BY WILLIAM L. KREWSON
THE ROOTS OF REPLACEMENT THEOLOGY
"The true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and
Abraham . . . are we who have been led to God through this crucified
That erroneous statement was written by a Christian who addressed
himself to a Jewish man as they debated about Christianity. He later
added, "We who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ are the
true Israelitic race." 2
The debate occurred almost 1,900 years ago (A.D. 155) between Justin
Martyr and his Jewish opponent, Trypho. In a mere 50 years after the last
book of the New Testament was written, Gentile Christians had already come
to believe that their church had replaced the Jewish people in God's
program and that the only thing the Jewish nation could look forward to
Unfortunately, the roots of Replacement Theology, also known as "supersessionism,"
run deep in Christian history.
Why did such a theology develop? After all, the first generation of
Christians was Jewish and centered in Jerusalem. Jewish believers in Jesus
participated in Temple worship, sharing common ground with other Jews
(Acts 21:26; 22:17; 24:18). The city of Jerusalem maintained its Jewish
leadership for one generation, while the message of faith in Jesus the
Messiah moved out from Judea to synagogues across the Roman Empire.
However, as the apostle Paul took the gospel to his Jewish brethren, he
found that Gentiles responded as well. The expanding church soon contained
more Gentiles than Jews. In addition, the character of Jewish led
Jerusalem changed when Rome destroyed the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70 (the
First Jewish Revolt) and all Jews, including Jewish Christians, were
forced to flee. The church's new leadership came from its other
centers in Antioch and, eventually, Rome - both Gentile cities.
Another event propelled Gentiles into church leadership. The Jewish people
organized another revolt against Rome, hoping to regain the freedom they
lost in A.D. 70. Their leader was Simon bar Kokhba, who had been
proclaimed messiah by Rabbi Akiva, the most highly esteemed rabbi of that
Bar Kokhba considered Christians his enemies since they rejected his
revolt and messianic claims. When Rome crushed this rebellion in A.D. 135,
Christians believed they saw God's hand of judgment against the Jews,
reinforcing their claim that they had become the "new Israel."
The early church, now with a Gentile majority, defended itself against
Roman paganism and Judaism. Its attack against paganism revealed the clear
differences between the two; but its opposition to Judaism created
complications, since both Christianity and Judaism shared the same
Scriptures as well as other common beliefs.
In an attempt to define themselves as the true inheritors of Israel's
relationship with God, Gentile Christians eradicated the Jewish people
from God's plans, substituting themselves instead. The Gentile church
claimed to displace the Jews as God's people from that time on and
forevermore and blamed the Jews for rejecting Jesus, which the church said
led God to reject them.
How could the early Christians read the promises that God had made to
Israel and justify this substitution? They found that they could do so
only by spiritualizing the promises. This method of interpretation allowed
them to replace Israel as the beneficiary of God's unfulfilled promises.
The words of these early Christian leaders reveal their theology of
Here is a sample of writings from the first 300 years of the church. The
Epistle of Barnabas, written around A.D. 100, states that the Jews
have no further claim to God's promises: "Take heed now to yourselves, and
not to be like some, adding largely to your sins, and saying, 'The
covenant is both theirs and ours.' But they thus finally lost it." 3
Irenaeus, writing around A.D. 181 said, "They who boast themselves, being
the house of Jacob and the peopIe of Israel, are disinherited from the
grace of God." 4
Origen, the most prolific writer of the early church (c. A.D. 250),
grounded his Replacement Theology in allegorical interpretation. For
instance, when explaining that Jesus was sent to the "lost sheep of the
house of Israel" (Mt. 15:24), he argued that the lost sheep are not Jews,
who are "carnal" Israel, but Christians, who are "heavenly" Israel.
John Chrysostom preached such a message in the capital city of the
Roman Empire in A.D. 387: "It is because you killed Christ. It is
because you shed the precious blood, that there is now no restoration, no
mercy anymore and no defense.... You have committed the ultimate
transgression. This is why you are being punished worse now than in the
past.... If this were not the case God would not have turned his back
on you so completely." 6
Although some Old Testament promises are fulfilled by the New Testament
church, others will be fulfilled by Israel. For example, Jesus Christ
taught that Israel has a future in God's plan:
Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration,
when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed
Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel
Jesus spoke of the time when the entire earth will be regenerated and the
Kingdom of God will come to Earth with Jesus as King. At that time Jesus
will reign, along with the 12 apostles who will judge Israel's 12 tribes.
Shortly before Jesus' ascension, His disciples asked Him,
Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to
Israel? (Acts 1:6). These disciples
had been with Jesus for 40 days, during which time He had taught them
about God's Kingdom (v. 3). Surely they would have known enough from those
six weeks to ask an appropriate question about God's Kingdom and
Israel's relation to it.
Jesus did not correct their view of a literal Israelite Kingdom; He left
that untouched. He simply told them that the time of that Kingdom's
arrival is known only by the Father (v. 7). In this brief passage, Jesus
affirmed a future Jewish Kingdom. Israel had not been replaced by the
In fact, in Romans 11 the Jewish apostle Paul warned Gentile Christians
against being proud of their position. He declared that God intends for
Gentiles to make Israel envious of the church's relationship with the God
of Abraham (v. 11). Sadly, Christian anti-Semitism has led to the opposite
of God's intent.
Paul stated that Gentiles are merely wild olive branches who have been
grafted into the tree, which carries the rich sap of the promises God made
to Abraham (vv. 17-19). He condemned the attitude of superiority that had
already begun to rear its head against Jewish people who did not believe
in Jesus (vv. 20-24). And he revealed the amazing truth that all the
people of Israel living at the end of the age will be redeemed when their
Messiah Jesus returns to forgive them (vv. 25-27).
Notice his conclusion: Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your
sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the
fathers (v. 28). One day
all Israel will be saved (v. 26).
Moses told the Israelites, The LORD did not set His love on you nor
choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and
because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers (Dt. 7:7-8).
And though Israel rejects the gospel today, it still remains chosen and
deeply loved by God because of His promises to Abraham.
1. Justin Martyr, "Dialogue With Trypho, a Jew," The Anti-Nicene Fathers,
ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1993), chap. 11.
2. Ibid., chap. 135.
3. "The Epistle of Barnabas," The Anti-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts and
J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), chap.
4. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," The Anti-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts
and J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885;
reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 3.21.1.
5. Origen, "De Principiis," The Anti-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts and J.
Donaldson, vol. 4 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 4.1.22.
6. Quoted in Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots
of Anti-Semitism (Eugene, OR:
Wipf & Stock, 1995), 146-47.
WHO IS ISRAEL?
To whom does the term Israel refer? Many Christians today claim the word
Israel in the Bible refers to the church because the church, they say, has
replaced Israel in God's program for mankind. Others, including The
Friends of Israel, say that Israel always means Israel and the church is
never called Israel.
The first view, known as Replacement Theology, negates all Bible prophecy
that has to do with a future, physical Kingdom of David over which Christ
will reign for 1,000 years because it does not interpret prophecy in a
literal manner. Dispensational Theology, however, uses a consistent
historical-grammatical (also called plain or normal) approach to Bible
Here, in their own words, are comments from both viewpoints, so you can
easily see how they differ.
Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that
the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established on the top of the
mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to
it. Many nations shall come and say, "Come, and let us go up to the
mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us
His ways, and we shall walk in His paths. " For out of Zion the law shall
go forth, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
Replacement View: Bruce Waltke sees present fulfillment, as "today all
nations come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the
living God (Heb. 12:22), which was formerly symbolized by earthly Mount
Zion." Waltke believes that "prophecies about events prior to Pentecost
find a material fulfillment.... With Christ's ascension from earth to
heaven... the earthly material symbols were done away and the spiritual
reality portrayed by the symbols superseded the earthly shadows."! Thus
there is no future fulfillment by literal Israel, but a present
fulfillment by "spiritual Israel," meaning, the church. 1
Dispensational View: Gary Smith interprets the passage as describing the
future: "Micah and all the other prophets think this new era will take
place at the geographic location of Jerusalem (and that is how we should
interpret the meaning of this verse).... Since there are stilI many
Jews and Gentiles who have not come to God today, since there is still
plenty of war around the world, and since God is not reigning as king on
the earth, I conclude that this prophecy was not fulfilled in the New
Testament period." 2
Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration,
when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed
Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Replacement View: Without explanation, Craig Blomberg
rejects the plain meaning of the text: "Both the Twelve and Israel seem
respectively to represent believers and lost humanity in general....
The comparison of the Twelve with the twelve tribes of Israel again
highlights the theme of the church replacing Israel as the locus of God's
saving activity in the new age." 3
Dispensational View: Dispensationalists refuse to reinterpret
Israel, instead placing this passage in the eschatological future. Michael
Wilkins sees it as "a future time of renewal, the hope that was basic to
Jewish expectation of Israel's future national restoration.... Jesus
predicts a time of renewal when the Twelve will participate in the final
establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, when Israel will be restored
to the land and the Twelve will rule with Jesus Messiah." 4
Therefore, when they had come together, they
asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to
Israel?" And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons
which the Father has put in His own authority."
Replacement View: John Stott disparages
the disciples' question, assuming that it "must have filled Jesus with
dismay. Were they still so lacking in perception? ... The verb, the noun and the adverb of their
sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom. For the verb
restore shows that they were expecting a political and territorial
kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom; and
the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate
establishment. In his reply (7-8) Jesus corrected their mistaken notions
of the kingdom's nature, extent and arrival." 5
Simon Kistemaker assumes that the church has replaced Israel: "If we
interpret the text to mean the restoration of spiritual Israel, Jesus
intimates that the disciples with their reference to Israel are too
restrictive. The gospel of salvation is for all nations. Hence Jesus
instructs them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and
to the ends of the earth (v. 8). Conclusively, then, in light of Jesus'
answer it is possible and even plausible to give a spiritual
interpretation of the apostles' question." 6
Dispensational View: The dispensational view defends the disciples'
understanding of the Kingdom. Wrote Homer Kent, Jr.: "It is obvious from
their question that the kingdom referred to was the one which the Jews
looked for Messiah to establish (Isa. 9:6-7; 11:10-12). Many conclude that
this question indicated a complete misunderstanding of the nature of
Christ's kingdom.... However, it must be noted that Christ's answer did
not say that there would be no literal kingdom. He merely said that the
time of the establishment would not now be revealed to them." 7
This point distinguishes the dispensationalist from the replacement
theologian: "The national future of Israel is most definitely assured.... Jesus responded directly to their question about time. He most certainly
did not resignify their understanding about 'restoring the kingdom to
Israel.' ... There can be no doubt that this 'restoration' about which
the Old Testament prophets spoke focused on national Israel," wrote C. Blaising and D. Bock.
Would that more theologians who replace Israel would reconsider their
views, as did New Testament scholar C. E. B. Cranfield, who offered words
of personal regret while commenting on Romans 9-11: "These three chapters
emphatically forbid us to speak of the Church as having once and for all
taken the place of the Jewish people.... And I confess with shame to
having also myself used in print on more than one occasion this language
of the replacement of Israel by the Church." 9
1. Bruce K. Waltke, "Micah," The Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker,
2. Gary V. Smith, The NIV Application Commentary: Hosea, Amos, Micah (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 508, 515.
3. Craig L. Blomberg, The New American Commentary: Matthew (Nashville:
Broadman Press, 1992), 301.
4. Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 651-52.
5. John Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World: The Message of Acts
(Downers Grove, lL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 41.
6. Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Acts of
the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 52.
7. Homer A Kent, Jr., Jerusalem to Rome: Studies in the Book of Acts (Winona
Lake, IN; BHM Books, 1972), 22-23.
8. C. Blaising and D. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton, IL:
Victor Books, 1993), 268.
9. C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle
to the Romans (Edinburgh: T.
& T. Clarke, 1979), 2:448.
William L. Krewson is Director of the Bible and Israel
Philadelphia Biblical University:
These articles originally ran in the May/June 2007 issue of Israel My Glory
magazine, published by The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc.,
Copyright 2007 The Friends of Israel. All rights reserved. Used by