If you lived five-hundred years ago, you would have thought the earth to be at the center of the universe. It would have been hard to convince you otherwise, for we don’t sense the earth moving beneath our feet, but we do see the sun, moon, stars and planets spin across the sky. While various cultures around the world followed the geocentric model, it was Claudius Ptolemy (100 – 170 A.D.) who formally explained the motion of the planets as a combination of their orbit around the earth, plus a mysterious epicycle to explain why the planets backtracked at times in the sky. His theory prevailed for over 1200 years, not just because it felt true, but because it worked: astronomers found it useful to predict the apparent motion of the planets in the sky.
The Geocentric and Heliocentric Models
But then Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543 A.D.) proposed a heliocentric model for the solar system, where the earth and other planets orbit around the sun. This explained the motion of the planets in a simpler way, eliminating the need for an epicycle. For a time, there was resistance to this view, especially in the Roman Catholic church 1, but eventually people saw Ptolemy’s model was wrong and went with Copernicus. Today, we realize the benefits of this in the science of space exploration. For example, we could never have sent the Mariner 9 and later spacecraft to Mars based on a geocentric view of the universe.
There is a theological parallel to this. Just as Ptolemy’s geocentric model prevailed among astronomers for hundreds of years, for almost 1900 years the key doctrine of supersessionism (or ‘replacement theology’) prevailed over much of the church. Like Ptolemy’s geocentric model, this doctrine appeared to explain various things in the scriptures, and it profoundly affected the Church’s view of the Jews, end-times prophecy, and theology in general. It still does so today to some degree.
The doctrine of supersessionism became popular through something Justin Martyr wrote in 160 A.D, which Origen and Irenaeus also supported. Justin wrote:
“For we are the true and spiritual Israelitish nation, and the race of Judah and of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, who when he was still uncircumcised received witness from God for his faith, and was blessed, and was called father of many nations-we, I say, are all this, who were brought nigh to God by Him who was crucified, even Christ, …”
Dialog with Trypho, XI, 5
Justin was carrying on a debate with Trypho, a non-believing Jew, over how the new covenant superseded the old covenant law, and how Jesus fulfilled the old covenant law for us. While these points are true, Justin promoted an erroneous idea along with it. He said believers in Jesus Christ (including the Gentiles) have replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. In other words, national Israel is no longer God’s people. (In this article, when I mention supercessionism or replacement theology, I am referring to this tenet specifically.) To those who subscribe to this doctrine, the passages we are going to look at seem to directly support what they believe. But this is an eisegetical induction—something that came about by selecting scriptures to support an opinion, while ignoring other scriptures that oppose it.
In this article, we’re going to look at the most common proof-texts for replacement theology to see what they say in context. But first, we’re going to look at some other scriptures that directly contradict this doctrine, because the supersession proof-texts must be interpreted in light of what the rest of the Bible says. After this, I’d like to show the effects of replacement theology on church doctrine and practice.
The Old Testament Testimony
One of the most important foundations of Bible interpretation is: No scripture contradicts other scripture. If it’s all inspired by God, it must all agree with itself. This means you cannot set one set of verses against another set of verses to see which wins out because all of the Bible agrees with itself. If one passage seems to contradict another passage, you can be sure you have a wrong understanding of one or both passages. If something does not make sense, you must be open to the possibility that a doctrine you believe in may be wrong. It’s not enough to have select proof-texts to support what you believe. You must look at all of scripture to determine if the interpretation of the proof-texts is correct. If one text appears to teach the opposite view of another, then a deeper study is in order to resolve the apparent conflict. With that in mind, lets see what the Bible says about the nation of Israel in relation to this topic.
I believe the key to identifying who Israel is in the end-times can be found in the book of Deuteronomy. While this is not a prophetic book, it contains the Bible’s most complete prophetic summary of the history of Israel up to modern times.
Deuteronomy 28 begins with what God would do to Israel if they obeyed Him. He said He would bless them greatly. He would prosper them and give them victory against their enemies. This was a conditional promise, and it seemed for a while that it would never be fulfilled. But God fulfilled it all by Solomon’s time (1 Kings 8:56). (By the way, I have a theory that all of God’s promises, even the conditional ones, will eventually be fulfilled at some point in time to prove God is willing and able to perform them—to prove they are not just empty promises.)
But Israel’s history was one primarily marked by disobedience, and the remainder of this chapter describes what God would do to them if they disobeyed Him and refused to repent. Things would get bad, then go to worse.
- Verse 25 predicted Israel’s repeated defeats before their enemies in the book of Judges.
- Verses 21, 22, 27-29, and 35 predicted the later environmental disasters and deadly diseases (as fulfilled in 2 Samuel 24:15 for example).
- Verse 53 predicted the cannibalism of 2 Kings 6:24-29 and Lamentations 4:10.
- Even the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities were foretold in verses 48 to 52.
And if, after all these calamities, Israel continued to resist God, God promised in verses 63 to 67 to scatter His people among the nations:
It shall happen that as Yahweh rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you, so Yahweh will rejoice over you to cause you to perish, and to destroy you; and you shall be plucked from off the land where you go in to possess it. Yahweh will scatter you among all peoples, from the one end of the earth even to the other end of the earth; …
– Deuteronomy 28:63-64
This happened immediately after Titus conquered Jerusalem in 70 A.D, which led to the Jews being scattered around the world.
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850)
It is very important to recognize that Israel’s stubborn refusal to submit to God was not a surprise to Him. He knew it would happen and told them in advance what He would do. He even said in verse 68 He would bring His people back into Egypt to be sold as slaves, yet no one would buy them. This was also fulfilled after the fall of Jerusalem. Titus deported the surviving Jews to Egypt for slaves, but people didn’t buy them because they already had too many 2.
It seems by this point God was done with Israel, and many theologians have taught that as fact. But two chapters later Israel’s prophetic history continues:
It shall happen, when all these things have come on you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall call them to mind among all the nations, where Yahweh your God has driven you, and shall return to Yahweh your God, and shall obey his voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul; that then Yahweh your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion on you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, where Yahweh your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of the heavens, from there will Yahweh your God gather you, and from there he will bring you back: and Yahweh your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and he will do you good, and multiply you above your fathers. Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.
– Deuteronomy 30:1-6
Notice who this prophecy was given to:
- Verse 1: “…when all these things have come on you.” The promise will happen to the same people who experienced the blessing and curse of chapter 28.
- Verse 2: “…according to all that I command you this day…” The promise will happen to the same people God had commanded through Moses that day.
- “Verse 3: … and gather you from all the peoples, where Yahweh your God has scattered you…” The promise will happen to the same people God had driven out of the land and scattered among all the nations. This must be Israel, for it makes no sense to say the Gentiles were scattered among the Gentiles, or God will restore the Gentiles to their land.
- “Verse 5: …your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed…” This promise will happen to a particular group of people whose ancestors had possessed a particular land. This cannot refer to the Church which never had a land to be scattered from. The church consists of believers who live as strangers and pilgrims on earth.
So this passage can only apply to the descendents of Jacob, and it must occur after all of the blessings and curses of chapter 28 were completed. Even though Israel was scattered to the four winds, God would remember them and eventually bring them back to live in the land He gave them.
This promised regathering of Israel is repeated throughout the Old Testament…
He will set up a banner for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
– Isaiah 11:12
Just as in the Deuteronomy 30 prophecy, Israel is regathered from all around the world. This is not a return from a regional Assyrian or Babylonian captivity. It is a global return. This prophecy was never fulfilled in Bible times, but it has happened and is happening in our time.
Yet the number of the children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea, which can’t be measured nor numbered; and it will come to pass that, in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ The children of Judah and the children of Israel will be gathered together, and they will appoint themselves one head, and will go up from the land; …
– Hosea 1:10-11
Here God informs us of His plan to bring, not only the descendants of the tribe of Judah back together, but also the other tribes of Israel. In verse 9, God called Israel “not my people.” But at some point in the future, the same people God said this to will be called “sons of the living God.” They will unite under one ruler that they themselves have appointed. This is also a prophecy never fulfilled in Bible times.
and I will multiply men on you, all the house of Israel, even all of it; and the cities shall be inhabited, and the waste places shall be built; and I will multiply on you man and animal; and they shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited after your former estate, and will do better [to you] than at your beginnings: and you shall know that I am Yahweh. Yes, I will cause men to walk on you, even my people Israel; and they shall possess you, and you shall be their inheritance, and you shall no more henceforth bereave them of children.
– Ezekiel 36:10-12
This prophecy, spoken in a symbolic way to the holy land, says the people of Israel will never again be scattered once God brings them back into the land. We know this didn’t happen in Bible times because Israel departed from the land in 70 A.D.. Therefore this prophecy must be for a later time, and it must occur to the people to whom it was written: the whole house of Israel.
There are many other scriptures that show God is not done with the descendants of Jacob. If you think these promises now apply to the church, you must ask yourself if God reneges on His promises. If I promise to give you $1000, but I give the money to someone else instead, have I kept my promise? Of course not! In the same way, God also does not make promises to one person or group of people, then fulfill it to a different person or group of people. God made many promises to Israel, and He will fulfill them to the same Israel. God always means what He says! 3
Supersessionists believe God abandoned the descendants of Jacob because they rejected their Messiah. Israel blew their last chance to be reconciled to God. But we can see from Deuteronomy 28 and other passages that God knew they would reject Him. And this divine knowledge was part of His plan to save us:
He was despised, and rejected by men; a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease. He was despised as one from whom men hide their face; and we didn’t respect him.
– Isaiah 53:5
How could Christ have died for the sins of mankind if the Jews 4 as a whole accepted Jesus as their Messiah right away? No, it had to happen the way it did.
God still has a plan for national Israel. At a minimum, this plan is an earthly plan, with earthly promises. But for the faithful remnant, His plan is eternal, for the remnant will be saved. This salvation will happen the same way a Gentile is saved (Acts 15:11): by grace through faith in Jesus.
Next, we’ll look at what the New Testament says about Israel.
The New Testament Testimony
A fig tree
Now let’s see what the New Testament says about the people of Israel. All of the epistles were written after Jesus was rejected by His people. Yet, even that was not enough for God to reject them. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans:
I ask then, did God reject his people? May it never be! For I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God didn’t reject his people, which he foreknew. … Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. … I ask then, did they stumble that they might fall? May it never be! But by their fall salvation has come to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy. Now if their fall is the riches of the world, and their loss the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fullness? … For if the rejection of them is the reconciling of the world, what would their acceptance be, but life from the dead? .. . For I don’t desire you to be ignorant, brothers, of this mystery, so that you won’t be wise in your own conceits, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, and so all Israel will be saved. Even as it is written, “There will come out of Zion the Deliverer, and he will turn away ungodliness from Jacob.
– Romans 11:1-2, 5, 11-12, 15, 25-26
Paul confidently says God did not reject His people which He foreknew. God knew from the beginning they would reject Him. But Paul looked forward to the day when all of Israel would repent and turn back to God. This will not happen until after the last Gentile is saved (when the “fullness of the Gentiles” comes in), and then they will come to faith. In the meantime, Israel is experiencing a temporary ‘partial hardening’ that makes them enemies of the gospel to this day… yet they are still beloved of God:
Concerning the Good News, they are enemies for your sake. But concerning the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sake. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
– Romans 11:28-29
Just as God loved us while we were still His enemies, God loves Israel while they are His enemies. And because God does not revoke His calling, He will fulfill His promises to the seed of Jacob.
We can see Paul had great hope for his people. His desire and prayer for all of Israel was that they would be saved (Romans 10:1). If Paul believed God had abandoned Israel, he would not have said this.
What about the other disciples? What did they believe?
Therefore, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It isn’t for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within his own authority.
– Acts 1:6-7
The early disciples also believed God had not abandoned His people. They expected their earthly kingdom to be restored in their lifetime. Jesus did not respond to their question, “No, you misunderstand. Israel shall never be restored.” Instead He said, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Israel would be restored… eventually.
Nathanael called Jesus the King of Israel (John 1:49), not just the king of Judah. The people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem also called Jesus the King of Israel (John 12:13). These people were recalling what the Old Testament prophesies said about the Messiah: how He would rule over all of Israel, not just one tribe.
…Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his companions; and I will put them with it, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in my hand. … Say to them, Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, where they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all; and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all; … My servant David shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my ordinances, and observe my statutes, and do them…. and David my servant shall be their prince for ever.
– Ezekiel 37:15-26
Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will raise to David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name by which he shall be called: Yahweh our righteousness.
– Jeremiah 23:6
The writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31 in foretelling of a new covenant God would make with Israel and Judah (Hebrews 8:7-13). God would bring all of Israel (some of every tribe) into this covenant. God can only fulfill this promise to the same people to whom it was made.
If, as supersessionism says, the Church has replaced Israel, what then has happened to the original Israel? Supposedly, they have been abandoned by God. This is where we get the myth of the ten lost tribes: After the Assyrians conquered them, the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Manasseh and Ephraim were cast out of the land and scattered throughout the world. But we can see from the New Testament that this is not so. Jesus told His disciples to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6). Jesus was not speaking of one tribe, but all of them. The priests in New Testament times were of the tribe of Levi. Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:36) was of the tribe of Asher. If her tribe was not lost, there is no need to believe the others were either. 5
One more thing to think about: During the census in Luke 2, everyone had to go to their city to be registered. Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because he was of the tribe of Judah through David. If the ten tribes were gone, did all of the Jews living in the northern lands travel south to Judah and Benjamin, leaving their property unprotected?
I think it quite possible that most of the 12 disciples, having lived in the area of Galilee, were descendants of one or more of the northern ten tribes. The prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-2 speaks of Jesus’ ministry in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, implying that would still be their tribal lands when the prophecy was fulfilled.
So, both the old and new testaments declare God has not abandoned Israel. He still has a plan for His chosen people. But it is not enough to have clear proof-texts for this. We must also look at the scriptures supercessionist claim say otherwise. Do they really say God is done with Israel? Do they contradict what we’ve already seen? This is what we will look at next.
Examining Replacement Theology Proof-Texts
We’ve seen the evidence to know God is not done with Israel. Now let’s look at the scriptures used to promote replacement theology to see how they’ve been misinterpreted.
I saw, when, for this very cause that backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a bill of divorce, …
– Jeremiah 3:8
Taken by itself, this verse appears to say that God was done with the northern ten tribes of Israel. Once you’re divorced, you’ve cut all ties with your spouse. However, God did not cut all ties…
“They say, ‘If a man puts away his wife, and she goes from him, and become another man’s, will he return to her again?’ Wouldn’t that land be greatly polluted? But you have played the prostitute with many lovers; yet return again to me,” says Yahweh.
– Jeremiah 3:1
Yahweh said to me, “Backsliding Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, ‘Return, you backsliding Israel,’ says Yahweh; ‘I will not look in anger on you; for I am merciful,’ says Yahweh. ‘I will not keep anger forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against Yahweh your God, and have scattered your ways to the strangers under every green tree, and you have not obeyed my voice,’ says Yahweh.” “Return, backsliding children,” says Yahweh; “for I am a husband to you. …
– Jeremiah 3:11-14
Notice even though God had given a certificate of divorce, He still called Himself a husband to Israel. This was an entirely one-sided divorce. Israel was the one who wanted a divorce, not God.
But it is not as though the word of God has come to nothing. For they are not all Israel, that are of Israel. Neither, because they are Abraham’s seed, are they all children. But, “In Isaac will your seed be called.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as a seed.
– Romans 9:6-8
Replacement theologians see this passage as speaking of Gentile believers. But the key to this and some of the other passages that follow is to understand Paul is speaking of a subset, a remnant, of the descendents of Jacob, not a superset where Gentiles are added to Israel. The word “of” in this context means those who are descended from. Those who are “of Israel” is another way of refering to those who are descended from Jacob.
Just as not all are Israel who are physically descended from Abraham, so not all are Israel who are physically descended from Jacob. The children of the flesh are the natural offspring of Jacob, and the children of the promise are a subset of the children of Jacob. 6
Gentile believers are grafted into God’s people through Christ, not Jacob. Jesus, who is the Vine (John 15:1), who is the true Israel (Isaiah 49:3), who existed before Abraham and Jacob (John 8:58), is the root (Revelation 5:5), and we partake of the promises through Him. The only patriarch we have ties to is Abraham, the father of faith (Romans 4:16, Galatians 3:7-8, 14, 29). The blessings on the nations come through him. 7
Peter said in Acts 15, Gentile believers don’t have to become Jews (Israelites) to be saved, therefore Gentile believers are not part of Israel.
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God.
– Romans 2:28-29
Again, Paul is speaking of the righteous subset of national Israel, the children of the promise. A true Jew is one who is not merely physically circumcised, but is circumcised in heart (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4). Nathanael, for example, was a true Israelite who received praise from God (John 1:47).
As many as walk by this rule, peace and mercy be on them, and on God’s Israel.
– Galatians 6:16
To understand this verse, you must know to whom Paul is speaking. The letter to the Galatians was written to the believing Gentiles of that church who were under pressure from the legalists to observe Jewish customs. In the immediate context, the rule he refers to is his instruction not to be circumcised (Galatians 6:11-15, 5:2). On those who walk by this rule, he wishes peace and mercy.
“God’s Israel” is a separate group of people within the Galatian church. They are not the Gentiles. They are the saved Jews of the Galatian church who, like Paul himself, were already circumcised, and therefore had no need to walk by that rule.
While there is no spiritual difference between believing Jews and Gentiles, there still remains earthly distinctions. Otherwise Paul would not have called Peter a Jew (Galatians 2:14), nor would he have declared himself to be of the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1).
The ruins of the synagogue at Sardis
“I know … the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews, and they are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. … Behold, I give of the synagogue of Satan, of those who say they are Jews, and they are not, but lie. …
– Revelation 2:9, 3:9
These verses are used to teach that the Jews are the “synagogue of Satan”, but they really speak of the other subset of Israel: those who don’t believe. Jesus said those who didn’t believe in Him had Satan as father (John 8:44-45). 8 But there were some Jews who did believe, such as the disciples. They were not of the synagogue of Satan. This is not a blanket statement about all Jews. And even if it was, it has nothing to do with their status before God as His chosen people.
As he says also in Hosea, “I will call them ‘my people,’ which were not my people; and her ‘beloved,’ who was not beloved.”
– Romans 9:25
This is another verse that supersessionists only see as a clear proof of their theology. The Gentile believers were not God’s people, and now they are. But if you read Hosea along with this section of Romans, you will see it has nothing to do with Gentiles. God told Hosea to marry a prostitute to show in a symbolic way God’s relationship with His adulterous people. His wife bore some children. In the first chapter, God told Hosea to give a name to one of his children:
He said, “Call his name Lo-Ammi; for you are not my people, and I will not be yours…
– Hosea 1:9
This child symbolized God’s rejection of His people. But this rejection would not be permanent, for immediately after God said:
…Yet the number of the children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea, which can’t be measured nor numbered; and it will come to pass that, in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’
– Hosea 1:10
This must apply to Israel, the same people God declared were “not my people” in the previous verse. (See also Zechariah 10:6.) While it is true that the Gentiles were not God’s people, this was spoken to Israel, so these promises of restoration must apply to them. Paul gets his quote from a verse in the next chapter:
…and I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy; and I will tell those who were not my people, ‘You are my people;’ and they will say, ‘My God!'”
– Hosea 2:23
Again, this must refer to the same people spoken about in Hosea 1:9-11. It must refer to national Israel. Therefore, Paul’s quote in Romans 9:25 is about the descendents of Jacob, not the Gentiles. Yes, a remnant of both the Gentiles and the Jews are vessels of mercy (verse 24), but Paul’s focus in chapters 9 through 11 is national Israel. Those who were “Not My People” would be restored, not replaced. 9
Next, we will look at the effects of Replacement Theology on the Church.
The Effects of Replacement Theology
So why all the fuss over who Israel is today? Isn’t this just quibbling over a minor doctrinal understanding? Does it really make any difference what position you take?
I said at the beginning that the doctrine of supersessionism has profoundly affected much of the church’s view of the Jews, end-times prophecy, and theology. Here are some of the effects of the Church taking on itself the role of the new Israel:
- When the Church called itself the new Israel, it started following the patterns of Israel’s worship in the Old Testament. Israel was divided into twelve tribes, of which only one had rights to temple service, of which only a part had the priesthood, of which only one was the high priest. Therefore the Church was also separated into clergy and laity, with the clergy divided into a hierarchy as well. Instead of the priesthood of all believers, only a few were declared priests, and the laity had to go through them to get to God. The clergy became the mediator instead of Jesus Christ 10. But the Church was never intended to be composed of a hierarchy of believers. Every one of us is a priest (1 Peter 2:5-9, Revelation 1:6, 5:10). Every one of us has direct access to God through One Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Every one of us has the Holy Spirit to guide and teach us.
- The early church had two ‘rituals’: water baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. But later the Church added a lot more trappings to its worship, again modeled after the temple service. The Old Covenant priests had special clothing, so the clergy took on special clothing. Incense was used in the temple, so incense was used in the Church. The temple and it’s furnishing were sanctified as holy, so Church buildings and their contents were considered holy.
- In the early church, all believers were equal, even though they had different roles. The leaders humbly served the church (Matthew 20:25-28, 23:8-12, Mark 9:35, 2 Corinthians 1:24, 1 Peter 5:3). And all believers were to submit to the secular authorities (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). But just as the Old Covenant high priest (and later the king) was the highest human authority in Israel, so the Church took on itself authority, leading to magisterial religion (the joining of church and state), and the rule of might.
- The apostles taught believers are not of this world. We are strangers and pilgrims, living in a foreign land, waiting for a heavenly city (1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 11:13). But as the Church gained power, it started to treat this world as its own. It sought political conquests and ruled by force. (Perhaps it applied the prophecy of Micah 4:13 to itself.) This led to the Crusades, forced conversions, persecution of Jews, Christians, and other peoples, and other ills that run completely against the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, and the practice of the early church.
An auto-de-fé in Plaza Mayor, Madrid, 1680
These are just some of the effects of replacement theology over the ages. If there is one thing we should learn from this, it is this: Never underestimate the influence of a small doctrinal deviation. I believe most of the blame for the evils done by the established Church can be traced back to replacement theology.
Another effect of replacement theology is the interpretation of most of the events of Revelation as past history. Revelation 7:4ff and 14:1,3 say the twelve tribes of Israel will be present during the time of the “Great Tribulation”. This was interpreted by supercessionists to mean Christians will be present during that time. Replacement theology argues that since Christians are appointed to suffer much tribulation, and Revelation has a lot of suffering in it, Christians are the ones doing the suffering in that book. But those who hold this view ignore the distinction between the suffering of satanic persecution and the suffering of the wrath of God.
In the book of Revelation, “tribulation” is only used to describe Christian sufferings. It is never used of the suffering of mankind in general during the time of the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments. During that time a different word is used: wrath. Christians are appointed to suffer the tribulation of satanic persecution, but we are not appointed to suffer the wrath of God:
Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him.
– Romans 5:9
…and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.
– 1 Thessalonians 1:10
For if God didn’t spare angels when they sinned, but cast them down to Tartarus, and committed them to pits of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; and didn’t spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah with seven others, a preacher of righteousness, when he brought a flood on the world of the ungodly; and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was very distressed by the lustful life of the wicked (for that righteous man dwelling among them, was tormented in his righteous soul from day to day with seeing and hearing lawless deeds): the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment;
– 2 Peter 2:4-9
I don’t believe Christians will be present during the time of God’s wrath on earth 11. Before the trumpet and bowl judgments, we see all Christians present in heaven (Revelation 7:9). They come from every nation, tribe, people, and language. 12 Just as God rescued Noah and Lot from the coming wrath, He will rescue us.
For most of church history, end-times prophecy was almost universally interpreted from a historist viewpoint, meaning the majority of prophesies were interpreted to be about various events that had already happened in Church history. If you read commentaries on Revelation from more than 100 years ago, such as that of Albert Barnes or John Gill, you’ll see they view much of the book of Revelation as symbolically describing events in the past, such as events in Roman history, the rise and influence of Roman Catholicism and Islam, and the Reformation. For example, here is Albert Barnes’ take on the command to measure the temple of God in Revelation 11:1:
“This, we have seen, was a direction to take an estimate of what constituted the true church; the very work which it was necessary to do in the Reformation, for this was the first point which was to be settled, whether the papacy was the true church or was the antichrist.”
Here is John Gill on the locusts of Revelation 9:
“… The western locusts are the clergy of the church of Rome, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks, and friars, of every order; these were not instituted by Christ, but rose out of the bottomless pit … The eastern locusts are the Saracens [Arabs and Muslims], and who are chiefly designed; and who were to harass and distress the eastern empire, and prepare for its ruin, which is brought on under the next trumpet by the Turks…”
Prophetic numbers were interpreted inexactly. Here is Gill on on the “five months” of Revelation 9:5:
“The time that the locusts should torment men, which is “five months”, seems not to design any determinate time; but only that seeing five months is the time that locusts live, and are in their strength and power, even the five, hottest months in the year, from April to September…”
And here is Barnes again on the number 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4:
“If literal, it is necessary to suppose that this refers to the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. But on every supposition this is absurd. Ten of their tribes had been long before carried away, and the distinction of the tribes was lost, no more to be recovered, and the Hebrew people never have been, since the time of John, in circumstances to which the description here could be applicable. These considerations make it clear that the description here is symbolical.”
If the ten tribes have really been lost, his argument may be valid. But we’ve seen that they haven’t been lost. They are mixed together within today’s Jews, and even if the Jews of today can’t tell which tribe they belong to, God knows. Perhaps through future genetic research, we’ll be able to distinguish between the tribes. Albert’s argument that the Jews have never been in such circumstances is only a problem if you view Revelation as past history.
Barnes and Gill go into great detail to convince their readers that much of Revelation has already happened. But even though many or most of these prophesies have supposedly been fulfilled long ago, there is little agreement among commentators on how they were fulfilled. For example, the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3 have been said to be Zerubbabel and Joshua (Zechariah 4:3,11,14), the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia (Revelation 2:8-11, 3:7-13), Elijah and Moses, Enoch and Elijah, Peter and Paul, or just the gospel churches in general. All of these interpretations are very subjective, which makes it very difficult to convince someone, especially a non-believer, that the prophecy has been fulfilled. Adam Clarke wrote of this lack of agreement:
“This is extremely obscure; the conjectures of interpreters are as unsatisfactory as they are endless on this point. … Those who wish to be amused or bewildered, may have recourse both to ancients and moderns on this subject.”
Contrast this with fulfillments recorded in the Bible. We are all agreed that when Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, it was a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. We are all agreed that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it was a fulfillment of Micah 5:2. We all believe when Jesus suffered for us to save us from our sins, it was a fulfillment of Isaiah 53. We are also agreed about the fulfillments of many non-messianic prophesies. For example, when God delivered Israel from Egypt, we know it was a fulfillment of Genesis 15:13-16. This shows that literal fulfillment of biblical prophecy is the norm. The subjective interpretation of the historists does not fit the pattern.
Where the Bible records the primary fulfillment of a prophecy, that fulfillment was literal. There may have been earlier symbolic fulfillment, but eventually it happened in history exactly as described. And just like today, people in Bible times usually did not expect there to be a literal fulfillment…
- In 2 Kings 7, Samaria was suffering in a great famine because it was beseiged by the Syrian army. Elisha said the next day food would be available in plenty, but a Samaritan captain disbelieved it. Yet it literally happened when God caused the Syrians to flee, leaving their provisions for some lepers to find. The captain was trampled to death by the starving people as they rushed out the gate to get to the food.
- Daniel 9:25-26 describes the time of the first coming of the Messiah, and it happened literally as foretold. Sixty-nine “sevens” (483 years) after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, Jesus publicly declared His Messiahship by entering the city, riding on a the foal of a donkey. But the majority of the people did not believe.
- Isaiah 7:14 had a partial symbolic fulfillment that Ahaz could see when the name ‘Emmanuel’ was given to newborns. Because there was a symbolic fulfillment, nobody expected a literal virgin to conceive and give birth to a son who was God with us.
- Jesus predicted His death and resurrection many times (such as in Mark 8:31). But His disciples did not believe it would literally happen. If they had believed, would have stationed themselves by the tomb, waiting for their Savior to rise from the dead. It took the appearance of the resurrected Christ for them to believe.
- God told Noah He would destroy the earth with a flood, and it literally happened. Perhaps before it did, those who heard the prophecy thought it would be a symbolic fulfillment, if they believed it at all.
- For hundreds of years, many Christians did not expect Israel to be literally restored to her homeland. But it happened in 1948.
God is glorified when He fulfills His promises literally. When these and other prophesies were fulfilled, even non-believers could witness and recognize their fulfillments. If the fulfillments are not meant to be literal, the prophesies could have any number of interpretations. And if Christians cannot agree on how a prophecy was fulfilled, how could non-believers recognize the fulfillment?
The historist view of interpreting prophecy in the book of Revelation doesn’t hold water. It doesn’t match the character of fulfillments in the Bible. If prophecy was fulfilled literally back then, it will be in the future. If the first 69 “weeks” of Daniel 9 were precisely fulfilled, the last week will be as well. Yes, prophecy contains symbolism, and there have been events in recorded history that are similar to and foreshadow those prophesied, but I believe Revelation describes (primarily) future events on earth as they will literally happen.
Here are some other problems with the historist approach:
- It doesn’t take into account events that happen throughout the whole world, but only those events in the regions the interpreter is familiar with. Historists tend to interpret the stage of events to take place in areas of the old Roman Empire. But the Bible speaks of end-times events that affect the whole globe.
- It turns the wrath of God on all of mankind into the wrath of God on only some of mankind (and many times that on the Church). The locusts of Revelation 9 are interpreted to be a human army (the Muslims and Arabs). But Revelation says God’s wrath will be on all men (including the Muslims and Arabs), not just some.
- It interprets prophesies in a way similar to the cults. The Watchtower organization said Jesus returned in 1914, but it was not a literal (i.e. visible) return.
- It confuses the meaning of the word “Israel”. In any given instance, how do you know it it means the descendants of Jacob or the Church? Does the word mean two different things in Romans 11:25-26? The interpreter can select the meaning based on what conveniently fits his presuppositions.
- It ignores scripture that says God has a plan for national Israel in the last days.
The effects of non-literal prophecy fulfillment goes beyond the area of prophecy. It affects doctrinal understanding in multiple areas of scripture. If you don’t interpret the prophesies literally, you end up guessing their meanings. Those guesses (that are likely wrong) then affect your understanding of other parts of the Bible as well. It also affects your actions. For example, believing they were a part of the new Israel, the Puritans tried to set up a New Zion in America.
With the restoration of national Israel in 1948, more people have seen the problems with replacement theology. God still does exactly what He said He was going to do. We should take Him at His word.
Some benefits of abandoning Replacement Theology:
- Prophecy becomes much easier to understand. The timeline of events is not so mixed up. There’s no need to rely on the spiritual equivalent of ‘epicycles’.
- No confusion in trying to identify whether “Israel” means Israel or the Church.
- Interpretations of prophesies no longer subjective that can’t be proved when they occur.
- Avoids the contradiction in Revelation of saying the Church is subject to God’s wrath when it says elsewhere we are not.
- Eliminates the ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude many have against the Jews.
- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair ↩
- Josephus, De Bello Jud. l. 6. c. 9. sect. 2., and Hegesippus, De excidio Urb. Hieros. l. 5. c. 47. p. 645 ↩
- If God can renege on His promises to the seed of Jacob, He can renege on His promises to us. The apostles will then have been deceived in believing and teaching that we can have assurance of our salvation. ↩
- One point of confusion is the meaning of the word ‘Jew’. This word originally meant a descendant of the tribe of Judah, but by New Testament times this had changed to apply to descendants of all twelve tribes (John 2:13, 5:1). Paul repeatedly speaks of Jews and Gentiles as if these are the only two groups of people in the world. There is no hint of a third ‘lost’ group of people. ↩
- Remember when Elijah complained to God that he was the only one who had remained faithful to God? But God told him there was still a remnant of 7000 men in the northern kingdom that had not bent the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). This remnant was also present during king Asa’s reign (2 Chronicles 15:9), and during king Hezekiah’s reign (2 Chronicles 30). God has always preserved a remnant. ↩
- If Paul intended to say Gentiles were added to Israel, he would have written, “Not all are of Israel that are Israel.“ ↩
- Although God did speak of the blessing He would bring on the nations, He did not make promises to the Gentiles. He made them to Israel, and they are theirs (Romans 9:3-5). ↩
- Before he was a believer, Paul was of the synagogue of Satan. ↩
- Where the Gentiles are mentioned in this section, there is no statement that they are part of Israel. Gentile believers share in the promises, but are nowhere called a part of Israel. ↩
- This happened in the 3rd century. See https://web.archive.org/web/20180810012641/http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/openhse/clergy.html ↩
- I think the Great Tribulation would better be called the Great Wrath to avoid confusion with Christian tribulation. ↩
- There are still at least 100 unreached people groups in the world, so this is still in the future. ↩