That was the challenge levelled at historian Tom Holland on The...
Did a 19th Century Bishop predict the re-gathering of Israel?
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In 1816, a comfortable English family produced a baby boy. Young John grew up to be a keen sportsman with a lively intelligence and was destined for the family business. It all went wrong when the family business collapsed and, as a last resort, John was ordained into the Church. He eventually became the first Bishop of Liverpool, but it was his writings that cemented his place in history. Because, you see, J.C. Ryle was a Christian writer of rare clarity and prophetic insight. It was said that he ‘changed the face of the English Church’. Of interest to us, he published a sermon entitled ‘Scattered Israel to be gathered’, at a time when the Jews were indeed scattered to the ends of the Earth, a despised and unloved people, stateless and without real hope … or so it seemed.
The text of his sermon was taken from Jeremiah 31:10, ‘Hear the Word of the Lord, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock’.
He then wrote on four points. Firstly, in the light of the Replacement Theology that had become the norm in the Church, he defined his understanding of the word ‘Israel’ as being ‘the whole Jewish nation’ and urged his listeners to ‘cleave to the literal sense of Bible words, and beware of departing from it, except in cases of absolute necessity. Beware of that system of allegorising and spiritualising, and accommodating, which the school of Origen first brought in, and which has found such an unfortunate degree of favour in the Church’.
The second point he made concerned the ‘present condition of Israel’, which, of course, was the situation in the mid 19th Century, a full century before Israel was to become a recognised nation. He noted that ‘scattered as they are, there is a national vitality among them which is stronger than that of any nation on earth’.
He then addressed the vital question that cuts to the very heart of the matter and that is the most troubling issue of all. Why so painful, why so long? The exile to Babylon only lasted 70 years or so, but this one had lasted for 1800 years and there was no sign of an end to it! Why, why, why? J.C. Ryle was very clear in his understanding. It was a result of their many sins. ‘Their hardness and stiffneckedness, their impenitence and unbelief, their abuse of privileges and neglect of gifts, their rejection of prophets and messengers from heaven, and finally their refusal to receive the Lord Jesus Christ, the King’s own Son, these were the things which called down God’s wrath upon them.’
This is heavy stuff, highly politically-incorrect by today’s standards. He used the Jewish people as an object lesson to the Gentile Church, a warning against spiritual pride and self-righteousness and the exaltation of men’s traditions over the divine Word of God. He warns the Church against its own complacency in these matters. “Let us each look to ourselves and take heed to our own souls. The same God lives who scattered Israel because of Israel’s sins. And what says He to the Churches of Christ this day? He says, ‘Be not high-minded, but fear. If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spares not thee’” (Romans 11:20-21).
This is a strong lesson and a hard one, particularly when one considers the consequences of this divine policy. After all, the horrors of the Holocaust were arguably the natural outcome of centuries of ‘Christian anti-Semitism’, Hitler even using as justification of his anti-Jewish rantings in the writings of Martin Luther, the chief architect of the Reformation.
The problem of the Gentile Church over these centuries is adequately summarised by a neat saying from the mouth of Jesus himself, ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your eye?’ (Matthew 7:3).
The sins of the Jewish people leading to their exile were played out in our full view, because, after all, wasn’t it one of the main themes of the Bible? We read of God’s faithfulness to His chosen people, repaid by their rejection of His prophets and their Messiah. We use these episodes as teaching points, but we can easily forget that these important lessons have been bought at a heavy price for the Jewish people, in Biblical times and thereafter. We read of the sins of David, of Solomon, of the Kings of Israel and Judah, of the scribes and Pharisees and we are quick to judge them, we are ready to criticise them by saying ‘How could they repay God back for all He did for them’. ‘He gave them manna in the desert, He gave them victory in battle, He gave them healing and salvation through the ministry of Jesus. How could they have turned their back on him – no wonder He turned His back on them!’ It is easy for us, from the comfort of our armchairs, to make these accusations, isn’t it?
Yet, consider this … (to be continued next week)