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The Church, Israel, and "Replacement" Theology - Part III

There are numerous passages in the NT where OT prophecies concerning Israel’s regathering and restoration are applied to the Church, indicating that the latter is the “true Israel” comprised of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles in whom the promises will be fulfilled. Or, to put it in other terms, the Church does not replace Israel but takes up and perpetuates in itself the believing remnant within the nation as a whole.

The “true Israel” of God, which in the OT was comprised of all ethnic Jews who were circumcised in heart, finds its NT expression in the Church, now comprised of all believing ethnic Jews and all believing ethnic Gentiles. Or, to use Paul’s imagery from Romans 11, the one Olive Tree = True Israel = the Church in which are both natural (Jewish) branches and unnatural (Gentile) branches, but in all cases “believing branches.”

This is the only way I can explain or account for those many texts in which prophecies and promises and titles and privileges descriptive of Israel in the OT are applied to and fulfilled by the Church in the NT. A few representative examples will have to suffice.

(1)In Acts 15:14-18, James interprets the prophecy of Amos 9 that describes the rebuilding of David’s tabernacle as finding its fulfillment in the calling out of Gentiles and the progressive formation of the Christian Church. (For a complete exposition of this passage, see my article titled “Acts 15:14-17 and the Rebuilding of David’s Tabernacle,” found under Eschatology in the Theological Studies Section of the website, www.SamStorms.com).

(2)In Romans 9:25-26, Paul cites two passages in Hosea (2:23 and 1:10) that were addressed to the 10 apostate northern tribes of Israel before the Assyrian exile in 722-21 b.c. They describe both the rebellious condition of Israel ("not my people" / "not beloved") and her prophesied future restoration ("my people" / "beloved" / "sons of the living God").

But here Paul applies them to the calling or salvation of Gentiles. I agree with George Ladd that "Paul deliberately takes these two prophecies about the future salvation of Israel and applies them to the church. The church, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, has become the people of God. The prophecies of Hosea are fulfilled in the Christian church. If this is a spiritualizing hermeneutic, so be it. But let no one say that it is liberalism. It is clearly what the New Testament does to the Old Testament prophecies.”

According to this view, the OT prophetic promise of Israel's regathering in covenant faith to Yahweh is being progressively fulfilled in the salvation of believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, that is to say, in the Church. The calling out of Gentiles from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation is the prophesied restoration of Israel, for the Church is the continuation and maturation of Israel's believing remnant.

(3)In Revelation 2:17, John (quoting Jesus) promises to overcomers (i.e., the Church) a “new name” that “no one knows except the one who receives it.” This is a clear reference to the prophecy in Isa. 62:2 (“And the nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; and you will be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord will designate”) and 65:15 (“but My servants will be called by another name”) about Israel’s future kingly status and restoration to Yahweh, both of which are now applied to individuals within the church.

(4)Revelation 3:9 is especially instructive. Here Jesus promises the Church in Philadelphia that he “will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie – behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.” There are two important points to make.

First, he refers to people who “say they are Jews and are not, but lie” (for an almost identical statement, see Rev. 2:9). Clearly, in one sense, these people are Jews, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who met regularly in the synagogue to worship. Yet, in another sense, i.e., inwardly and spiritually, they are not Jews, having rejected Jesus and now persecuted and slandered his people. Indeed, their gatherings at synagogue are energized by Satan himself.

But if they are false Jews, who, then, are the true Jews? If they are a synagogue of Satan, who, then, constitutes a synagogue of God? John does not provide an explicit answer, but the implication seems clear. Ladd explains:

“true Jews are the people of the Messiah. Paul says the same thing very clearly: ‘For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal’ (Rom. 2:28-29). That this ‘Judaism of the heart’ is not to be limited to believing Jews but includes believing gentiles is clear from Paul’s words to the Philippians: ‘For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:3). We must conclude, then, that John makes a real distinction between literal Israel – the Jews – and spiritual Israel – the church” (43-44).

The second important thing about this text is that in it we find an allusion to several OT texts in which it is prophesied that Gentiles will come and bow down before Israel in the last days. For example:

“And the sons of those who afflicted you will come bowing to you, and all those who despised you will bow themselves at the soles of your feet; and they will call you the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 60:14).

“Thus says the Lord, ‘The products of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush and the Sabeans, men of stature, will come over to you and will be yours; they will walk behind you, they will come over in chains and will bow down to you; they will make supplication to you: “Surely, God is with you, and there is none else, no other God”’” (Isa 45:14).

“And kings will be your guardians, and their princesses your nurses. They will bow down to you with their faces to the earth, and lick the dust of your feet; and you will know that I am the Lord; those who hopefully wait for Me will not be put to shame” (Isa. 49:23).

But as David Aune points out, “The ironical use of this motif is clear: in all these passages the Gentiles are expected to grovel before Israel, while in Rev. 3:9 it is the Jews who are expected to grovel before the feet of this (largely gentile) Christian community” (1:237-38).

What makes this even more intriguing is the fact that in Isa. 60:14 “they” (the Gentiles) will call “you” (the Israelites) “the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel”. This is precisely what we see in Rev. 3:12, except that in the latter it is said of the Church! There we read that these very overcomers before whom these Jews prostrate themselves are given the name of . . . “the city of My God, the new Jerusalem”! And be it noted that the name by which Jesus identifies himself to the Philadelphian believers is “the Holy One” (thereby reinforcing the link between Rev. 3 and Isaiah 60).

Similarly, the words they will “know that I have loved you” may be an allusion to Isa. 43:4 (“Since you [Israel] are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you . . .”), thereby reinforcing the notion that John saw in the church the fulfillment of these OT prophetic promises. In other words, the fulfillment of these Isaianic prophecies “will be the reverse of what the Philadelphian Jews expect: they will have to ‘bow down before your feet’, and acknowledge ‘that I have loved you’. Let the Christians take heart, for it is on them that the Lord has set his favour” (Wilcock, 54).

(5)Revelation 7:15 speaks of the saints in God’s heavenly “temple” and of God “spreading his tabernacle over them.” This is a clear allusion to Ezek. 37:26-28, a passage that in its OT context is a prophecy of Israel’s restoration. There God says, “I will establish my sanctuary in the midst of them forever. And my tabernacle will be over them . . . when my sanctuary is in the midst of them forever.” Consider Beale’s comments:

“The link with Ezekiel is confirmed from the parallel in Rev. 21:3, where Ezek. 37:27 is quoted more fully and is immediately followed in 21:4,6b by the same OT allusions found in 7:16-17. Yet again, the innumerable multitudes of redeemed in the church are viewed as the fulfillment of a prophecy concerning Israel’s latter-day restoration. The application of Ezek. 37:27 to the church is striking because Ezekiel emphasizes that when this prophecy takes place the immediate result will be that ‘the nations will recognize that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst’ (37:28). Therefore, Ezekiel 37 was a prophecy uniquely applicable to ethnic or theocratic Israel in contrast to the nations, yet now John understands it as fulfilled in the church” (440).

The comforts and blessings of God’s presence are portrayed in terms drawn from Isaiah 49:10, yet another text that refers to the results of Israel’s restoration: “They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them. He who has compassion on them will guide them [i.e., he will be their shepherd] and lead them beside springs of water.”

As if that were not enough, another prophetic promise tied to Israel’s restoration is appended to this list of blessings now applied to the church: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Isa. 25:8; Rev. 7:17). There seems to be no escaping the fact that John sees the OT hope of Israel’s restoration and all its attendant blessings fulfilled in the salvation of the Christian multitudes who comprise the church, both believing Jews and Gentiles.

(6)In Revelation 21:14 the wall of the New Jerusalem has “twelve foundation stones” on which were written the names of the twelve apostles (v. 14). The number “24”, the sum of the 12 tribes and 12 apostles, has already occurred in 4:4. Some point to David’s organization of the temple servants into 24 orders of priests (1 Chron. 24:3-19), 24 Levitical gatekeepers (26:17-19), and 24 orders of Levites (25:6-31).

I agree with Beale that “the integration of the apostles together with the tribes of Israel as part of the city-temple’s structure prophesied in Ezekiel 40-48 confirms further . . . that the multiracial Christian church will be the redeemed group who, together with Christ, will fulfill Ezekiel’s prophecy of the future temple and city” (1070). Thus here again we see an emphasis on the one people of God, comprised of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, who together equally inherit the promises.

These are by no means all of the texts that affirm this truth. To delve into the Synoptic Gospels alone (perhaps something I’ll do in a subsequent study) would reveal numerous other instances in which the Church is portrayed as the continuation and maturation of the believing remnant of OT Israel and thus heirs according to promise.

Let me say it again clearly before ending. Not one single ethnic Jew who believes in Jesus Christ as the Messiah has been “replaced” or lost his/her inheritance in the blessings of the covenant. Rather, every single ethnic Gentile who believes in Jesus Christ as the Messiah has been “included” in the commonwealth of Israel and grafted into the one olive tree. Thus the true Israel, the true “seed” of Abraham, which is to say, any and all who are “in Christ” by faith, regardless of ethnicity, will together inherit the blessings of the covenant.

In the third and final installment of this brief series I will address the question of the holy land. Whose is it, now and into eternity, and on what basis?