What is replacement theology?
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus with the sound of a violent, rushing wind and the appearance of tongues of fire. In the ensuing years, the alteration of the worship of God was no less dynamic for the Jews who had chosen to follow Jesus as their Messiah. Christ caused an upheaval in their worldview. The Jewish believers no longer relied on the daily sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins, and they learned to think of God as Someone whom they could speak to directly, bypassing the system of priesthood. They also had to deal with the steady influx of Gentiles into the church, which challenged their Jewish sensibilities. The Jews, who had always been God's chosen people (Deuteronomy 14:2), now faced the fact that God was choosing people from all nations, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds.
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The crucial first-century transition from Judaism to Christianity was so significant that we are still debating its ramifications. Specifically, if God is now relating to the world through the church instead of through the nation of Israel, what does that mean for Israel? Is this a temporary condition, as the dispensationalists believe, or is God really and completely done with the Jews as a nation?
The latter belief is called "replacement theology." It teaches that the church has replaced Israel in God's plans, prophecies, and blessings. The roles of Israel and the church are foundational to the events of the end times; what one believes about replacement theology largely determines what one believes about the rapture, the tribulation, and the millennial kingdom, not to mention the role of the church in modern society.
A couple of practical matters led to the formation of replacement theology. One was that, for 2,400 years, from their exile to Babylon to the formation of Israel in modern times, Jews did not have a sovereign nation. And, after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Jews were largely spread throughout the world. Another matter was the increasing wealth, advancement, and global reach of Christian sects and "Christian" nations. All this seemed to indicate God's abandonment of Israel and His focus on the church. Anti-Semitism also played a role. As the church emphasized the rejection of Jesus by the Jews, some Gentile believers adopted the common pagan belief that Jews are religiously backward and socially unapproachable.
Replacement theology is not based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. As the Bible uses metaphor (no one really expects God to send all the goats of the world to hell, as Matthew 25:31-33 allegorizes), some theologians concluded that much unfulfilled prophecy must have also been intended as metaphor—the promises made to Israel were really meant for the church. Once this simple "explanation" was made, large portions of the Bible became open to personal interpretation.
The Bible is filled with prophecies promising peace and wealth to Israel, and a great many are still unfulfilled, including a promise detailing specific borders (Genesis 15:18-20; Numbers 34:1-12), a promise of a King from the line of David (2 Samuel 7), and a promise that Israel would one day be wholly devoted to God (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Given the continued non-existence of a Jewish state and the success of Christian-led endeavors, it was difficult to see how such prophecies would ever be fulfilled. Some assumed they would be more easily and completely fulfilled through the church than through the Jewish people, and replacement theology was born.
In order to shift prophecy to the church, several specific promises must be "spiritualized" or "allegorized," that is, reinterpreted non-literally. Abraham's descendants beyond counting (Genesis 22:17) become all Christ-followers, not literal biological descendents. The literal 1,000-year reign of Christ (Revelation 20:1-6) becomes symbolic, either referencing the saints in heaven or the reign of Jesus in believers' hearts.
Allegorizing such a foundational concept as the subject of prophecy opens up many more issues. If the millennial kingdom is for the church, when will the rapture occur? If the prophecies of peace are for the church (Isaiah 32:18), should the church enforce peace in international affairs? If God's plan is for the church to lead (Isaiah 2:2), should the church take over politics? Replacement theology has several consequent beliefs:
- Amillennialism: The belief that the millennial kingdom is not literal, that it began at Christ's resurrection and is manifest either in the hearts of saints in heaven or saints on earth.
- Postmillennialism: The belief that the church is responsible for arranging the "golden age" of Christ's rule in people's hearts, resulting in godly overtones in politics, entertainment, family, and social life.
- Dominionism: Similar to postmillennialism but more extreme; the belief that the church is responsible for reinstating the Old Testament laws in all of the world's governments and societies.
As witnesses to the re-establishment of a Jewish state in 1948, we have an advantage over those earlier theologians; we've seen God's power in action to set the stage for a more literal interpretation of prophecy. This event, combined with a careful study of biblical prophecy, shows that the church was never designed to take the place of Israel.
First of all, the church is not a punishment on Israel for their failure to spread the gospel. It is God's work to draw Jews to Him (Romans 11:11). Daniel 9:20-27 is clear that God's plan for Israel is to last seventy "weeks" or 490 years, starting at the time of a decree to rebuild Jerusalem. Verses 25 and 26 suggest a significant event at the sixty-nine "week" mark—the point of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It also allows for a break before the arrival of the seventieth week—this space of time has been manifested as the church age. As this prophecy is for Daniel's people (vs. 24), the church era is not mentioned. Instead, the prophecy skips ahead to the last "week"—the tribulation. Before the tribulation is the rapture, which marks the removal of the church—and the re-establishing of God's work with Israel.
Paul, in a letter written primarily to Gentiles, explicitly states that God is not finished with Israel. Romans 11:12 says that if Israel's rejection of Jesus is a blessing for the Gentiles, the restoration of Israel will be more so. Romans 11:25-26 goes on to say, "Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, 'The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob'" (cf. Daniel 9:24). As the previous verses clearly delineate Jews and Gentiles, there is no way that this prophecy can be applied to the church.
The more literal interpretation of God's plan for humanity is called "dispensationalism." Instead of the church replacing Israel, dispensationalism teaches that the Bible shows God working in very specific dispensations throughout history. The previous dispensation focused on Israel and the law. The current one on the church and grace. In "the fullness of time" (Ephesians 1:10), the next dispensation will begin. The church will be removed (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), Israel will be sanctified (Daniel 9:24), and the prophecies made to both Israel (Genesis 15:18-20; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Isaiah 11:6-9) and the church (Revelation 20:1-5) will be fulfilled in Jesus' literal millennial kingdom.
The problem with replacement theology is that it relies on the judgment and effort of man instead of the Word and power of God. Two hundred years ago, the idea of a restored Jewish state was incredible. Today, the Jewish state is a fact. Having such gracious proof of God's sovereignty, we should be greatly exhorted to read the Bible as literally as it was written. God has given the church specific blessings and responsibilities. We should concentrate on these and reject the allegorical interpretations of replacement theology.
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