Replacement Theology and Supersessionism: Are We All Israel Now?

Replacement Theology (much the same as Supersessionism) is the belief that the church has replaced, or superseded Israel. For many Christians the term Replacement Theology will be new and foreign. Others may believe that God’s plans for Israel have come to an end, but prefer the terms “Supersessionism” or “Fulfilment Theology” which basically end up meaning the same thing. To them, Israel is just another country like Belgium or Thailand, and the suggestion that there is more significance to the modern Jewish state sounds like elitism. However, for a huge number of Christians across the world, the whole issue of Israel simply isn’t addressed in their churches and there is a blank when it comes to knowing what to think about it all. Without wishing any harm on Israel or Jewish people, there are millions who simply haven’t thought much about it.

Sure, Israel shows up all over the Bible—in both testaments—but what’s that got to do with us today? A great deal, I would venture. All the more as we see the Day approaching.

How do people come to that conclusion that the term “Israel” means the church now that Jesus has come? There are a few verses in the New Testament that certainly sound like God might have changed track, and now all believers are collectively “Israel”. Let’s look at them here.

True Jews: Jews that are circumcised in heart

For 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. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)

So are Gentiles who are circumcised in heart and Spirit now considered Jews? Or is the verse talking about a subset of of all the Jewish people on the planet—those who are Jewish and also born again? It must be clearly the latter. Here is why.

This verse in Romans teaches that just being Jewish by blood and circumcision is not enough. Your ethnicity is not a VIP pass into eternity. Rather, those who are circumcised in heart and by the Spirit, in other words, those who are born again, will receive praise, recognition from God. What a remarkable fact! Contrary to the idea behind Replacement Theology (Supersessionism) it is clear that the man who wrote this (the Apostle Paul) does not believe the terms “Jew” or “Israel” includes Gentiles. In the very same letter, he starts off like this:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

Evidently Paul sees Jews and Gentiles (the Greek) as separate, not one in the same. Even to the degree that he promotes an evangelism strategy that sees Jews and Gentiles as distinct. And crucially he also sees “Jews” as in need of the gospel. So he can’t possibly think Jews are Christians.

If “Jews” really meant born-again believers in Paul’s mind, why would they need the gospel?

In a similar manner, we again see the definition of “Israel” narrowed to mean Jewish people who embrace God’s Messiah, rather than widened to include Gentiles. He uses the words “not all”:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” (Romans 9:6-7)

Grafted into the olive tree of Israel, not replacing the tree as in replacement theology

In chapter 9 Paul talks about Israel’s lack of faith as a people but then says explicitly at the start of the very next chapter:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel] is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. (Romans 10:1-2)

Again, if Paul intended “Israel” to now mean the body of Messiah, all Christians everywhere, why on earth would he be so desperate for them to be saved? It makes no sense. Israel means Israel, God’s chosen people who are in need of salvation. Not the church, who are already saved. The more you read Romans chapters 9, 10, and 11, the clearer it becomes that Israel could not possibly mean the church. Jewish people are people in need of salvation, just like everyone else, and those who have found eternal life in Jesus as their Messiah are now the true Jews in God’s sight.

They say they are Jews, but they are not…

Something similar happens in Revelation when Jesus, telling  John what to write to the seven churches, mentions the “synagogue of Satan” not once but twice:

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9)

“Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.” (Revelation 3:9)

Those who hold to Replacement Theology (Supersessionism) often wield these words against Jewish people, and of course they are often exploited by antisemites. What do they mean? Who are these people who “say they are Jews and are not”? Does it include all Jews who don’t believe in Jesus? Even though tens of thousands of Jews were saved in the book of Acts (as recorded in Acts 21:20), they were still very much a minority in the Jewish population. Are all the rest fake Jews? Let’s look at what Jesus said earlier, again recorded by John in John 8:

“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:42-47)

These scathing words were directed to the religious leaders who were deliberately keeping the Jewish people from Jesus. They were seeing Jesus in the flesh, doing miracles before their eyes, yet stayed firm in their disbelief and earnestly tried to prevent others from believing also. They are doing the very opposite of God’s call on Israel to be a “light to the nations” and were trying to snuff out the light when it was right there. Standing and acting in direct opposition to Jesus is very serious. It is the very work of antichrist, and Satan himself. Understandably, Jesus has some choice words for them.

But did you know that many of the key Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time were not born Jewish at all?

As Jesus addressed the persecuted churches in Revelation, He was speaking to believers who were under attack. An unholy alliance of corrupt leaders illegitimately appointed to roles of influence—even to the priesthood—were collaborating with Rome against the believers. King Herod the Great was not Jewish, and he would appoint Gentiles from Babylonian and Egyptian families to be high priests so that he could control them more easily.2 Even after the death of Herod corruption among the priestly class was rampant. Early Christians were persecuted for not bowing down to Caesar who proclaimed himself god, or any other Roman idol, and were also accused of cannibalism on account of the Lord’s Supper.

So the leaders of the Jewish people were not necessarily all Jewish, and even the very highest members of the Sanhedrin were converts. Shemaiah, who was the Nasi (president), and Abtalion the Av Beit Din (head of the court) were both descended from King Sennacherib of Assyria. Similarly the “Oral Law” of the Pharisees was based largely on the work of a descendant of Canaanite king Sisera whose parents had converted: Rabbi Akiva. Though ethnically Gentile, Akiva is known as “Chief of the Sages”, and father of Talmudic Judaism. Some of Akiva’s disciples include Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, father of Kabbalah, and Rabbi Meir, who, would you believe it, descended from Roman Emperor Nero. Akiva also proclaimed Simon Bar Kochba as the Messiah, condemning any Jewish people who did not participate in his revolt against the Romans as traitors, to be cut off from their people. Even though the Talmud contains many great stories and helpful wisdom, it soon became Jewish tradition to believe the rabbis more than God’s word in Scripture.

These men said they were Jews, but were not. Not physically, not ethnically, and definitely not spiritually, in the eyes of God. Culturally and ceremonially they may have converted to Judaism, but they wreaked havoc in God’s house and persecuted the true children of God. Jesus talks about it in Matthew:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Matthew 23:15

Again, strong words for proselytes that took Judaism down the wrong path, and away from the Jewish Messiah. It wasn’t long before an extra “blessing” was added to the daily prayers in the synagogue to include a curse on “apostates”, meaning believers. It became impossible for Jews who loved Jesus to stand in the synagogue and pray with their brethren.

Obviously, this does not render all Jewish people party to that ‘synagogue of Satan’. Nor does it strip the Jewish identity from the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and paste it onto Gentile Christians.

We see all twelve tribes alive and well as greeted in the book of James (James 1:1) but also crucially in the same book where the two controversial verses are found, when thousands from each of the twelve tribes will take their position in the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 7:4-8). Neither does it mean that such rabbis cannot be redeemed—just look at Paul! And there’s nothing wrong with Gentiles joining the house of Israel either, as the likes of Ruth, Rahab, and Jethro can tell you. But even after mixed multitudes came up from Egypt at the Exodus and many Persians joined the Jews in the book of Esther, Jesus still saw Israel as Israel (Matthew 15:24). God knows who is Jewish and who isn’t.

Who is included in “The Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16)?

The word “Israel” occurs 78 times in the New Testament (more if you include the word “Israelite”), and all but two of these instances are unequivocally referring to the nation of Israel, and not to the Church—one is in Romans 9:6 as discussed above, and the other being Galatians 6:16. In the past, proponents of Replacement Theology (Supersessionism) have clung to Galatians 6:16 as an example of how Israel can mean the church, but is that what it means?

“Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God,”(RSV) or
“Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” (NIV).

If we look at what the text actually says in the original, translations like these have missed a key Greek word:

καὶ ὅσοι τῷ κανόνι τούτῳ στοιχήσουσιν, εἰρήνη ἐπ᾽ αὐτοὺς καὶ ἔλεος, καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰσραὴλ τοῦ θεοῦ.

Literally translated: And as many as (whoever) to the rule this shall be elementing (observing the fundamentals), peace on them and mercy, and (also) on the Israel of the God. In other words, even though the Greek text indicates says that Paul was pronouncing peace and mercy to the followers of the Way AND ALSO to “the Israel of God”, those who were translating the text decided it could not possibly mean that Paul wanted to bless the house of Israel as well as the Gentile followers of Jesus. They chose a far less common way of understanding the grammar, and decided to lump the two together with no distinction. While it is not technically incorrect to translate it in this manner, there are many reasons to stay with the standard meaning of the Greek word “καὶ” to mean “and” or “also”, which is far more commonplace. Nope, this is the last straw for Replacement Theology (Supersessionism) to cling to.

That said, there will be one bride at the end of time, not two! Just as men and women are distinct, so are Jew and Gentile, and together we are “One New Man” in the Messiah (Ephesians 2:11-22), holding the same status before God as His children, as His beloved.

The death knell for Supersessionism

So, careful analysis of each of the only verses that might have supported Supersessionism reveal that Israel is still Israel. And (just in case there is any doubt) the idea that the church has superseded Israel takes a killer blow when you read Romans 9-11. The entire Bible paints the picture of God’s unrelenting love for Israel, His covenant keeping faithfulness despite sin and idolatry, and now even in the New Testament, the same message is emphasized by Paul:

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Romans 11:1)

Just as the Davidic covenant remains in place despite David’s deep sin, so God’s calling and gifts to Israel are irrevocable, as Paul so clearly teaches. God’s plans are ongoing and we haven’t even got to the best bit yet!

The Davidic covenant stands against Replacement Theology

Carefully reading through these chapters, Romans 9-11, has brought many to see God’s heart for Israel. Two Egyptian sisters recently had this revelation despite deeply entrenched antisemitic attitudes in their culture. Even though the cost has been high for them, they have been thrilled to embrace Messianic Jewish believers as family for the first time. Many Christians who live in nations where antisemitism is prevalent hold very anti-Israel views, even subconsciously. It’s typical to see Jesus and His disciples as Christian rather than Jewish, and those who persecuted them as “wicked Jews”. For too long the church has lived under this cloud of ignorance and blindness regarding God’s heart for Israel.

The world is gradually turning against Israel and the Jewish people, just as the Bible said would happen. Even though Israel may still be deeply in sin (like so many nations) God’s covenant remains because He is faithful even when we are not. This fact should encourage all of those who are in relationship with God—His love for us never fails! Similarly, Paul lays out in these chapters how the restoration and salvation of Israel will mean life from the dead and great riches for all the families of the earth. It’s important that God’s people join His plans and heart for Israel as we move steadily towards the end of this age. It’s high time for the error of Replacement Theology (Supersessionism) to be exposed and jettisoned for the antisemitic falsehood it is. The time to favor Zion has come.

Why did God choose Israel? And is Israel still chosen?

1. Bader, Gershom,  Jewish Spiritual Heroes, Vol I: Creators of the Mishna, Shemaiah and Abtalion (New York, NY, 1940)
“SHEMAIAH AND ABTALION succeeded Judah b. Tabbai and Simeon b. Shetach to leadership in Jewish life. Shemaiah became Nasi of the Sanhedrin and Abtalion occupied the post of head of the court.” Along with Shemaiah and Abtalion, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir, the famous scribe and translator Onkelos was also a convert, as well as Ben Bag-Bag, rabbinic sage and disciple of Hillel the Elder, and ben Hai-Hai.
2. Goodman, Martin, A History of Judaism, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press 2018, p. 103)
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