A Quick Primer
For early Gentile Church fathers, the devastation of Israel in 70 AD and 135 AD would only have been possible if God had, in a final demonstration of wrath, rejected the Jewish people.
Replacement Theology was a new theory to give sense to that devastation and to the fact that the nation of Israel as a whole did not embrace Yeshua. This new theory of Biblical interpretation developed a way to read the Bible. The Church was understood as the New and True Israel. Passage after passage in the Hebrew Scriptures were read with this slant; read “Church” when you are reading passages that speak of a positive and permanent fulfillment for Israel.
Before responding we should note that Replacement Theology is the term used by opponents of this theology, not its proponents. Proponents use the term “Fulfillment Theology” or supersessionism, namely that the Church has superseded national-ethnic Israel.
After the Nazi Holocaust, most major mainline Church bodies officially repudiated Replacement Theology. Indeed this replacement theology was seen as a factor in opening the door to historical antisemitism. However, as the impact of the Holocaust has waned, and as these churches have been influenced by propaganda concerning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, replacement attitudes are growing again.
How to read the Hebrew Bible
Replacement Theology raises the central issue of the authority of the Bible and how to interpret biblical texts. In interpreting these texts our two guiding questions should be:
- What did the author intend to say or what was his meaning?
- What would the targeted audience have understood?
When one reads the texts according to author intent and audience criticism concerning the promises to Israel, one comes away with a very clear conclusion:
These texts promise that the ethnic people Israel, who later were called the Jews, have an election that can never be lost. This is due to the election of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants. Though there may be punishment and scattering, this ethnic/national people can never lose their election but will always continue as a people (Lev. 26:44). In addition, there are numerous promises to this people that will be fulfilled and which according to an honest reading of history have not yet been fulfilled.
How to read the New Testament concerning Israel
What about certain texts of the New Testament? Yes, by analogy the New Testament applies language from the Hebrew Bible concerning Israel to the Church. However, this cannot be a replacement, but an addition. I actually call this addition theology. In addition to Israel, God has a priesthood that He gathers from all nations who fulfill an analogous role to Israel and have analogous promises.
Many Christians are told that the New Testament re-interprets the Old. However, this interpretation is limited to new insights and applications that do not change the original intention of the text.
Moreover, we should note that Replacement Theology is not only unnecessary but is a violation of the clearest passage in the New Testament, which speaks about Israel. This is Romans 9-11. (Please take a few minutes to read.)
Seven scriptures that make supersessionists squirm
There are so many passages concerning Israel’s restoration in their own land and entrance into a glory that will not fade. Here are seven.
- Amos 9:15“I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the LORD your God.Does this verse speak to the ethnic-national people or a metaphorical future people from all nations who will inherit the eternal Kingdom which is metaphorically the Land?Would this be a comfort to faithful ancient Israelites?
- Joel 3:20“Judah will be inhabited forever and Jerusalem through all generations. Their bloodguilt, which I have not pardoned, I will pardon. The LORD dwells in Zion.”This passage comes after the description of a severe world judgment of the nations which are described as invading Israel. It is hard to see how this is the Church. This has not yet happened.
- Isaiah 49:6“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”There is no legitimate way to confuse the meaning here. The promise is to Israel and includes the salvation of the nations. A new Israel of Jew and Gentile replacing Israel cannot be the interpretation.
- Isaiah 62:1-4For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. The nations will see your righteousness and all kings your glory…for the LORD will take delight in you and your land will be married.Here the Jews of exile are comforted by the promise of the restoration of Jerusalem, not comforted by a spiritual metaphorical Jerusalem from heaven. This would not have been such a comfort.
- Jeremiah 23:7, 8“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Then they will live in their own land.”Can this be the Church? No, the Church was not banished. Can this be the return from Babylon? No, this was a small remnant that returned and 500 years later was still a minority of the Jewish people, perhaps less than a third. There was never such a mighty and great return such that this language was used, that is until today.There is still more to come from this verse. This return is to yet make the Exodus pale by comparison. This has to be a prophetic word about the literal national-ethnic people.
- Jeremiah 31:31-37This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar, the LORD Almighty is his name. “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” This is what the LORD says, “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out, will I reject the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,” declares the LORD.Here is food for thought. The New Covenant is made with national/ethnic Israel. It includes the promise of the forgiveness of their sins and that they will all know God. It includes the promise of their ethnic-national preservation. When Christians hear the words, “New Covenant,” this context of meaning is hardly in their minds. So how is it that Christians are part of the New Covenant? It is by the fact that salvation of the Gentiles is part of the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant enables its implementation.However, this covenant has only been partially fulfilled. It includes, as part of it, the restoration of the Jewish people. The affirmation to the physical seed in this passage could not be clearer. There is no way that the Church can be read as the intended subject of the last part of the quote above.
- Zechariah 12-14 selectionsJerusalem shall be an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves… A day of the Lord is coming when your plunder will be divided among you. I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it…Then the LORD will go and fight against those nations as he fights in the day of battle. On that day his feet wills stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives will be split in two form east to west, forming a great valley… then the Lord My God will come, and all the holy ones with him.Then the survivors form all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.
When I have shared this passage with replacement proponents, they often simply say that they do not know how to fit this in. This is because the passage is so blatantly about one real place that is actually on the earth. It describes Jerusalem surrounded by armies and then delivered. Zechariah writes after Jerusalem was resettled after the first exile in Babylon. It cannot be the first century war because Jerusalem was then destroyed. It can only be an event connected to the Jewish people at the end of days when the city is again inhabited as a Jewish city.
There are so many more passages that could have been chosen. However, the ones we have chosen give us the thrust of the prophets concerning the restoration of ethnic/national Israel, and the glory that will be hers. Paul’s strong words on the irrevocable election and calling of Israel are in the very context of these passages. He expected, with absolute confidence, a fulfillment of God’s promises to the ethnic/national nation. That fulfillment would bring “life from the dead” to the whole world (Romans 11:15). That the in-grafted Christian people share in like promises by analogy is indubitable, but that the ethnic/national people will come into their promised inheritance is also indubitable.
The tragedy of Replacement Theology
Replacement Theology led to the Gentile rejection of the legitimacy of Jewish life in Jesus by the middle of the second century. The results of this have been tragic. For example, a Jewish living community of Yeshua’s followers, if embraced by the rest of the Church, would have made Christian antisemitism, and even the Nazi Holocaust, impossible.
Editor’s note: For additional salient points and details, see the full 12-page paper of which this article is an excerpt:
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