A few years ago I was engaged in a spirited discussion with a seasoned Israeli pastor. The topic was Western Christian Zionism in relationship to Gospel proclamation in Israel. This pastor acrimoniously summarized what he perceived to be Western Christian Zionist support for Israel:
“I (says the Christian Zionist) am willing to fight for Israel to the very last drop of your (Israeli) blood!”
What this pastor was trying to communicate is that Christian supporters of Israel are generally willing to support Israel in realms which are not dangerous, or that will not threaten their good relationships with their Israeli friends (i.e. political, financial, tourism and, humanitarian aid). The eagerness to support Israel in these areas is generally based upon the theological belief in the uniqueness of ethnic Israel in the plan of God. This theological understanding is often transformed into a support of Israeli that incorporates endorsing the realization of land promises to the descendants Abraham through Isaac. Consequently, Israel’s military self-defense is perceived as a divinely given right. Indeed, many Christian supporters of Israel interpret Israel’s past and present military conflicts to be an essential part of end-times prophecies. Thus, what my Israeli pastor friend was communicating was his perception that Christian “supporters of Israel” are more than willing see Israelis go to war and be on the right side of end-times cataclysmic events. They are prepared to support these ideals at the cost of Israeli blood. This is not, by any means, authentic support of Israel.
Striving to understand Bible prophecy in light of current events is certainly a reasonable ambition, and there is no denying that Israel plays a significant role in eschatological sections of scripture. Yet, as believers in Jesus, we are compelled to think through Israel’s complex political issues, and even our theological and political assessments of Israel, with a “Gospel-first mentality.” As ministers of the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, we must consider how our viewpoints bring honor to God through encouraging people towards repentance for the remission of sin and new life through faith in the Jesus. Supporting Israel through the “go get’em” mentality is not as constructive as inspiring Israeli people to restore their broken relationships with a loving God.
After having lived in Israel for several years, I have noticed that supporters of Israel actually support Israel quite abstractly as opposed to pragmatically. That is, they support the idea that Jewish people should have a homeland. They support the idea that Israel retains a special place in the plan of God, and they love the theological concept that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26). However, every Christian supporter of Israel should consider the following question: “Does my ideology produce pragmatic Gospel-centered action?”
This issue is particularly important when considering that Israel is essentially an unreached nation for the Gospel. Though it is challenging to conjecture (and it is notoriously difficult to define what a “Christian” is in Israel) it is safe to say that the absolute highest percentage of the population who identify themselves as Christian in Israel is 2%. Yep, you read correctly. Roughly two out of every one hundred people in Israel claim to have an affiliation with any type of Christian church (this includes Roman Catholic Churches, Orthodox Churches, Messianic Jewish Congregations, and Evangelical Christian Arab congregations). This information makes Israel one of the most unreached places in the world. In fact, in Israel most people are unaware of Jesus’ real name and refer to him by the unflattering nickname, “Yeshu.” Given the clear necessity there is for Gospel proclamation in Israel, maybe we “supporters of Israel” have been mistaken in equating our ideological/theological stances with backing Israel by fulfilling a practical need for Gospel.
How then, can Christians who love Jesus and desire to support Israel be an asset to Gospel proclamation in the land where there is great need? This can be done by overcoming our misconceptions of “support” and redirecting our efforts to the primary call of the Gospel. There are, in my opinion, a few misconceptions that have diverted the attention of the Church away from more overt Gospel ministry in Israel:
The misconception that tourism is support.
Every year, countless Christian tour groups come to Israel to explore the land of the Bible. In this way, Christians certainly support the Israeli economy and visiting believers are blessed through a fuller understanding of their Bible. It, however, is difficult to claim that tourism is the best form of support Christians can provide the Nation of Israel when the lion’s share of the population that benefits from the tourism industry is not Christian. Regardless of whether or not Christians use Christian tour agencies, the truth remains that Christians steadily travel to Israel without supporting any local Gospel ministry—or even visiting a local church. Tourism supports Israel’s economy, but it barely supports Israel’s greatest need of knowing Jesus.
Misconceptions that Israel is a moral & biblically literate place.
Because Israel is the land where most of the biblical events took place, many assume that Israelis are reasonably biblically literate. This misconception has led people to believe that (esp. religious Jewish) Israelis innately honor God, and consequently do not need to hear about the grace provided through the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. However, Israel deals with the same moral issues that Western countries do. Abortion is legal, prostitution is a problem, and Israel has had its share of political corruption (i.e. Israel’s former president Moshe Katsav is currently in prison for rape and Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been convicted of corruption and will be joining him soon). Simply because there is great religious tradition in Israel does not mean that there is great moral character.
A misconception of who the Israeli people are. This point is multifaceted.
It begins with a misunderstanding regarding the ethnic demographics of Israel, and leads to misconceptions concerning Gospel proclamation to all the people. Initially, it is important to remember that Israel is not solely ethnically Jewish. A conservative estimation is that there are 15-20% Arab Israeli citizens. These Arab people are, in theory, equal citizens of Israel and retain the same Israeli passport with an impression of a menorah stamped on it. This means that in any given place in Israel you may rub shoulders with an Arab person who may very well be a brother or sister in the Lord. Hence, it is important to remember that proclaming the Gospel in Israel, and supporting Israel politically, is not just for the Jewish Israeli; but also for the Arab Israelis, and all others who constitute the Nation of Israel.
A misconception that Israeli people are easily offended.
Christians tend to avoid ministry in Israel because they are concerned about offending people and not being able to maintain close connections with influential Israelis. Those who have spent a significant amount of time in Israel know that Israelis are very difficult to insult, especially if you talk to them in a respectful manner. Believers must not be overly concerned about offending people in Israel when conversing about what Messiah Jesus has accomplished for humankind. Christians should be genuine, using the same terminology they would use if they were talking to a neighbor. If an Israeli does not want to talk to you about Jesus, don’t worry! They will have no problem ending the conversation.
As Christians, our temptation at this juncture is to hide behind the smokescreen of what we have been doing in the past as authentic support of Israel. Our tendency is to develop a theology that makes us less responsible to support Gospel proclamation in Israel (i.e. hastily appealing to Israel’s hardening in part alluded to in Romans 11:25). Please don’t fall prey to these erroneous ideologies. Consider the following question: If you deem yourself a supporter of Israel, are you willing to make Gospel-centered ministry in Israel your theological and functional priority? If so, please take the first step and pray towards this end, for the sake of the inhabitants of Israel, as well as for the workers on the ground in this land.