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The Church, Israel, and "Replacement" Theology - Part 1

Recently a friend wrote to me, asking my opinion on whether or not Israel has a biblical right to the Holy Land. That is to say, can Israel appeal to the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as grounds for their presence in and possession of the land of Palestine? My friend wondered if the view I espouse is what many have called “Replacement” theology. Let me take this opportunity to address the point.

Before I do, two words of introduction are needed. First, I want to make an appeal to all who engage in this debate that we do so with civility and generosity towards those with whom we disagree. I make this request because I have noticed that to disagree with what has come to be known as “Christian Zionism” exposes one either to the charge of anti-Semitism or a demonically induced blindness. I hope we can all agree that this is an issue that requires careful and patient examination of the Scriptures and a willingness to dialogue with an open mind.

Second, while I was ministering in Georgia recently I read a disturbing article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Thursday, October 27, 2005). Then again a day later I read a similar news item on The Drudge Report. Both articles reported that the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ah-madinejad, called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” He also denounced attempts to recognize Israel or normalize relations with it. According to the article, the Iranian president declared that “anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury.” After numerous heads of state denounced the Iranian president for these comments, mass demonstrations broke out in Iranian cities that expressed rage and contempt for the existence of the nation of Israel.

Let me be perfectly clear. I hope and pray that all American citizens, whether Christian or not, would stand firmly in their opposition to this sort of evil and irresponsible rhetoric. I believe that Israel has every right to exist and flourish as a nation and I hope that the United States will maintain its vigilance in defense of Israel against all such Islamic threats and future attacks.

Clearly, then, I believe Israel has a right to exist in the land and that we have a moral and political obligation to stand with her against all enemies. But this is not the same thing as saying that Israel has a biblical or covenantal right to the territory over which so much blood has been shed in recent years (indeed, in recent centuries). Nor does it address the question of what role, if any, the “promised land” will have in God’s redemptive purposes for his people and this earth. To that particular issue, I now turn.

First, I believe that when God established his covenant in Genesis 12, he affirmed that the seed (some translations render it “offspring”) of Abraham would inherit the land of Canaan (among other things) in fulfillment of the promise.

But we must never read such promises, or anything in the Old Testament, as if Jesus had not come and the New Testament had not been written. Or to put it in more positive terms, the Old Testament must always be read in light of the New. I never read such OT texts without immediately asking, “Does the NT shed additional light on how I am to understand the nature of such promises and their recipients?”

There are several texts that shed considerable light on how we are to understand the covenant made with Abraham and his progeny.

(1) Consider Romans 9:6-7. The context of this passage is Paul’s response to the charge that God cannot be trusted because so many Israelites, his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (9:3), are in unbelief. If God cannot be trusted to fulfill his covenant promise to OT Israel, how can he be trusted to fulfill any of his promises to the NT Church?

Or again, we could put it this way: If Israel is God's covenant people, to whom so many glorious privileges have been given (Romans 9:4-5), why are so few Israelites saved? Why are so many of them "accursed, separated from Christ?" Has God's word failed? Has God's covenant promise and eternal purpose come to nothing? Has the rejection of Jesus Christ by the majority of Israelites thwarted God's purpose? Have the trustworthiness and finality of God's word been undermined by the unbelief of so many Jews? His response to the question is a resounding No!

If God's word of promise and covenant is that all ethnic Israelites, i.e., all those who are physically descended from Israel, are to be saved, then clearly his purpose has failed and his word is void. But Paul denies that God ever intended to save all ethnic Israelites. His purpose has always been to save a remnant within, but not the entirety of, ethnic Israel. This is the force of his declaration that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:6).

There is an Israel within Israel. There is a spiritually elect remnant within the physicalnation. John Murray sums up: "The purpose of this distinction is to show that the covenantal promise of God did not have respect to Israel after the flesh but to this true Israel and that, therefore, the unbelief and rejection of ethnic Israel as a whole in no way interfered with the fulfillment of God's covenant purpose and promise. The word of God, therefore, has not been violated" (10).

Simply put: Not every person who is a physically ethnic Israelite is a spiritually elect Israelite.

Doug Moo summarizes this way:

"If the OT teaches that belonging to physical Israel in itself makes a person a member of God's true spiritual people, then Paul's gospel is in jeopardy. For were this the case, the gospel, proclaiming that only those who believe in Jesus Christ can be saved (cf. 3:20-26), would contradict the OT and be cut off from its indispensable historical roots. Paul therefore argues in [Romans 9] vv. 6b-29 that belonging to God's true spiritual people has always been based on God's gracious and sovereign call and not on ethnic identity. Therefore, God is free to 'narrow' the apparent boundaries of election by choosing only some Jews to be saved (vv. 6-13; 27-29). He is also free to 'expand' the dimensions of his people by choosing Gentiles (vv. 24-26)" (569).

Thus we see that the initial promise in Genesis 12 did not mean that all physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be saved or inherit the blessings, such as the land, entailed by that covenant. We must remember, says Paul (with added paraphrase), that “not all who are descended from Israel [i.e., the physical seed] belong to Israel [i.e., the spiritual seed], and not all are children of Abraham [which is to say, heirs of the promise] because they are his [physical or ethnic] offspring” (9:6b-7).

(2) This isn’t the only passage that provides clarification concerning the identity of “true” Israel, which is to say, the people for whom the covenant promises will be fulfilled. Perhaps the most explicit text is found in Ephesians 2.

We’ve already seen in Romans 9:6-7 that simply being a physical descendant of Abraham does not guarantee that one is a recipient of the covenant blessings. One must believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Does this suggest therefore that only believers who are the physical progeny of Abraham are heirs of the covenant blessings? No. Look with me at Ephesians 2:11ff.

As I read this chapter I discover that because of the work of Christ the meaning of “Israel” has now expanded. No longer does it refer simply to the physical descendants of Abraham who believe in the Messiah. Certainly it includes them. But now Gentile believers are “no longer strangers” to the covenants of promise or “aliens” when it comes to the commonwealth of Israel, but are “fellow citizens” with them and “fellow heirs” of all the blessings of the covenant (see Ephesians 2:11-19 and 3:6).

Contrary to how some have taken this, no one has been “replaced”. Rather, believing Gentiles have been “included”, such that now, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:14-15, there is only “one new man”, i.e., the Church.

Notice again that by virtue of his work Christ has created “in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15). This body, this new man, the Church, is the only true people of God who will inherit the promises made to Abraham. This one new man, the Church, consists of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, both of whom are now co-heirs of all the promises.

This is why Peter can take those special privileges and titles reserved for OT Israel (Exodus 19:5-6) and apply them freely to the NT Church. This one new man, the Church, says Peter, is the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).

The apostle Paul could not have said it with more clarity: “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28-29a). The “real circumcision,” says Paul, comprise those “who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3).

An objection is often raised at this point that sounds something like this: “But when I read Genesis 12:7 and 13:15-16 and 17:7-8 it says so clearly that God established his covenant and bequeathed the land to Abraham and his seed or offspring. Doesn’t that settle it once and for all?” No, for we must also ask, “In view of the coming of Jesus Christ, what does the NT tell us about the identity of the ‘seed’ to whom this promise was given?”

(3) The answer to this question is found not only in Romans 9 and Ephesians 2 but also in Galatians 3 where Paul makes an astounding statement. He provides us with an inspired commentary on or interpretation of those OT passages.

In v. 16 he declares, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring [or, seed]. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings’ [or ‘seeds’], referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring [seed],’ who is Christ.” Amazing! Here Paul unequivocally says that the “seed” or “offspring” of Abraham with whom God established his covenant and to whom the land and all its blessings were promised was ultimately only ONE of Abraham’s physical progeny, Jesus the Messiah! Jesus is “THE SEED” of Abraham whom God had in mind when he made his covenant promise.

Upon reading this one might think that the door has now been shut on everyone else, whether Jew or Gentile, and that only Jesus will inherit the promises. But just when you think that Paul has narrowed it down to one person and one person only, he throws wide open the gate into God’s kingdom blessings by saying at the close of Galatians 3, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. AND IF YOU ARE CHRIST’S, THEN YOU ARE ABRAHAM’S OFFSPRING [I.E., SEED], HEIRS ACCORDING TO PROMISE” (vv. 28-29).

Here is Paul’s stunning point: Jesus the Messiah is the one seed or progeny or offspring of Abraham to whom the promises were given. But, if you are “in Christ” through faith and thus belong to him, then you too “are Abraham’s offspring” or “seed” and thus you too are an heir of the covenant promises! This is why Paul can say “that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7) and that “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9; cf. 3:14).

Paul’s conclusion is that in the final analysis one’s ethnicity has nothing to do with who will or will not inherit the promises. Neither does gender (“neither male nor female”) or socio-economic status (“there is neither slave nor free”). The only relevant criterion is whether or not you are related by faith to the one seed of Abraham for whom the covenant promises were intended. Are you “in Christ”? If so, you (regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social status) no less than he, are Abraham’s seed and thus the ones for whom the covenant was intended and in whom the covenant blessings will be fulfilled.

Someone might say, “But wait a minute. That’s not what the OT texts say. They say that the promises were only given to and will be fulfilled in believing Jews.” That’s right. That’s why Paul said as clearly as he could in Ephesians 3:4-6 that Gentile inclusion as co-heirs is the “mystery” of Christ “which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations” (i.e., in the time of the OT) but has “now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (3:5). Believing Gentiles are as “Jewish”, in the only way that matters to God, i.e., spiritually (cf. Rom. 2:28-29), as any of the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

So, yes, it is true that only believing “Jews” will inherit the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the “true Jews” who are heirs include all of any ethnic derivation who are “in Christ”.

There are numerous other NT texts that affirm the same truth (see Part Two of this series). My point here is simply to clarify why I see the Church as the “one new man,” the true Israel of God in and for whom all the promises will be fulfilled. The promises will not be fulfilled exclusively in and for a separate “nation” of ethnic Israelites but in and for all believing ethnic Israelites together with all believing ethnic Gentiles, that is to say, in the Church.

(4) Much the same point is made in Romans 11 where Paul uses the imagery of the olive tree. Replacement theology would assert that God has uprooted and eternally cast aside the olive tree which is Israel and has planted, in its place, an entirely new one, the Church. All the promises given to the former have been transferred to the latter.

But this is not what Paul says. He clearly states that there is but one olive tree, rooted in the promises given to the patriarchs. In this one tree (i.e., in this one people of God) there are both believing Jews (natural branches) and believing Gentiles (unnatural branches). Together they constitute the one people of God, the true Israel in and for whom the promises will be fulfilled. This one people is, of course, the Church.

Neither believing Jew nor believing Gentile has any advantage over the other. When it comes to inheriting the promises, which is inclusive of the “land”, they are co-heirs. Indeed, when it comes to inheriting the promises, ethnicity is irrelevant. The only relevant factor is one’s relationship to Jesus Christ by faith.

I earlier said that there are other NT texts that address the same point, and I will briefly take note of several of them in Part Two of this series. Then, in Part Three, I will return to address the issue that prompted this study in the first place: the “land” promised to Israel and the dispute in Palestine today as to who has territorial rights.