Having just returned from the land of Israel, our group was reminded again of how biblically significant Israel is both historically and prophetically. To be walking in those places where O.T. kings and prophets lived and where Jesus and the Apostles proclaimed God’s truth is always a wonderful experience. But that land also remains central in biblical prophecy. End time events must take place as the prophets and the Apostles declared. Yet, a large percentage of the Church today believes that God is basically done with national Israel and has transferred promises made to Israel over to the Church. They teach that the Church is the “new Israel.”
Is the church the new Israel? This is not an “ivory tower” subject. It is not unimportant to believers. This is a subject which impacts how one interprets a great many scriptures in both the OT and NT. And it can impact the very character of God who made covenant promises to Abraham and his descendants (through Isaac and Jacob). Has national Israel been replaced by the church of Jesus Christ? The simple answer is “no.” But there are certain points that need to be emphasized.
The View of Replacement Theology (RT). RT holds that Israel’s sin and unbelief, revealed in their rejection of Jesus Messiah, caused God to set aside national Israel completely and permanently and to replace them with the Church. The unfulfilled promises given to Israel have been transferred over to the Church. This position is set forth by “replacement” theologians as seen in the following two quotes.
What further statement could be needed in order for us to say with assurance that the church has now become the true Israel of God and will receive all the blessings promised to Israel in the Old Testament.” (Wayne Grudem, “Systematic Theology”, p. 863)
The Old Testament records two kinds of promises which God made to national Israel: national promises and spiritual promises….The spiritual promises are still being fulfilled through the church today. Israel’s national promises all have been fulfilled or invalidated because of unbelief.” (Wm. Cox, “Amillennialism Today”, p. 83)
While some RT believe that there is a future salvation for Israel, it is clear that Israel has no special role anymore in fulfilling God’s work and will.
What Replacement Theology Must Prove from the New Testament. The Old Testament writers were abundantly clear that the covenant people of Israel would be God’s means (through Messiah of the line of David) of bringing a restoration of all that was lost back in the Garden of Eden, when mankind fell into sin. If this reality was to change, it would be up to the Apostles, as Christ’s designated channels of revelation (John 16:12-15) to show that this change did take place. RT must show: (1) that God’s covenant promises to Abraham and his descendants will not be fulfilled to Abraham’s descendants; (2) that God clearly and expansively declares that the N.T. church has replaced Israel (in other words, a detailed theological discussion); and (3) that after 1500 years of “Israel” meaning a specific ethnic group, it has now been redefined by the scriptures. These they have not proved as they can only come up with passages that “imply” or “suggest” the position they are attempting to establish. The absence of any NT discussion of the Church replacing Israel is significant because God spent some 2,000 years (from the days of Abraham) declaring that Israel was His chosen people, His covenant nation. (For a detailed discussion of this, see my book “Understanding End Times Prophecy”, pages 103-120).
God’s Covenant with Abraham. God entered into a covenant with Abraham around 2100 B.C. It is essential to be aware of the nature of this covenant if indeed God has ended this covenant with Abraham. First, it was an unconditional covenant, meaning that it would depend on God alone for its fulfillment. An unconditional covenant is essentially a promise made by one person to another. This is why the Apostle Paul, nine times in Galatians 3, speaks of the Abrahamic covenant as a “promise”. God promised Abraham and his descendants’ certain things. Israel’s failures could not cancel the covenant because fulfillment did not depend on them. If Israel sinned, then there would be consequences for them (and there was). But cancelling the covenant would not be one of them (Note Psalm 89:30-34). Psalm 89 speaks of the Davidic covenant and Jeremiah 31 reveals the New covenant (both of these are expansions of the Abrahamic covenant). Psalm 89 was likely written in view of the failure and downfall of some Judean king (perhaps Jehoiachin) which caused people to wonder if God had changed His mind concerning the Davidic covenant. However, in Psalm 89, numerous times God swears that He will not lie to David, but will fulfill that covenant. It is significant that God speaks of it as “My covenant” (not “our” covenant) in 89:34. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, seven times God declares “I will”, which underscores the unconditional nature of the covenant. God will bring about a complete fulfillment to the covenant. It depends entirely on Him and not on Israel’s obedience.
A second important truth about the nature of the covenant is that it is everlasting (“until the end of the ages”) or eternal. God declared this to Abraham numerous times (e.g., Gen. 17:7, 8, 13, 19). To further define this, the Scriptures state that as long as the universe is in existence (and it still is), then the covenant will be in force (note Jer. 31:35-37; Psa. 89:35-37). Being eternal/everlasting has lost all meaning if the covenant can be terminated this side of the new heavens and earth.
The Ratification of the Covenant. Ratification seems to be the most neglected aspect in this discussion. “Ratification” simply conveys the point that something is now legally binding. When a document is signed and the stamp of a notary is affixed to it, then it becomes legally binding. In Genesis 15, God graciously helped Abraham’s weakened faith by ratifying the covenant with animal sacrifices. This point is critical because once and for all God declared that He was legally committing Himself to fulfill all the covenant’s provisions to Abraham (and his descendant through Isaac and Jacob). It is also good to observe that God alone went between the pieces of sacrifice, which emphasizes that He alone would fulfill the covenant.
Remembering that it would be up to the N.T. apostles to let us know that Israel was being set aside and replaced by the Church, we should observe that they do just the opposite (as in Romans 11:25-27). The Apostle Paul makes a powerful point in Galatians 3:15 when he states that no one can change a ratified covenant. The provisions of such a legally binding covenant cannot be changed, and this includes the parties of the covenant. So, no theologian can now change the covenant parties from God and Abraham to God and the Church. Here is Paul’s statement.
“Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations; even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises (ie an unconditional covenant) were spoken to Abraham and to his seed.”
On oath, God declared that He would fulfill all the points in His covenant. Not to do so, would cast significant doubt on the character of God. To change the parties of the covenant from national Israel to the Church of Jesus Christ goes against God’s covenant promises to Abraham; goes against the critical point that ratified covenants cannot be changed; and against the testimony of Moses, the O.T. prophets and the N.T. apostles that Israel has a clear, prominent future in God’s plans to restore and to reconcile all that was lost in the Garden of Eden.
The presence of the everlasting, unconditional, ratified, and unfulfilled O.T. covenants requires that they be fulfilled to the same people who were the original party in the covenant. That party is national Israel.
Believers would rightly expect God to give us a detailed revelation about His change in plans, if indeed the promises were being switched to the Church from Israel. We should, for example, expect to see the Apostle Paul in Ephesians take several chapters to give us a detailed discussion about the change. After all, in Ephesians he was writing about the “church.” After some 1500 years (from the days of Moses) of being told that Israel refers to a national, ethnic group of people, it would be quite helpful if Paul spelled out that the term applies now to something else. And furthermore, it would be essential to hear God’s explanation on how and why He changed a ratified covenant, which He, on oath, declared He would fulfill to Israel.
The church is the “new Israel”? Without the space to go into detail, it is helpful to observe that “Israel” is used about 2,000 times in the O.T. and it is always used of national Israel. (A believing Moabite, for example, was never called an “Israelite”). “Israel” is used 73 times in the N.T. and 70 times there is no doubt at all that it refers to a racial, national group. The three other times (Rom. 9:6; 11:26 and Gal. 6:16) it also refers to national Israel, though RT gives great effort to try and prove otherwise.
RT is paddling their canoe against a very strong exegetical current. The eternal, unconditional, unfulfilled, ratified Abrahamic covenant, along with the consistent use of “Israel” in both testaments and the lack of N.T. explanation of change comprise a very powerful current. And we would suggest that no amount of paddling will bring them to the place where the Church is now the “new Israel.” It is not.