Dr. Thomas McCall, the Senior Theologian of our ministry, has written many articles for the Levitt Letter. He holds a Th.M. in Old Testament studies and a Th.D. in Semitic languages and Old Testament. He has served as Zola’s co-author, mentor, pastor, and friend for nearly 30 years.
This article appeared originally in the April–May 2004 Levitt Letter.
Part 1 — the following portion first appeared in the April 2004 Levitt Letter.
Does modern Israel have a right to claim its ancient Biblical land in the face of Palestinian claims today? And should Bible-believing Christians support Israel in its claims? These are the issues dealt with in this newly republished book Who Owns the Land written by Dr. Stanley Ellisen in 1991, and recently revised by the academic leader at Moody Bible Institute, Dr. Charles Dyer, in 2003.
Dr. Dyer is a Classical Dispensationalist (as are we here at ZLM), who has the unenviable responsibility of attempting to defend the Progressive Dispensationalists whose influence in the classrooms continues to grow at Moody and at Dallas and Talbot Seminaries, and other previously strong Dispensational schools. Progressive Dispensationalism blurs the distinctions between the dispensations, especially the Church Age and the Millennium, and, in time, develops a viewpoint that downplays Biblical prophecy, in general, and interest in modern Israel, in particular.
To the credit of both Ellisen and Dyer, they very clearly trace the history of the Jewish people in and out of the Land, and God’s promise to Israel of ultimate possession and enjoyment of the Promised Land in the time of Messianic fulfillment, the Millennium. They make a very strong case for the inevitability of the blessed future for Israel. If you want to know about the Biblically prophetic future for Israel in the Millennium, this is a good book. Also, the book traces the Palestinian history and issues during the last fifty to one hundred years, and the Palestinian involvement in various negotiations with Israel and in the devastating terrorist attacks against Israel. If you want a compendium on these issues, this book is also a good reference.
The primary issue, though, is the legitimacy of the current claims of Israel to the Land, and whether or not Christians should support the current nation. We are not living in the Millennium now, and we cannot require Israel to meet Millennial standards today, before the Lord has returned to earth! Ellisen appeared to be doing that when he originally concluded that we should have an “evenhanded” approach to Israel and the Palestinians. Dyer improves on this by giving some reasons why believers in Christ should support modern Israel, but he seems to be half-hearted and grudging in his argument.
Dyer begins his section on this subject on page 136 by demonstrating that Israel does not deserve to possess the Land primarily because the Jewish nation has not received Jesus as the Messiah:
What happens when we put the divine plumb line to the house of Israel claiming the land today? Has it met the Biblical conditions for restoration? By most human standards, the Jewish people stand high in regard to moral character. They appear to enjoy a surplus of intelligence, industry, self-sacrifice, high morals, and religious sincerity. Furthermore, they endured the Holocaust. From that crucible, they have emerged to command international attention, doing so under constant threat of extinction. They have dramatically demonstrated the truth of the maxim, “Growth comes through struggle.”
Measured by the divine standard, however, another picture emerges. Though modern Israel has a human and international right to the land, its people fall far short of covenant obligations. To put it bluntly, the current generation has no Biblical right to possess the covenant land. The nation has never recognized the Messiah God sent, let alone mourned over his wounding. Though many in Israel admit to Jesus’ greatness as a Jewish teacher, most adamantly reject him as Messiah. They see him as but one of several prominent pseudo-messiahs.
Thus, Dyer assumes that the only way Israel can have a right to claim the Land is if they first receive Christ. Yet receiving the Lord Jesus Christ is the end of prophetic developments concerning Israel, not the beginning. The Tribulation has a number of purposes, but one of them is the preparation of Israel for the Second Coming of the Messiah. It is called “The Time of Jacob’s Trouble.” At the beginning of the Tribulation, Israel will be far from acknowledging Jesus as Messiah, but after the witness of the 144,000 believing Jewish preachers, the Two Witnesses, and other means, the remaining nation of Israel will be ready, willing, and eager to receive Christ at the end of the Tribulation.
Dyer further emphasizes (on page 137) that not only does Israel fail to believe in Christ now, but that the Jewish nation studiously and officially rejects the notion that a Jew can remain a Jew if he is a Christian:
The State of Israel will allow nearly every deviation from Jewish orthodoxy in its policy of toleration and pluralism. Even Jewish atheists are welcomed as citizens—but not believers in Jesus. Though the Law of Return of 1950 granted citizenship to anyone born Jewish, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in 1962 in a case of a man who had been born Jewish, but who had converted to Christianity. They decided that “the fundamental conception that ‘Jew’ and ‘Christian’ are a contradiction in terms is something which is unreservedly accepted by all.” On December 25, 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Messianic Jews “cannot claim the right to come to this country as immigrants by virtue of the Law of Return” because those Jews “who believe in Jesus are members of a different faith.”
It is true that Israel refuses to recognize as Jews those Jewish foreigners who have become Christians and migrated to Israel. This has, in part, to do with the Law of the Return, by which any Jew has a right to a lot of economic and other benefits when they “make aliyah” and return to the Land. The Israeli Supreme Court has decided that a Jew who becomes a Christian forfeits his right to those benefits.
Nevertheless, a sizable group of Jews living in Israel are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of them are nativeborn Israelis, known as Sabras.
Dyer ignores this remnant in Israel who are Jewish believers in Christ, which has been estimated to be about 5,000 in number. Out of over five million Israeli Jews, 5,000 is not a majority by any means, but it is significant, and many of them are outspoken and vocal. They are an enigma to the Israeli government, and play an important role in the spiritual life of the nation.
Dyer concludes this section by asserting that Israel is a failure and does not meet the qualifications required by the covenant God has with Israel:
Judged on Biblical grounds, the nation today does not pass divine muster as a nation living in covenant obedience to God. The promise to possess the land is directly tied to the nation’s response to Messiah. Though its international right to the land can be well defended, Israel’s divine right by covenant to possess it today has only sentiment in its favor
“Only sentiment” remains as an argument in favor of Israel’s Biblical claim to the Land, according to Dyer. In other words, the only way Israel can Biblically claim the Land is by receiving Christ. Otherwise, they have no claim whatsoever. This is the gloomy conclusion Dyer comes to concerning Israel’s current claims to the Land. Following this logic, Israel will have no claim to the Land all during the Tribulation, while they are rebuilding the Temple, being persecuted by the Antichrist, and being tried and prepared to receive Jesus as the Messiah.
In part II of this review, we’ll look at how Dr. Ellisen addresses the issue of modern Israel and its right to claim ancient Biblical land.
Part 2 — the following portion first appeared in the May 2004 Levitt Letter.
In this second part of my review of the newly republished book Who Owns the Land? (written by Dr. Stanley Ellisen in 1991, and recently revised by Moody Bible Institute’s Dr. Charles Dyer, in 2003) we’ll continue to see how the issue of modern Israel and its right to claim ancient Biblical land is addressed in this book.
Dyer continues (from pp. 137–138) to determine the place of Israel under present day circumstances:
Historically, Israel’s right to possess the land in any given generation, is conditioned on the nation’s obedience to God. Today, most of those living in the State of Israel are there in unbelief. Does that mean the church should not support any of Israel’s claims to the land? The answer is no, for two reasons.
First, as indicated earlier,God does announce a regathering of the people to the land in unbelief prior to the coming of the Messiah (Ezekiel 37:1–14; Zechariah 12:1–13:1). The current restoration of the State of Israel seems to be a harbinger of God’s end-time program. And, if that’s the case, then God’s hand is in the establishment of Israel.
Second, the Abrahamic covenant was established between God and Israel.God,and God alone, has the right to determine the level of blessing or cursing to be meted out to his people. But the Abrahamic covenant does have a component that applies to all the nations. God said, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). Even when Israel was under God’s judgment, God still held nations accountable for their treatment of the Jewish people. God judged the Assyrians and the Babylonians for mistreating his people (Jeremiah 50:17–19). God also announced he would judge nations based on their treatment of his chosen people (Jeremiah 30:16; Obadiah 15–17). The Abrahamic covenant is still operative, and God still holds nations accountable to seek ways to bless the Jewish people. And one way to do that today is to support Israel’s right to their God-given land.
Here Dyer repeats the argument he had previously stated: that Israel has failed the covenant requirements with the Lord because they have not believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. This might lead Christians to the conclusion that they should not support Israel’s claim to the Land. Many have come to that conclusion, and evangelical support for Israel, especially among Christian leaders, has waned during the past two or three decades. To his credit, Dyer says, “No, the fact that Israel has no Biblical claim to the Land does not mean Christians should not support Israel.”
This is difficult reasoning, with a double negative, but it is a decided improvement on the view that Christians should not support Israel. It is a double negative, because it indicates that it is not true that Christians should not support Israel. This is not quite the same as saying Christians should support Israel, but it comes close.
The reasoning Dyer uses is that Israel must be in the Land before the return of the Lord to establish His kingdom. This is a very important point, and one that is ignored by those who are against Christians supporting Israel. It means that the Jews would be fulfilling Biblical prophecy even though coming back to the Land in unbelief, and that God’s hand is in this preliminary restoration.
How, then, can Christians not support what God is doing with His people? Dyer is to be commended for his recognition of this truth, which was apparently not appreciated by his deceased co-author Ellisen.
Furthermore, Dyer recognizes that God is sovereign in His plans for Israel, and it is He alone who determines whether or not He will bless Israel in spite of their disobedience and unbelief. This is known as grace. God is just as gracious to His unbelieving covenant nation Israel as He is to His Church, and to individual believers in Christ. Thus, if God decides to restore Israel to the Land in unbelief, who are we to raise objections and fail to support Israel in this restoration?
Finally, Dyer says that the Abrahamic covenant is still in effect, and that God has promised to bless those Gentiles who bless Israel, even though that nation is in unbelief. Because of this enduring truth, Dyer (somewhat reluctantly) concludes that one way Christians can bless Israel today is “to support Israel’s right to their God-given land.” Ellisen, regrettably, did not come to the same conclusion, and Dyer is to be commended again for his recognition of this continuing principle of blessing in the Word of God.
Next issue, we’ll take a look at one of the shortcomings of Who Owns the Land?
Part 3 — the following portion first appeared in the May 2004 Levitt Letter.
While I’ve noted that many valid points are made in the newly republished book Who Owns the Land? (written by Dr. Stanley Ellisen in 1991, and recently revised by The Moody Bible Institute’s Dr. Charles Dyer in 2003), there are also some definite errors and shortcomings in it that must be pointed out. For example, Dyer states that “judged on biblical grounds, the nation today does not pass divine muster as a nation living in covenant obedience to God. The promise to possess the land is directly tied to the nation’s response to Messiah.” But there is not just one covenant, there are several. There are the Mosaic, the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the New Covenants.
Only one of these, the Mosaic Covenant, is conditioned on obedience from Israel. The other covenants are unconditional, and are based solely on the faithfulness and grace of the Lord toward His Covenant People. The New Covenant has to do with Israel’s relationship to the Messiah, and predicts that the nation would reject Him at His First Coming, but would receive Him at His Second Coming.
The Abrahamic Covenant gives the ownership of the Land, unconditionally, to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This ownership is irrevocable and forever, as long as this earth stands. Israel does not have to do anything to obtain ownership of the Land. They already have it. However, ownership of the Land is different from possession of the Land.
The Mosaic Covenant spells out how Israel can earn the right to possess the Land, which they already own by divine grant. All they have to do is keep the Law of Moses — all 613 rules. If they do that, God would be obligated to arrange for them to have possession of the Land in abundant blessing. Possession, then, would not be a matter of grace, but of contractual obligation. The problem, of course, is that Israel has never kept the Law to the point where God was obligated to arrange for their possession of the Land. Thus, Israel has never deserved the right to possess the Land.
Nevertheless, Israel has possessed the Land in history as a nation for some 1,500 years, even though they were in constant disobedience to the Mosaic Law. How can this be? By God’s grace. The Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants are grace covenants. When Daniel prays for the return of the Jewish people to the Land to rebuild the Temple at the close of the Babylonian captivity, his plea to the Lord was not based on Israel’s obedience, but on God’s grace:
O my God, incline Thine ear and hear! Open Thine eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Thy name; for we are not presenting our supplications before Thee on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Thy great compassion. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Thine own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name. (Daniel 9:18–19)
Why should it be any different today? Israel’s stunning restoration to the Land in our time has nothing to do with Israel’s obedience, but has everything to do with God’s faithfulness and grace to His Covenant People. We must have an understanding of all the covenants God has with Israel, especially the grace covenants. After all, where would the Church be if God restricted His blessings and grace based only upon the obedience of believers?
While Dyer finally concludes that Christians should support Israel, it appears to be with a somewhat grudging attitude, as though it were distasteful to support a people who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. But if we can only support a nation that has a majority who believe in Christ and are born-again, how can we support the nationhood of the United States or any other country today?
It seems that the proper attitude for Christians is to rejoice over the current restoration of Israel in unbelief as the most stunning evidence that Christ’s return is ever nearer. If the Lord is setting the stage now for the events of the Tribulation, then the Rapture of the Church (which must come before the Tribulation) is surely imminent. Furthermore, the day of the Redemption of Israel, when Israel will indeed receive Christ, is drawing ever closer as well.
We should therefore rejoice over the modern state of Israel, back its possession of the Land in every way, support the Israeli believers in Christ, and make pilgrimage trips to Israel to see the wonders of the Land of the Bible. It is a privilege, not a sullen occasion, to be living in a time when the Lord is setting the stage for End Time events.