Some years ago I sat in a Presbyterian church that we had happily attended for a number of years. The leadership decided to emphasize their Reformed theology. I was growing uncomfortable with the theology even though I had attended a Presbyterian church as a child. The Pastor said something about Israel that I could not accept. What he said denied what God had promised to that tiny nation. The Pastor’s Replacement Theology said that Israel was just a place on the map. It no longer held any spiritual significance and was no longer important to God. This is what is called Replacement Theology. Replacement Theology says that the church is the new Israel and all the blessings promised to the Jews are now placed upon the church. The church has replaced Israel.
I revisit the subject from time to time. The refutations of Replacement Theology are extensive. Recently, it occurred to me to ask what Paul would say about the subject. Would he deny or affirm Replacement Theology? What follows are my musings that developed from that question. [The emphasis in the Biblical texts is mine.]
First I want to simply note that God has made promises to preserve the nation of Israel and He has kept those promises.
(Jer 31:35-37 [NET]) The LORD has made a promise to Israel. He promises it as the one who fixed the sun to give light by day and the moon and stars to give light by night. He promises it as the one who stirs up the sea so that its waves roll. He promises it as the one who is known as the LORD who rules over all. The LORD affirms, “The descendants of Israel will not cease forever to be a nation in my sight. That could only happen if the fixed ordering of the heavenly lights were to cease to operate before me.” The LORD says, “I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all that they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured or the foundations of the earth below could all be explored,” says the LORD.
Any common sense reading of those verses would conclude that God preserves the nation of Israel. There is absolutely no warrant in the context of these verses, nor throughout Scripture, to apply these words to the Church. We will come back to the proof of this promise to the nation of Israel later.
Think about the new covenant for a minute. Who received that covenant? I know who has benefited from the new covenant. The Church has benefitted, as well as believers in Christ. However, they were not the initial focus of God’s promise of a new covenant. No the promise is far older than our New Testament. God promised the new covenant first to Israel, first to the Jews. Is that surprising to you? Paul tells us that salvation came first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles. I wonder if he is remembering these words from Jeremiah when he says that.
(Jer 31:31-33 [NET]) “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the LORD. “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the LORD. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.
Hearts and minds changed. That sounds like the Christian experience and we claim those promises because we are now in Christ. But look again at the passage. It is not addressed to the Church, it is addressed specifically to the people and nation of Israel. It is a covenant that writes the law on the hearts of the Jewish people. When does this new covenant occur? It occurs after God has planted the Jews back in their land. God preserves the nation of Israel and He preserves their land. He doesn’t abandon Israel even when they fail Him. God says that He is a faithful husband to Israel. A faithful husband does not abandon his bride no matter how she might disappoint, and that is Israel’s testimony. Israel violates the old covenant and God gives them a new one. God keeps His promises. God does not withdraw His love for those He has chosen to love. God loves because He is Love, not because the object of His love deserves it. We call that grace.
In reading Paul, there might be a tendency to think of him as a Christian, not as a Jew. He was both. HIs being a Christian did not diminish his being a Jew. When Paul wrote his letters, roughly thirty years after the cross, there was no “Church” as we would think of it today. There were assemblies, gatherings of people for the purpose of worshiping Christ. There was no New Testament, there was Torah. When believers opened the Word, they were reading or quoting from the Torah, the Jewish scrolls that we think of as the Old Testament. We tend to think that Paul wrote to purely Gentile churches. He did not. The Christian assemblies were considered a Jewish sect. They were led by Jews trained in the Torah. Note that the word for Church in our Bibles simply means an assembly, a gathering of people who, in this case, believe in Christ. The word ecclesia could be used for any gathering of people for a common purpose. For example, the legislative assembly for the Athenians was the “ecclesia.” To Paul the words would carry no special meaning in terms of what Church is. We have expanded and specialized the meaning of those words over many years of “Church” history. Boyarin writes: “for at least the first three centuries of their common lives, Judaism in all of its forms and Christianity in all of its forms were part of one complex religious family, twins in a womb, contending with each other for identity and precedence, but sharing with each other the same spiritual food.”
Very early, Gentiles began to outnumber the Jews and they began to reject their Jewish spiritual roots. (The writer of the Gospel of John was turned away from a Greek/Gentile assembly. 3 John 9-11) As Gentiles rejected their Jewish roots, they began to accuse Jews of killing Christ (something the Catholic church only recently repudiated and apologized for). Gentiles grew to believe that their predominantly Gentile-Christian assemblies had replaced Israel. They began to vociferously reject all things Jewish.
This Replacement Theology says that Israel’s blessings have been taken from them, because of disobedience, and placed on the Church, the ecclesia, the Christian assemblies. Think about that for a moment. Put yourself in a time when Paul was establishing new Christian assemblies. They were predominantly Jewish at first. Christians were seen as a Jewish sect. The Christian assemblies were led by Jews. The argument then is that these new Jewish/Christian assemblies have replaced Israel. Why would Paul think that? Replacement Theology, which developed from the first to the fifth centuries, has fed centuries of anti-Semitism and cruelty toward the Jews. I think Paul would have been shocked by this theology. His heart was for Israel and the new covenant promise of salvation for them.
(Rom 9:1-5 [NET]) I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit –I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed – cut off from Christ – for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.
Paul, speaking roughly thirty years after Christ’s death and resurrection, says of Israel, “to them belong.” In Paul’s mind nothing has been taken away. If he thought so, here is the perfect place to state it. No, Israel possesses adoption as sons, and the covenants (this includes the new covenant). God’s glory belongs to them. Nothing has been taken from them because of Christ’s coming. It was Israel that gave us Christ, and historically the Church turned its back on that reality. Paul would be appalled at the suggestion that God has abdicated His promises to Israel. Would Paul ever conceive God, Israel’s husband, divorcing Israel? Replacement Theology comes out of a jealous heart, a conceit, that robs Israel of the very things Paul attests that they possess.
The seeds of conflict between Jew and Gentile were brewing in Rome when Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. Paul wrote Romans to a church divided. The Jews at one point were expelled from Rome. The expelled Jewish scholars had been the leaders in the Christian assembly in Rome. Their expulsion left the Roman assembly in the hands of Gentile leaders. Later, those exiled Jews were allowed to return to Rome, creating a crisis within the now Gentile-dominated assembly. Paul in Romans addresses the issues that this melding of Jew and Gentile had created. In Romans, Paul sees Christianity as an extension of his Jewish heritage. The Gentiles had been grafted into Israel through Christ. Paul sees Jews and Greeks as co-recipients of the gospel message and the new covenant promise.
(Rom 1:15-17 [NET]) Thus I am eager also to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.”
A brief summary of this time in the assembly in Rome can be found here.
Jesus was a devout Jew. The Apostles were all practicing Jews. Paul, after his conversion, proclaimed his Jewish qualifications boldly. None of them disavowed their Jewish fellowship in order to become Christian. Nowhere in Acts is anyone asked to renounce being a Jew in order to become Christian. The Christian assemblies were seen as an extension of Israel, not its replacement. Gentiles were the outsiders. “Alienated from the citizenship of Israel,” Paul says. The Gentiles have been brought near through Christ’s blood. Near to what? Near to fellowship with Israel and near to Israel’s God. In Christ, both Jew and Gentile are one. Be careful here. Paul is not stating anything about Israel being replaced by the Church. He says nothing about a change in God’s relationship with Israel in these verses. He is only emphasizing the common benefit to both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.
(Eph 2:10-15 [NET]) For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them. Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh – who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands – that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace,
We get our directions wrong. “ You who used to be far away have been brought near.” The Church did not replace Israel. No, Gentiles joined in the fellowship of the promised covenant with Israel. It was a surprise to the Jews that Gentiles would share in the coming of the Messiah. Believing Jews and Gentiles are one man, neither Jew nor Gentile in Christ. The Jewish law was no longer a barrier between the two races. Yet the identity of Jew and Gentile was unchanged. Paul the Christian declares that he is of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Philippians 3:5), and he addressed Roman believers as you Gentiles (Romans 11:13).
(Eph 3:4-6 [NET]) When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ. Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, namely that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus.
Gentiles being fellow heirs with Israel of God’s promises would be a shock to a Jew of Paul’s day. Let me repeat, fellow heirs, a joint sharing on equal footing. Not one superseding another. How could Paul then hold that the Church (a Jewish sect made up of scattered Christian assemblies) has replaced Israel, having stated emphatically that Gentiles are fellow heirs with Israel?
(Gal 3:28 [NET]) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
It is important to understand the nature of our standing in Christ. The verse above indicates our oneness in Christ by contrasting various groups of people. Note that that oneness does nothing to abrogate the function of those groups. Jews and Greeks are one in Christ, but they remain functionally Jews and Greeks. A man remains functionally a man and a woman remains functionally a woman even though they are one in Christ. In Christ, we are all fellow heirs, but we are not stripped of our function in the process. The prior verses indicate a bringing in of Gentiles, while Jews remain Jews and Gentiles remain Gentiles. One does not absorb the other. One does not replace the other. Christianity grew stronger among the Gentiles, while it withered among the Jews. God’s work with Israel did not end with the coming of their Messiah. This oneness in Christ does not take away from the truth, the mystery that Paul knew to be true.
(Rom 11:1-4 [NET]) So I ask, God has not rejected his people, has he? Absolutely not! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew! Do you not know what the scripture says about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left and they are seeking my life!” But what was the divine response to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand people who have not bent the knee to Baal.”
Paul could not be more emphatic regarding Israel’s standing before God in the New Covenant, Christian age. Israel is far more than a place on a map. God has made promises to Israel that He will not abandon. God is not finished with the nation of Israel, and one day Jew and Gentile will share their worship of Christ. If God has abandoned His new covenant promise to Israel, then we can have no confidence that He will keep His promises to the Church. Replacement Theology undermines the graciousness of God. It pictures God as a divorcee. It is the product of an early anti-Semitic view that developed among Gentile Christians who conceitedly rejected their roots in the Jewish faith.
Up till 1948 most Christian theologians had spiritualized many of the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel including the following:
(Deut 30:3-5 [NET]) the LORD your God will reverse your captivity and have pity on you. He will turn and gather you from all the peoples among whom he has scattered you. Even if your exiles are in the most distant land, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. Then he will bring you to the land your ancestors possessed and you also will possess it; he will do better for you and multiply you more than he did your ancestors.
The United Nations did the unthinkable. On November 29, 1947 they declared that the nation of Israel was now a sovereign Jewish State. Jews who had been scattered all over the world began returning to the land God had promised to them in Genesis. From May 1948, Israel stands in vivid testimony to God’s faithfulness. They stand testifying to a gracious God who keeps His promises to His chosen people.
God is not done with Israel. There are promises to Israel yet to be fulfilled. Here is one of them:
(Deut 30:6=7 [NET]) The LORD your God will also cleanse your heart and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your mind and being and so that you may live. Then the LORD your God will put all these curses on your enemies, on those who hate you and persecute you.
That is a promise that God will restore Israel’s relationship with Him. It is as certain to occur as was Israel’s return to the land after years of dispersion and persecution. God has not abandoned Israel.
Paul looks ahead to the future salvation of his beloved Israel:
(Rom 11:12-15 [NET]) Now if their transgression means riches for the world and their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full restoration bring? Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Seeing that I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I could provoke my people to jealousy and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
(Rom 11:25, 26 [NET]) For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
How can we deny that the dry bones of Ezekiel have been gathered once more in God’s promised land? The return of Israel to their land gives unimpeachable testimony that God has not abandoned His promises to His chosen people, nor has He removed His blessings from them. Israel’s people have once again been given flesh and sinew. The Jew walks again in Israel. Now those restored bones of Israel wait for God to breathe His Life into them. God has used Israel to benefit the Gentiles. He has never abandoned Israel in that process and He has not replaced Israel with the Church. Paul saw the Church as an extension of God’s work with Israel, not an abandonment of them. I don’t think it is possible for him to even think such a thing. Why then should we?
(Ezek 37:10-14 [NET]) So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army. Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Look, they are saying, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and tell them, ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: Look, I am about to open your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. I will place my breath in you and you will live; I will give you rest in your own land. Then you will know that I am the LORD – I have spoken and I will act, declares the LORD.’”