Tuesday, November 07, 2023

End Products and Works in Progress

Lately, like almost every other Christian I know, Australian pastor Matt Littlefield has been occupied with affairs in the Middle East. Premillennialists may find two of his recent posts worth a read for that reason. Both show evidence of a more nuanced position on modern Israel and its prophetic prospects than some evangelicals have historically taken, but while I find myself agreeing with much of what he has to say, I believe some of Matt’s conclusions are either doubtful or flat out wrong.

There are no end of opinions out there, and it doesn’t hurt for believers to get our ducks in a row about Israel. If you are out there engaging with either the church or the world, the subject is likely to come up.

Let’s start with what I think Matt gets right, then let’s look to scripture for any necessary correctives.

Matt believes in a restored nation of Israel, with Christ ruling from his throne in Jerusalem. All well and good. I certainly believe that. But he begins his first post on the subject by asserting that the modern state of Israel is a work of man and not a work of God.

Hey, I understand. He’s trying to counter an unfortunate tendency among evangelicals toward something approaching Israelolatry, and he’s right in the sense that blind support from the Christian community for everything Netanyahu’s government does is probably not the most effective witnessing tool in the present moment.

No Mandate for Reconquest

Matt writes:

“The nation of modern Israel is largely atheistic, has a large population that explicitly rejects Jesus, has been encroaching on the land of Palestinians, some of whom have been in the land for centuries and more, and the church is persecuted in that land. But those who believe [Israel’s return to Palestine] is [the fulfillment of] a biblical prophecy give cover to all of this, which clearly is not in the will of God for the nation of Israel to do. There is no mandate for modern Israel to conquer the land, in fact the more the church supports this modern conquest the more this does damage to the witness of the church in the Middle East.

When you couple this with a Christian support for a Middle Eastern policy that favours Israel and disables much of the other nations in the Middle East, you can see how Christians holding this view can do great damage to the mission of the church. We are commanded to evangelize to Jew and Gentiles, Arabs and Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, all peoples in fact. However, Christians are seen as agents of a global empire in the Middle East because of a very vocal segment of the church supporting Zionistic policies.”

Right. There is no divine mandate for Israel’s ongoing reconquest of what was once Canaan, and we should not pretend there is.

A Relevant Comparison

Frankly, I’d love to ask those Christians who uncritically cheer Israeli expansionism to articulate their position on the ongoing Russian “reconquest” of the Ukraine, just to see if there’s even the slightest shred of consistency between the two. (Hint, you will rarely find one.) The simplest way for Christians to deal with the cognitive dissonance of being prompted by neocons to cheer for Ukraine (victim!) and Israel (aggressor!) simultaneously is to decide that God must be on Israel’s side, so that’s different somehow.

Matt has a point here: He’s not, and it isn’t. At least, I would add, not yet. What Russia is doing in the Donbass and what Israel is doing in Gaza are similar in the sense that both governments are responding normally, strategically and pragmatically to the existential threats posed respectively by NATO and Hamas. Both would like to claim the moral high ground, and both have legions of detractors in the US, Canada and all around the world. But it is also very difficult to see how else we might expect them to respond given their circumstances. Turning the other cheek manifestly will not work. For this reason, my position on both conflicts is a studied agnosticism. Disagreements of this sort have cluttered the geopolitical landscape throughout history and they will continue to do so until the Lord returns. To say that God categorically approves of either side is a statement made very much in the absence of evidence.

Works of Men and Works of God

So yes, Israel currently has no divine mandate for the reconquest of Gaza even though many evangelicals would like them to. That said, Matt’s insistence that God is not doing a work through the current conflict is a confident-but-probably-erroneous statement made in the face of a series of scriptural precedents to the contrary. It is quite possible God is working away unobserved, as he usually is.

In fact, God often exercises his sovereign rule over history by using powerful, wicked people to accomplish his purpose. We can affirm that modern Israel is currently acting in the strength of the flesh (and it certainly appears to be doing so) without having to deny that God may use its fleshly efforts to accomplish precisely what he desires.

Consider “Nebuchadnezzar, my servant.” When Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, he did not do so because he was being obedient to YHWH. His agenda was entirely pragmatic and expansionist. All the same, he served God’s purposes in his day. Consider “Cyrus, my shepherd.” History may call him its most merciful conqueror and the liberator of the Jews, but though the Greeks revered him, he killed them in their tens of thousands. It is doubtful the sisters and mothers of the dead soldiers piled up by Cyrus’s armies felt their conqueror was doing God’s work. But he was, whether he knew it or not.

Men Acting in the Flesh

Let’s reflect on the ultimate case of men acting in the flesh. When Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel gathered themselves together against Jesus, the apostles saw it as a fulfillment of Psalm 2, and commented that they had gathered “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place”. God’s hand, God’s plan, God’s sovereignty at work not just in spite of but through the wickedness and the flesh of men.

So then, the fact that we cannot point to a divine mandate for Israel’s reconquest of Gaza, and the fact that it may even be accomplished in a deeply immoral way, says nothing about whether God is working behind the scenes in this conflict to accomplish his purposes. He may well be, and who would want to stand against him or even cheer against him in that? Without a present-day Isaiah or Jeremiah to inform us, we just can’t say. So let’s just say Matt Littlefield’s conviction that the events of this week and beyond are “a work of the flesh seeking to fulfil the things of God, rather than a work of God to fulfil prophecy” is not warranted.

They may well be both at the same time.

Random Tiles from the Prophetic Mosaic

Matt then quotes from Ezekiel and Deuteronomy to demonstrate that “When God brings his people back to the land, they will be a law keeping, God honouring, commandment following, righteous nation of people.” That prompts him to set out four preconditions for a Jewish return to Israel that would constitute a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. They are:

  1. A repentant people, who turn from their sins and rebellion against God.
  2. They are now believers who trust in their Lord and Messiah, Jesus Christ.
  3. All Israel, not just Judah, but the whole 12 tribes is restored.
  4. They will inhabit all of the land, not just the fraction that they do now.

I think Matt is confusing end products and works in progress. The former is what Ezekiel and Deuteronomy describe. The latter is (possibly) what we are observing today. We are not in a position to be dogmatic about that. What Matt thinks are preconditions for the fulfillment of prophecy are really the end product of it, years of God’s work summed up in a few sentences. He’s looking at small subset of prophecies about the restoration of Israel, a few random tiles from the “prophetic mosaic”, as Michael Heiser called it.

The big picture can only be seen more clearly when we bring out all the tiles and set them side by side.

A Work in Progress

Frankly, there is nothing in Ezekiel, Deuteronomy or anywhere else in scripture to preclude a reconstituted Israel composed primarily of unregenerate, secular Jews occupying the land of promise in the strength of the flesh, if that is indeed what it is. In fact, there is a great deal in scripture to lead us to believe there must be a fleshly, unbelieving Israel in the land in order for Christ to purify his people and lead them to repentance. (We will look at some of that evidence in tomorrow’s post.) Yes, many genetic Israelites, especially those descended from the ten “lost” tribes, will repent at a distance and come home afterward in style. But for many of their brothers and sisters, repentance will not come in exile, hidden among the nations of the world. It will come right in Jerusalem, in the midst of an invasion by a coalition of nations trying their best to wipe them out of existence.

For that to occur, we need not a repentant Israel but a virulently unrepentant one acting wholly in the flesh and even willing to take sides with the beast of Revelation and sign his peace treaty. Then and only then God will make those dead bones live. What we are seeing today may — and I stress the word “may” — be part of that ongoing process, unbeknownst to Israel, of course.

The restoration of Israel is a work in progress. Let’s watch it unfold.

No comments :

Post a Comment