Interpreting the New Testament through the lens of Israel

There are theological issues that are up for debate. And there are Biblical passages that are difficult to understand. But what I did not expect to hear in separate sermons in two different Evangelical churches in the Canton of Geneva, is Christian Zionist preachers reinterpreting the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as well as Matthew 24, bringing a whole new meaning to Jesus’ own words to suit their political purposes. Christian Zionism’s hermeneutics seem to suffer mission creep. It has expanded beyond its traditional scope of Biblical texts to include passages that have nothing to do with the State of Israel.

What is the Parable of the Prodigal Son about?

“The younger son represents Israel, and the older son represents the Church,” said the guest preacher. He explained that the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that the Church must not reject the Jewish people embodied today in the State of Israel, because God’s chosen “has returned.”

This preacher works for a Christian organization that supports Israeli settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and he goes from church to church preaching and raising funds for Israeli settlers whose violence is an ever-present threat to Palestinian livelihoods. He seeks to encourage his listeners toward generosity by arguing that the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches Christians not to reject the State of Israel like the older son has rejected the younger son, upon the latter’s return.

Let’s put the issue of fundraising aside. This Christian Zionist preacher is practicing eisegesis—introducing one’s theological framework to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, at the expense of its true meaning.

This parable, part of the Luke 15 trilogy of parables, is often misunderstood and I remember as a teenager hearing sermons that wrongly put emphasis on the prodigal son’s “coming to himself” instead of the father unconditional love and his redeeming grace. Scholar and author Kenneth Bailey writes, “As the father comes down and out to reconcile his son, he becomes a symbol of God in Christ. … Jesus is clearly talking about himself. By the end of the story, the father does what Jesus does.”

The guest preacher’s reinterpretation of the Prodigal Son—to symbolize the relationship between the Church and the State of Israel—removes the centrality of the father figure and obfuscates the Christology in the Parable.

Who will stand firm to the end and will be saved?

At another church, on another Sunday, a guest preacher preached from Matthew 24, which teaches us that “many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other… but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (verses 10, 13)

The preacher then presented three criteria for the “shake-proof spiritual foundation” [sic] that allows us “to be among the few who are going to rise up and be saved.” The third of those criteria is unsettling:

“Is our faith anchored in the understanding of how we who as gentiles are grafted into God’s continuing purposes through Israel, which, according to Isaiah 42:6, is to be a light for the nations that opens eyes that are blind, or do we instead believe that God has replaced Israel with the church? Because the reality is, if God gave up on Israel, why shouldn’t he give up on us as well.”

By restating the dichotomy that I have often heard—of either recognizing God’s separate plans for Israel and the Church, or being guilty of (anti-semitic) replacement theology—and making the former theological position a condition for belonging to the few who will be saved in Mathew 24:13, the guest pastor excluded myself and most people that I know from end-times salvation by lumping us with those who “will betray and hate each other” according to Matthew 24.

Christian Zionism’s Hermeneutical Key

I personally adhere to the following interpretation of Romans 9–11, formulated by Christopher Wright, who wrote:

“I have to emphasize that Paul’s picture is decidedly not Jews plus gentiles, remaining forever distinct with separate means of covenant membership and access to God, but rather that through the cross God has destroyed the barrier between the two and created a new entity, so that both together and alike have access to God through the same Spirit. … In Romans 9–11 Paul labors with massive scriptural argumentation to demonstrate that the inclusion of the Gentiles, far from being a denial of the Scriptures or an abandonment by God of his promise to Israel is rather a fulfillment of both. It is precisely through the ingathering of the nations that God is keeping his promise to Israel.”

Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, InterVarsity Press, 2006, p. 528

However, the problem with these two sermons is far deeper and more consequential than a misreading of Romans 9–11. These two sermons, preached in faithful and orthodox Evangelical churches in Switzerland, have replaced Jesus Christ with the State of Israel as the hermeneutical key through which we interpret and understand Scripture. The Gospels and Jesus’ own words have been re-interpreted in light of the State of Israel for political (and seemingly financial) Israeli support.

Grafted into what, exactly?

Romans 11:17 (ESV) says that we, “although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree.” And Romans 11:24 says, “For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.”

However, the pastor who preached from Matthew 24 said that the “gentiles are grafted into God’s continuing purposes through Israel.” [sic] Rather than grafted into Israel as per Romans 11, and thus becoming the inclusive and expansive Israel, the pastor modified Romans 11 and inserted “God’s continuing purposes through Israel” the consequence of which, in all likelihood, is that the Church and Israel remain two separate entities.

Last year, the French-speaking Federation of Evangelical Churches, which is the largest church denomination in the French speaking part of Switzerland, published two articles on the relationship between Israel and the Church, one of which is by Jean-René Moret, pastor and member of the theological commission of the Federation. Moret wrote in a commentary titled The Church and Israel in the Thought of Paul that the Church is not a second tree next to Israel; the Church is even less a new tree that would replace the first one; but that the Church is the same tree as the believers of the Old Testament.

The Responsibility of the Church Leaders

Swiss churches certainly do not lack resources or knowledge to respond to Christian Zionism’s deviant hermeneutics. Church pastors and elders have a responsibility to teach the Word and sound doctrine. And I hope and pray that the pastors and elders of the two churches I mentioned above take corrective action, namely in light of the feedback that they have received from their respective church members on the content of these two sermons.

Because there’s nothing new under the sun, I will conclude with the words of Peter as recorded in his second epistle. Peter said that Paul “wrote to you according to the wisdom given him” but that “there are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:15-18)

This post first appeared as “When the State of Israel Becomes the New Testament’s Hermeneutical Key” which was posted on the ABTS blog on June 18, 2020.

About Wissam al-Saliby

Wissam al-Saliby earned a Master’s degree in International Law with specialization in Protection and Human Security in 2006 from the Law Faculty of Aix-Marseille University, Aix-en-Provence, France. Wissam is an advocacy officer in Geneva with the World Evangelical Alliance, speaking to the UN and other policy bodies about human rights from an Evangelical perspective. He formerly served as the Development and Partner Relations Manager at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and has significant experience as a trainer in and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. You can follow Wissam on Twitter @lebanonesia.