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Commentary

Israel and the enduring land promise

Gentile Christians have always had a problem with understanding and accepting God's enduring election over Israel. The latest to challenge Israel's irrevocable calling is the Church of Scotland, which recently issued a report entitled "The Inheritance of Abraham" that concluded the land promise to Israel no longer stands and was allegorical to begin with.

After sharp criticism from the Jewish community and fellow Christians, the Scottish church is now reconsidering this document. But in it, they also insisted that the divine election of Israel can no longer be defended in light of the New Testament message of God's universal love.

The debate now raging over Israel's modern-day restoration is undoubtedly a heated one and there are good, honest Christians on both sides of the divide. Some Christians see no biblical significance in Israel's restoration, since they view God's promise to give the Land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants as an "everlasting possession" (Genesis 17:8) as being forfeited when the Jews rejected Christ.

At the heart of the matter is the Abrahamic Covenant and what one thinks about it. Have the everlasting promises of God to Abraham, including the land allotment to the Jewish people, been revoked? And if so, what evidence of this "revoking" is in the Bible? This alone is the real issue!

The Abrahamic covenant is first mentioned in Genesis 12:1-3 and is reaffirmed time and again throughout all of Scripture, including repeatedly in the New Testament. This covenant sets aside a people and a land in order to "bless all the families of the earth." For the Apostle Paul, this was one of the earliest proclamations of the Gospel (Galatians 3:8). Thus, the Abrahamic Covenant promises salvation to a world lost in sin, and it is made with Abraham and his descendants after him (Genesis 17:7). It is, therefore, "the covenant of decision" and all the other great covenants of the Bible flow from it. John the Baptist and even Jesus come into the world because of the promises made to Abraham in this covenant (Luke 1:54-55; 72-75).

The Jewish people are chosen as the servants of the covenant. In other words, the nation of Israel is not brought into existence as an end itself, but as a means to an end - the salvation of the world. They are the means by which God delivers His redemptive initiative to the world. Jesus said "salvation is of the Jews." (John 4:22)

Yet some Christians contend that the Abrahamic Covenant has been abolished or reconstructed in the New Covenant. The "abolitionists" say it has been totally invalidated. Yet Paul says a later covenant cannot "annul" an earlier one but merely builds upon it (Galatians 3:17-19). In fact, he taught that Christ came to "confirm the promises made to the fathers" (meaning the Patriarchs; Romans 15:8), and that Jesus came so "that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles" (Galatians 3:14). The writer of Hebrews adds that wavering Messianic believers can trust God and His promises in the New Covenant because He is completely faithful to His promises made in the Abrahamic Covenant (Hebrews 6:13-20). Hence, there are absolutely no grounds for saying the Abrahamic covenant has been abolished in the New. On the contrary, it is affirmed and established in the New Testament, even after Israel's rejection of Jesus' Messianic credentials! (Romans 3:3-4; 11:11, 29).

But others say it has been "reconstructed" - the position of Replacement theology. This theory claims that the Abrahamic Covenant has been altered or adjusted because of Jewish unbelief. Yet those who expound it inadvertently accuse God of lying! (Romans 3:4)

The covenant that promises the world salvation also promises everlasting possession of the land of Canaan to the Jewish people. To question either is to say that God is not trustworthy! But the God we serve does not lie!  (Titus 1:2; Numbers 23:9)

The land promise will have a literal fulfillment in due time, just as the coming of the "seed" that would "bless all the families of the earth" had a literal fulfillment in Christ.

In the end Scripture affirms that Israel will exist forever as a nation before God and He will not cut her off because of all that she has done (Jeremiah 31:35-37; Romans 11:25-27).
 

Rev. Malcolm Hedding is an international speaker and former executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org

The Epistle of Barnabas

Anti-Judaic theology in the early Church starts with a rather unknown document called the Epistle of Barnabas. Containing 20 short chapters, this letter was written around 80-120 C.E. by an orthodox writer addressing believers. It is not an isolated work; it was read in churches in the first three centuries and was even a candidate for the canon of Scripture. It was therefore received in the Church as a recognized work, and was never condemned or strongly criticized. We do not know who wrote it, but we do know it has nothing to do with the Barnabas of Acts.

So why is it important for our study of anti-Semitism among the early Church Fathers? Because here we find the earliest examples of adversos-judaeum theology, which in many cases still exists in churches today. It is the first example of the poisonous seed which slowly infected Christian churches and cultures and formed the backdrop, the murky bog from which violent, bloodthirsty and merciless monsters arose for hundreds of years.

In his letter, the author warns Christians against the evil of those days. But right from chapter 2, he speaks of two groups; us and them – us being Christians and them Jews. Among the dangers threatening the Christian was “to liken yourselves to certain persons who pile up sin upon sin, saying that our covenant remains to them also.”

So for the first time we learn that there is no longer any covenant between God and the Jews. Not only that, it is a grievous sin to even say so. The Jews are out – period! They lost the covenant at Sinai when they turned to idols (chapter 14). Jesus’ death was their final condemnation: “Therefore the Son of God came in the flesh to this end, that He might sum up the complete tale of their sins against those who persecuted and slew His prophets” (5:11). Thus substitution theology was born!

Secondly, we find a peculiar way of reading the Bible, a hermeneutic style which persists in many churches today. Put brutally, the promises of the Old Testament are for the Church, the curses are for Israel. This is possible because of his use of the allegorical reading of the Bible.

Amazingly, Barnabas’ reads the two goats theme of Yom Kippur in a way where everything has a Christian message and has nothing to do with Israel (Chapter 7). Almost comical (and tragic) is his reading of the dietary laws of Moses (chapter 10), or his interpretation of the Sabbath (chapter 15).

Allegory enabled his anti-Judaic theology to shape his exegesis. Thus “the younger shall serve the older” theme present in the stories of Esau/Jacob and Manasseh/Ephraim becomes symbolic for the teaching that God has chosen the Church over Israel. So Jacob becomes a type of the Church and Esau of Israel.

He is the first to appropriate the Patriarchs and make them Christian. Thus when Abraham circumcises the males in his household, he is really revealing Christ and the cross (chapter 10).  Moses, the prophets and the patriarchs are all Christians in the midst of an incredulous and sinful Jewish nation.

For the first time we see the manipulation of Paul’s veil theme found in 2 Corinthians 3:13-16. Here Paul affirms that a veil remains on the eyes of Jews regarding the Old Testament because they do not see Christ foreshadowed in it. Our Barnabas reads this as meaning the Jews do not and cannot understand the Old Testament tout court! The examples abound. They do not even understand the food laws or the true meaning of the Sabbath!

One last ‘first’: When one reads this letter, as with later church documents, you find much sound teaching and exhortations to good works and holy lives. There are even attacks on abortion and pederasty. But all this love and respect does not include the Jews. They have been abandoned by God and consequently by the Church as well! This means you should love your neighbor, as long as they are not Jews. They simply do not count! This horrific idea first emerges in the epistle of Barnabas.

Rev. Anthony Rozinni is a pastor and Bible school teacher in Italy whose studies for a Master’s degree included extensive reading about the Church Fathers. This is the latest in his series on the rise of anti-Semitism in the early Church.

The sad legacy of Christian anti-Semitism

As a Christian, it seems to me that Christianity has sadly played a significant role both in anti-Judaism and the persecution of the Jewish people. The teachings of various established churches included the charge that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, and thus they deserved to be punished. The prolonged suffering and dispersal of Jews among the nations were seen as just retribution for their monumental crime of killing God. Another theological concept basically claimed that Christianity had replaced Judaism, due to the Jewish people’s poor performance as the Chosen People of God.

All in all early Christianity, spearheaded by the early Church fathers, began to view Judaism as inferior to Christianity and Jews themselves as evil and cursed, unworthy of mercy and love. In essence, a Jew was regarded as worse than a pagan.

One of the most well-known detractors of Jews was the Church father John Chrysostom (354-430), who accused the Jews of, among other things, idolatry and housing the Devil himself in their synagogues.

In his “First Homily Against the Jews”,Chrysostom insisted that, “Jews are dogs, stiff-necked, gluttonous, drunkards. They are beasts unfit for work… The Jews had fallen into a condition lower than the vilest animals… The synagogue is worse than a brothel and a drinking shop; it is a den of scoundrels, a temple of demons, the cavern of devils, a criminal assembly of the assassins of Christ…. I hate the Jews, because they violate the Law… It is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews.”

Several centuries later, this visceral anti-Jewish propaganda was refuelled by the influential reformer Martin Luther. When asked, “What shall we do with this damned, rejected race of Jews?” Luther responded:

“First, their synagogues should be set on fire… Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed… Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught… Fifthly, travelling privileges must be absolutely forbidden to Jews… If however we are afraid that they might harm us personally… then let us settle with them for that which they have extorted usuriously from us, and after having divided it up fairly, let us drive them out of the country for all time.”

Centuries later, such pronouncements were a source of inspiration to the Nazis. Both Chrysostom and Luther were quoted by Nazi officials and their works were reprinted by the Third Reich. Quite strikingly, their views were also quoted by the defence in the Nuremberg war crimes trials. For instance, Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic weekly Der Stürmer, asserted at his trial that Martin Luther also should have been there presenting his case. Thus one can clearly see the link between classic Christian anti-Judaism and modern racist anti-Semitism.

Because Christianity shared a tradition with Judaism, the Jews constituted a perpetual challenge to Christian truth. Even more disturbing was the fact that the Christian Messiah hailed from the House of David. One way of overcoming this dilemma was to increasingly diminish and blot out the Jewish identity of Jesus.

As a consequence, the Jewish character of Jesus was removed and he became first and foremost a Christian, leaving little to connect Christians to Judaism. However, Jesus was indeed a Jew, as were his family and disciples, and there is nothing in the New Testament which negates that.

In Matthew 5:17. Jesus states clearly:"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

Similarly, the Gospels record Jesus celebrating the Jewish holidays, and describe him as wearing the garments of a religious Jewish male.

Perhaps the saddest attempt at removing any traces of Jewishness both from Church practices in general and from Jesus’ persona in particular took place in the Nazi era and the effort to ‘de-judaize’ Germany. To this end “Deutsche Christen”, the so-called German Christian Church, disassociated Christianity from the Old Testament altogether and turned Christ into a perfect “Aryan Jesus”. They also published their own de-judaized New Testament, altered their hymn books, and updated their catechism, all in the effort to rid German Christianity of all Jewish influence.

It is no wonder then that when Kristallnacht – the Night of the Broken Glass – took place on November 9, 1938 the churches of Germany were silent. The mass pogrom saw 30,000 Jews rounded up and taken to concentration camps, while 1,000 synagogues were burned all over Germany. The lack of public criticism left the Nazis with a sense that they now had a license to forge ahead with anti-Jewish actions, including the confiscation of Jewish property. As far as I know, there was only one church leader who publicly lamented that “synagogues too are houses of God”.

By the time Germany ignited World War Two in 1939, many opportunities to react had been lost. Increasingly, churches throughout Europe mostly kept silent while Jews were persecuted and murdered. Any protest was exceptional.

Several factors lay behind this deafening silence: anti-Judaism in churches expressed in sermons and by other means; Europe’s identity as a primarily Christian continent and a perceived need to protect the church institutions themselves. This, in turn, raises a very profound question: In times of crisis, is it more important for a church to protect its institution or to be a voice of morality?

What does come through clearly are the limits of human compassion. In such a situation, how was it possible for only some to react to the Lord’s leading while most of humanity were deaf to His gentle voice.

Let us all remember the words – very serious words – of the detained pastor and concentration camp inmate Martin Niemöller: “Christianity in Germany bears a greater responsibility before God than the National Socialists, the SS and the Gestapo. We ought to have recognised the Lord Jesus in the brother who suffered…”
 


Dr. Susanna Kokkonen is Director of Christian Friends of Yad Vashem. Learn more about this vital work at http://www.icej.org/yadvashem

The ICEJ has an official partnership with Yad Vashem to help that institution carry its message about the universal lessons of the Holocaust to the Christian world.

A New Intifada?

The world has been worried since Cold War days about the start of the Third World War. Israelis, on the other hand, are constantly on the lookout for the third Palestinian intifada.

In recent weeks, an upsurge in rioting and violence among Palestinians in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem have had IDF commanders warning that a new intifada indeed could be brewing if the situation is not handled properly.

The number and size of violent Palestinian protests rose sharply in February and on the surface appeared to be linked to the issue of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Many prisoners were not demanding better conditions, they simply wanted out and several launched hunger strikes in protest. Relatives and friends joined in by staging widespread street demonstrations.

Tensions escalated when Arafat Jadarat, a 30 year-old Palestinian prisoner, died in custody in late February under disputed circumstances, and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas responded by accusing Israel of “killing our children.”

Some analysts linked the disturbances to the bitter rivalry between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas scored big with the Palestinian public when it managed to free hundreds of prisoners in the exchange deal for IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in October 2011, and Fatah and other PLO factions are now anxious to spring their own members from Israeli jails.

But others say the growing unrest was stirred by separate factors. For instance, the Palestinian cause has been on the back burner since the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the recent protests are seen as a deliberate attempt by the Palestinian Authority to get the attention of US President Barack Obama ahead of his expected visit to the region.

“There is some kind of unrest, we cannot ignore this,” veteran Israeli journalist Pinhas Inbari, an expert on Palestinian affairs, recently told The Christian Edition. “But I don’t think it will develop into a full-blown intifada. And these prisoner riots have been going on ever since the Schalit deal, so they are nothing new.”

The name intifada is taken from an Arabic word for “shaking” and refers to a sustained period of Palestinian anarchy and disturbances against Israeli rule. Inbari explained that, ironically, the first intifada (1987-1993) has gone down in Palestinian accounts as a planned uprising when in fact it was spontaneous, while the second, more violent intifada (2000-2005) has been billed by the PA as spontaneous when in truth it was a deliberately launched terror campaign.

“The first intifada erupted not because of dire economic plight and the other reasons often cited,” insisted Inbari. “On the contrary, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were working inside Israel and were making a lot of money, so they were much better off than their counterparts in surrounding Arab countries. Nevertheless when they compared their situation – especially in Gaza with its open sewers and other societal ills – to the prospering Israelis, they were jealous and this frustration is what triggered the first intifada. Remember, it began with several Palestinian workers stabbing their long-time Israeli employers.”

“Now the current unrest is truly about the bad economic situation, and it’s not so much directed at Israel as much as the Palestinian Authority,” he assessed. “The first of these recent riots actually erupted in Nablus against the PA. It was part of a kind of quiet tax protest. The Palestinians are struggling, they see corruption in Ramallah, and so they do not want to pay their bills. No one has paid their electric bills for months in the West Bank. And the PA sees this and is trying to shift the rioting and unrest in the direction of Israel.”

“But still, they have to be careful because the street could spin out of control and they know how easily it could turn on them,” Inbari maintained.

He noted that the first major demonstration over the prisoners issue this winter came on the same day as a teachers’ strike against the PA. So with all the students out of class, the PLO factions just roped some of them into joining the protests against Israel.

Meanwhile, Inbari does not expect Hamas to get too involved in the rioting.

“Qatar has promised Hamas a lot of money to rebuild Gaza if they keep the quiet, and Hamas is holding back until they have all those funds in hand,” he stated.

Two Tendecies

Let us imagine two brothers that are picked on by a big bully. Both are beaten soundly and left licking their wounds. Then the younger brother notices the older is more bullied, bloody and hurt, lying on the floor half dead. What choices are open to the younger brother?

1.  He could help his brother and fight the bully with him. They would live and die together.
2.  He could hide and ignore his elder brother hoping the bully would not notice him and concentrate on the brother.
3.  He could kick his brother in the face and show the bully that he agrees with him, that his elder brother is evil and deserves to be punished.

Let’s explain the allegory. The Church had gone through the persecution of the cruel emperor Nero in around 66 AD. Judea had been invaded and Jerusalem and the Temple utterly destroyed in 70 AD. Both Jews and Christians had an uneasy relationship with Rome. The Jews were especially vexed. What could the Church do? Option two was the main one chosen during the Shoah nearly two thousand years later. But in the first century the other two options were chosen.

There were some in the Church who favored the first option – joining the Jews in resisting Rome. After all, they shared the same Hebrew Bible, as the New Testament had not been compiled yet. They followed the same God and same moral principles. Christians worshipped a Jewish Messiah. Many were themselves Jews who had come from the synagogue. It would have been very difficult for these believers not to look at the wider Jewish community with sympathy. That this was quite common is shown by the venom eventually used by gentile Church Fathers in insisting that Christians abandon the synagogues completely.

This tendency is also shown in a third century document called the didascalia apostolorum, an obscure work by an unknown author, probably a bishop, purporting to be a message from the apostles. In this work, the Jews are called “brothers” and Christians are instructed on how to behave towards them:

… yet ought we to call them (the Jews) brethren; for we have it written in Isaiah thus: Call them brethren that hate and reject you, that the name of the Lord may be glorified [Isaiah 66.5]. For their sake, therefore, and for the judgment and destruction of the (holy) place, we ought to fast and to mourn, that we may be glad and take our pleasure in the world to come; as it is written in Isaiah: Rejoice, all ye that mourn over Zion [cf. Isaiah 66.10]; and again He saith: To comfort all them that mourn over Zion: instead of ashes, the oil of gladness; and instead of a spirit afflicted with pain, a vesture of glory [Isaiah 61.2-3]. [v. 15] We ought then to take pity on them, and to have faith and to fast and to pray for them…  [Translation by R. Hugh Connolly]

To be sure, the work contains other concepts critical of Jews. Yet here the author said that God commands Christians to have compassion on Jews, pray for them, and mourn over Israel’s tragic scattering. It remains a very lonely and hidden voice that feels the pain of its brother, but nonetheless it shows there was a segment in early Christianity which sympathized with Jews well into the second century and that considered praying for them part of the Church’s divine duty. They mourned and fasted for the destruction of the Temple because the Bible commanded it.

This group was clearly at a grassroots level. They were ordinary church members who saw no motive for excluding Jews from their experiences of life, and would soon receive the venomous verbal lashings of early Church leaders like Chrysostom.

Unfortunately, these other leaders had contrary opinions. Starting with the letter of Barnabas and up to Augustine and Ambrose, we see another picture similar to option three. Next time we will look at this attitude.

Rev. Anthony Rozinni is a pastor and Bible school teacher in Italy whose studies for a Master’s degree included extensive reading about the Church Fathers. This is the latest in his series on the rise of anti-Semitism in the early Church.

The Value of a Sharpened Conscience

As we observe “Yom Hashoa,” Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Day, I am transported back several years to an intriguing visit I paid to Chambon sur Lignon in southern France. This village has been granted the status of Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem for the collective actions of its members in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. As many as 5,000 Jews, mostly children, were hidden from the Nazis by this small community of mainly Protestant Christians.
 
The story of Chambon sur Lignon is the story of ordinary people who displayed courage and uprightness when it was so desperately needed, and yet in such short supply. Everybody in the village was aware of what was at stake. If the Germans had discovered the Jews, the entire village would, most likely, have been wiped out.

Weeks after my visit I watched a documentary about this unique French town and its “conspiracy of goodness.” I well remember the testimony of an elderly lady who had helped many Jews survive.

When asked why she did what she did, she looked puzzled and burst out: “Isn’t this what we were all supposed to do?” This dear woman had grown up with a sharpened conscience that never had to think twice about what was right.

Helping people in need, even at great risk to her own life, was simply what she expected of herself. Listening to her story has made me think long and hard about what went wrong in my native Germany.

How did so many millions of Christians not know “what they were supposed to do” during the Nazi era? One reason was because many Christians in Germany were Germans first, and then Christians. Their ethnic and nationalist feelings overrode any biblical values that might have been instilled into them.

That is why the official parts of the church that collaborated openly with the Nazis called themselves “German Christians.”

That is, first Germans and then Christians.

The villagers of Chambon sur Lignon were largely Huguenot Christians with their own history of persecution.

They saw their identity less in terms of nationality and more anchored in the beliefs and values which had shaped their community for generations.

But something else took place in Germany in the decades before Hitler’s rise to power. German universities became the breeding ground for what was known as “liberal theology.” Scholars actively worked to strip the Bible of its divine authorship. According to them, figures like Abraham or Moses were mere legends.

Miracles became myths, and they developed a flexible concept of God as being shaped in each man’s own image, rather than the biblical view that all humans were created in the image of God. Both Tanach and the New Testament were stripped of everything supernatural and divine.

This opened many doors to abuse and disbelief. With the scriptures downgraded to a mere human document rather than God-inspired, German theologians also purged the Bible of its Jewishness.

An entire institute in the city of Erfurt was established called Entjudungsinstitut (“De-Judaization Institute”) with the sole purpose of “de-Judaizing” the Bible. Christ was transformed from a Jewish descendant of David to a blond Arian national redeemer.

While most liberal theologians of that time did not necessarily subscribe to Nazi ideology, they undermined the foundations of the Judeo- Christian ethic which had served to safeguard society.

Today, we see societies in Western Europe moving even further away from these biblical values. This has even caused concern among some secular intellectuals of our day, like the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas of the Frankfurter Schule. For him, the very idea of man created in the image of God serves as a guarantor of freedom in society, so that even the most ardent atheist can question and criticize God publicly, but nevertheless enjoys dignity and respect from others as being created by Him.

In my own family, these principles were at work during the Nazi rise to power in Germany.

It was the strong biblical faith of my grandmother, Rosa Bühler, which swayed her to engage in small acts of kindness towards the Jews.

When shops in her hometown refused to sell to Jews, she would go buy groceries for her Jewish neighbors.

When the Gestapo eventually came to pick up Jews, my grandfather stood on the street and declared, “We should be ashamed of ourselves that this is taking place in Germany.”

As a consequence, the Gestapo frequently visited their home and rebuked my grandparents for their Christian actions and for helping Jews. In late 1944, the Gestapo came for one last time and warned, “If you don’t stop your activity you will also end up in a concentration camp!” But my grandmother boldly replied: “Mr. Schmid, you have an eternal soul and one day you will have to give account to God for what you did to our country.”

The Gestapo never came back.

It was my grandparents’ strong belief in a God in heaven which gave them the courage to make the right decisions.

There were thousands more German Christians who stood with the Jewish people. Some wound up in concentration camps and also paid with their lives. But in the end, there simply were too few of them.

When I look today to an increasingly secularized Europe, I pray for a spiritual revival. In our Christian Bible we read: “The purpose of the law [Torah] is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience.” (1 Timothy 1:5)

In Europe, we need our conscience sharpened once again.


Dr. Juergen Buehler serves as Executive Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. 

This article was first published as an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post.

The ICEJ has an official partnership with Yad Vashem to help that institution carry its message about the universal lessons of the Holocaust to the Christian world.

Touching Heaven

The calling of Abraham and its enduring legacy have become one of the most impacting events in world history. This single individual set in motion a redemption process which would transform the world. No wonder the book of Galatians refers to those who have set their trust in the God of Abraham and His Messiah as “sons of Abraham”.

The book of Genesis gives us an important key to understand the unique calling of Abraham. It records that God said: “For I have known him [Abraham], in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” (Genesis 18:19)

One major ingredient for Abraham to succeed – to see all that “He has spoken to him” coming to fruition – would reside in the education and teaching of his children and the generations after them. If Abraham would instruct “his children and his household after him” to walk in the ways and principles of God, this would ensure the promises which God had spoken over Abraham’s life.

Consequently, the education and equipping of youth has become one of the pillars of Judaism until today. Other passages of the Bible strongly encourage the training of children. In fact, the most central confession of the Jewish people, the Shema prayer, relates to the education of children.

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

In the Jewish home it was mainly the father’s task to teach the children about the Bible, but even beyond the home very early in Israel’s history a system of learning and education was established. In the times of Jesus, all of Israel was covered by a network of schools. This emphasis on education was so strong that according to the Talmud a city which did not have a school for children “should be either destroyed or excommunicated”. Some Talmudic sages even declared that part of the reason why Jerusalem fell was because of the city’s “neglect of the education of its children”.

Already in Jesus’ times school attendance for children was compulsory, and by the age of ten a child would have studied most of the books of the Bible. According to the Bible scholar Alfred Edersheim, the starting point of a child’s education was at age 5-6 and would commence with the study of the Book of Leviticus. Paul relates to this in his letter to his Jewish co-worker Timothy, saying “that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures…” (II Timothy 3:15)

This should inspire all of us as parents today, in particular fathers, not only to invest in the academic advancement of our children but to make our homes a place of learning and studying of the word of God. It will shape every child for the rest of their life.

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

This ancient culture of learning from a young age is most certainly part of the intellectual success story of the Jewish people. It is no coincidence that 30% of all Nobel prizes in science have been awarded to Jews and that Israel today leads the world in patents granted per capita. Nor is this due to a mere intellectual advantage, but it is based on a biblical culture of study and learning.

This emphasis on education and learning also has become critical to having a long-term impact on developing nations. Investing in education rather than just mere food programs empowers the recipients to take charge of their lives and to uplift families and even whole communities.

For this reason, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has felt the need to put an increased emphasis within our social work towards the empowerment and education of Israel’s youth. It is not that Israel’s education system is in need of much change – on the contrary. But we want to assist youngsters growing up in socially and emotionally challenging situations to succeed in life, and to give talented students opportunities their families might not be able to afford.

Over the years, we already invested in a variety of educational programs in Israel, such as special scholarships for Ethiopian Jewish students and educational grants to needy students at Ariel University. Yet we sense that God is leading us to expand this outreach to another level. And after much prayer, it has been amazing to see over just the past few months some of the new and incredible doors suddenly opening up to us in this area.

Several years ago, the Christian Embassy began sponsoring a program called “Touching the Horizon”. This unique program reaches out to young people from broken and dysfunction families and alters their destinies through a special mentoring program which follows their progress for seven years, even after high school and into army service. This pilot program – the first of its kind in Israel – was so successful that it attracted the attention of the Ministry of Education. It became obvious to ministry officials that after only a few years the prospects for these disadvantaged students had dramatically improved.

As a result, the Ministry of Education asked us to take the “Touching the Horizon” program to as many schools as possible. The ministry agreed to assist with two-thirds of the operating costs of the program and we have committed to sponsor the remaining one-third. Our vision is to expand the mentoring program to 30 schools across Israel and thereby empower hundreds of young Jewish and Arab teens-at-risk to succeed in life.

What is most exciting and unique about this project is that – at our request – the curriculum will include special classes about co-existence between cultures and religions and in particular classes on Jewish-Christian relations.

Another exciting door which has just opened is a possible new partnership with the Center for Excellence in Jerusalem. This premier scholastic center boasts an enrolment of some of the brilliant students from all across Israel and shapes them into future leaders of Israel. Some of these gifted children come from poor families and require financial assistance and the Center has asked the Christian Embassy to partner with them in providing the best education to the brightest students regardless of need.

In coming months we will keep you informed on this and other exciting opportunities opening to us in the area of educating Israeli youths. Please join with us is this inspiring vision and task to shape and impact the future of Israel. It is a great calling which promises blessing to all involved.

Remember that Jesus himself said: “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10)

Heaven indeed is watching as we care for the young and underprivileged in Israel! Send your donation today to help us make a difference!

Dr. Jürgen Bühler is the executive director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org

For more on the Educational projects in Israel currently being supported by the ICEJ,
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Reading the Israeli elections

The recent Israeli elections could well go down as a milestone in the nation’s modern history, given its encouraging signs of a maturing within the body politic of the Jewish state. In particular, an unprecedented number of voters looked past tribal loyalties and the traditional hawks-and-doves divide in favour of calls by a new generation of leaders for uniting as one people to solve some of the country’s longstanding domestic problems.

For most of the campaign season these elections seemed headed for a forgone conclusion, with Benjamin Netanyahu widely expected to return as head of a government tilting ever more to the Right. One opinion poll in the waning days of the campaign found that an overwhelming 80% of Israelis were convinced he would retain his seat as prime minister.

Yet that sense of inevitably actually hurt Netanyahu at the ballot box. Many voters valued his veteran leadership and were confident he would still be at the helm, but they also sought to steer him in their preferred direction – by opting for either Naftali Bennett on his right or Yair Lapid to his left.

The surprise results have meant that Netanyahu indeed will preside over the next coalition government but from a weakened position. Yet he is flanked by two fresh voices in Bennett and Lapid who offered a new vision for Israel’s future built on a common national identity and a sharing of national burdens.

Normally, Israelis vote with the nation’s great peace and security issues foremost on their minds, or they simply vote for their respective ‘tribes’.

Peace and security were still important to Israeli voters this time, but as they looked around the region they saw very little that Israelis can do right now to alter their worsening strategic situation.

The majority still supports a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians but they also know there is no genuine peace partner at present on the other side. The Arab Spring continues to wreak havoc in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, but Israel has few means to influence its direction. And the Iranian nuclear threat remains an urgent concern, but the nation was waiting for the second Obama administration to round itself out and begin charting an updated course for the international community to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Meantime, there has been a political stalemate for decades between the five main tribes in Israel – the Ashkenazi (European), Sephardic (Middle Eastern), ultra-Orthodox and Russian Jews, plus the Arab community. Each represents about 20% of the population and they have been perennially locked in rivalries with each other for their share of the collective pie.

The new generation of leaders have now called for an end to this tribalism and a unified focus on trying to solve those things at home which can be solved – such as growing poverty, rising costs of living, the affordable housing crunch, and an equalising of the burden of national service.

As the new undisputed leader of the settler movement, Bennett spoke of the anti-Zionist haredim and even the Arabs as “our brothers”, who must be respected as equal partners in shaping Israel’s future.

Lapid voiced a similar message, explaining that after more than 60 years of nationhood the various competing tribes have realised their rivals are not going to disappear and must be dealt with fairly and equally. The son of a staunch secularist, he even admitted that the ultra-religious Jews had “won” in their battle with the European socialists to define “Israeli-ness”, but that this victory also carries the cost of national responsibility.

“We can’t run the Israeli economy without you as partners”, Lapid recently told a class of ultra-Orthodox college students. “If an Ethiopian child in Netivot is hungry, it’s your responsibility as much as mine. You cannot say: ‘I only give to haredi charities.’”

It remains to be seen whether these new leaders will be able to keep their campaign promises or become like so many other past politicians. But it is already clear that their unifying message resonated with Israeli voters.

In a distinct way, this is reminiscent of the ancient Israelite tribes under Joshua, when Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh had already conquered their allotted lands, yet they still crossed over the Jordan to help their fellow tribes possess their inheritances (See Joshua chapters 1 and 4).

God obviously sought a clear division of tribal lines within ancient Israel. He commanded that one tribe could not take the lands of another, and each could only marry within their respective tribe. So the Almighty wanted to maintain this diversity. Yet He also wanted them to become one nation, knowing that there is strength in unity.

The prophet Ezekiel , in his amazing vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (chapter 37), foretells of a day when God would re-gather the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel from among the nations and “make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all… David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.”
Israel today is indeed a remarkable nation of Jews gathered from over 100 countries around the globe, who have come back as distinct tribes with their own languages, cultures and customs, but God has been slowly forging them back together into one nation. They have a glorious future ahead of them, far more glorious than they even realise. And perhaps the elections of 2013 were a small but encouraging glimpse of His hand at work.

Parsons is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org

The World in 2013

We are living in truly exciting times! Powerful global shifts are occurring which will change our world for decades to come. The former powerhouse of the European Union is struggling even for survival. Entire nations are endangered with bankruptcy, while in parallel Christianity is in decline in our post-Christian Western societies. There are also serious economic struggles in the United States, even while we see nations like China and India on the rise. The Middle East is experiencing major turmoil. For many Christians the future looks bleak.

The future Church

However, positive and exciting developments are taking place which might escape our attention since they are taking place outside the Western world. For Christians in the West, secularism and Islam seem to be taking over on all fronts. But they should look to the Southern hemisphere, which has become the new vanguard for Christianity. American researcher Prof. Philip Jenkins, in his book “The next Christendom”, documents an unprecedented religious revolution which is taking place. While Europe is losing its Christian identity and churches are shrinking, in the global South (Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia) Christianity is alive and growing.

In Africa, Christianity more than tripled, from 140 million in 1970 to 490 Million in 2010. If the recent growth continues, by 2050 Africa will be home to more than 1 billion Christians. While Europe today remains the home to the most Christians (some 590 million), it will be overtaken in the coming years by Latin America and Africa.

The Next Christendom

What unites all these new expressions of Christianity is simple faith in the Bible and the expectation of God moving in supernatural ways. According to Prof. Jenkins, the fastest growing stream of Christianity is the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. What started in 1906 as a small revival has turned today into a global movement which has grown to more than 700 million believers, he concludes. Jenkins predicts that if this dynamic growth continues, we will see in the next few decades the number of Pentecostals and Charismatics swell to more than one billion.

He also foresees a new reformation of Christianity where the centers of world Christendom will not lay anymore in Geneva, London or Rome, but in places like Kampala, Sao Paolo or Manila. Even in Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in terms of population, the Church is experiencing an ongoing revival for over thirty years now.

Interestingly, liberal theologies hardly exist in these regions, and neither does Replacement theology. According to Jenkins, while liberal Protestantism never truly represented mainstream Christianity, it will rapidly lose what significance it has had in coming decades.

ICEJ Rally in Brazil

In our own travels as ICEJ representatives, we have witnessed and experienced this changing dynamic. We see that revived churches of the South not only share a simple trust in the Word of God, they are also united in a deep love and passion for Israel and the Jews. When I asked some years ago a leader of one of China’s underground churches where their love for Israel comes from, he replied: “We just read the Bible.” It is that simple.

All of this carries the potential for major political changes in coming decades. In some countries, revived Christianity already constitutes a significant portion of the population. Sooner or later, this will translate into political influence. Already last year, we saw Nigeria refuse to vote automatically with the Palestinians on statehood in the UN Security Council due to Christian influence on its government. Other nations may soon follow this trend.

If you live today in Europe or elsewhere in the “Global North”, I want to encourage you with the words of Jesus:

“Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’. Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:35)

Too often as Western Christians, we have become overly pessimistic and even fatalistic about the future. If God can move mightily in Africa, China and Brazil, then there is also hope for France, Germany and Italy. We are living in times of harvest! Don’t say your country is not ready for harvest yet. The real question is: Are you ready for harvest?

The future of the Arab world

Rally in Cairo

The events which led to the Arab uprisings caught even the sharpest intelligence agencies by surprise. While progressive, freedom-seeking elements sparked the on-going revolutions, it quickly became clear that many in the streets were not thirsting for Western-style democracy but a stricter form Islam. The Egyptian people just voted for the adoption of a constitution rooted in Islamic shari’a law. It is getting more difficult for Arab Christians to stay and many are seeking refuge in Western countries.

In Psalms 18, David called upon God in great distress and the Lord came down from heaven and intervened, yet in a rather unusual manner:

“[He] came down with darkness under His feet. And He rode upon a cherub… He made darkness His secret place; His canopy around Him was dark waters and thick clouds of the skies.” (Psalm 18:9-11)

The end of the story, of course, is salvation and redemption: “He delivered me from my strong enemy…” (Psalm 18:16f). But as God arrived for rescue, He came “with darkness under His feet” and he made “darkness His secret place”.

You might have experienced it yourself. When God comes to deliver, at times it can seem even darker for a short while. Often, this is true for entire nations.

China, which is experiencing a huge revival today, is a good example. By 1948, Christianity in China was making significant progress. Close to one million believers were found in China and the hope and prayers were that this growth would continue. But then came the Communist revolution and all Western missionaries were expelled. For a while, it looked like the end of Christianity in China. The Church went through an extreme time of persecution and hardship. But in the midst of this darkness, revival broke out and just a few years ago the Chinese government set the official number of Christians in China at more than 100 million.

The same is true for Iran today. When the Ayatollahs took over in the late 1970s, it appeared like a thick cloud of darkness was settling upon ancient Persia. Persecution set in and pastors were imprisoned and even executed. But then the churches started to grow. From a few hundred believers, the Church grew to several million today. In fact, Iran at present is experiencing the fastest church growth in the world. Just recently, we received a report from pastors in Iran that 5,000 people are being baptised each month in Tehran alone.

So even though it looks like darkness is descending on many Arab countries today and persecution is increasing, deep in my heart I am full of faith that God is visiting the Arab world. He is answering decades of prayers for revival among the sons of Ishmael.

If you look towards the Middle East, look upon the region with the eyes of faith. Continue to pray for revival in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, as they border directly with Israel. But also pray for all the nations of the Middle East, that God’s Spirit might be poured out in a powerful way on all these lands which used to be the early cradle of Christianity.

Israel’s future

At his annual New Year’s reception for clerical leaders in Israel, President Shimon Peres opened with an astonishing statement. “Never before were Jewish-Christian relations better than today”, he observed.

ICEJ at Christian Allies Caucus

He was referring to the many historic churches in the Holy Land, but mentioned in particular the relationship with the Vatican. Certainly, there has been progress with these churches but the biggest development is Israel’s outreach to the growing Evangelical movement. Many Israeli leaders now recognise the potential of this relationship. That a caucus was formed in the Knesset just to engage with Evangelical Christians speaks volumes.

At the same time, Israel will continue to develop as a hi-tech innovator and a beacon of democracy in the midst of a troubled region. The world chairman of the Jewish Agency, Eliezer “Moodi” Sandberg, just recently shared with me his hope for Israel’s future.

“The first waves of Aliyah were motivated by strong Zionist feelings. Part of the future of immigration will be that Jews will decide to move to Israel because they can be part of a great success story in science and hi-tech”, he said.

What throws a shadow on all this is the still unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. Here, a new and fresh approach is needed which indeed can bring peace for the region. Again, it was President Peres who made an interesting point at the New Year’s reception.

“Our nation is not divided into people who want peace and those who don’t want peace. But it is divided in those who believe peace is possible and those who don’t believe it is possible”, he noted.

As Christians, we need to be committed to peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers”, Jesus proclaimed. Yet true peace will only come when hearts have been transformed. Therefore, what is needed most is an outpouring of God’s Spirit of Grace and Supplication on the people of Israel. That’s why our prayers are so important today.

The ICEJ in 2013

ICEJ Prayer

In Jerusalem, the ICEJ staff started out the new year once again with an intensive time of prayer and fasting. We recognise that if God does not build the house, our work is in vain. God filled us with new expectations for what He will do through us in 2013. Prayer will surely be an important part of our work, and we expect more churches from around the world to join with us in our Isaiah 62 Prayer Campaign.

Another area of ministry which we expect to become more involved in is Israel’s education sector. Just in the past few months, exciting doors have opened for us and we sense that this is an area where we are called to increase our engagement in future.

In the past year, God opened new doors for us to broadcast our message over global satellite TV. On the Daystar channel, we are reaching an audience of millions three times a week with our “ICEJ Report”. We expect this work to expand further, as will our other new media outlets.

As always, we are fully committed to serve the needy and underprivileged in Israel. This coming year, we are preparing for further expansion of our Home for Holocaust survivors in Haifa and to see that the monthly needs of current residents are met. In spite of all the economic growth in Israel, there is still a large part of the population living in poverty.

ICEJ Feast 2013

We also are planning for another exciting Feast of Tabernacles celebration this year. Last October’s gathering was characterised by much prayer and a strong presence of God. We expect that as well this fall, along with new and exciting events that will bless our pilgrims greatly. The Feast theme of “Harvest” is so timely, as it reflects what is happening around the world.

I truly believe that 2013 will be a year of challenges but also one of great blessings. My prayer is that God would allow us to carry out great exploits for Him and for His glory. Much is still to be done but His resources are limitless. Remember, we serve a Lord who declared about Himself:

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18)

This means that if He is with us, who can be against us! Let us lift up our heads and do the work of the Lord together!


Dr. Juergen Buehler serves as Executive Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

The Tower of the Flock

One of the most powerful statements in the biblical narratives on the birth of Christ is the proclamation made by the angel to shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem.

“Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

It was a first declaration of the euangelion, the Good News of the redemptive Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable to see that this first declaration made to Israelites outside the immediate family of Jesus was not given to the religious or political rulers of Israel but to shepherds keeping their flocks.

The shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem, to this day, play a central role in the Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land. Countless tourists have visited the fields between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The church historian Eusebius linked these fields to a unique biblical location called Migdal Eder, which translated means the “tower of the flock”.

The first time Migdal Eder is mentioned in the Bible is in the account of Rachel, who died after giving birth to Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob. “Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder”, records Genesis 35:21.

This area on the outskirts of Bethlehem is also mentioned in the Talmudic writings. According to the Talmud, all cattle found in the area surrounding Jerusalem “as far as Migdal Eder” were deemed to be holy and consecrated and could only be used for sacrifices in the Temple, in particular for the peace and Passover sacrifices. There was thus a special, consecrated circle around the city of Jerusalem.

This means the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem who first heard the Good News from the angels were not ordinary shepherds but served the sacrificial system of the Temple. These men served the Mosaic covenant, a foreshadowing of the new covenant. And these men were now confronted with the reality of the eternal light to which their ministry had been pointing all these centuries. It was declaring a new era of salvation!

The Hebrew prophet Micah also refers to Migdal Eder. “And you, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:8)

Based on that prophecy, prominent Jewish writers concluded in the Midrash that from all of the places in Israel, it would be the Migdal Eder where the arrival of the Messiah would be declared first.

That means when the angels appeared that night to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, it was not just a declaration of the Good News to simple shepherds. It was a powerful prophetic sign to all of Israel. The news of that night must have spread like wildfire through the surrounding villages.

Luke records: “Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” (Luke 2:17-18)

What does this all mean for us?

1)  First, it is always beneficial for the Church to see that Jesus did not arrive into a vacuum, but was born into an entirely Jewish context. When Christ came in the flesh, he was born first-and-foremost to the Jewish people but would then also bring his favour and good pleasure to all men. Even though the celebration of Christ’s birth has become a feast marked almost exclusively by the gentile Church, it is important for us to see it in its historic and biblical context – as a message intended to give hope to Israel. As Zacharias prophesies at the birth of John the Baptist, this all happened to “perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham…” (Luke 1:72f).

2)  Second, already from the moment Jesus entered the world the ultimate reason for his arrival was alluded to. These were the shepherds who took care of the sheep and cattle offered in the Temple – in particular the Passover sacrifices. And it was they who were confronted with the announcement that the ultimate sacrifice, which would carry away not only the sins of Israel but of the whole world, was born. Just thirty three years later, no further sacrifice was to be needed, as all those who believe in him have been “sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

3)  The angelic announcement gave these simple shepherds a profound revelation of who this Messiah would be. He was proclaimed to be both King (born in the city of David) and Priest. That he was both Christ and Lord, the son of man but also the son of God. He would be the saviour of humanity but also the shepherd of all those who would follow his voice.

It was truly good news which the angels proclaimed that night long ago. But as with the shepherds, the mere knowledge of this news is not enough. They needed to act upon it and they did. They went personally to see that child and then proclaimed his birth wherever they could.

Let us follow the example of the shepherds of Bethlehem and rededicate our lives afresh to that great saviour who was born in Bethlehem. He is the shepherd of our souls (1 Peter 2:25) who died for our sins and who redeems us to reign and rule with him for eternity! This is Good News indeed!

 

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