Someone recently asked me if I believe in what’s called “replacement” theology. This is a massively complex subject, but I tried to provide a brief answer. Here it is:
All biblical interpreters recognise that there’s development between the Old Testament and the New. Some say the Old Testament is the seed to which the New Testament provides the flower. Others speak of the relationship as one of symbol to substance, or type to anti-type. The point is that we must strive to understand the progress in redemptive history. And when I look at the relationship between Israel and the church I see something similar to the relationship between the caterpillar and the butterfly.
The butterfly doesn’t replace the caterpillar. The butterfly IS the caterpillar in a more developed and consummate form. The butterfly is what God all along intended the caterpillar to become. Likewise, the church doesn’t replace Israel. The church IS Israel as God always intended it to be. Let me explain that further.
I believe that what we see in the NT isn’t the replacement of Israel; it’s an expanded definition of who Israel is. During the time of the Old Testament one was an Israelite (primarily) because one was a physical, biological descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One’s ethnicity was the deciding factor. But with the coming of Christ and the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles, the meaning of what constitutes a “true Jew” has undergone revision, or perhaps a better word would be expansion. Not one believing Jewish person has been replaced. Not one believing Jewish person has been set aside. Not one believing Jewish person has lost their promised inheritance.
Rather, God now says that a true Jew is one who is circumcised in heart and not just in one’s physical body (Rom. 2:28–29). The key passage is Galatians 3:16–18 and 3:25–29. There Paul says that the promises were made “to Abraham and to his offspring” (v. 16). I prefer the translation “seed” instead of “offspring” but either way the point is the same. In other words, when God gave the promises to Abraham and his seed in Genesis 12–17, it appeared he had in mind Abraham and all his physical progeny. But later we learn that he limited it to the progeny of Isaac and not Ishmael. Then we learn that he narrowed it down even further to be the progeny of Jacob and not Esau. By the time we get to the NT, Paul says God has narrowed it down even further, to only one Jewish person, Jesus. Here’s what Paul says:
“Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring/seed. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings/seeds,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (v. 16).
Wow! Paul is saying that God’s ultimate meaning in the Abrahamic covenant was that all the promises would be fulfilled in only “one” of Abraham’s physical seed/progeny – Jesus Christ! But just when you feel led to conclude that it’s impossibly narrow, Paul opens it up and says:
“for in Christ Jesus you are ALL sons of God, through faith. . . And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (i.e., the promise made to Abraham) (v. 28, 29).
So, the only relevant question now isn’t whose blood is in your veins (physically speaking) but whose faith is in your heart (spiritually speaking). If you’ve got faith in Jesus and thus are “in” him then you become the seed of Abraham that will inherit the promises! That means being an ethnic Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter when it comes to who inherits the promised blessings. What matters – the only thing that matters – is whether or not you are in Christ by grace through faith.
So, a true “seed” of Abraham or a “true Jew” isn’t a matter of physical descent but of spiritual new birth. No one has been replaced. All ethnic Jews who are in Christ by faith are the seed of Abraham and no less so is it true of all ethnic Gentiles who are in Christ through faith.
This is what God insists on in Ephesians 2:11–22. Believing Gentiles are now equal members of the “commonwealth of Israel” (2:12) and are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19). In Christ, God has torn down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile and “has made us both one” (Eph. 2:14). He has created “in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15). This “one new man” is the church of Jesus Christ. In the church are believing Jews and believing Gentiles, co-heirs of the promises made to the old testament patriarchs.
The old covenant ethnic, theocratic arrangement into which God entered with the physical descendants of Abraham was designed to be temporary “until” the coming of the Messiah and the New Covenant (Gal. 3:15–4:6). This is the consistent message of the book of Galatians. Now, anyone of any ethnicity has equal status as heirs of God’s promises so long as they believe in Jesus (Gal. 3:29).
Whether or not God will save the last generations of living ethnic Jews before the second coming of Christ is a matter of debate. How does one properly interpret Romans 11? I hope that it is true! Who could possibly protest? But God-honouring, Bible-believing Christians end up with differing answers. Still, no matter what one concludes on that matter, the Bible insists that whoever gets saved, whether now, during the course of church history, or later before Christ returns, all will be members of the one body of Christ, the church, equal in their inheritance of all that God has promised.
So I don’t believe that God’s saving work among ethnic Jews means that he will reconstitute the old covenant theocracy of Israel. I believe that all believing ethnic Jews, together with all believing ethnic Gentiles, will together constitute the elect, the church of Jesus Christ, the one “holy nation” that is in covenant with God (1 Peter 2:9). And because they are all in him, the true seed of Abraham, they are all likewise the seed of Abraham and thus heirs of the promise.
I don’t believe in replacement theology. I believe in inclusion theology: believing Gentiles have now been included in the commonwealth of Israel and are as much “true Jews” as are believing ethnic Jews (Eph. 2:19; Gal. 6:15–16). It’s not replacement, but fulfilment, just as the butterfly fulfils and completes what God intended when he first made a caterpillar.