By Geoff Volker
Does the Church Replace Israel? (Part 1)
As one who holds to New Covenant Theology (NCT) I am frequently asked this question, “Do you believe in replacement theology? When I hear other teachers who embrace NCT try to answer this question I hear them giving rather involved answers in order to avoid receiving the label of one who holds to replacement theology. My answer is quite clear, I do believe in replacement theology. In fact, I would go as far as saying that I do not think that anyone who holds to NCT could answer the question any other way.
Our standard NCT definition of Israel is that it is a “temporary, unbelieving, picture of the people of God.” This definition comes from a variety of Scriptures. In Hebrews 8:7-13 we are told that the Old Covenant with Israel only produced unbelievers. Therefore, through the death of Jesus on the cross a new people will be purchased who will have their sins forgiven and will have a changed life or new heart. This work of Jesus is called the New Covenant. The Israelites, who were produced by the Old Covenant had neither their sins forgiven or had new hearts. Please keep in mind that were a remnant of believers in the Israel, but they became believers on the basis of the New Covenant to come.
On of the best places in Scripture that describes how the Old Covenant only produces unbelievers is Galatians 4:21-31. Here we find the allegory of Hagar and Sarah. Hagar is said to represent the Old or Mosaic Covenant and that covenant only produces unbelievers and is to be identified with Mount Sinai and the earthly city of Jerusalem. The verse actually says that the Israelites are in slavery. That would mean that they are slaves to sin and therefore unbelievers (Romans 6:17-18).
In Romans 9:30-10:3 the apostle Paul states quite clearly that Israel has not attained righteousness because they pursued it by works. True righteousness is described as the unconditional acceptance that believers receive when they trust in Jesus alone to save them by his death on the cross for their sins. When we believe in the saving work of Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven and therefore we have a clean record and are righteous and accepted by a holy God. Israel sought salvation by works and not by faith and were therefore viewed as unbelievers. Please note that Paul is describing Israel as a whole. The existence of a remnant of believers is not relevant to Paul’s argument. Israel is ALWAYS viewed as unbelieving.
The new covenant produces a new people of God who are the real people of God. Israel was only a picture of the people of God. That is why when Peter describes believers in the new covenant era he uses the language of the old covenant people of God.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10 NIV).
The real people of God are those for whom Jesus died on the cross. The church in the new covenant era is made up of those who profess to believe the gospel message. They are trusting Jesus to pay for their sins and they are in love with the God of heaven and earth. Membership in the nation of Israel in the old covenant era was gained simply by being born into one of the Israelite families. Israel and the church are picture and fulfillment. The church does replace Israel since Israel was placed on this earth to be a temporary, unbelieving, picture of the people of God.
Does the Church Replace Israel? (Part 2)
In Galatians 4:21-31 we find the apostle Paul using an allegory to teach the Galatian believers about the true nature of Israel. Paul begins by saying that the mothers of Abraham’s children, Sarah and Hagar (Keturah and her children are not mentioned in this context), represent two covenants. He is referring to the Old and the New covenants. Hagar represents the Old or Mosaic Covenant, while Sarah represents the New Covenant. Hagar is described as the slave woman, while Sarah is described as the free woman. The covenant that Hagar represents is from Mount Sinai, which represents the present city of Jerusalem, and is said to bear children who are to be slaves. This is another way of saying that the Old Covenant was a works covenant and could only produce unbelievers.
Paul goes on to describe what the New Covenant, the work of Jesus on the cross, produces, which are believers. The New Covenant is described as the Jerusalem that is above and she (Sarah) is our mother. This covenant produces true believers who have their sins forgiven and a new heart (Hebrews 10:14).
At this point in the passage Paul quotes an Old Testament verse (Isaiah 54:1) that prophetically describes a time in the future when Israel will be regathered back into the land of Palestine. This is interpreted by Paul as referring to the New Covenant era (from Pentecost until the 2nd Coming) when God will produce a real people of God (the church). This will be unlike the people produced by the Old Covenant (Israel) for they were unbelievers. They were only a temporary, unbelieving, picture of the people of God. The church is a spiritual Israel. In Isaiah 54:1 Israel is described as a desolate woman who cannot bear any children. This is an accurate appraisal of Israel under the Old Covenant who were rejected by God. This rejection is seen in the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722 BC and the destruction of the southern kingdom in AD 586. With the coming of the New Covenant era God is once again going to make Israel fertile. This fertility is seen in those coming to faith in Jesus Christ this side of Pentecost. This is a spiritual Israel and it is the church. The prophecies regarding the regathering of Israel back into the land are truly fulfilled by the coming of the New Covenant era and the church of Jesus Christ.
At this point in the passage Paul states that those produced by the Old Covenant, which is literal Israel, are persecuting those produced by the New Covenant. He then goes on to say that we (true believers) are not the children of the slave woman (Hagar=Old Covenant). We are the children of the free woman (Sarah=New Covenant). This allegory brings out into the open the truth that literal Israel was never intended to be the real people of God. They were only a temporary picture until the real people came along.
Does the Church Replace Israel? (Part 3)
In the gospels the theme that Israel is not the real people of God is continued. In Matthew 8:5-13 Jesus heals the servant of the Roman centurion. The centurion only requests of Jesus to say the word and his servant would be healed. In response to such faith Jesus says,
I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus was stating that in the kingdom of heaven the Israelites, who are the picture of the people of God, will be thrown out of the kingdom. The Jews of Israel, who are repeatedly called the people of God in the Old Testament, are not the real people of God. That is why they will be thrown out of the kingdom. Their claim is that they are in the kingdom. They are not losing their salvation. They are giving evidence that they never had it. In saying this it must be understood that there has always existed a remnant of true believers in Israel. But throughout the Bible Israel is repeatedly described as an unbelieving people. The fact that a remnant of believers has always existed seems not to be relevant to the evaluation of the biblical writers. We will examine many of these passages in a future blog.
Another passage in the gospels addresses the faith of Israel is Matthew 21:33-46, which is the parable of the Tenants. Here Jesus gives a story about the owner of a vineyard. The owner plants a vineyard and then puts it into the hands of his servants. At harvest time he sends his servants to collect his portion of the harvest. The servants abuse and kill those he sent. Finally he sends his son and they kill him. Jesus then gives the point of the parable.
Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.
The parable was giving the history of Israel and the stubborn rebelliousness of the nation of Israel. Jesus then says that the kingdom will be given to another people who “will produce its fruit.” This new people of God is the church of Jesus Christ, the real people of God. Hebrews 8:7-13 teach that the work of Jesus on the cross to purchase a people is being realized during the New Covenant era. The prophecy of Jeremiah 31 is being fulfilled right now. This passage will be discussed in great detail in an upcoming blog in this series.
Another parable that follows the parable of the tenants is the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). Here Jesus describes a scene in Jewish life where a wedding banquet is prepared by the king for his son. He then sends out his servants to invite all of his guests. But when his guests were invited they paid no attention and refused to come. They not only refused to come but they also abused some of the king’s servants. The king, then great enraged, sent out his army and destroyed his former guests and destroyed their city. The king then instructed his servants to go out into the streets and invite just anybody and so that the wedding banquet would be filled. Text of this parable is about the hostility of the chief priests and Pharisees to Jesus Christ. One further point that is mentioned in the parable is about a man attending the wedding banquet is not dressed appropriately. He is thrown out of the banquet where it says in the parable that he is to be cast into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then you come to the punch line of the parable the final verse which is verse 14 that says quote many are invited, but few are chosen.” Just as in the parable of the tenants so also in the parable of the wedding banquet we see the history of Israel being portrayed before our eyes. Israel is described as always being in rebellion, always unbelieving. As we see in Romans 11:5 in the new covenant era only a remnant of ethnic Jews will be saved. The church, the spiritual Israel, will be made up of mostly Gentiles with a small number of Jews. The key phrase in the parable is found in the very last first, verse 14, where Jesus says, “for many are invited but few are chosen.” The gospel in one form or another came first to Israel but they rejected it. Now the invitation goes out to all, but the far majority of those who will respond will be Gentiles, And this is according to the plan of God.
Does the Church Replace Israel? (Part 4)
The last verse of Galatians 3 tells us that the real children of Abraham were not the literal descendants of Abraham but rather the spiritual descendants. In other words the Israelites were a temporary unbelieving picture of the people of God. The real people of God are those for whom Jesus died and most of them are Gentiles.
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:29 NIV)
Paul also mentions that the children of Abraham get the promise of the land of Canaan (Genesis 15:1-16, 17:1-8). The real believers get the true promise land that is heaven and the new heavens and earth, a land that will not end (Hebrews 4:1-11). It is with this in mind that Paul goes on to discuss in Galatians 4:1-7 the comparison of Israel under the Old Covenant with the real people of God under the New Covenant.
He begins by using a well-understood illustration in the Roman world of the relationship of the son in the household before and after he comes of age. Before he comes of age the son is subject to his guardian. Even though he is the heir he is treated like a slave until he comes of age. This refers to Israel under the Old Covenant and is described as referring to believers in their unbelieving state. As unbelievers we are in slavery to our sin.
What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. (Galatians 4:1-3 NIV)
Paul goes on to describe the work of Jesus in his death on the cross to redeem those under law so that his people might receive the full rights of sons.
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5 NIV)
On the surface this might seem to be saying that Jesus died only for the Israelites under the Old Covenant. But this is exactly not what this passage is teaching. The argument of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that when you add Mosaic Law keeping to the gospel message you end up with salvation by works (Galatians 1:6-9, 3:1-5, 3:10-14, 6:12-14). Paul is making the point that the Israelites were not real believers (except for a remnant) and it is only through the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross is anyone saved and made part of the family of God. All true believers are made alive by the Holy Spirit and are children of God and heirs of eternal life
Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you no longer are slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Galatians 4:6-7 NIV)
Paul is using an illustration of an heir before and after he comes of age to describe the difference between Israel produced by the Old Covenant and the real people of God produced by the New Covenant. He is making a comparison of unbelief with belief, slavery to sonship. This is Paul’s argument in Galatians. If you add the keeping of the Mosaic Law to belief in the cross of Jesus in order to be accepted by God or justified then you are putting yourself under the Old Covenant, a works covenant that cannot save you. The description of Jesus dying for those under the Old Covenant is made to drive home the point that the only way to be accepted by the Father is through the cross. This is especially true of the Israelites. Jesus died to redeem the elect of the Jews from the curse of the law. The Galatians misunderstood the role of the Mosaic Law and the Old Covenant in the plan of God. We, as true believers, have trusted in the saving work of Jesus Christ are not like the Israelites. We have the work of the Holy Spirit causing us to love our Lord and guaranteeing our perseverance (Romans 8:1-27). We are the true children of God and we are what Israel illustrated. The church has replaced Israel in the plan of God.
Does the Church Replace Israel? (Part 5)
In Genesis 15:18-21 a very specific land promise was given to Abraham and to his seed, which is Israel. Those brothers who embrace the dispensational point of view would say that Israel has never truly been given those exact dimensions as described in Genesis 15 and therefore the promise of the land for Israel is awaiting a future fulfillment. According to the dispensational understanding this fulfillment will take place during the 7-year tribulation period at the end.
I would wholeheartedly agree that the exact land promise to Abraham and Israel has not been literally fulfilled. But, I will make the case that this promise to Israel was never meant to be fulfilled literally. Let us begin by surveying what the Lord says about his promise to give Israel the promise land in the book of Joshua.
As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord commanded Moses. So Joshua took the entire land: the hill country, all the Negev, the whole region of Goshen, the western foothills, the Arabah and the mountains of Israel with their foothills, from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, to Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon.(Joshua 11:15-17 NIV)
So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. (Joshua 11:23 NIV)
These statements seem to be quite clear. It says that Joshua took the entire land. The problem is that in Joshua 13 there is a list of the portions of land that are still to be taken.
When Joshua was old and well advanced in years, the LORD said to him, “You are very old, and there are still large areas of land to be taken over. (Joshua 13:1 NIV)
Once again towards the end of Joshua we find it stated that the promise of the land to Israel was fulfilled at the time of Joshua.
So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the LORD handed all their enemies over to them. Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled. (Joshua 21:43-45 NIV) Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the LORD your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed. (Joshua 23:14 NIV)
In light of the above scripture is would seem to be clear that God views the promise of the land to Israel as being fulfilled. His intent in giving the promise was not to have it literally fulfilled. Almost was good enough. If God is says they took possession of the entire land then that fulfills the promise and ends the argument.
This side of Pentecost, in the New Covenant era, the promised of entering the land is understood as referring to being with the Lord forever in a land that does not end.
For in Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:8-11 NIV)
In the book of Hebrews professed believers who are Jewish are in danger after prolonged persecution of not persevering in their faith. If believers do not persevere then they will not enter the promised rest that was given to Israel in picture form. The true rest is not Palestine but heaven and the new heavens and earth where believers will join God in his rest. The literal promise of the land given to unbelieving Israel was only a temporary picture of a land that is given to the true spiritual Israel.
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:29 NIV)
Believers in Jesus Christ, the true Israel of God, are the real children of Abraham. Israel was a temporary unbelieving physical picture. The land promise of Palestine given to Abraham and then to Israel was a temporary picture of a land that all believers will enter after they die. This land will last forever and we will be with our Lord in perfect unending fellowship.
So, does the church replace Israel? Yes it does. For this can be seen in the biblical use of the land promise to Abraham and Israel. Yes Israel did receive the land promise, but that was only a temporary picture of a land promise that was given to the real people of God, the church. The true land promise that is given to the church is all about a land that will not end.
Does the Church Replace Israel? (Part 6)
Now let us examine the priesthood of Israel. The key section of Scripture on this subject is found in Hebrews 7:11-28. In this portion of Scripture the author of Hebrews is making the case that the priesthood of the Old Covenant did not do anything. By that I mean that the sacrifices prescribed by the Mosaic Law could not take away sins. They only made the Israelites ceremonially clean. This means that the sacrifices of the Old Covenant era only brought the Israelite into good standing with the nation of Israel and not with the God of Israel.
If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come—one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? (Hebrews 7:11 NIV)
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. (Hebrews 9:13 NIV)
But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:3-4 NIV)
The priesthood of the Old Covenant functioned only as a picture and not the real thing. As a priesthood it prefigured the coming priesthood of Jesus which is called the Melchizedek priesthood.
For it is declared: “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”(Hebrews 7:17 NIV)
Of the priesthood of Jesus the author of Hebrews says that this priesthood actually accomplishes the saving of a people by the death of Jesus on the cross, which is the work of a priest who offers up a sacrifice, in this case his own death, for all those for whom he represented, in this case all those whom the Father chose to save.
Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Hebrews 7:23-25 NIV)
With the coming of Jesus the priesthood of Jesus took that place of the priesthood of the Old Covenant. His priesthood purchased a people who are also described as being a part of his priesthood.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10 NIV)
In the New Covenant the work of Jesus as our high priest secured our salvation by his death on the cross and purchased for us an eternal priesthood. This means that we now become the real people of God, eternally forgiven, unlike Israel who are only a picture of the people of God. The priesthood of the Old Covenant could not produce a real people of God because it could not take away sins. It is only the priesthood of the New Covenant that truly pays the penalty for the sin for all for whom it was intended. The church does replace Israel for it is only the church that has experiences the satisfying of the wrath of God. The church is the true Israel of God.