Thursday 26 April 2012

When I'm 64

Happy Birthday Israel!

Toby Greene posted the following on Huffingtonm Post.

When David Ben Gurion rose to proclaim Israel's Declaration of Independence, at 4pm on May 14, 1948 (64 years ago today in the Hebrew calendar), his commanding voice hid deep internal trepidation. He wrote in his diary that day, "In the country there is celebration and profound joy - and once again I am a mourner among the celebrants." Ben Gurion knew better than anyone the scale of the risks they were taking in declaring the state at that moment.

The Arab rejection of the 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states had pitched the two peoples within the territory into a bloody armed conflict. With Britain completing its exit from the country, the surrounding Arab armies were about to invade. Jerusalem was under siege. The day before Ben Gurion's proclamation, the four Jewish villages of the Gush Etzion bloc had been captured, and its defenders massacred after laying down their arms. Yigal Yadin, the commander of the Jewish forces, put the Jewish state's chances of survival at fifty-fifty.

But barely three years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, with tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in Europe desperate to rebuild their lives in a new Jewish state, the imperative to seize the moment, despite the risk, was overwhelming.

The context of the declaration makes its content all the more remarkable. Though Ben Gurion's delivery may have been blunt, the text itself was finely crafted. No other document so succinctly yet profoundly encapsulates the ideals of the Zionist movement, whilst also reflecting its tensions.

The declaration articulated the Jewish national narrative of the Zionist movement. It set out the historic and legal case for Israel's establishment rooted in the "natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state."

At the same time it reflected the universal, humanistic values with which the early Zionist ideologues had infused the movement. It committed to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," and to "guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." In particular it called on "the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions."

The declaration drew on Jewish cultural tradition, stating that Israel would be "based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." But Ben Gurion and his largely secular leadership, staunchly resisted any mention of God in the text, compromising artfully, in the end, on an ambiguous reference to "Placing our trust in the 'rock of Israel'".

Sixty-four years on, Israel has strengthened immeasurably from the precarious circumstances of its establishment. Judged by the ideals of its founders, Israel can claim many successes. It is an open society with a diverse population, rich civil society, vibrant economy, robust democratic and legal institutions and a strong military. With a population of eight million, it punches far above its weight in its contributions in the fields of science and technology. Six Israelis have won Nobel prizes in the past ten years. Only four countries have won more in that time. Its Arab minority does indeed enjoy legal equality and representation in the state's institutions. When Israel's former President, Moshe Katzav, was convicted and imprisoned last year, the trial was presided over by an Arab-Israeli judge.

However, like any country, Israel faces a continuing challenge to fully reflect in reality the spirit of its highest ideals. Measured against the vision articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the State of Israel has work to do. Ongoing tensions and inequalities exist between Israel's Jewish majority and Arab minority. It is an enduring struggle to locate the proper place for Jewish cultural and religious life in the state. And Israel is a long way from gaining acceptance in a region which is hostile to its existence. The project remains overshadowed by the need to, at long last, make the two-state solution proposed in 1947 a reality, by finding a consensual and secure way to establish a Palestinian state in the territories Israel captured in 1967.

Israel is a work in progress. But in this endeavour, the declaration itself is an invaluable asset. Not every country is founded with such a far-sighted and progressive mission statement. Britain has no equivalent. It remains a powerful touchstone in Israeli law and political culture, and stands up to this day as a blueprint for a state which is both Jewish and democratic.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

The search for the real Bob Dylan

The Jester played for the King and Queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean and a voice that came from you and me. (Don Maclean, American Pie)

Five decades after the release of his eponymously titled first album, Bob Dylan remains as relevant as ever. He continues to sell out shows and, although I found it lacklustre, his 2009 album Together Through Life was critically praised and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 in America. The far superior (in my opinion) Modern Times and even better Love and Theft, attained platinum and gold respectively.

I've just pre-ordered from Amazon David Dalton’s Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan which is due to be published on 14 May to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Dylan's first album Bob Dylan.

Dalton’s book features interviews with Dylan’s family and friends, Joan Baez, Keith Richards, Bobby Neuwirth, Kris Kristofferson, Suze Rotolo, Clive Davis, Tom Petty and others, to provide a fresh perspective on the man, the myth, and the musical era that forged them both.

There is a fascinating and perceptive of Dylan’s music and image, what it meant for the social movements of the Sixties, and what it means for Americans today as well as a captivating interview with David Dalton by Francis Schaeffer disciple John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, at Oldspeak, the online journal of The Rutherford Institute.

OldSpeak is dedicated to publishing interviews, articles and commentary on subjects often overlooked by the mainstream media in the areas of politics, art, culture, law and religion.

Monday 23 April 2012

New Kadima leader would meet most Palestinian demands

Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected leader of Kadima, Israel’s largest political party, has said he would give the Palestinians 100 percent of their territorial demands, though land swaps would be necessary due to the fact that some Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria are too large to uproot. Economic incentives would be used to encourage other settler communities to move but if the incentives failed, settlers would be expelled forcibly.

What would not be on offer in any talks with the Palestinian leadership, however, is Jerusalem, as the overwhelming majority of Israelis oppose the division of the nation’s capital. Nevertheless, for the Palestinian leadership, without Jerusalem, the cleansing of all Jews from ancient Judea and Samaria and a ‘right of return’ for all ‘Palestinian refugees’ (a demand that would result in the Jewish state being flooded with Palestinians) there can never be a final status peace agreement.

Mofaz, like so many others, appears to cherish the belief that Israel’s enemies are, at heart, reasonable. That is, of course, understandable. For many Israelis, a belief that people can change for the better is the only hope they have. The prospect of never-ending conflict with their neighbours is more than most Israelis can tolerate but Mofaz’s approach has been tried before. At Camp David in 2000, Prime minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat a Palestinian State on 94% of the West Bank, East Jerusalem as the capital of the State and the withdrawal of settlers from 63 settlements. In short, Barak offered Arafat almost 100% of what he asked for. In response, Arafat rejected to offer, walked away from the negotiating table without offering anything in response. He then returned home to announce to his people that that he had defied Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak. Within weeks the Second Intifada began.

In 2005, Israel forcibly removed its settler population from Gaza and the Palestinian response was an increased missile bombardment on the towns of southern Israel. What, one wonders, makes anyone think the same would not occur if Mofaz became Prime Minister and followed through with his plan?

Sunday 22 April 2012

Nixon's former 'hatchet man' goes to be with Christ

Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012)

In his first radio broadcast following his appointment as Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks stated that the glory of Judaism is its belief that the greatest sinner can, by an act of the will, become the greatest saint.

Charles Colson was a great sinner who became, not by an act of his own will but by the grace of God, a great saint.

Colson, once known as US President Richard Nixon’s ‘hatchet man,’ died yesterday aged 80.

Although Colson’s role in the infamous Watergate scandal was limited, he served seven months in jail, after pleading guilty to obstructing justice after he was involved in earlier efforts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked secret government documents about the Vietnam War, which became known as 'the Pentagon Papers'.

In prison, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity had a dramatic effect on him. Colson came out of prison a Christian and renounced the political machinations of his past. In 1976, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries and spent the remaining 35 years of his life as a leading campaigner for prison reform.

In 2005 he was named one of Time magazine’s ‘25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America,’ having written over 200 books. At the end of March, Colson was speaking at a conference when he was overcome by dizziness. He was rushed to hospital, where he underwent two hours of surgery to remove a pool of clotted blood on the surface of his brain.

Over the last three weeks, it seemed at times he might recover but last night he went to be with the Lord. Colson was a brilliant man who after his conversion turned his uncommon intellect to defending Christianity and promoting Christian values in the public arena.

Although in his numerous writings, Colson wrote little about Israel, judging by his articles on Islam and the Arab world, and articles by his colleagues, it seems that Colson was pro-Israel.

It was in his novel Kingdoms in Conflict that he focused on Israel to any significant degree. The story is set in 1998, when an Evangelical Christian U.S. president must decide how to respond to a crisis in the Middle East, pondering whether he should act on his belief that Armageddon is at hand.

Colson was a great man and his like will not be seen again.

Friday 20 April 2012

CWI launches online theological journal

Today, Christian Witness to Israel launched the first issue of ONE16, our free online theological journal. The subject of Israel and the Jewish people is possibly the most contentious and divisive issue within Evangelicalism, and generates a multitude of varying opinions, attitudes and controversies. ONE16 is CWI's attempt to address some of the issues surrounding Israel and to generate some light rather than heat. The first edition looks at some of the controversies surrounding the Jewish people and sets forth the case that Jewish people should not only be evangelised but also that Israel should be the primary focus of our gospel witness. In future issues, we plan to examine why the gospel is to the Jew first and how the church should apply the principle to its strategy for worldwide mission. In addition, we will also review pivotal works that have helped formulate Christian opinions – both positive and negative – on the subject of Israel. Click here to read ONE16 online (an Adobe Flash plug-in required).

Saturday 7 April 2012

What a difference three days makes

In February, I was browsing through a huge collection of CDs at an American ‘Flea Market’. As far as I could see, the recordings were arranged in no particular order. Blues, Classical, Country, Easy Listening, Gospel and Jazz were all mixed together and although there were some real gems and classics to be found in the mix, you had to search long and hard for them. The stall owner was a good ol' boy called Judd and, seeing a number of books about the End Times, I assumed Judd was a Christian so I asked if he could recommend a local church.

Leaning forward on the counter, Jude adjusted his baseball cap and drawled, ‘What kinda church yew lookin fer?’

Being in the Bible Belt, I thought the culturally appropriate response was to say I was looking for a church that was faithful to the Word of God.

‘Yew Friday crucifixion an’ Sunday mornin’ resurrayction?’ Judd responded.

I wasn't quite sure what Judd meant but I said I believed Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday. Judd smiled one of those 'you poor sap' sort of smiles and proceeded to disabuse me of my paganism. Jesus, it turns out, was crucified on Thursday and raised on Monday. Without pausing, Judd then showed me that the British and Americans were the tribes of Ephraim and Manassah.

The cornerstone of Judd’s unorthodox opinion on the chronology of the resurrection was Matthew 12:40:

As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Most Christians who insist on interpreting ‘three days and three nights’ literally believe Christ died in Wednesday and rose Sunday morning and even some who accept the traditional timescale have certain misgivings, inasmuch as Friday afternoon to Sunday morning is, strictly speaking, only about a day-and-a-half.

The simple answer is that in Hebrew and biblical thought, a part of the day is counted as the whole as, for example in Exodus 19:10,11:

The LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.

In Luke 13:32,33, Jesus predicts his impending death in Jerusalem in terms of three days:

And he said to them, 'Go and tell that fox, "Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course." Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.'

In the New Testament, great importance is attached to the resurrection taking place on‘the third day.' In 1 Corinthians 15:3,4, for example, Paul states that he delivered to the Corinthians ‘first’ that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.'

Although the Greek word translated ‘first’ in this verse can indicate nothing more than ‘first’ in a chronological sequence it often means much more than that, which is why a number of English Bible translations render it as ‘of first importance’.

That being so, Paul’s statement raises two important questions: first, where does it say in the Tanakh that Messiah would rise on ‘the third day’ and, secondly, why should ‘the third day’ be of ‘first importance’?

When Paul ‘reasoned’ from the Scriptures with the Jews in Corinth (Acts 18:4) that Messiah rose on the third day, it may well be that one of the main texts he had in mind was Hosea 6:1-2.

At the end of Hosea 5, God threatened a terrifying judgement on his people because of their unfaithfulness:

I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear them and go away; I will take them away, and no one shall rescue.

Immediately following this prediction of judgement, chapter six begins:

Come, and let us return to the LORD; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.

But how does that relate to the resurrection of the Messiah? First of all, it sets resurrection in a framework of three days but, more than that, when we read the Gospels we see in the life of Jesus a kind of replay of Israel’s history. For example, like Israel, Jesus was God’s ‘firstborn’ and as Israel was called out of Egypt, so was Jesus. As the Israelites were tested in the wilderness for forty years, Jesus was tested in the desert for forty days.

Israel was ‘torn’ and ‘stricken’ but Isaiah assures them (63:9) that ‘in all their affliction He was afflicted’ and that ‘the Angel of His Presence saved them’. In the events surrounding the cross, Israel’s Saviour was ‘stricken’ for their transgressions (Isaiah 53:8). Little wonder then that the cross was of ‘first importance’ in Paul’s preaching but what is so significant about the third day?

The answer, I think, is to be found in the Fourth Gospel. John’s account of the life of the Messiah commences with the opening words of the Greek version of Genesis, En archee, ‘In the beginning…’ and explains that ‘the Word’ which created the world in Genesis 1 was the Son of God. According to John, the final word spoken by the Son, after he completed his earthly work was Tetelesthai! ‘It is finished!’ (19:30) the Greek word used in Genesis 2:1-2 when God ‘finished’ his creative work.

Just as the Word ‘finished’ creating the heaven and earth in six days and then rested, so also, he ‘finished’ his new creation toward the end of the sixth day. He then rested on the Sabbath day and rose from the dead on the first day of a new week as ‘the second Adam’, the head of God’s new creation.

This must surely be why Paul emphasises ‘the third day’. The Lord came into the world to recreate the cosmos, to give new birth to his people and bestow on them new and abundant life, and he did it within a framework reminiscent of the way in which he brought the first creation into being. To create the world, however, God had only to speak; to recreate it he had to suffer. Messiah’s resurrection after the Sabbath, at the commencement of a new week, announced a new creation, a new beginning for his people Israel.

Israel’s hope is inextricably bound up with Messiah’s rising from the dead, and their resurrection is through his resurrection. When Israel returns to their God through the Messiah who was ‘stricken’ for their transgressions (Isaiah 53:8), he will ‘revive’ them that they may ‘live in His sight’.

As you ponder the resurrection this Sunday, rejoice that Messiah’s death and resurrection are the source of your recreation.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Wednesday 4 April 2012

What a difference a day makes!

My heart sank when the minister of the church at which I was speaking last Sunday lamented in his prayers that the citizens of Jerusalem who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday, days later rejected him. No doubt in churches around the world the same sentiments were being expressed in sermons or prayers.

It’s an enduring and powerful myth that the people who welcomed the Messiah into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were baying for his blood the following Friday. But it’s a myth nevertheless.

I believe in the total depravity of human nature but it stretches credibility to imagine that the masses who intently listened to Jesus teaching in the temple courts on Thursday afternoon would rise from their beds before dawn the next day and go to the Roman governor’s house to demand his crucifixion.

A cursory reading of Matthew 21, for example, should dispel any idea that the populace of Jerusalem was behind the plot to judicially murder Jesus.

Consider the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem:

… the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’ (Mt 21:8-11)

According to Matthew, it was the Galilean pilgrims who hailed Jesus as the Son of David. It was the Northerners who proclaimed Jesus as their prophet. It being Passover, the population of Jerusalem swelled to well over a million as pilgrims arrived from around the country and around the ancient world.

But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise”?’ (Mt 21:15,16)

The only ones who refuse to recognise Jesus as the Son of David are the chief priests and scribes.

And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus answered them, ‘I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?’

And they discussed it among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’
(vv 23-26)

The next day the chief priests and the elders challenge Jesus about his authority. It’s a public challenge and his reply puts them on the spot because the crowds in the temple can hear the altercation. The response of Jesus could only enhance his reputation among the crowd because he brilliantly refutes and humiliates the elders of the people.

What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’

They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
(vv 28-32)

In the hearing of the people who believed John to be a prophet, Jesus presses home his point. The priests and elders are the second son; the crowds that responded to John were the first son. The first had become the last and the last had become first. The common people, on whom the leaders looked down from a great height, were pressing into the kingdom of heaven and leaving their resentful and unbelieving elders behind. The response of Jesus to the leaders must have caused his estimation among the people to skyrocket.

Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’

They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.’

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
(vv 33-46)

Remember, this disputation is taking place in the temple courts in front of thousands of people. The man who was hailed as a prophet and the Son of David the previous day is engaged in a heavyweight theological punch-up with the chief priests, the elders of Israel, the scribes and the Pharisees. The excitement among the crowds must have been electric, and you can almost hear the cheers as the Galilean prophet lands his knockout blow.

Israel (see Is. 5) and, in particular, Jerusalem (Is. 1:8) were God’s vineyard. In Matthew 21, the LORD is entering ‘into judgment with the elders and princes of his people’ who have ‘devoured the vineyard [and in whose houses is] the spoil of the poor] (see Is. 3:14).

When the Lord declares, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits’, he is addressing the leaders of the people, not the am ha'aretz, the common people. The people are pressing into the kingdom and the administration of that kingdom will be taken from those who spoiled the poor.

The chief priests and the Pharisees knew Jesus was talking about them. They had come to arrest him but they were afraid of the crowds who believed Jesus was a prophet. This incident would have been the topic of conversation well into the night. Is it plausible that overnight these people would change their loyalty from Jesus to the very people he had well and truly slapped down that afternoon?

The leaders had him arrested at night and tried at night in order to get him to confess to being the Son of God (Luke 22:69-71). When Jesus, being put on oath, claimed to be the Son of God, the high priest and his rent-a-mob had a case for handing him over to the Romans. Caesar was the ‘Son of God’ and the world wasn’t big enough for two divine beings(John 19:7-12).

That is how the corrupt Jewish leadership got Pilate on the ropes. He was damned whatever he did. If Pilate crucified Jesus, he risked an uprising from the Jewish common people who loved Jesus; and for that he might be summoned to Rome. If he released Jesus, he was releasing a rival to Caesar and that would be the end of his career; possibly his life.

In a feeble attempt to absolve himself of responsibility for the death of Jesus, the ruthless governor of Judea washed his hands as his Jewish subjects would do during their Passover seders, and handed the Lamb of God over for sacrifice.

The Jewish leaders could breathe a sigh of relief. No one could blame them for the death of Jesus. He had set himself up as a rival to Caesar, a Son of God; what could he expect? It was their double whammy: they rid themselves of a troublesome prophetic wannabe and at the same time extricated themselves from having any blame being attributed to them. Nice work if you can get it.

But despite the malice of evil men, this was all part of ‘the definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Act 2:23) and through those terrible events there is redemption for Israel through the blood of Messiah’s cross.