Much fuss has been made in our Jewish evangelism circles regarding "replacement" theology, the idea that the church has "replaced" the Jewish people in the plan of God. Some have even accused all who think New Covenant believers are "Spiritual Israel" as being guilty of this "replacement theology", that is, of replacing the Jewish people with the church. Charges have been made that this idea of "Spiritual Israel" leads to anti-semitism.
Ironically my first exposure to the idea of all believers being spiritually Israel came about through involvement in "Messianic Judaism"! Way back in 1975 I attended a seminar by Manny Brotman, president of the "Messianic Jewish Movement International" on "How to Share the Messiah". In the seminar notes I read: "When a Gentile asks the Messiah into his heart and life, he is accepting the Jewish Messiah, the Jewish Bible, and the Jewish blood of atonement and could be considered a proselyte to biblical Judaism and a child of Abraham by faith!" Isn't this essentially a statement of the "Spiritual Israel" idea?
Getting The Big Picture
We must submit our thinking to the scriptures and derive even our method of interpreting of the Bible from the Bible itself! We must learn how the text interprets itself! Many have not done this. We can't base our understanding of doctrine on "spiritual" intuition or emotional arguments. We must strive, asking wisdom from the Spirit, to interpret the word of God correctly, and this certainly means we submit to the approach used by the apostles the Messiah appointed to represent Him. And we must understand how the whole Bible fits together and derive our doctrine of Israel within that framework.
God has had one purpose and plan for mankind ever since the Fall: to restore a people for Himself from fallen humanity through Messiah Jesus. Because of the Fall of Adam we have all come under the curse of God, or as the Puritans put it "through Adam's Fall sinned we all". The Jewish people, and ultimately the Jewish Messiah, brought to the world the Abrahamic promise of blessing to redeem us from the curse of the Fall. Jesus brought the blessings of Abraham "first to the Jew" and then expanded the blessing "also to the Gentile" (see Galatians 3:14 and Romans 1:16). There are not two sets of Covenant promises and Covenant obligations, one for Jewish believers and one for Gentile believers, there is one New Covenant people and one faith (Eph. 2:16 and 4:5).
God has had but one program from the beginning: salvation through Jesus. God purposed to restore blessing once again to a cursed world. The core of the Abrahamic promise was to bring a restoration of blessing to all peoples through the seed of Abraham. This seed is ultimately the King of Israel, the Messiah. Psalm 72:17 tells us this by applying the very words of the Abrahamic promise to the Son of David: "May his name endure forever...all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed".
National and ethnic Israel can only find true meaning within the larger context of the renewal of all things through the Messiah. God's purposes are one. God created the Jewish people to bring Messiah to the world. You cannot divorce any of the promises to Israel from the "big picture" of redemption from the Fall through Messiah.
God has not withdrawn His promises to the Jewish people. Rather, Paul clearly tells us, "no matter how many promises God has made, they are "yes" in Messiah" (2 Cor. 1:20). The New Covenant promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus is greater than any other blessing of God ever given. Indeed this is the fulfillment of the blessing promised to Abraham. The curse of death and separation from God is overturned through Messiah. Paul clearly says "He redeemed us in order that THE BLESSING PROMISED TO ABRAHAM MIGHT COME TO THE GENTILES through Messiah Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit" (Galatians 3:14). Only through Jesus can people truly come to the blessings of Abraham, life in the Spirit.
Whether we are Jews by birth or Gentiles, we who trust Messiah Jesus have one common faith. As Paul put it "There is one body and one Spirit -- just as you were called -- one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6)
Some Jews who are for Jesus call their movement "Messianic Judaism". A few of these Jewish believers distinguish "Messianic Judaism" from "Christianity". I believe it would be better theology to distinguish between a culturally Jewish expression of New Covenant Judaism and a culturally Gentile expression of New Covenant Judaism. Our New Covenant faith is the true, Biblical Judaism.
Gentiles who come to believe in the Jewish Messiah convert to Biblical Judaism! Our New Covenant faith is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant faith. Christianity is New Covenant Judaism, the true religion of the Jewish people -- even if most Jewish people don't know it yet! The concept of "Spiritual Israel" is a Biblical doctrine. It doesn't mean "replacement"...it means EXPANSION! God has joined Gentiles to the true faith of Israel --He has expanded the nation spiritually!
Kingdom Blessings Depend Upon Following The King
To be a member of a kingdom means to swear allegiance to its king. Jesus is the King of Israel and those who follow him are members of his kingdom. Consider the implications of these passages:
John the Baptizer, said: "For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham" (Luke 3:8).
The Scriptures teach that all those who believe are Jesus' brothers (Romans 8:29 and Hebrews 2:10-11). Jesus said "whoever who does God's will is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:35). Jesus said he had other sheep, not of that flock (10:16). All believers are Jesus' family and the sheep of His flock.
Paul says Gentile believers are grafted in to the tree of Israel, become Abraham's children by faith, become heirs to the blessing of Abraham and are citizens of Israel (Romans 4:16-18; 11:17-21; Galatians 3:14; and Ephesians 2:19).
So, we see that every believer is a brother of Jesus, a child of Abraham, part of the flock of the Shepherd of Israel, grafted into the tree of Israel, an heir to the promise given to Abraham, and a citizen of the commonwealth of Israel! How wonderful to have become, spiritually, part of Israel!
The New Covenant
We are all covenant breakers before God. God made a covenant with Adam and we have all followed in the footsteps of our first father. What was said of Israel is also true of us "They like Adam have transgressed the covenant (1)". We can only be saved from the curse of the first covenant of Works made with Adam if God provides a Covenant of Grace for us. This is what is in focus in the covenant made with Abraham (2). The blessings promised to the nations refers to the reversal of the curse we came under through Adam. The New Covenant (3) brings to fruition the promise of blessing for the nations made to Abraham (4). Without the New Covenant all are in Adam and under the curse. Yet, the New Covenant is made with the house of Israel and the House of Judah (5)! Gentiles must join themselves to the Holy Nation in order to be a part of this covenant. Yet amazingly I have been told by an opponent of the "Spiritual Israel" doctrine that Gentile believers do not have the New Covenant! He told me that since the covenant was made with Israel only Jewish people have it! Oy Vey! Do you see where the denial of the doctrine of "Spiritual Israel" logically leads?
Can it really be doubted that all believers are spiritually Israel? The scriptures tell us that Gentile believers are spiritual members of the Jewish family of faith along with the remnant of Jewish believers, even if most of the natural family members have temporarily left the household of faith by rejecting the New Covenant. By adoption Gentiles come into a relationship with the Jewish people and so should have a concern for the estranged members of their own faith family, just as they should be concerned for the spiritual return of children of Christian parents who have departed from the faith.
How can anyone reasonably deny that through the great salvation provided through the Jewish Messiah, Gentile believers have become spiritually Israel? This is the truth Jesus taught and this is the doctrine Paul taught -- pretty good theological company to find oneself in!
A Key Passage: Romans 11
Though all believers are spiritually Israel, if we truly understand Romans 11 there should be no question about the fact that God still has a claim on the Jewish people. The natural children of Abraham are still in some way chosen because of the patriarchs, even in unbelief. He will restore the Jewish people to faith one day. Romans 11:28 clearly tells us "As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account, but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs." Consider these comments by leading Covenantal theologians:
"I extend the word Israel to all the people of God, according to this meaning, -When the Gentiles shall come in, the Jews also shall return from their defection to the obedience of faith; and thus shall be completed the salvation of the whole Israel of God, which must be gathered from both; and yet in such a way that the Jews shall obtain the first place, being as it were the first born in God's family.
...as Jews are the firstborn, what the Prophet declares must be fulfilled, especially in them: for that scripture calls all the people of God Israelites, it is to be ascribed to the pre-eminence of that nation, who God had preferred to all other nations...God distinctly claims for himself a certain seed, so that his redemption may be effectual in his elect and peculiar nation...God was not unmindful of the covenant which he had made with their fathers, and by which he testified that according to his eternal purpose he loved that nation: and this he confirms by this remarkable declaration, -that the grace of the divine calling cannot be made void. (6)"
"The second great event, which, according to the common faith of the Church, is to precede the second advent of Christ, is the national conversion of the Jews....that there is to be such a national conversion may be argued...from the original call and destination of that people. God called Abraham and promised that through him, and in his seed, all the nations of the earth should be blessed...A presumptive argument is drawn from the strange preservation of the Jews through so many centuries as a distinct people.
As the rejection of the Jews was not total, so neither is it final. First, God did not design to cast away his people entirely, but by their rejection, in the first place, to facilitate the progress of the gospel among the Gentiles, and ultimately to make the conversion of the Gentiles the means of converting the Jews...Because if the rejection of the Jews has been a source of blessing, much more will their restoration be the means of good...The restoration of the Jews to the privileges of God's people is included in the ancient predictions and promises made respecting them...The plan of God, therefore, contemplated the calling of the Gentiles, the temporary rejection and final restoration of the Jews...
He shows that the rejection of the Jews was not intended to result in their being finally cast away, but to secure the more rapid progress of the gospel among the heathen, in order that their conversion might react upon the Jews, and be the means of bringing all, at last, within the fold of the Redeemer...
The future restoration of the Jews is, in itself, a more probable event than the introduction of the Gentiles into the church of God. This, of course, supposes that God regarded the Jews, on account of their relation to him, with peculiar favor, and that there is still something in their relation to the ancient servants of God and his covenant with them, which causes them to be regarded with special interest. As men look upon the children of their early friends with kinder feelings than on the children of strangers, God refers to this fact to make us sensible that he still retains purposes of peculiar mercy towards his ancient people.
As the restoration of the Jews is not only a most desirable event, but one which God has determined to accomplish, Christians should keep it constantly in view even in their labors for the conversion of the Gentiles. (7)"
"To the Jew first, and also to the Greek...It does not appear sufficient to regard this priority as that merely of time. In this text there is no suggestion to the effect that the priority is merely that of time. The implication appears to be rather that the power of God unto salvation through faith has primary relevance to the Jew, and the analogy of Scripture would indicate that this peculiar relevance to the Jew arises from the fact that the Jew had been chosen by God to be the recipient of the promise of the gospel and that to him were committed the oracles of God...
While it is true that in respect of the privileges accruing from Christ's accomplishments there is now no longer Jew or Gentile and the Gentiles "are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph. 3:6), yet it does not follow that Israel no longer fulfills any particular design in the realization of God's worldwide saving purpose...
Israel are both "enemies" and "beloved" at the same time, enemies as regards the gospel, beloved as regards the election..."Beloved" thus means that God has not suspended or rescinded his relation to Israel as his chosen people in terms of the covenants made with their fathers.
Unfaithful as Israel have been and broken off for that reason, yet God still sustains his peculiar relation of love to them, a relation that will be demonstrated and vindicated in the restoration. (8)"
"The elective principle, abolished as to nationality, continues in force as to individuals. And even with respect to national privilege, while temporarily abolished now that its purpose has been fulfilled, there still remains reserved for the future a certain fulfillment of the national elective promise. Israel in its racial capacity will again in the future be visited by the saving grace of God [Rom. 11.2, 12, 25]....such conversions (of Jewish people) remain for the present but sporadic examples, though at bottom expressive of a divine principle intended to work itself out on the largest of scales at the predetermined point in the future. (9)"
Let us recognize with these great men of theology God's continuing love for the Jewish people, yet not center our theology on ethnic Israel. Speaking of "replacement theology", let's not replace Jesus with Israel, or even put it on an equal footing with him in the plan of God! (10)
God has not replaced the Jewish people with the church. Quite to the contrary, God has grafted Gentile branches into the tree of believing Israel, a tree made up of all true believers, both Jewish and Gentile, a tree rooted in the faith of the patriarchs (Romans 11:17-24). God has expanded Israel, not replaced it.
It precisely because of the fact that Gentile believers have been grafted into the tree of Israel, a tree foreign to their nature, that they have an obligation to the Jewish people, those natural branches which were cut off and which will be grafted in again. The doctrine of spiritual Israel should never be abused to imply God is finished with the Jewish people -- quite the contrary! It is expressly because of the truth of this doctrine we must stand by the natural branches and pray for their grafting in again!
And how foolish is any form of anti-semitism on the part of some so-called "Christian!" For a Christian to hate Jewish people is to hate his own adopted family and nation -- and even His own Jewish Lord and Savior!
Towards A Commonwealth Theology
How do we reconcile a view of the church being "Spiritual Israel" with a belief that God still has a place for the physical descendants of Abraham? This is where "Commonwealth Theology" comes in (11). The church might be compared to a commonwealth. Consider the British Commonwealth in it's heyday. Indians and Pakistanis became citizens of the British Commonwealth, even while living in India and Pakistan. These people were under the dominion of the King of Great Britain, and were therefore part of the Commonwealth. They weren't English, but they were British citizens. So it is with those who are ruled by the Jewish Messiah. Have they not submitted to the King of Israel? Are they not voluntary members of His Kingdom, under His rule and in His service? Those who believe have accepted Israel's King and are now members of His Kingdom, known as the Commonwealth of Israel. Israel is the Kingdom of the King of Israel. Ethnic Israel is at the core, it is the root (12), but the greater Commonwealth of Israel is made up of all who believe. Gentile believers are citizens of the commonwealth, even if not resident in the land and not physically "Jewish", just as one could be a citizen of the commonwealth of Great Britain without living in the British Isles and not being English, Scottish, or Welsh.
Spiritual Israel is made up of Jews and Gentiles submitting to the King of Israel. Physical Israel is made up of those who are Jewish, most of whom do not presently submit to the King. All who submit to the King are under His blessing. All who don't submit are not under His blessing and have cut themselves off from any participation in the eternal blessings of the Covenant of Grace. However God certainly seems to have a special place in His heart for the natives of the center of the original borders of the commonwealth, even in unbelief, just as the King of the British Isles would have a special place in his heart for natives of the British Isles and be more upset at their rebellion than at the rebellion of India or Pakistan. But rebellion is rebellion, whether conducted by natives of the home territories or members of the commonwealth. Ultimately, God's glory is at stake. Messiah will re-conquer his original territory for the sake of his own Glory. Tell me, how is such a concept in any way either showing an unbalanced ethnic favoritism on the one hand or anti-semitic on the other? Isn't this consistent with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:19? He says that Gentile believers are "no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people (13)".
Messiah, The True Israel
To expand Israel it first had to be narrowed down to one person. The scriptures teach that Jesus is the ultimate Israel. In Matthew 2:15 the Holy Spirit quotes a verse referring to national Israel "Out of Egypt I called my son" (Hosea 11:1) and says Jesus fulfills this prophecy! We are being told Jesus is the true faithful Israel of God. He alone is worthy of the covenant blessings. Messiah is the supreme seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). Paul explicitly says: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say `and to his seeds', meaning many people, but `and to his seed' meaning one person, who is Messiah". It is only through faith in Jesus that we come into the fullness of the promise to Abraham. This is to the Jew first, and also as for Gentiles.
Understanding The Prophets Biblically (Spiritually)
Alfred Edersheim, the greatest Messianic Jewish theologian ever, said:
"..we have the glowing descriptions by all the prophets, but especially in the Book of Isaiah, of the time of the new covenant, with its blessings to Israel and to mankind. That these bear reference to a spiritual world-wide dispensation in the Messianic days needs scarcely argument, any more than that all the conditions of it have been fulfilled in that dispensation which was introduced under the New Testament." (14)
Edersheim's statement that through the New Covenant we have come to the glorious fulfillment of Messianic promises given to Israel by the prophets is clearly true to the scriptures. Consider these Biblical truths:
Israel was told "the meek will inherit the land" (Psalm 37:11). Jesus said the meek would inherit the whole earth (Mt. 5:5). Paul says Abraham was to inherit "the world" (Rom. 4:13).
God promised Israel a city named Jerusalem. We are told we have come to a glorious heavenly Jerusalem, the community of the redeemed, superior (when seen through spiritual eyes) to anything experienced under the Old Covenant administration (Hebrews 12:22-23).
Paul says the true Jerusalem, the one which fulfills Isaiah 54, is the heavenly (spiritual) Jerusalem. (See how Isaiah 54:1 is interpreted in Galatians 4:26-27). This heavenly city, the church, is the congregation of the faithful (Hebrews 12:22-24).
Israel was promised a Temple; the New Covenant promises to both Jews and Gentiles (and still to the Jew first) that they can actually be the Temple! (1 Peter 2:5)
According to Isaiah 56:3 and the following verses Gentiles are admitted to God's people and come into the Temple. Hebrews says the old Temple has found fulfillment in the new. (See Hebrews 7:18, 8:13 and the whole rest of the book of Hebrews!)
Israel was promised a king -- God sent the world the King of Kings!
Certainly Edersheim was right to say of the New Covenant community: "all that had been national, preparatory, symbolic, typical, would merge into the spiritual reality of fulfillment." (15)
According to this great Jewish Christian theologian, the promises to national Israel have been realized in a glorious spiritual way through the Messiah! Even Rabbi Maimonides said: "All similar expressions used in connection with the Messianic age are metaphorical. In the days of King Messiah the full meaning of those metaphors and their allusions will become clear to all." (16)
Israel's Hope Fulfilled Beyond Expectation
Through Jesus we have more than could be conceived of by the prophets or their ancient readers. Peter says: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Messiah in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things" (1 Peter 1:10-12). Amazing! God says the Old Testament prophets were speaking us that salvation which we have received! Our current experience of salvation was spoken of by the Hebrew prophets!
Why didn't most Jewish leaders recognize it? They interpreted the promises in worldly terms rather than understanding the deeper spiritual meanings. This is still the case with the Orthodox rabbis today, who openly claim to be heirs to the Pharisees. The Orthodox rabbis today say God did not bring about the fulfillment of the messianic promises through Jesus, therefore either Jesus is not Messiah or God is a liar.
Did God fail to deliver what He promised to the Jewish people? Consider this example: What if you expected me to give you a hamburger and then I gave you filet mignon? What if you were told you would inherit an apple tree, but instead you inherited a whole glorious orchard? What if you thought I promised you $10, but then I delivered a million? What if I promised a child a typewriter when he turned 18 and when the time came I gave him the latest computer. Would I be a liar? No! When someone gives IMMEASURABLY MORE than that expected, the gift giver is no liar. God has given an even greater gift through Jesus, superior to what many think was promised!
Sadly, even many believers today do not fully understand how much greater the New Covenant redemption is that Jesus brought to Israel and the world. Why dine on hamburger when you can have filet mignon? Why settle for a single tree, when you can have the whole orchard? Why stress the $10 when there is $1,000,000 available? Why use an old Underwood manual typewriter when you can have the latest personal computer and laser printer? The Messiah and His Eternal Kingdom are the great blessings promised to Israel.
All of what God was doing in the Tenach (Old Testament) and all of the promises of God to bring redemption throughout the ages are centered in Jesus. "No matter how many promises God has made, they are "yes" in Messiah" (2 Cor. 1:20). God has something better in mind for the Jewish people, the $1,000,000 rather than the $10. Messiah offers the Jewish people (and Gentiles who believe) a greater redemption which makes the old look small in comparison.
The greatest gift and blessing of all is offered: eternal salvation through Jesus, the only name by which people can be saved. Through Messiah we are heirs to the glorious kingdom of the New Jerusalem (see Galatians 4:26 -- and notice carefully how Paul, under the Spirit's inspiration, interprets the original prophecy, Isaiah 54:1!)
The Kingdom of God is more magnificent than anything experienced under David. The past splendor of the Davidic kingdom is but a shadow of what God has done, is now doing, and will do through the Messiah (Hebrews 10:1). If we miss how God's promises reach their greater fulfillment in the New Covenant we rob Jewish and Gentile believers of a deeper understanding of the our glorious identity as sons of God through Messiah!
We must always be vigilant to combat the danger of diminishing the centrality of Jesus in the plan of God. Anything which takes the spotlight off of Jesus or diminishes the glory He is due should disturb us. Jesus alone saves us from death and Hell. He alone is the hope of the world. He alone should occupy the center of our theology. Nothing should ever take His place.
All creation groans in waiting for God's sons to be revealed. This will be the ultimate expression of the Passover liberation Messiah has brought. Renewal of all creation has already begun in those who believe -- and when Jesus returns He will liberate this creation from its bondage to decay (2 Cor. 5:17, Romans 8:17-23). The curse of the Fall is being replaced with the blessing of salvation as the kingdom of Messiah goes forward.
Let's affirm the great expansion of blessing the Messiah has brought. He has tremendously expanded the promises to Israel, and He has greatly enlarged Israel by bringing Gentiles into His spiritual commonwealth, the Kingdom of God. This was promised to Israel by Isaiah when he said "You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy...of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end" (9:3 and 7) and "Let no foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, `The LORD will surely exclude me from his people...these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer" (56:3 and 7). We have now come to "Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God...to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn..." (Hebrews 12:22-23)
Through Jesus Israel has been expanded in a glorious way, not replaced. Fulfillment of the promise to Abraham has come and will go forward until its completion when Messiah returns. Jesus must reign until all his enemies are placed under his feet. He will conquer all nations, including the Jewish nation with the gospel. Therefore, let us recommit ourselves to bringing the message of restoration to blessing "to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile"!
"You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy...For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this." (17)
1. Hosea 6:7
2. Genesis 12:3 and 22:18.
3. Jeremiah 31:31ff
4. Galatians 3:14.
5. Jeremiah 31:31.
6. (Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. XIX, Epistle to the Romans, Baker Book House, 1981, p. 434-440.)
7. (Systematic Theology V.3, James Clark & Co. 1960, p. 805. and A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, by Charles Hodge Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1836, pp. 270-285 passim. Now Published by Banner of Truth Trust)
8. (The Epistles to the Romans, John Murray, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984, Vol. I, p. 28 and Vol. II pp. xiv-xv and 76-101, passim.)
9. (Biblical Theology, Old and New Testaments, by Geerhardus Vos (c)1948 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Tenth Printing, page 79 and The Pauline Eschatology, by Geerhardus Vos, (c) 1979 Baker Book House, page 88.)
10. This is the sin of ethnolatry. Anything can become an idol, even good things, even Israel.
11. See Ephesians 2:12
12. Romans 11:18
13. I take the phrase "God's people" to mean Jewish believers in Jesus in tis context.
14. Quoted from Prophecy and History in Relation to the Messiah, Baker Book House, 1955, page 180.
15. Prophecy... page 174.
16. Speaking of Isaiah 11:6 "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb". From Guide to the Perplexed, III, ch. 11; also II, ch. 29. Quoted in A Maimonides Reader, by Isadore Twersky, page 224, Behrman House Publishers, Copyright 1972.
17. Isaiah 9: verses 3, 6 and 7.