If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.—Psalm 137:5,6
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”—Psalm 122:6-8
Let’s talk about Israel.
I’m writing this from India, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about that experience in a future article, but right now I can’t sleep due to jet lag, and Israel is on my mind, as I know it is for a great many people. People are concerned, and they’re praying. But are they praying for the most important things? I have a suggestion for us as we lift up the heartbreaking conflict in the Middle East: As we pray for Israel, let’s pray like Christians.
Personally, I have three connections to Israel, two of which I share with our entire church body. First, Community Church supports Eli and Shoshana Birnbaum, who lead the Tel Aviv Branch of Jews for Jesus. In God’s providence, it so happens that my previous church supported Eli’s predecessor, and Carey and I have spent time in their office and shared a meal with their staff. Their team have been sending out pleas for people to pray for all those who are suffering, but especially for believers who are caught up in this conflict, who have lost loved ones or who have been called to serve on the front lines. Along with all the other important concerns, they want us to remember that a small minority of Israelis are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Second, Community Church also supports Adam and Libby Talbot, who serve in a nearby middle eastern country. They have been sending out pleas for us to pray for Palestinian Christians, who suffer the reality of persecution all the time, and now the additional reality of war. They want us to remember that a small minority of Palestinians are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Third, I am privileged to call an Israeli pastor my friend. Shmuel Aweida leads the Beit Eliyahu congregation in Haifa, where he has faithfully pastored for many years. As a committed, born-again believer, he is first of all a Christian, and secondly an Israeli who loves his country, just as you and I should first of all be Christians, and secondly Americans who love our country. Carey and I spent a week in Haifa, getting to know Shmuel and his church and the unique challenges they face. Then he and his wife visited us for a week in Oregon, where he spoke to our church about the things Israeli believers wish American believers knew about Israel.
Based on that experience, I feel compelled to share with you what Shmuel has shared with me. I’m no expert on Israel, but I know someone who is on the front lines in every sense of that term, and these are the things I know he would want to say to us in this time:
First, American Christians often don’t know how to feel about Palestine. Any expression of sympathy towards its people feels like a betrayal of Israel. Shmuel would put it this way: the world wants to say that the Palestinians are oppressed by Israel. The reality is that the Palestinians are oppressed by their own government. The actions of Hamas are evil, but many of the people underneath them are not. Even if you believe they have no right to the land, they do have a right be treated with dignity, as precious human beings made in the image of God. There is room to condemn the actions of evil leaders and also to pray for the people who suffer under them.
Second, Shmuel would say to be careful assuming that the modern nation of Israel is identical to the Israel to whom God makes all those promises in the Bible. The two overlap, but they are not exactly the same thing. Yes, Israel has a special place in God’s plan. But that is Israel as God defines it, and only He knows exactly who that is. You’ll have to read all of Romans chapters 9, 10, and 11 if you really want to dig into this one, and there’s no time for that here. Suffice it to say this: the modern nation of Israel is a special people occupying a special place. It is also a very human, flawed, earthly government, just like ours.
Third, (and now we’re getting to the really important stuff,), Shmuel would tell us that our brothers and sisters, the Israeli church, are disappointed that American Christians think of supporting Israel in political terms and not spiritual terms. We are passionate to support the government of Israel, and we largely neglect the church in Israel. Israeli Christians are a small, lonely, and somewhat persecuted minority, just 1.9% of the 9.4 million who live in the Land. Americans visit Israel by the millions as tourists each year and spend millions of dollars, but our brothers and sisters feel unseen by us as we come and go. They want us to know that they are not a tourist attraction. They want us to know that it’s hard to follow Christ in Israel. They want to know that we are on their side, praying for them and laboring for them in the cause of the Gospel.
Fourth, and along the same lines, Shmuel and Eli would say that they wish American Christians were more passionate for the salvation of the Israeli people. We want very much for them to have all the military support they need. Do we care if they have the Gospel? We understand that the people of Israel have an important part in God’s plan, but do we understand that the modern nation of Israel is an unreached people group, without significant opportunities for its people to hear and understand the good news of Jesus Christ? If all our prayers were answered and they received all the military and political support they needed and were able to crush their enemies once and for all, would those 9 million people be any more prepared to stand before God in judgment? As believers, we need to see with spiritual eyes. We need to join those who are laboring for the things that matter most in the Middle East. We need to remember that all believers in Jesus Christ are our brothers and sisters, whatever their nationality. And we need to remember that all those who do not know Christ are in desperate need of Him, whatever their nationality.
So yes, pray for Israel. Pray for Israel like a Christian. Pray first and foremost that the people of Israel would be saved. Pray for evil to be conquered and justice to be done. Pray for God to alleviate suffering and comfort those who grieve. Pray for wisdom for leaders who face impossible situations. And pray for the church to be strengthened, wherever it is found, and for Christ to be proclaimed among all peoples. He is the only true source of hope, in this world and in eternity. He is the greatest need of very person and every nation on earth.