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Occasional Letters - The Chosen People

D Newell, Glasgow

When I was a little boy my mother taught me a diverting game to pass the time when reading any dreary document. It was called "shrimps and winkles", and it was gloriously simple. Every noun beginning with "s" became "shrimp", and every noun beginning with "w" became "winkle". One could even extend this to include the letters "p" (prawn) and "c" (crab). As a result every paragraph, whatever its original meaning, became immediately and conspicuously fishy. It brought a fresh perspective to the pages of the Daily Express. Thus, early in life, although I did not realise it at the time, I learned the basic essentials of what has come to be called replacement theology. This system of reading the Bible involves replacing the word "Israel" (or Judah, or Jerusalem, or Zion) with "the church", wherever it occurs in Old Testament predictions of future prosperity. Note that its proponents are not even consistent, because they allow literal Israel to retain its sad disciplinary judgments at God’s hand, but all the many specific promises of repentance, revival, blessing and restoration to their land are transferred wholesale to another group of people altogether. As a result Scripture becomes meaningless.

Now, word replacement is all very well as a child’s game, but when people start playing around with God’s Book the consequences are disastrous. It is, after all, the thin end of the wedge. At what point do you stop tampering with what God has been pleased to say? And replacement theology, in Britain at least, seems to dominate the evangelical landscape almost to the point of fostering blatant anti-Semitism. It was therefore with considerable pleasure that I recently came upon two books which respond vigorously and Biblically to this serious error, adducing cogent arguments in favour of Israel’s divinely guaranteed future. The first, emanating from King’s Evangelical Divinity School (part of the University of Wales), consists of eight papers by writers from a range of ecclesiastical backgrounds, all of whom believe in God’s faithfulness to His ancient people. The standard of the contributions varies considerably and one would not endorse everything that is said, but they all contain much to cheer the believer. The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism (edited by Calvin L Smith) is worth reading. Perhaps the most immediately interesting paper in it is by Paul Wilkinson, whose larger volume, For Zion’s Sake: Christian Zionism and the Role of John Nelson Darby, is my second recommendation. This is a scholarly (but by no means dull) study of the influence of Darby in changing the way nineteenth century Christians thought about Israel. His sturdy insistence upon a straightforward reading of the abundant Old Testament guarantees of Israel’s perpetuity and future regathering to the land (and this, of course, long before the scattered Jewish people ever possessed a homeland) had a profound impact. Further, his interest was not primarily in Israel as such but in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus for His church. Wilkinson convincingly refutes those conspiracy theorists who, often in the most vitriolic terms, have accused Darby of getting his ideas about the rapture from almost anything and anyone but Scripture. Although the writer does not come from an assembly background, his respect for Darby and his teaching is evident. If nothing else, this book will confirm our confidence in God’s programme for Israel and His prior commitment to remove from the world believers of this dispensation before He pours out His wrath upon the planet.

But belief in God’s inviolable purpose for the Jews does not rest upon a piece of human scholarship, however accurate or persuasive. It rests upon the clear promises of the Bible. My current reading programme is taking me through Isaiah. Each time I encounter that book I am left amazed that any professed believer can possibly study it yet deny Israel’s glorious future. Take, for example, the sequence of chapters which includes the great suffering servant song of Isaiah 53. Because of time constraints we tend often to read in isolated chapter units, missing the flow of the argument. But notice the logical development in chapters 52-56, bearing in mind that the section concerns Zion, Jerusalem (52.1), Israel (54.5), and the covenant with David (55.3). In language going far beyond a description of the pitiful trek back from Babylon, Isaiah 52 documents Israel’s deliverance from her oppressors and her return to the land:

"Therefore my people shall know my name: therefore they shall know in that day that I am he that doth speak: behold, it is I. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!...Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God" (Is 52.6-10).

Despite suffering judgment at God’s hands, Israel was still "my people". And even after their rejection of the Messiah Paul uses the same terminology: "Hath God cast away his people? God forbid" (Rom 11.1). Indeed, that whole chapter is a standing testimony against the fallacy that God is through with the Jew. There follows in Isaiah the well loved portrait of Jehovah’s servant: "Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high" (52.13). But note its contextual relevance: it is the sacrificial work of this servant which lays the righteous foundation for God’s future gracious dealings with His ancient people (53.5-6,10). And the wonderful consequence is the glad peace, both spiritual and national, celebrated in chapter 54:

"In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee" (Is 54.8-10).

Chapter 55 touches on the incomprehensible grace of God towards His people. The rebel is exhorted to "return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord" (Is 55.7-8). Why will God pardon sinful Israel? Because His thoughts are larger than ours. And, finally, chapter 56 predicts that blessing (anticipated in 55.5) will flow beyond Israel to Gentiles, so that "the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people" (Is 56.6-7). God’s purpose in calling Abraham was universal good (Gen 12.1-3). This will be fulfilled in the millennial Kingdom when the nations go up to the new Jerusalem temple to worship (Is 2.1-4). But we enjoy a foretaste of it now in the church where believing Jews and Gentiles are blessed equally in Christ Jesus.

Someone has said, "If the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense lest it result in nonsense". And there is no quicker way of making nonsense of the word than to play theological "shrimps and winkles" with it. God has distinct plans for Israel and for the church – and both are for the glory of Christ Jesus.



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