All Scripture is inspired and important but there are times when some scriptures rise to a place of greater importance because a certain subject is the focus of attention. In our current discussion, we are addressing the subject of the church replacing Israel in God’s program. And as we saw in our last study, Galatians 6:16, Romans 9:6 and 11:26 take on greater importance than usual when the matter of “church-Israel” is the subject. Another important scripture in the discussion is that of Matthew 21:43. This is often used by Replacement Theology (RT) to try and establish its’ position. In this article, we want to view several scriptures used by RT but will highlight Matthew 21:43.
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.” (NASB)
This verse is generally used by RT to show that Jesus is permanently removing the kingdom from national Israel.
The Context of Matthew 21:43. The earthly ministry of Jesus was now entering the final week, the “passion week”. A year earlier, in Matthew 12, the nation’s leaders had declared openly that Jesus had not come from God, but was really an agent of the Devil. With this terrible, willful sin of rejection by Israel’s leaders, Jesus turned from the nation. Things changed dramatically in Jesus’ ministry, and He now talked of His death, but also introduced the church, declaring that “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). And during the last year of His ministry, Jesus and the religious leaders were periodically engaged in contentious debates. Such is the situation in Matthew 21 which records events on Tuesday of the last week of Jesus’ ministry. The discussion begins at 21:23.
The View of Replacement Theology. RT sees this as the moment when Jesus permanently removed the kingdom from Israel and gave it to the church. The “nation” mentioned in 21:43 is said to be the church. The following quote reflects this idea as it is found in RT literature.
“As a matter of fact, Israel having rejected its king, the kingdom of God would therefore be taken from it and given to a nation bearing its appropriate fruits (Matt. 21:43). For this eventuality Jesus made provision by the establishment of His church, the new Israel and the people of God.” (Zorn, Christ Triumphant, 30)
The term “church”, of course, is not actually found in the verse but is the interpretation of the author, based primarily on his theological position.
The View of Non-Replacement Theology. In fairness to everyone, all interpreters face the problem of dealing with something that is prophetic in nature. The kingdom will be taken away and it will be given to someone else. So all must look past this statement to see what lies down the road.
Several points need to be made. First, the Lord Jesus is speaking to the Jewish leadership; specifically the chief priests, elders and Pharisees. These leaders had effectively pronounced judgment on themselves (21:41, 45). Jesus’ rhetoric is aimed at them (as it would be in Matthew 23) which explains the harshness of His statements. However, the leaders did in fact represent the nation and the people of the nation of Israel. The nation stood condemned. Those who had seen and heard Jesus were again being informed that they have lost out on God’s gracious offer of the very soon arrival of the Messiah’s kingdom. But the statement doesn’t automatically mean what RT says it means. First, it does not say specifically that Israel for all time will lose the kingdom. Second, it does not say specifically that it is the church that would get the kingdom of Messiah. Better is the view that it is the present generation of Israelites (the ones rejecting Jesus) that will lose out. But aren’t we doing the same things as RT; that is, letting our theological framework interpret an unclear passage?
The difference is that Jesus again deals with this very matter two days later on Thursday afternoon. And since we all believe in the progress of revelation, where new revelation adds to, clarifies, or expands previous revelation (does not contradict it), then His statements given 48 hours later do help clarify. In Matthew 23, Jesus again denounces the religious leaders and now makes it clear that judgment is falling on that generation (23:36). But the next verses are very important because it is revealed by Jesus that Christ’s rejection of Israel, and Israel’s rejection of Christ, is not permanent and eternal. In 23:39, the word “until” (ews) coupled with the following statement of messianic recognition, clearly affirms that Jesus will come again once the nation is repentant, recognizing Him as their Messiah.
So, we conclude that Matthew 21:43 is indeed looking at a change but it is from an unrighteous present generation in Israel to a righteous future generation in Israel (the kind describe by Romans 11:25-27; Zech. 12 and 13; Ezekiel 36:24-28, etc). The verse is, therefore, not describing an ethnic change from Israel to gentiles. Michael Vlach notes that RT must prove that Matthew 21:43 rules “out the possibility that a future nation of Israel will experience the fulfillment of the kingdom. But Matt. 21:43 does not do this.” (Vlach, Church Replaced Israel? 143)
1 Peter 2:9-10
In this passage, the Apostle Peter uses a number of OT designations as he speaks about the privileged position of believers in the church. RT generally sees this as Peter identifying the church as a new Israel. Peter says that the church is a “chosen people” (which emphasizes our common life because of God’s initiative in selecting us); a “royal priesthood” (which points to our privilege of ruling and serving); a “holy nation” (which focuses on us being separate from the nations of the world and a unique community of people); and a “people belonging to God” (which emphasizes that we are God’s private possession). All these terms have an OT background which would have special meaning to Jews. And it should be noted that the recipients of Peter’s letter were most likely believing Jews (not denying there could have been a few gentiles in the mix), which would be something an apostle to the Jews would do!
It important to observe that nowhere does Peter declare the church to be the new Israel. There is continuity between Israel and the church in that we, as recipients of His election and grace, are chosen by God to do His work in the world right now. We are assigned by God to be His witness in the world to unbelievers, just as Israel was given that task in the OT. Hiebert has a good summary of Peter’s statements.
“It does not naturally follow from the parallels between Israel and the church that Peter believed that the church has permanently replaced Israel, and that the latter will not again enjoy a separate existence under the favor of God. Israel’s future is inseparably connected with it acceptance by faith of the returning Messiah (Zech. 12:10-14:11; Acts 3:19-26; Rom. 11:25-27). D.E. Hiebert, 1 Peter, 147
Michael Vlach adds that there are times in the Scriptures when “Israel imagery” is applied to non-Israelites without these becoming Israelites; as in the case of Egypt in Isaiah 19:24-25 (Vlach, 149). So without Peter saying “church = Israel” or that the church has now permanently replaced Israel, the proof that RT is looking for is not found here.
Here Paul refers to gentile believers as the “seed of Abraham” which is used by RT to prove that gentiles are now spiritual Jews. But this phrase does not mean that believing gentiles in the church now fulfill the promises given in the covenants to national Israel. There are, in fact, several ways that “seed” of Abraham is used. It is used of the physical descendants of Abraham (remember that Abraham had a number of sons); it is used of Jewish believers; and it is used (as in Galatians) of gentile believers (who spiritual father is Abraham the believer). (For an excellent discussion of the “seed of Abraham”, see Dr. Fruchtenbaum’s, “Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology, 126 ff.) He notes that RT would have a much better case if the subject were the “seed of Jacob/Israel.”
While each of these scriptures could have so much more written on them, it does become clear that RT cannot come up with any definitive, objective evidence for its’ position. At best, things are “implied” or “suggested”, which does not meet the standard of clear exposition. And such exposition is required if the supposed great change from Israel to church did occur in the plan of God. More on this in upcoming articles.