The Torah states that God made an eternal covenant with the Jewish people. Yet maybe you are a Christian and have heard that God is finished with the Jewish people and that the Christian church is now the “new Israel.” If you’re Jewish, maybe you’ve heard that some Christians believe your covenant with God is no longer valid. Where did these claims come from?
Origins of Replacement Theology
Early church leaders such as Irenaeus, Augustine, and Athanasius perpetuated faulty teaching such as:
- God’s covenant with the Jewish people was dependent on their obedience. Due to our disobedience, they believed the covenant was revoked and the Jewish people were replaced by the church.
- The Jewish people, the Torah, the land of Israel, and our rituals no longer have any significance.
- It is wrong for Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) to observe rituals like circumcision, Shabbat, or eating kosher.
Such teaching is closely linked to historic and present-day antisemitism.
These views are called “replacement theology” or “supersessionism” (Latin super-sedere: to sit above or in the position of someone else). They were (and are) frequently used to persecute the Jewish people. Figures such as John Chrysostom and Martin Luther taught that Christians should have nothing to do with Jewish people unless they converted and renounced their Jewish identity. Our loss of and exile from the land of Israel was seen as an ongoing punishment for crucifying Jesus and a testimony to our rejection by God. Such teaching is closely linked to historic and present-day antisemitism. Jews for Jesus strongly repudiates such views, which sadly, are still prevalent today.
God’s Covenant with the Jewish People
A covenant is a solemn and binding agreement which leads to a mutually committed and beneficial relationship between the covenant partners, one often superior in power to the other.
We must correct this deeply rooted misunderstanding of God’s purposes for the Jewish people.
The Scriptures contain hundreds of references to God’s enduring love for His people Israel, His eternal and un-cancelled covenant with them, and His commitment to the restoration of the Jewish people. But supersessionists argue that the Jewish people no longer represent the people of God and that the promises made to Israel physically in the Hebrew Bible are now only to be interpreted spiritually and metaphorically as applying to the Christian church. Passages like Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek”), Galatians 6:16 (“the Israel of God”), and Romans 9:6 (“Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”) are often taken out of context and interpreted to spiritualize and universalize God’s irrevocable gifts and calling of Israel (Romans 9:4, 11:29) while denying the particular election of the Jewish people.
We must correct this deeply rooted misunderstanding of God’s purposes for the Jewish people. While it is true that all believers are now grafted into the commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:12), this does not mean that God has abandoned, rejected, or replaced His people Israel, or that His covenant promises have been cancelled or transferred to another.
God’s Faithfulness to Israel
Throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, we find God’s ongoing faithfulness to the Jewish people and His covenant with us, even when we are unfaithful. While the covenant is renewed and re-affirmed at key points in the history of Israel, we should not see one part as cancelling out previous parts, but rather, see the many statements of God’s faithfulness to Israel as one covenant, progressively revealed and linked together, and given full expression in the New Covenant. A few key passages are:
- God’s covenant with Abraham promises the blessings of a nation, a name, and a land. Mutual blessing will flow from Abraham’s seed to the nations, and those who bless Israel will be blessed. Circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-4, [cf chs 15 and 17]).
- God makes the covenant with Moses and the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, following the pattern of a treaty between a king and his subjects, with the history of the relationship, identification of the partners, specific laws, and benefits and penalties for living within the covenant (Exodus 19:3-9).
- God’s covenant with David includes the granting of his heirs to sit on his throne throughout all generations (2 Samuel 7:14).
- God promises through Jeremiah to renew His covenant with Israel and for Israel’s seed to be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and His covenant promises to be eternal (Jeremiah 31:31-37).
- Yeshua did not come to destroy the Torah. He lived as a Torah-observant Jew, and while he disagreed with some of the Pharisaic interpretations that would become the Oral Torah, nevertheless, he fully observed the Torah. The New Covenant (Matthew 26:28) is sealed through the shedding of his blood (Matthew 5:17, 26).
- Paul argues that God has not rejected Israel. Paul himself was a Jewish man, and he was a part of the “remnant saved by grace” who represent the future “all Israel” who will be saved (Romans 9-11).
Israel’s Future Role
It’s not just the meaning of individual passages that matter, but the way they are interpreted and combined to form an overall pattern to describe God’s ongoing dealings with Israel and the nations.
The unconditional covenant God makes with Abraham awaits complete fulfillment.
A canonical narrative is an interpretive instrument that provides a framework for reading the Christian Bible as a theological and narrative unity.1
The unconditional covenant God makes with Abraham through which He calls Israel to be His people continues today and is not replaced by the coming of Messiah. Rather, it awaits complete fulfillment in his return with the restoration of Israel, the nations, and all creation in the kingdom of God. The return of Yeshua to establish his prophesied purposes will be the ultimate demonstration of God’s faithfulness to Israel.
1. R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 14.