As readers of The Goshen News will remember, President Donald Trump recently recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with the prospect that the American embassy will move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Not surprisingly Trump’s act received approval from the state of Israel and disapproval from Palestinians — as well as from many other nations of the world. A survey by LifeWay Research (an American organization) found that most evangelicals also approved of Trump’s decision, since 67 percent of American evangelicals have a positive view of the state of Israel, and only 9 percent a negative view.
It’s not easy to know what’s behind the thinking of the evangelicals who support Israel. Some of it may simply be sentiment generated by the biblical story of Israel as God’s people, though for others, such as Hal Lindsey in his bestseller, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” the modern re-establishment of the state of Israel is a fulfillment of prophecy that begins a countdown to the second coming of Christ, the tribulation and the final realization of the kingdom of God.
For some “students of prophecy,” this apocalyptic scenario includes a calamitous destruction of the state of Israel in the tribulation because of its failure to accept Jesus as Messiah. For that reason, many Israelis have decidedly mixed feelings about evangelical support of their nation. Israelis depend upon the support they receive from the United States, a support endorsed by American evangelicals. And Israel receives considerable economic benefit from tourism by American evangelicals. During our four months of study in Israel in late 1996, my wife and I once saw many bus loads of American evangelical tourists at a celebration down by the Dead Sea.
There is a different assessment of modern Israel possible, and that is to see it as a rerun of an episode of its earlier history. According to 1 Samuel 8, representatives of the people came to the judge/prophet Samuel to ask him to appoint a king over them in order for Israel to be like the nations around them and for the king to fight their battles. Samuel objected to this request, saying it was contrary to God’s will, but he received divine permission to consent to Israel’s request, with the warning that Israel would be sorry for taking this course because it would lead to dire consequences.
Israel’s transition into nation-state carried it into the game of international politics and conflict, and it ended with Israel getting carried into exile. This exile may be seen as a tragedy and its loss of life and suffering was tragic, but it also led to the creation of the synagogue, which one theologian has called greatest innovation in the history of religion.
It was the synagogue by which Israel/Judaism preserved its life for the next 2,500 years, and it was the synagogue that became the blueprint — in fact, the ancestor — of the Christian church. Through the synagogue, Israel/Judaism finally most truly fulfilled its calling to be a light to the nations, a calling first stated in the promise to Abraham that in him all the nations of the world would be blessed.
Like Jews, Christians too have periodically been faced with the temptation to become another nation of this world, committed to the policies and conduct of such nations. Or Christians can be a church, as the Apostle Peter says in his epistle, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people … (proclaiming) the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia.