Recently I have been led to think a bit more deeply about Israel. As most of you will know, I have in the past (and, let's face it, the present) got pretty grumpy about Zionism. That is not likely to change. But as we recited on Sunday evening one of the Psalms, and sang about Zion, it got me thinking - partly about what the muslim in the room made of it all(!), but partly also about what I think about Israel. My conclusion is that I do not have thoughts about Israel, per se, but about Israels, plural.
The basis for this way of thinking can be found in the OT, but is summarised neatly by Paul in Romans 9: "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel". This is simply a reflection on the writings of the prophets. There has always been a distinction within Israel, between those who bear that name simply because of their natural descent, and those who belong through their faith. The latter are generally presented in the OT as a minority, and in the later OT as a remnant - the left-overs of Israel. What is clear throughout the OT is that, although this distinction can be drawn, Israel also in some sense stands together. The faithful remnant is not exempt from the suffering of the nation more broadly; and in fact the nation as a whole is preserved for the sake of the remnant.
It is never going to be PC to trace out Paul's development of this thought, but let's not allow that to concern us. For Paul, the coming of the Messiah has brought this division into the open. There is now, just as there has always been, "a remnant, chosen by grace" (Rom 11:5). Paul sees himself as evidence of this remnant, which is defined by faith in Christ. There is not, for Paul, any idea of a faithful Israel without faith in Jesus. He is the dividing line. What is more, that dividing line is now extended from within the nation of Israel out into the world. Gentiles who believe are incorporated into faithful Israel; those who do not believe are shown to be on the outside. (This does not class them with unbelieving Israel, which remains a special case - see below).
This is not, then, 'replacement' theology - it is not a Jewish nation being replaced by a Gentile church. I doubt anyone has ever really believed or taught this. For Paul, and the NT generally, the church stands in continuity with faithful Israel - direct continuity in the case of Jewish Christians, indirect (and therefore all the more incredible and providing all the more evidence of grace) in the case of Gentile Christians.
What about the rest of Israel? Well, God's calling and election are irrevocable; their faithlessness cannot overturn God's faithfulness. Therefore, Paul envisages a future in which the nation of Israel will be shown mercy, and will come to faith. We still await that future. In the meantime, we are faced with Israel and Israel; we, the church, cannot be ashamed to call ourselves Israel - it would be a denial of Christ if we were. But we also cannot be ashamed of the other Israel, the people of Israel, with whom we are inextricably linked.
And then there is the state of Israel. How does that legal entity fit in? I can't say 'nowhere', because doubtless in his providence God has a plan for that state. It will serve his purposes for his people - those who are gathered into the church and those who are currently outside it. Nevertheless, the state of Israel is not Israel in either of the Biblical senses, and to apply the promises of God to this state is to sell out Christian birthright. From where I stand, the main position which Christians should take vis a vis the state of Israel is constructive criticism - sometimes even outright opposition, based on the flouting of international law which has characterised Israeli policy for decades. This does not affect, and should not be affected by, our identity as Israel (the church), or our identity with Israel (the people).