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 1. 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 use 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.
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 2. 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. 3 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.
- This happened in the 3rd century. See 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. ↩