The term Tzion came to designate the area of Jerusalem where the fortress stood, and later became a metonym for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the city of Jerusalem and “the World to Come”, the Jewish understanding of the hereafter.”
Clear enough, right? “Zion” is a mountain that by metonymy has come to represent to the Jewish people its temple, its city, its future and now, in geopolitics, its nation. But it represents them all in relation to this world.

In this Isaiah passage, national Israel is promised a return to conditions like those in the garden of Eden. There will be significant physical and geographic changes to the land, and a corresponding change to the hearts of its people. Instead of suicide bombers, missile bombardment and Arab hatred, there will be joyous singing. The desert will bloom like a crocus.

But this state of blessedness for Israel will not be achieved by peace accords, the creation of a separate Palestinian state or human ingenuity. It awaits the return of Messiah, who will rule from Zion over the entire world.

Spiritual Zion

Spiritual Zion, on the other hand, is something not really contemplated in Old Testament Judaism. “Zion” is largely an Old Testament concept and is only touched on by New Testament writers three times (in addition to a few quotations from the Old Testament).

The first hint that “Zion”, though Jewish in origin, may represent something special to the Christian believer comes in 1 Peter. Like the earlier New Testament writers, Peter also quotes Isaiah, but here he uses the verse to back up his assertion that there is a new sort of “house of God”, a house built of living stones constructed around the Living Stone who was “rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious”. This “spiritual house” (as opposed to Israel’s earthly and physical house) is a “holy priesthood” offering “spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ”.

But the foundation of this spiritual priesthood, this new house, is a Living Stone laid “in Zion”, suggesting that the word “Zion” may have a spiritual significance beyond simply marking a geographic location.

John saw this “spiritual Zion” in a vision when he saw 144,000 redeemed Jews standing with the Lamb in Zion singing a new song only they can learn. The song is heard “before the throne” of God.

It appears that this “Zion” is heavenly.

The Heavenly Zion

The concept is spelled out fully by the writer to the Hebrews, who says this:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
When the writer of Hebrews says we have “come to Mount Zion”, he is clearly not speaking literally. I’ve never been to Israel, but because of the work of Christ I have come in spirit to a new thing entirely; a thing that stands in contrast to all that can be touched and heard. When I pray, I cannot see those “innumerable angels in festal gathering”. I cannot see the city itself, nor can I see the sprinkled blood, the spirits of the righteous made perfect, the Lord Jesus, the Father or even the “assembly of the firstborn” (though occasionally I happen to run into one or two of the “firstborn” still with us on days when I’m not glued to my keyboard).

But though they are not visible to me, I see them by faith. I come into this sanctuary not once a year like the High Priest under the Law of Moses, but every single time I engage in prayer, worship, praise or meditation on the person of Christ, and I unite myself with a chorus of fellow worshippers, servants and sons.

Marching to Zion

National Israel has its blessings and promises, to be sure. The day Messiah comes to reign will be the happiest day in its history, and those Jews who come to recognize the historical Jesus Christ as their promised Messiah during the coming time of “Jacob’s Trouble” will enjoy these blessings in a way never before realized.

But can you see why I say that replacing the blessings of the Christian believer with those of national Israel is trading down, not trading up?

The Jew still awaits his march to Zion. I can do it right now.

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