“Jesus was a Zionist.”Although more and more Western Christians would disagree with this claim from Jürgen Bühler, increasing numbers of believers from the global South take it for granted. The dynamics among the supporters for Israel are changing rapidly.
Jürgen Bühler, executive director of the International Christian Embassy, Jerusalem (ICEJ), gave a Caspari Center Open Lecture in April about the history of Christian support for Israel, concluding with some interesting new trends in this field. He made a comparison between present-day Palestinians and the Samaritans of the Gospels. In Luke 17, we read about Jesus healing ten lepers. Afterward, only the Samaritan comes to give thanks, which surprises Jesus: “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus gave full respect to and supported the Samaritans’ existence, but didn’t include them in the nation of Israel. The apostle Paul had a strong faith in the restoration of the Jewish nation, but in the following centuries the church lost that point of view almost entirely. In the second century, Marcion, the bishop of Sinope from Pontus, was excommunicated from the church because of his teaching that the Old Testament God was an inferior god of the Jews. However, his ideas are deeply rooted and are still powerfully represented in the Western church.
Nevertheless, church history tells of many exceptions to this sad reality, always stemming from the ability of individuals to read the Word of God for themselves. The theology of the Roman Catholic Church was replacement theology, and before the Reformation, ordinary people were basically not able to read the Bible. The first movement rising to resist this was the Waldensian revival in the 12th century, ori
ginating from the area of present-day France. The Waldensians read the Hebrew and Greek Bibles and translated them into the vernacular, which caused them to be harshly persecuted. In the Scriptures they found the idea of a covenant-faithful God and understood that God had not rejected the Jews, although the church taught that he did.
Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s. The Reformation utilized this innovation, increasing support for Israel by emphasizing the reading of the Word of God in people’s own language. Even though Martin Luther has become very famous for his hostile attitude toward Jews in his later years, it is important to remember that during earlier times, when he was translating the Bible into German, he recognized the irrevocable calling of the Jews and spoke strongly for them.
In the late 16th and 17th centuries in England, you can find possibly the strongest expression of a movement that we would call Christian Zionism: the Puritans. The church had just received the authorized King James translation of Bible. At one point the Puritans even tried to pressure the church to observe Shabbat and started a discussion on whether the English Parliament should use Hebrew as a lingua franca. England became a very philo-Semitic nation. The Puritans were a prophetic group of Christians and they published the first books about the restoration of the Jewish people to their homeland.
The famous German Lutheran pietist pastors Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke were also supporters of the Jewish people in the late 1600s. In 18th-century Germany, we find the Moravian prayer movement, lead by Count Zinzendorf, who had a Lutheran background. Zinzendorf believed in the end-time salvation of Jews and foresaw Jews as the most powerful missionaries to the world. Moravians had a strong impact on John Wesley, who became the founder of the Methodist movement in England. John Wesley wrote in his commentary on Romans 11 that he wondered how anybody could read the Bible without believing in the restoration of Israel. According to him, if there was one promise in the Bible, it was the restoration of the Jewish people to their land.
One common factor among all these leaders and movements was a passion for the Word of God. Another significant feature was their understanding of God’s character as a covenant-faithful God who will fulfill his promises to Israel. In their theologies, the preachers rarely refer to eschatology as a basis for believing in the restoration of Israel. That is contrary to many present-day theologies, which build their arguments on end-time interpretations that easily lead to disagreements and conflicts. A good example of this has been dispensationalism, a theological construction that didn’t exist before the 19th century. Dispensationalism believes in a number of successive administrations of God’s dealings with mankind, which it calls “dispensations.” It maintains fundamental distinctions between God’s plans for national Israel and for the New Testament church, and emphasizes prophecy of the end-times and a pre-tribulation rapture of the church prior to Christ’s second coming. This theology has caused many disputes and splits in which love for Israel has often been cast out. Most Christian Zionists nowadays do not support dispensational thinking.
Christian support for Israel is challenged not only by Western theologies but also by the fact that the new generation of Christians in Europe and the USA don’t read the Bible. In March 2014, Haaretz wrote: “Israel is losing its grip on evangelical Christians – younger generation open to Palestinian side of conflict.” This might be true to some extent, but the writer doesn’t take into account the explosive growth of the church in the global South during the last decades. Christians from Africa, Latin America, and Asia appreciate the Bible deeply and read it literally. For example, the face of the ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles celebration has changed dramatically in the last ten years, since Christians from the South and East have begun to flock to it. As we see this major shift in Christianity’s center of gravity from the global North to the global South, it reminds us that Western Christians are not the whole show. We can expect to see a new wave of support and even political forces from the global South standing beside Israel and speaking for it.
This article is based on the lecture by Jürgen Bühler at Caspari Center, April 8, 2014.