UMMER IN WASHINGTON, D.C., IS KNOWN to bring tourists to the U.S. Capitol, but the 4,500 or so visitors there in mid-July were not your typical camera-toting crowd. Dressed, for the most part, in business attire and wearing name tags, many sported flag pins with the standards of the United States and a country slightly smaller than New Jersey, the blue-and-white banner of the State of Israel.
The crowds, carefully organized to visit specified congressional offices, were there to deliver a political message: the United States should continue its support of the Jewish state, which, as is often noted, is the only democracy in the Middle East.
These de facto lobbyists had just finished a few days of meetings, lectures, and instruction in what to say and how to say it. A “Night to Honor Israel” banquet brought leading members of Congress, including its sole Sabbathkeeping Senator, Joseph Lieberman (ID-Conn.), an orthodox Jew, to hear the thunderous cheers of the crowd for Israel and its people.
The event, however, was not a function held by the nation’s Jewish community, nor were the energetic visitors even Jews. Instead, the participants were members of Christians United for Israel, which describes itself as “a national Christian grassroots movement focused on one issue: supporting Israel. Although we are less than two years old, we are spreading like a wildfire and are changing the nature of support for Israel in America.”1
The growth of “Christian Zionism” has raised concerns—and questions—among Seventh-day Adventists and other Christians in recent months: How should Christians view Israel, both as a political reality and a prophetic question? Is the modern-day state of Israel a fulfillment of Bible prophecy? And what about the small, but growing, Adventist community in Israel?
Unlike many evangelical churches, the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not support a “dispensational” view of prophecy. Adventism is not awaiting a “secret rapture,” after which tens of thousands of Jews—144,000, to be precise—will be converted and evangelize those “left behind.” The 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, an outgrowth of the Nazi Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were killed, is viewed by Adventists as a political, not a prophetic event. And, again apart from our evangelical friends, Adventism embraces the Bible Sabbath, an institution long preserved and observed by the Jewish people.
Christian Zionist leaders such as John Hagee, founder of the “Christians United” group and author of a New York Times best-selling book supporting Israel called Jerusalem Countdown, deny that their support for Israel is linked to end-time prophetic scenarios: “Our support of Israel has absolutely nothing to do with end times or eschatology,” he told a Washington news conference on July 17. Later in the session, he addressed the audience of an Israeli journalist in attendance: “My message to the people of Israel would be to have hope. The God that founded the State of Israel is going to deliver the State of Israel.”
Such unbridled enthusiasm hasn’t gone unchallenged, however, even within evangelical circles: Stephen Sizer, a British Anglican vicar, is a strong opponent of Hagee’s position, with two books, Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? and Zion’s Christian Soldiers, winning endorsements from evangelical academics and radio apologist Hank Hanegraaff. Sizer’s opposition to Christian Zionism came from an early trip to Israel, where he discovered Arab Christians living in Bethlehem. That experience, he wrote, forced him to rethink his views.
Hanegraaff, who hosts a daily Bible Answer Man
program on dozens of Christian radio stations, has written The Apocalypse Code
to question both pretribulation rapture theories and Christian Zionism; he’s also the coauthor of a new novel, Fuse of Armageddon
, (with Sigmund Brouwer, Tyndale House, 2007) which attacks those theories through a fictional motif involving a band consisting of “an unholy trinity of a Jewish fanatic, a Muslim terrorist, and a ‘Christian’ freedom fighter.”2
Caught between these two positions—the highly vocal and public support of Christian Zionists such as John Hagee, and those who reject that view, such as Sizer and Hanegraaff—are the 871 baptized members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Israel and the roughly 350 additional people who attend weekly worship services in one of the 30 Adventist congregations there.
“The government accepts us as one of the Christian communities in the country,” said Richard Elofer, president of the Adventist Church there and pastor of the Jerusalem congregation. “I know that they know us, we don’t hesitate to communicate with them, and every year I am invited by the president of the state to attend a reception for the [leaders] of the Christian communities.”
Israeli media—not often a friend of Christian churches operating and evangelizing in the country—had very positive things to say about the Seventh-day Adventist Church when its publishing house, “Chaim Veshalom,” or, “Life and Peace,” opened in Jerusalem in 2003. The nation’s oldest newspaper, Haaretz, published a highly favorable report.
The article stressed the industry, honesty, temperate lifestyle, and Sabbathkeeping of Adventist believers, with one Israeli employer, identified only as “Eli,” saying, “They’re very neat and well-groomed. They don’t smoke, they don’t drink. They are excellent, diligent workers and completely honest. I trust them with my eyes closed. I bring them to a work site and don’t have to come back to check on them. Their word is golden.”3
The church has roots in the nation that predate the State of Israel, Elofer explained when I visited his Jerusalem office in 2004, roots that extend back to 1896. When Adventists formally organized as a church there some 77 years ago, Elofer noted, it was under the British-controlled Palestine Mandate. The association was named “Seventh-day Adventist Church in Palestine,” since the present-day State of Israel would not come into existence until 1948, 17 years later. Elofer, in a 2004 interview with Adventist News Net-work, said he has investigated ways of gaining recognition from the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps reopening an Adventist study center in East Jerusalem as a joint local headquarters.4
While those efforts continue, Elofer indicated he has contact with local Adventist members in the Palestinian-controlled area: “We have very few Adventists in the West Bank and none at all in the Gaza Strip. Their only connection with the church is through me and my visits from time to time to their home,” he said in an e-mail interview.
Elofer asks believers to keep an open mind about today’s Israel: “We would like our Adventist brethren to cease to see Israel as the ‘black sheep’ of the Middle East,” he told the Review.
“Maybe it is not the case in the United States, but recently a survey has been done in all the European countries, asking the question ‘Who is the biggest threat for the peace of the world?’ The majority of the people answered ‘Israel,’ not Iran, not terrorism, not [Osama] bin Laden, but Israel. This answer demonstrates a very high level of anti-Semitism, because rationally Israel is threatening no one, just defending [itself] against dozens of Muslim countries around who would like to see only one thing, its destruction,” Elofer said.
He added, “We have to remember from where we Adventists come: Israel is our spiritual ancestor. Israel has given to the world monotheism, the prophets, the Bible, Jesus, etc. . . . Just for these things, we must be grateful to them and pray for their salvation.”
Adventist theologian Angel Manuel Rodríguez, who directs the church’s Biblical Research Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, said church members need to exercise care in considering Israel today.
“These are matters that need a more careful analysis and more careful expressions,” Rodríguez said in a September 2007 interview. “It is unfortunate that sometimes Israel has been seen by some as a people rejected. I had a friend who said, ‘Israel is the only nation on the face of the earth that has been rejected by God.’ That should not be the case.”
He added, “The Lord has used Israel in wonderful ways in the past and the present. If you look at the Scripture itself, it has reached us through the work of the Jewish people; the Lord used them to preserve that text for us. In the beginning of the Christian era, the Lord used Jews to hide biblical scrolls that have been a tremendous blessing to us today.”
And, Rodríguez points out, “Throughout history, they have been a tremendous witness to the law of God and to the Sabbath.”
Despite the fact that Adventists don’t endue Israel with the same views that dispensationalists hold, the story of modern-day Israel and the Jewish people remains important, Rodríguez said.
“The presence of Jews on the planet, and in Israel also, serves to witness to the Scriptures. The Scriptures are about God’s dealing with Israel and through Israel to the nations. They can be seen as a witness to the divine intervention in the Scriptures,” he said.
“Among Christians, probably the religious community who has a closer theological connection with Jewish biblical thinking [than any other] is the Adventist Church, and we should always be willing to extend the arm of fellowship to our Jewish friends,” Rodríguez said. But, he added, “political concerns should not be part of that agenda, so that motivation comes to play a significant role in this.”
Israel Field president Elofer agrees that handling the question of so-called “replacement theology” is a delicate one: “Today it is not rare that Jews come to me and ask me, ‘What does your church believe about Israel? Have they been rejected and replaced by the church or not?’ If we say the traditional answer to this question, we have no chance to be listened to in Israel.”
And, given the affinities between Seventh-day Adventists and observant Jews in areas such as the Sabbath, the health message, and the importance of a biblical faith, perhaps it would make sense for both groups to speak—as well as to listen—to each other.
2Tyndale fiction book details for Fuse of Armageddon, tinyurl.com/2fdlug, accessed Sept. 27, 2007. 3“Israel: Publishing House Opens to Positive Media Response,” Adventist News Network, Feb. 11, 2003, tinyurl.com/37d2cs, accessed Sept. 27, 2007. 4“Pastor and Palestinian Muslim Find Common Ground,” Adventist News Network, Aug. 3, 2004, tinyurl.com/2soof4, accessed Sept. 27, 2007.
Mark A. Kellner is news editor for Adventist Review.