An unexpected consequence of the current Hamas-Israel war has been questions about Israel. Some Christians who have had little interest in Israel have begun to ask if Israel is important in future events; if the land belongs to Israel or to the Palestinians; even if Israel’s becoming a nation in 1948 has any biblical importance. As a result, some pastors and theologians have come out of their doctrinal bunkers to discuss Israel. The questions raised are basically these: (1) Is there any significance to the fact that the Jews have returned to the land of the Bible; (2) who does the land belong to?; and (3) does national, ethnic Israel figure into God’s plans? The majority view within Christendom is that of Replacement Theology (RT) which believes that national Israel has been set aside and today is biblically insignificant. RT is the view of the Roman Catholic church, churches which trace their roots back to the Reformation as well as some others.
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. The following two quotes of RT represent the basic idea.
“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 Replacement theologians believe that there is future salvation for Israel, they are not important anymore in fulfilling God’s will. But is this majority view correct biblically? The following points should be given consideration as they indicate that national, ethnic Israel does have a future in God’s plans and that Israel is a key to those plans. RT is not an “ivory tower” subject which has no importance to believers. It is a subject which shapes the interpretation of many scriptures in both the OT and NT. And it can raise concerns about the very character of God who made covenant promises to Abraham. So, has national Israel been replaced by the church of Jesus Christ? The simple answer is “no.” But there are five points that need to be investigated.
(1) God’s Covenant Commitments to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God made a covenant with Abraham around 2100 B.C. There are two essential characteristics of this covenant. First, it is an unconditional covenant, and second, it is an everlasting (eternal) covenant. This covenant being unconditional, means that it would depend on God alone for its fulfillment. An unconditional covenant is essentially a promise made by one person, who alone guarantees its fulfillment. This is why the Apostle Paul, nine times in Galatians 3, speaks of the Abrahamic covenant as a “promise”. Israel’s failures could not cancel the covenant because fulfillment did not depend on them. If Israel sinned (and they did), then there would be consequences for them (and there were). But cancelling the covenant would not be one of them (Note God’s clear statement in Psalm 89:30-34). The Davidic covenant is the focus of Psalm 89, where 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” in 89:34 (not “our” covenant). Jeremiah reinforces the unconditional nature of the covenant when (in 31:31-34), God seven times declares “I will” fulfill this covenant. It is not “we” are going to bring about covenant fulfillment. It depends entirely on Him and not on Israel’s faith and obedience. And when God ratified this covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, He alone passed between the pieces of sacrifice, showing that Abraham was not responsible for its fulfillment. It was unconditional.
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 if the universe is in existence (and it still is), then the covenant will be in existence (note Jer. 31:35-37; Psa. 89:35-37). And the universe does not go out of existence until the end of the messianic age, according to Revelation 20:11 (also note 2 Peter 3:7-13). Being “everlasting” has lost all meaning if the covenant can be terminated anywhere this side of the new heavens and earth.
(2) The Importance of Galatians 3:15. In Galatians 3, the Apostle Paul is showing the superiority of the Abrahamic covenant in comparison with the Mosaic covenant (law). One of his critical points is that a ratified covenant (one that is legally binding), cannot be altered or changed in any way. Here is his statement in 3:15.
“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.”
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 descendants. Again, note that God alone went between the pieces of sacrifice, showing that fulfillment depended on Him alone.
The provisions of the Abrahamic covenant cannot be changed nor can the parties of the covenant be changed. The parties of the Abrahamic covenant are God and Abraham (and Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob). It is impossible for a theologian, ancient or modern, to change a ratified covenant which means that the church cannot be inserted into the Abrahamic covenant. This verse requires that the Replacement theologian clearly explain how the church can be inserted into a ratified covenant.
(3) The Absence of Any Apostolic Teaching of a Change. If somehow the church was now the “new Israel”, 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 that God with clear details, declares that the N.T. church has replaced Israel. This they cannot show. They can only come up with passages that “imply” 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). Believers would rightly expect God to give us some clear revelation about His change in plans. If 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 an 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 important to hear God’s explanation on how and why He changed a ratified covenant, which He, on oath, declared He would fulfill to Israel.
(4) The Name Israel Just Means Israel. It has been the position of RT that the terms Israel and Church are used interchangeably in the N.T. One RT theologian says:
“God’s people were known in the OT as ‘Israel’. The same people, in the NT, are known as the church. As a matter of Scriptural fact, these terms are used interchangeably.” (Wm Cox, ‘Amillennialism Today’, p. 46.
Without the space in this brief article 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 ethnic, national Israel. (A believing Moabite like Ruth, 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), RT will attempt to expand the term “Israel” to include gentiles. However, contextually, and grammatically this simply cannot be done. Israel just means Israel in the Bible.
(5) The Critical Teaching of Romans 11. The very question under discussion in this article is raised by the Apostle Paul in Romans 11:1-2. (The reader really should take the time at this point and carefully read Romans 11). Paul asked the question: “God has not rejected His people, has He?” And then Paul declared: “may it never be…God has not rejected His people.” The Apostle is very clear that Israel has not been set aside even though they rejected Jesus. Now, Romans was written around AD 55, some 20 years after that generation of Israelites rejected Jesus as their Messiah. Surely, if God had then rejected Israel, sometime during that 20 years He would have informed the band of apostles that such a monumental event had taken place.
Paul is clear that Israel failed (11:11) but that failure was not permanent (11:11, 12, 15, 23, 25). At this point Paul exhorted the gentile believers to avoid becoming arrogant (11:18) when they viewed their spiritual position as compared with that of Israel. Every now and then in RT there is distinct smell of pride, and the very arrogance Paul is warning about when one looks down on Israel. He observes that if God did indeed throw off Israel, then the church better be fearful that the same thing could happen to them (11:20-21). That, of course, will not happen because God does not lie or deceive. Paul is clear that God did not replace Israel. Then the Apostle powerfully reveals that Israel will, in the future, come to believe in Messiah Jesus (11:25). Israel’s present rebellious unbelief will end (“until”-11:25) when God’s focus ends with the gentile church and returns to Israel. Israel will come to faith in Jesus during the Tribulation period. As Paul states: “all Israel will be saved…the Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” (The same “Israel” in their unbelief in verse 25, is the “Israel” that will be saved in 11:26.) And then the Apostle declares that Israel will be “shown mercy” (11:31). It is somewhat of a mystery as to why some in RT gladly speak of God’s mercy and grace towards the church, but apparently do not so allow for God’s grace and mercy to be extended to the chosen, covenant people.
- Is all this really that important? Yes, it really is. Just a few things to think about. (1) RT allows the spiritualizing (allegorizing) of Scripture. Conservative RT generally interpret the Scriptures normally. This leads them, like us, to believe in the Trinity, the deity of Christ and so on. However, on certain issues such as this one, they give themselves interpretive wiggle room and allegorize, leaving their normal, literal interpretation. They must be able validate such a change. (2) While RT normally has a high view of God, this position actually casts a shadow on the character of God. If God, will go back on His covenant commitments to Israel, then we have legitimate concerns about His promises to us. Romans 11 makes this same point. (3) The view of RT also confuses the future. One example: Jesus was clear (Matt. 23:39) that He would not return (His 2nd Coming) until Israel came to believe in Him. If Israel never turns in faith to Jesus, then there cannot be a 2nd Coming. This is just one of many prophetic events where Replacement Theology brings confusion and vagueness.