Understanding more about Israel

Jan 30, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

I can still remember the lecture when I was at theological college more than 25 years ago. I had never bothered to get to grips with Romans 9-11 before that: the chapters where Paul addresses the question of God’s plan for the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. I had always assumed that, now that Christ had come, Judaism was just the same as any other non-Christian religion. Salvation was not by race but by grace. And anyway I was preparing for a ministry of grassroots community development and theological education in Africa, so for me, what the Bible has to say about Jews was irrelevant.

But now here was this lecturer asking us: how many of you have heard the first part of Romans 1:16 expounded in a sermon – I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. We all put our hands up. But what about the second part: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile? Most of us confessed that this aspect, picked up again in chapters 9-11, had been missing up to that point in the teaching we had received. It was eye-opening, and forced me to wrestle with Paul’s theology of the chosen people, culminating in the conclusion: all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26).

Since that time the question of Israel and the Jewish people has been on the back burner of my mind, sometimes coming to the fore theologically (does God still have a special relationship with Jewish people, and how is this relevant to global mission?), and politically, when we see a news item on tensions and suffering in the West Bank and Gaza, or anti-Semitism in political parties and on university campuses in the US and Europe.

So when I was invited to join a small group of clergy on a special tour of the Holy Land, I realized this would be an opportunity to learn more; perhaps to clarify my thinking but also to see first hand some of the complexities.

Knowing the history when visiting a site is always fascinating, anywhere in the world. But there is something extraordinary about being at Joppa, the place where Peter had his vision of the unclean animals in Acts 10, or at Shiloh where the tabernacle was set up in the time of Judges. Or being told “that is the mountain where Abraham and Lot parted company”; “over there the Crusaders were finally defeated by Saladin”.

Likewise, one can read books and watch news items about Israel and Palestine, but we had the privilege of meeting people and hearing their stories: articulate, passionate and resourceful women and men from Jewish settler communities in the West Bank (illegal? Or essential? Certainly contentious); Palestinian political leaders angry at what they saw as an unjust and oppressive ‘apartheid’ system; a British diplomat, an Israeli Professor of international relations, a check-point manager, a Jewish survivor from 1940’s Vichy France. Palestinian Christians with different views; one working for political liberation, one running a centre for evangelism and community development, and an Aramaic speaker determined to preserve this small community and its churches of ancient heritage.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the trip is to focus on four themes or areas in which my understanding increased and my feelings were touched, rather than making a chronological list of places visited and voices heard.


Like many English Protestants visiting the Holy Land for the first time, I’m disappointed at the way massive church buildings cover the supposed places of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection and other key moments of his ministry. While this is a way of showing devotion and of witnessing to the reality and Lordship of Christ in some traditions, when I read the Gospels I have a strong sense that the message is “he isn’t here, he is risen!” Hasn’t the desire for possession of the geographical space where Jesus’s physical body touched led to vast and unnecessary expense on stone and silver and gold, and the awful stain of the Crusades?

True, Christ is known and worshipped in spirit and in truth, not by prayer in a consecrated building or on a mountain in Samaria. Unlike some, I can’t say I felt that being in a certain location made me closer to Jesus. And yet it was certainly awe-inspiring to see the Synagogue in Magdala, to have Communion on the Mount where Jesus taught; to take a boat trip on the magnificent (though increasingly depleted) Sea of Galilee; then in Jerusalem to read again the account of the healing of the lame man by the pool of Bethesda while actually being there.


While on the plane I finished the magisterial account of the city by historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore. Seeing and walking around the old city itself, and then looking at the huge scale model of the second temple period, at the Israel Museum, helped to complete the picture for me. The scale of the Temple Mount in particular is astonishing – no wonder the disciples said to Jesus “look at these stones”. Overall, as archaeology uncovers parts of the city of Jesus’ time and before, the city reveals its history of prosperity, decline and conquest, over and over again, so the stones show mind-boggling amounts of investment of money and human labour, to build and to pull down.

Of course Jerusalem is also a visual symbol of human fascination with the numinous; held by Muslims and Jews to be the place where God is most present, and where the final judgement will begin (a view also held by many Christians). And so it is a place of conflict, bearing witness to centuries of struggle over control and ownership; a place where empires have clashed from the time of Assyria and Egypt to Britain and France.

Jewish people

And the city is the focus of devotion and identity, both in Israel and the diaspora, for this remarkable race. The talent, innovative skill and determination to make the country work is evident visibly in the fertile productivity of the farms in a dry land, the cutting edge medicine and IT, and the enthusiasm of the tour guides. I was particularly struck by the strong sense of shared identity which transcends the different nationalities that make up the Israeli people, which comes from centuries of history, ritual and of course terrible suffering (as the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Centre reminded us). Family is central – we had the privilege of being hosted for a Shabbat meal – and there is belief in the future despite the chaotic arguments of Israeli politics. While many modern Israelis do not believe in the God of the Bible, they all understand the significance and power of the story that has shaped them. What a contrast with so many young people in Britain: rootless, ignorant of the nation’s Christian heritage or their family history. To quote the title of a popular TV programme: “who do you think you are?” – the Jews know, but the majority of Western Gentiles do not.


But where does this leave us in terms of forming an opinion? I think I have stayed where I was before I went. Politically, I celebrate the success of the nation of Israel but see the need to pray for the leaders as they navigate the balance of maintaining their own security and prosperity, with peace with and justice for the Palestinian people. In terms of Paul’s vision in Romans for a great movement towards Christ among Jews in the last days: humanly speaking, the Israel project and the strong religious and cultural heritage seem to be a blockage to that, but God fulfils his promises… I don’t accept, like some Christian Zionists, that full Jewish ownership of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the temple and military victories, not faith in Jesus, is the key to the salvation of the Jewish people and the establishment of Christ’s reign. But nor do believe in a replacement theology which denies that the Gospel is “first for the Jew”, and which sees the church as making Israel irrelevant.

In the end, there’s a space left for not having sorted everything out in our hearts and minds, and it’s good that while fulfilling our responsibilities of love and prayer, we can leave the judgements to God.

[Many thanks to the Anglo Israel Association for making this trip possible.]

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