‘New Israel’ – replacement theology by the back door?
I preached a couple of weeks ago on Malachi 2:17-3:6 which is the most astonishing passage – it got me really fired up. In the course of it, I referred a number of times to the ‘New Israel’. Some friends in the church who are Messianic Jews were very concerned about this, for very understandable reasons. For they felt that I was advocating Replacement Theology. My understanding is limited on this – but from what I do get, i would certainly not be an advocate. The Jewish people have suffered intolerably at the hands of Christians, and one cause is this sort of thinking – appalling persecution has often been justified on the basis that God has wiped his hands of the Jews altogether and therefore anything goes. That is obviously terrible and utterly heretical. Although to be fair, the concerns in my friends’ minds was brought about by my use of the word ‘replace’ a couple of times in the course of the talk. So after much pondering, this is roughly how I replied. I’m conscious it’s a huge area. Thoughts or comments welcome?
A “New” Israel?
This is a sensitive subject! I think that it is nonetheless involved, and inevitably the Bible presents a more complex picture than one passage alone might suggest. Romans 9-11 is of huge importance to this question, but it is by no means the only one. So let me touch on a few points which I think are pertinent, and then perhaps these can feed further discussion. I don’t pretend for a moment that this will answer everything, nor that it will necessary do justice to your concerns. But here goes!
As far as the sermon itself is concerned, this is more or less what i said (although it usually comes out a little different in the heat of the moment!):
So the Judah of Jesus’ day wasn’t vastly different from the Judah of Malachi’s day. The Temple was still a mess. And when Jesus came, he effectively replaced the entire Jewish leadership structure in God’s people – the old Israel would be replaced with the new Israel.
- Why else did he replace the twelve tribes of Israel with 12 disciples?
- Why else did he echo God’s revelation on Sinai Mountain by preaching his radical application of the law in his own sermon on the mountain?
- Why else did feed a crowd of 5000+ in the desert, if not to echo what God had done by feeding Israel in the wilderness?
All in all, to use another of Jesus’ images, he is throwing out the old wineskins, the structures of old Israel, and pouring the new wine of the kingdom covenant into new wineskins. His new Israel; the Church. And for most of us here from a Gentile background, we have the privilege of being ingrafted into that – to be welcomed in through Jesus. And because of what Jesus would do in his people, well all can make offerings that would at last be acceptable. And what are our sacrifices and offerings? well, the apostle Paul makes it clear that while we don’t need a temple any more, we respond to Christ’s love through offering our whole lives as holy sacrifices.
Now I do fully acknowledge that the word ‘replacement’ is provocative. And I concede that I was not nearly as careful or sensitive with it as I should have been. i certainly do not agree with the primary strands of so-called ‘replacement theology’ (as far as I understand them). I do NOT think that the old covenant is dead, nor that the church has simply expunged the Jewish people as if they were no longer relevant. Far from it – why else would Paul go to the Jews first, Gentiles second (Rom 1:16-17)? The question, as I see it, is how the Abrahamic covenant in particular is fulfilled (hence its importance in Romans & Galatians). But to read the prophets onwards, it is clear that there are distinctions within the physical nation of Israel. One of the tricky and sometimes painful issues is what we are to make of the modern nation of Israel. A flat application of Biblical passages here is fraught – for even within the OT, the word Israel has a number of meanings.At the very least:
- it can refer to the whole of the people descended from Abraham
- it can refer to the northern kingdom with capital Samaria
- then it can even be Judah after the destruction of the northern kingdom
- and then you have the issue of those who are nationals, but not members of the ‘remnant’ –
So even the existence of these 4 different (though clearly related) connotations is enough to cause us to pause when reading Isaiah, for example.
What, if anything, gets replaced?
Perhaps the issue then is exactly what, if anything, gets replaced. And this gets to the heart of the question. The point I think I was trying to make was that Jesus was fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy of what God would have to do in his covenant people if his covenant promises were to be fulfilled. Ostensibly, by appointing 12 disciples, Jesus was rejecting the leadership of the Israel of his day, essentially because they had rejected him. He replaces them with his 12, and of course they are all (Jesus and the disciples) STILL JEWISH! This is one of a number of pointers to both the radical continuity AND radical discontinuity that exists within the new covenant. I entirely agree that the Bible never uses the phrase ‘new Israel’ as such – but does that necessarily mean there is nothing new within the new covenant?
- Jeremiah 31:31-34 – What’s old: covenant with the house of Israel/Judah (interesting because Israel n. kingdom no longer existed at this point). The Same LORD is making the promise, with the same purpose: I will be their God and they will be my people. What’s new: (v32) NOT like old covenant because they broke it…. So instead law written in hearts – and everyone will know LORD (a hint at the removal of the priesthood). And at last sins will be finally and irrevocably dealt with (v34).
- Where does the theology of the remnant fit? Clearly the prophets constantly draw a distinction between the faithful and the unfaithful within the covenant people. It is the existence of the remnant that enables God to claim covenant faithfulness – something that would have been hard to defend after the Babylonian Exile. Hence the promises are kept only because of a remnant (e.g. Isaiah 10-11).
- It strikes me that those who are meant to be the shepherds of God’s people (cf. Ezekiel 34) get replaced because they were the ones who caused the exile itself by leading the people away from God. And they get replaced by God the shepherd himself – Ezek 34:10, 11 AND surprisingly by David the shepherd – Ezek 34:23-24. Obviously, here we are building up the picture of who Jesus will be: BOTH YHWH the shepherd AND David the shepherd – the God-Man king.
To cut a long story, this points to the sense that Jesus is the fulfilment both of the true Israel and the shepherds of the people Israel:
- he is one greater than Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon (e.g. throughout Gospels)
- and what’s more he is the true people: why else does Matthew play on Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 if not to say that he is now the personification of Israel?
What of the Nation of Israel?
This, at the very least, therefore indicates to me that you can’t draw a straight line from ‘Israel’ the people of God in the OT all the way through to the modern nation state of Israel. Incidentally, my position is that i think there are profound legal, moral and geopolitical reasons for the nation of Israel to exist – but i don’t quite see how it is the exact fulfilment of prophetic promise or expectation. There are a number of pointers in my mind to this, littered through the NT:
- Why else does Mark imply that the Babylonian exile hasn’t begun to end until John the Baptist preaches in preparation of Jesus – Mark 1:1-3? Quoting Isaiah 40 clearly puts us into the framework of Babylon (Isaiah 39 ends with a prophecy of the exile’s start, while Is 40 opens with a prophecy of its end). By coupling that with Malachi 3, Mark implies that the physical return from Babylon after Cyrus’ decree wasn’t entirely the big picture. Something more was required (presumably that is why those who could remember the former temple wept when the restored temple was rebuilt in Ezra 3:10-13). And remember, Malachi is preaching into this post-Exile situation.
- Why else does Jesus say his kingdom is not of this world (in John 18:33-39) unless he sees his new kingdom as something not so much other-worldly as extending from and far beyond the world? No longer is it in any sense restricted to the promised land per se, or even any particular land.
- Why else are we told in Hebrews that Abraham was looking forward to a heavenly city of Jerusalem, not an earthly one (Heb 11:9-10)? The writer seems to be downplaying the significance of the land throughout this section, implying that it is just a passing stage in God’s purposes en route to the new heavenly city (the city which will come down (!) to the new heavens and earth in Rev 21).
So it seems to me that the concept of the nation of Israel itself is radicalised and revolutionised in the New Covenant.
What of the Covenant Promises?
Romans 9-11 is rightly seen as an integral passage and any discussion of this needs to do justice to what Paul is saying in these tricky verses. Indeed, I would argue that the whole of Romans is a discussion of the relationship between Jewish Christian believers and Gentile Christian believers, presumably because the church in Rome was suffering divisions and problems over the issue (not unlike the Galatians churches, which is why there is some significant overlap and dovetailing between Romans & Galatians).
I do think, though, that we have to take great care in Romans over how to understand different words. This is not being tricksy for the sake of it – it is well understood amongst commentators that Paul uses the Greek word ‘nomos’ (law) in a number of different ways even within this one letter (interestingly, Paul’s varied usages correspond a bit to the way English uses the word ‘law’ as well – we can talk about a law of physics (a statement of fact based on observation), the judicial law (rules with sanctions), the divine law or Torah (an authoritative command with a relationship context) or even the laws of society (i.e. the customs of that society)).
The same can be said for Paul’s use Romans of the word ‘Israel’ itself.
- Take for instance the appearance of a contradiction between Rom 9:6 and 11:26 – that in itself sends up warning signs about what is being referred to.
- Even more radical is how he defines a Jew – cf. Rom 2:28-29 – I’m pretty sure that many of his former Pharisee colleagues would have balked at that!
- Faith in Christ is the key – which is why he then makes the argument about Abraham in Rom 4. And he’s saying that effectively it has always been like that. When all Israel will be saved, it is presumably all the remnant that will be saved – not all those who are genetically Israelite – because Paul has been at great pains in Rom 1-3 to say that both Jew and Gentile face a guilty verdict for sin – and both Jew and Gentile alike are saved by faith in God which then leads (like Abraham) to being credited with righteousness. Membership of Israel is now defined by faith in Christ, who himself is the true Israel. And that is what we are seeing, as you rightly say, in this generation where Jewish people are trusting in their Messiah like never before.
What of the Church?
What then is the church? Well, I think i would argue that it is the remnant Israel, into which Gentiles are ingrafted – that seems to be the implication of Romans 11. And that is the ground on which Paul can insist that there is huge continuity with and faithfulness to the old covenants – but also radical discontinuity. There are senses in which you could say that it is even new. Isn’t that presumably why Jesus uses the language of ‘new’ wineskins – they are needed to hold the new wine of the kingdom because the old wineskins (of the structures and hierarchies of the nation Israel) are no longer able to hold the wine. Luke 5:37-38 (cf. Mk 2:22 & Mt 9:17).
- 1 Peter 2:4-12 is an incredible passage, esp vv9-10 – for here Peter explicitly and clearly applies Exodus/Israel language to the church in the most provocative and daring way. In fact, he argues that the experience of the enslaved Jews being freed by God and then constituted into a new nation at Sinai is exactly mirrored by the creation of the church – in even more widespread and applicable ways. For what else do we all have in common except the Lord Jesus Christ? cf. Exodus 19:6 and Deut 7:6 & 10:15. Surely Peter wants us now to see the church as the rightful inheritors of these promises and privileges – a church which of course is Jewish and into which Gentiles are ingrafted.
- Now I suspect one of the problems behind this debate is that replacement theology proponents imply that the church is a Gentile community that has replaced a Jewish community. That is nonsense and Paul clearly contradicts it, both theologically and in the practice of his ministry. But if the church is the Israel remnant fulfilment, that would perhaps make more sense? And that is why you find the ex-Pharisee and true Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil3) saying now that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ. If you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:28-29. That is a staggering statement – in no sense should it diminish or demean our differences (for becoming Christian doesn’t stop one being either male nor female); we can rejoice in our cultural diversity, whether Jew or Gentile, European, African or Asian or anything else (which is one of the wonderful things about All Souls, is it not?!). But it surely means that our national, genetic, cultural or social identity is now less significant than our identity in Christ.
One final blast! Luke 18-20 is a fascinating sequence, describing some of the last days of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem – and like the other gospel writers, Luke weaves profound theology through the narrative. There is so much here, in terms of thematic development and theological application that we could go on for days – but here are a few pertinent moments in it:
- 18:9-14 – Pharisee is not the righteous one but the tax collector IS – all because of his falling on God’s mercy
- 18:18-30 – rich ruler – again the one you would expect to be righteous goes away sad – he has broken the 1st commandment by idolising his wealth. Interesting reaction from disciples who realise no one is safe – but again the key is trusting God to do the impossible – for which there are great compensations…
- 18:35-43 – a blind man sees… that Jesus is the true king of Israel (shouting out Son of David)
- 19:1-10 – Zacchaeus – another tax collector! He has a Jewish name – but is a collaborator with the enemy, Rome. But notice in v10 how salvation comes to his house, because Jesus has come – and that is what enables Jesus to say that he too is a Son of Abraham. There is a profound link between who is truly Jewish (picking up a key prophetic theology of the remnant) and who comes to Jesus.
- 19:11-27 – Parable of Ten Minas – king is presumably meant to be God – his servants are told to be good stewards. Those who aren’t lose out. But notice how the king responds to his ‘enemies’ in v27. They are rejected.
- 19:29ff – Jesus enters Jerusalem – which since Luke 9:27 has been Jesus’ supreme goal as it is the locus of the Temple (NB what Malachi 3 said would happen when God appeared) – but it is also the centre for opposition to him – so that throughout Luke’s gospel it is a very double-edged connotations. And the opposition really hots up as he enters the lion’s den.
- 20:1-8 – Jesus is quizzed on his authority by the Jewish leaders. He is their true Davidic king but they don’t/won’t accept that. The key is that Jesus DOES actually answer their questions in the next parable.
- 20:9-19 – Parable of Tenants – this is clearly a parable of Israel – and Jesus deliberately picks up Isaiah 5. That is the interpretative key to what Jesus is doing, and he is clearly updating Isaiah’s imagery and applying it to himself. The prophets are obviously the servants the owner sent, and he is the son. Jesus’ crowd is drawn into the story. But notice their reaction in 20:16-19. He is the rejected capstone – and by rights and justice, we would expect the tenants to be thrown out. How could they not? And you would think it fair for the owner to find new tenants. v16 when the owner says he will give the vineyard “to others”, the crowd is shocked and appalled. and Luke tells us that this is because the Pharisees knew they were in Jesus’ sights – 20:19. To my mind, that does look like a replacement of sorts.
So there it is. Lots of random, and jumbly incoherent thoughts. Any contributions…?