Christ at the Checkpoint?

I haven’t been blogging much lately, partly because I’ve been involved in drafting a couple of important public affairs statements that you can see under “Community News” at http://www.umjc.org. One of them has to do with “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a controversial conference hosted by Palestinian Christians next month in Bethlehem. I mention it in my Torah study for the week, so here it is:

“That I may dwell among them”

Parashat T’rumah, Exodus 25:1–27:21

When does the story of the Exodus from Egypt reach its climax? As I remember it from watching “The Ten Commandments” as a kid, the highpoint is the crossing of the Red Sea, when those towering walls of water come crashing down on the hapless Egyptian troops. Later, as I read the book of Exodus as an adult, I began to see the arrival at Mount Sinai, or the giving of the Ten Commandments (after all, they named the movie after that) as the climax. But now, I’m wondering if the climax of the Book of Exodus doesn’t come later­, in one verse in this week’s parasha: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). Here’s the goal and highpoint of the whole story: the God of Israel, Creator of heaven and earth, will dwell tangibly in the midst of his people Israel.

By dwelling in the midst of Israel, God will make himself known to all the surrounding nations. In Exodus, the Lord frames the whole story of redemption in four promises, upon which we base our Passover Seder with its four cups of wine:

“Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” (Ex. 6:6–7a)

God’s point in this four-fold promise is not just to get the Israelites out of bondage, but to reveal himself fully to them:

“Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” (Ex. 6:7b)

And it’s not only Israel that will know the Lord through his mighty acts of deliverance, as the Lord tells Moses:

“When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egyptand bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the landof Egyptby great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.” (Ex. 7:4–5, emphasis added)

God’s purpose of making himself known throughout Exodus reaches its climax when he says, “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Through this sanctuary God will reveal himself not only in mighty acts of deliverance, but through abiding withinIsrael. Thus, Israel will be a priestly nation, maintaining and showing forth the presence of God in their midst, so that in the end all the nations will know him: “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9). This vision is accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah, Yeshua, and yet Israel as a people still has a vital role to play: “Now if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss riches for the Gentiles, then how much more their fullness! . . . For if their rejection leads to the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Rom. 11:12, 5 TLV).

Last week, the UMJC joined with three other international Messianic Jewish organizations to issue a statement about a conference coming to Bethlehem next month, entitled “Christ at the Checkpoint” (CATC). (Go to “Community News” at www.umjc.org or see me reading the statement at http://youtu.be/Mk0GPnPqtj0.) The CATC website speaks of peace and reconciliation, but specifically singles out Zionism—commitment to the land ofIsrael as the Jewish homeland—as the obstacle to peace and reconciliation. The conference organizers imply that peace will only come when the Jews relinquish any special claim to the land of Israel and just live there as one ethnic group among many. A Christian familiar with the Tanakh, or Old Testament, can hold a position like this only if he believes that God at some point ended his special covenant with the Jewish people, and nullified, or radically revised, his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Some Christians are providing that exact point, for example, Gary Burge, Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, who is a featured speaker at CATC:

Reformed theologians (like myself) believe that something decisive happened in Christ. His covenant affected not simply the covenant of Moses – making a new and timeless form of salvation – but it also affected every Jewish covenant, including Abraham’s covenant. Christ fulfills the expectations of Jewish covenant life and renews the people of God rooted in the OT and Judaism. Thus Jesus is a new temple, the new Israel, there are 12 tribes/apostles, etc. … Reformed theologians are not at all convinced that the promises to Abraham much less Moses are still theologically significant today. http://www.christianzionism.org/Article/Burge02.pdf

We agree “that something decisive happened in Christ,” to say the least. We insist, however, that the promises to Abraham are not only “theologically significant today,” but alive and in effect in today’s world. Burge’s position represents supersessionism or replacement theology (which not all Reformed theologians hold), and we addressed it in our letter to the CATC conference organizers:

 We urge you to remember the terrible history of Christian supersessionism, which led to invalidating the Jewish people and their unique covenant with God, stripping away the Jewishness of the Biblical message of redemption for all through the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus), and promulgating Biblical interpretation that demonized the Jewish people and inevitably resulted in centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jewish people.

Of course, the Messianic Jewish movement depends on exactly the opposite view—that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is still in effect—for why should we maintain our Jewish identity after we come to faith in Yeshua if there is no longer a covenant or a special promise to the Jewish people?  Replacement theology is making a comeback within sectors of the Evangelical church, and it’s linked with a withdrawal of support forIsraelas a Jewish state. CATC seeks to encourage and exploit this shift, which is why we felt it was vital to make a public statement about it.

The Jewish return to the Land of Israel, as complex, disorderly, and even troubled as it has been, is an inextricable part of God’s prophetic plan. We need to stand with that return, especially as pressures against Israel mount. We can criticize aspects of Israeli policy if necessary, and we can support efforts for peace with Israel’s neighbors, even if they might entail tough compromises, but we have to always advocate for Israel as the Jewish homeland, especially among our Christian brothers and sisters. That’s what we did in our statement on “Christ at the Checkpoint,” and that’s what we’ll be emphasizing this summer with our international conference theme of Shomer Yisrael, Watching over Israel.

God’s fourfold promise of redemption, which we re-enact every year at Passover, actually leads to a fifth promise: “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord” (Ex. 6:8). The sanctuary that God commands Israel to build is a tent, a portable structure, because Israel hasn’t yet arrived at its final destination, the land promised to our forefathers. God remains with his people not only in the triumphant moments of the departure from Egypt, but also through the rebellions and backsliding in the wilderness. And so today, even though we as a people are still in the wilderness regarding Yeshua as Messiah, God is with us to lead us home. May it come to pass speedily, even in our day!

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