Who Owns Palestine?

by John M. Frame

[Christian Culture (June, 2002), 2.]


Throughout the long middle-east conflict, much has been said about rights, possessions, inheritance, ownership of land. Palestinian Arabs complain that in 1948 the Jews expelled them from their homeland, creating by force a state for themselves. The Jews reply that Palestine is their ancestral homeland, an area in which some Jews have always lived. Conservative religious Jews, with many evangelical Christians, assert more– that the land was given by God to the descendants of Abraham through Isaac. Israel’s international supporters, however, prefer the argument that the Jews have experienced such oppression during their dispersion, through such infamies as the inquisition, the pogroms, and the holocaust, that the world owes them a homeland, and that homeland may as well be in Palestine.

First we should ask, did God give Palestine to Israel? In a word, yes. But the Israel to whom he gave Palestine is not the same nation that we call Israel today. God gave the land to a people united to him by a solemn covenant (Ex. 19-20). The present state of Israel is avowedly secular, a state that does not recognize the God of the Bible as its supreme Lord.

The nation covenanted to God today is not the present day state of Israel, but “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), the faithful remnant. It is the vine from which some branches—unbelieving Jews—have been broken off and others—believing Gentiles—grafted in (Rom. 11:1-24). In other words, God’s chosen people today is the Christian church, the body of all those Jews and Gentiles who acknowledge Jesus the Messiah as Lord and Savior from sin.

Does the church, then, hold title to Palestine? Only insofar as they hold title to the whole earth. The church is an international body, a people without borders. Jesus sends them throughout the earth to take the gospel everywhere, baptizing and teaching everything Jesus taught (Matt. 28:18-19). And as they spread over the earth, they bring his presence with them: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (verse 20). Thus Jesus intends to make the whole world his special dwelling, as God dwelled with Israel in the ancient tabernacle and temple.

The church has no interest in making a political claim to the Holy Land, contrary to the theology underlying some of the crusades1 and contrary to the theology of Islam. The Lord calls Christians to spread the Gospel, not by the sword of warfare, but by the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17). By that sword, Jesus conquers and brings people everywhere to acknowledge his dominion.

The political issue itself must be settled either by negotiation, or by war, or by some combination of these. Neither Jews nor Palestinians have such a clear claim to the land that everyone must instantly recognize it. The Arabs gained the territory through military conquest. The Jews gained some of it back through their own conquest in 1948 and subsequent wars. This is the time-honored way of establishing sovereignty throughout human history. Modern observers should not be scandalized at the thought of such issues being settled by military force, nor should we refuse to recognize a regime simply because it was established through force. Most every government today owes its existence to someone in the past who conquered its territory by war or revolution.

Christians should pray for the peace of the area, particularly for the safety of Christian believers who are caught in the middle between these warring parties. We should seek to bring the love of Christ to bear on those whom the war has injured the most. We should suggest reasonable compromises that may lead to resolution. Yet we must not presume to advocate the case of one people against the other.

As we stand at the moment, it hardly seems conceivable that this conflict could be resolved peacefully. Sovereignty over Jerusalem seems to be an issue that neither party can concede. And the Palestinians cannot give up the right of return of refugees to Israeli territory, nor can Israel accept those refugees if their country is to remain Jewish. Nobody seems to have the wisdom or the motivation to find a viable third alternative beyond the two positions.

But it is the triune God of the Bible who owns Palestine, as he owns all the world. Jesus reigns even now from heaven as King of the nations and Prince of Peace. We can do no better than to pray for him to send his grace upon these warring peoples, granting them a love and wisdom beyond any of their natural inclinations.


1 The first Crusade was defensive and therefore justified. Others were not so.


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