Replacement Theology Undone by One Greek Word in Galatians 6:16

Replacement Theology has become a bit of a reviled term, even by the people who hold to it! The notion that the church has replaced Israel seems rude even to its proponents. Softer terms such as “supersessionism” or “fulfilment theology” are preferred, but they all end up with the same result – Israel is replaced in their thinking by the church, with no further function or role in God's plans.

However, sometimes just a small detail coming to light can totally change our understanding of a situation. Over the millennia, Bible scholars have scratched their heads over things that seem obvious to us now with hindsight. Today, it is not hard for us to fathom how everyone in the world could witness the same event simultaneously, for example. The “explosion in knowledge” and great “increase in people traveling to and fro” that Daniel the prophet wrote of (Daniel 12:4) now makes perfect sense with the development of the internet and air travel.

And for centuries it was extremely difficult for Christians to grasp that the word “Israel” in the Bible could possibly mean ethnic or national “Israel”, since it had apparently ceased to exist as a nation. The Jewish people were scattered across the globe for two millennia, and it certainly appeared to many that God’s purposes for them had come to an end. So scholars interpreted the Bible in light of their understanding, not imagining that Israel would exist again once more.

But since the reestablishment of Israel back in the land in 1948, we can start to read the Bible with new information that helps us to understand what God is talking about when He says, “Israel”. The events of 1948 have presented the shocking possibility that when the Bible talks about Israel, it could now literally mean – ISRAEL!

Since the early church fathers, as far back as Justin Martyr in 160 AD, Christians have been assuming that “Israel” really means “the Church”. Even by 160 AD, the people of Israel had been scattered and the land renamed “Palestine” for almost 100 years, so it’s easy to see how it happened.

The error of Replacement Theology

But you just try reading Romans 9-11 and every time it says “Israel”, replace it with the word “Church”. You will quickly see that it makes no sense at all.

Israel really means Israel in both the Old and the New Testaments. While the New Testament often describes Israel and the Church in similar terms – both are the Bride of God, children of God, the chosen people, and so on – never does the New Testament call the Church “Israel”.

The word “Israel” occurs 70 times in the New Testament (79 times 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 – the two exceptional cases being Romans 9:6 and Galatians 6:16. In the past, people have clung to Galatians 6:16 as an example of how Israel can mean the church, but let’s examine that verse…

Galatians 6:16 says: “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).

But if we look at what the text actually says in the original, these translations 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 Yeshua. 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.

God's great plan for Jew and Gentile

Looking at the context of Paul's letter to the Galatians, he is stressing that there is no need for Gentile believers to be circumcised or to follow the Law of Moses, but that salvation is through Yeshua alone, for both Jew and Gentile. However,  this doesn't mean that Paul sees no distinction between Jew and Gentile, as a cursory look through the rest of his epistles will quickly show you. There is no male or female, he says – and by this he means that both men and women have the same status through Yeshua. But of course there remains a distinction in other ways. Similarly, Paul talks of both the church and of Israel as separate entities many times. They do not blur into one, and there is no evidence that the early church blended the two until 160 AD.

Bible scholar, Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, writes that people who would claim that Israel means the church “must ignore the primary meaning of kai which separates the two groups in the verse in order to make them both the same group”[1], and Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, who taught Greek and New Testament Exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, believes that, “the least likely view among several alternatives is the view that the ‘Israel of God' is the church.”[2]

For centuries, it did not dawn on Bible scholars that the term Israel could possibly truly refer to the actual nation of Israel, or at least the many thousands of Israelites who were “of God”, and they superimposed their understanding that the Church had replaced it.
In some ways, it is true that the nation of Israel is a “type” of church… a foreshadowing of God’s people both Jew and Gentile together. We can see in the language of Paul throughout the epistles that he seeks to encourage Gentile believers to know that they are just as much “God’s people” as the Israelites have always been, and that they matter no less to him. He deliberately draws parallels with Israel and the new Gentile followers of the Way, showing the similarities. But we also know that Moses was a “type” of Messiah, sent to save the Jewish people, and in no way would we say that he is the same thing as Yeshua Himself. In fact, we see the two standing together on the Mount of Transfiguration!

One does not replace the other, even if one foreshadows the other in a typological manner.

Similarly, in Revelation, we see the tribes of Israel together with every nation, tribe and tongue, worshiping God at the end of time. And of course, the Messiah will return to Jerusalem. Jerusalem in Israel. Israel is Israel, right until the end.

God has no favorites, but He does have a plan. To fudge the distinction between Israel and the Church means that we can miss so much when we read the Scriptures. God wants us to know Him better, to share His heart for Israel, and to understand His plans for Israel in relation to the whole world. He wants us to continually grow in our understanding of His purposes, redeeming all creation to Himself. Seeing Israel as meaning “Israel” when we read the Bible brings a whole new level of revelation about our wonderful God and how He is unfolding His perfect plan for all of us.

[1] Dr. Fruchtenbaum's paper “Replacement Theology and the Epistle of First Peter” for Ariel Ministries, p.13
[2] S. Lewis Johnson Jr.,  “Paul and ‘Israel of God’, An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study” p. 3

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