L et’s get into our imaginary cars and take a little drive.
On one side of town, there’s a church that is blatantly pro-Arab, denouncing Israel at every chance they get. “Our kind” don’t seem to be welcome there at all, so we shake our heads, hop into our little cars and drive to the other side of town.
We pull into another church where, as soon as we walk in the door, our yarmulkes are confiscated and we are confronted with a hostile pastor who denounces us for being “under the law” for even considering celebrating Yom Kippur. Another wrong turn!
Surprisingly, those two seemingly diverse attitudes, and others that look to us to be more than a little askew, derive from the same mistaken framework known in Messianic circles as “Replacement Theology” or, to use the big seminary-style word, supersessionism.
This doctrine teaches that the “church,” the body of believers consisting of multiple ethnic groups united by faith in Yeshua, has permanently replaced, or “superseded” ethnic Israel in God’s plan. Those who adhere to this doctrine therefore acknowledge no special meaning or benefit to Jewish customs or identity, either now or in the future plan of God.
In other words, “Messianic Jew” makes no sense in their world any more than “American Christian” or any other nationality or ethnicity. They would argue, in the first imaginary church above, that Israel’s promises from God have been nullified by the sins of the nation, including the “deed” to the land. In the second church above, they would argue that “Church culture” ought to have a greater importance to any believer than their “native” culture, even if it is Jewish.
This issue is of paramount importance to the Messianic community. There is no place for us in the halls of any organization that adheres to this doctrine. It is important that we understand what Scripture says about this issue.
Fundamentally, this is about the relationship between the promises of God to the ethnic Jews, who are the descendants of Jacob, and the “church,” who are the body of believers in Yeshua drawn out of many nations. The possible relationships of the two groups to the plan of God are as follows:
1. The Jews could have the only role
2. The church and Jews could maintain permanently distinct roles
3. The church could permanently replace the Jews
4. The roles of the church and Jews could change over time
The first possibility should be rejected immediately by anyone in the Messianic community based on passages like Ephesians chapter 2, which explicitly include Gentiles (without converting to Judaism) in God’s plan. It was settled very early in the history of the Messianic community that the plan of God was not exclusively Jewish.
The second possibility also needs to be rejected, in that it teaches that there are two roads to salvation, the Jewish way (by pious practice of Judaism) and the Gentile way (through faith in Yeshua). The portions of Scripture that refute this are many, one of the clearest being John 14:6.
The third possibility is what we are addressing in this article. (We’ll get to that fourth possibility in a little bit, so be patient!)
Picture getting out of our little cars and into our Acme Time Machines. Set the dial back a hundred or two years. Once arriving in that year, we notice that there is no Nation of Israel. Our people are scattered around the known world, under attack from many different fronts. The church of the day has embraced centuries of attitudes and teachings that were anti-Semitic. The Middle East is a backwater of the world, seemingly of little importance to anyone.
It is therefore credible that the church of that day would not believe that the descendants of Jacob would ever be regathered into a literal nation, nor did they really want it to be. As far as the church of that day was concerned, God was done with the Jews. In fact, the church itself, other than oppressing them, was itself done with the Jews.
Not a pleasant time at all to be a Jew! Quick! Run for the time machine and return to the present! The Middle East now is the center point of the entire world, and dead center in the midst of it is a powerful new “contendah.” The Nation of Israel.
The prophecies that were once taken symbolically for “the Church” because the rebirth of Israel as a nation was considered “impossible” have now begun to be fulfilled literally. Unfortunately, many denominations have not taken their doctrinal stands ahead in time. They remain in their musty crypts, undisturbed by any troubling facts.
For an example of the distortions made to prophecy, Isaiah 60:14 reads “Also the sons of ones afflicting you shall come bowing to you. And all who despised you shall fall at the soles of your feet. And they shall call you, The City of Jehovah, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” This is a literal prophecy about the restoration of the Jewish people after the return of Messiah.
In response, one commentator from the mid 18th century, John Gill, writes on the latter half of that verse, “and they shall call thee the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel; instead of calling them heretics, schismatics, and fanatics, as their fathers did, they shall own them to be the true church of Christ; a city of his building, and where he dwells; the object of his choice, delight, and love, as Zion was; a holy people made meet to be the habitation of the God of Israel; which are so many names for the church under the Gospel dispensation; see Heb. 12:22.”
The antidote to interpretations like this is to look at Scripture like we would any other book. If I open the newspaper in the morning and read that the mayor was scheduled to give a speech but it was called off due to heavy rain, I don’t interpret it to mean that political opposition (symbolized by rain) caused him to become speechless!
There is a principle of interpretation known as Cooper’s Golden Rule, which reads “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.” When Scripture refers to the Nation of Israel, no matter how improbable the prophecy, we need to take it literally.
We do, however, have passages in the New Covenant that use symbolism from the history and promises given to national Israel and apply them to the “Church.” One example of this is the Hebrews passage that Dr. Gill referred to in the commentary I cited above. (Heb 12:22. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels....)
That brings us, finally, to option number 4 in our list. It’s called Dispensationalism, and it’s the framework that fits best with the most literal interpretation of Scripture.
The Dispensationalist looks at “The Church” as an interposition in the Israel-centric dealings of God with mankind. The sequence of events is as follows:
1. G-d establishes Israel as his “model country” to be an example to the entire world (Deuteronomy 4:1-20).
2. National Israel (as a group) falls short of G-d’s covenant, culminating in the rejection of Messiah by the national leadership (Jeremiah 31:31-32, Isaiah 53:1-3, Romans 11:7-10).
3. G-d extends the offer of salvation to Gentiles in order to provoke Israel to jealousy (Romans 11:11) until the “Time of the Gentiles” elapses (Romans 11:25).
4. Great trouble occurs in the world in which national Israel plays an important part (Revelation 7:1-8, Zechariah 12:1-3).
5. National Israel (as opposed to just a remnant) receives a special sign that causes them to turn to Yeshua as their Messiah (Zechariah 12:10-14, Romans 11:26).
The practical outworking of this, in opposition to the “Replacement Theology” issues at the very start of this article, are these:
1. Although one may debate the appropriateness of the actions of the Nation of Israel in our day, G-d has never rescinded the deed of the Jewish people to its land (Genesis 12:1-7, 28:13-14, Deuteronomy 4:26-38).
2. Since the prophecies in the Old Covenant deal with G-d’s dealings with ethnic Israel, when those prophesies come to pass in the future, there must be Jews existent. Therefore, Jewish identity is of value before G-d.
3. Since “the Church” is not the replacement, but simply the temporary “stand in” for Israel as the human agents to perform the work of his kingdom during this dispensation, the Church must treat the Jews with honor, yet be unashamed to present to them the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua (Romans 11).
4. The reason that the Gospel has penetrated so poorly into the Jewish community is that G-d has a plan for the future when the entire Nation of Israel will come to faith in Yeshua and we are, until then, just “remnant fishing” (Romans 11:25-26). The lack of fruit among the Jewish population should therefore neither frustrate nor alarm us.
5. We need to make clear to the unbelieving Jewish community that our hope is not the utter destruction of our people in the return of Yeshua, but the fulfillment of their ultimate purpose in the plan of G-d and their exaltation in all the Earth (Isaiah 61, etc.)
Rather than “Replacement Theology” being some quirky little theological argument among crusty old theologians, it instead affects the essentials of who we are and what we ought to be doing. It is therefore important for every Messianic Jew to understand the implications and the arguments.
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