Here’s a story to ponder: a couple (call them John and Joanne) approaches their 25th wedding anniversary. You are invited to their celebration. You arrive early. John answers the door, and to your surprise, the woman at his side is not Joanne. Somewhat taken aback, you greet John and ask where his wife is. He smiles and points to the woman who has taken his arm, She’s right here. Her name is Julie.”
You take John aside and ask how he can celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary when he and Joanne are no longer married. He looks at you, genuinely puzzled and says, “Why shouldn’t I celebrate 25 years of marriage? I am still married—just to Julie, not Joanne.” He goes on to explain that he has been faithful to his wife—it’s just that her identity has changed. He expects you to understand and celebrate that his faithfulness has been seamlessly transferred from Joanne to Julie. In his view, he’s very loyal to his marriage; he’s simply traded in the original partner for another.
Sound absurd? Yet, in the Church many view God’s faithfulness to Israel in a similar way. I am referring to supersessionism, more commonly known as “replacement theology.” This is the view that because of her unbelief, God has rejected the Jewish people as His chosen, and instead makes the Church to be the new Israel.
God describes His relationship with Israel in terms of a marriage: “I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, And you shall know the LORD” (Hosea 2:19-20).
Many Jewish individuals today have not developed a great awareness of this relationship, yet through the ages, Jewish theology has maintained a clear understanding of the marriage covenant that God established with His people.
Though the Jewish people were unfaithful, God never insisted on a divorce: “You are an adulterous wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband.…Nevertheless I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you” (Ezekiel 16:32, 60).
Those who subscribe to replacement theology won’t say that God is guilty of divorcing the Jewish people. In effect they say that He is still committed to His wife—it’s just that her identity changed. She is now the Church. The Jewish people have been swapped for the Christians.
In life, we call a swap like that a divorce—a broken contract. In theology, it also amounts to divorce. Yet, some try to sugarcoat it by saying that God is still faithful—He merely traded His Israel for a different and new Israel. A spouse who gets “traded” knows that he or she has been dumped. Jewish people today understand that many in the Church believe that God has dumped the Jews and transferred His divine faithfulness to Christians. We shouldn’t be surprised if they see such an assertion as self-serving, arrogant, even unbiblical. More important, how should we expect God to see it? In Malachi 2:16, God says that He hates divorce. Yet if replacement theology is true, God has indeed divorced the Jews and done what He says that He hates.
God’s faithfulness to Israel does not mean that Jews can find eternal life outside of faith in Jesus the Messiah. God’s covenant with Abraham is not a covenant for salvation, but for service, as we see in Romans 9:4: “who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises.” And it is an unconditional covenant. That does not mean that the Jewish nation does not suffer consequences for unfaithfulness and unbelief. The Bible is full of descriptions of God’s promised judgment on unbelieving Israel. But God never said He would revoke His covenant promises.
At the heart of replacement theology is a failure to fully understand the grace and faithfulness of God. It is not Israel’s obedience, but God’s grace and His faithful promises that keep her His covenant wife to this very day.
In the same way, the Christian’s relationship with God through the New Covenant has a permanence that is not based on our performance, but upon His grace through Jesus Christ.
Grace is not a New Testament invention. It is rooted and grounded in the eternal nature of Almighty God. The concept of His great grace is nothing if not consistent. When we understand God’s grace in His covenant to Israel, we can better appreciate His grace towards all of His children. When we see God keeping His promises to the Jewish people, it should strengthen our confidence in how He will keep all the promises He has made to us as believers in Jesus.
Conversely, what if we give Israel’s unfaithfulness as a reason to say that all the promises made to Israel no longer apply to the Jewish people, but to the Church? What could we then say about ourselves, and the grace-filled promises we have come to trust for our own salvation? If God was willing to divorce His first “wife” who is to say He wouldn’t swap or divorce the Church, the Bride of Christ, for disobedience and unfaithfulness?
Thankfully, as Paul said, “God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew” (Romans11:2a). Jewish unbelief has led to wrenching and painful consequences, but it has not made null and void the grace of God.
There is a mystery to God’s dealing with my Jewish people that continues to puzzle and perplex even the wisest of theologians. I certainly am not able to discern or fully explain it. I only know that God remains faithful to preserve promises to His errant wife Israel, while offering His grace to the entire world through His Bride, the Church.
This month, on May 12, we celebrate Yom haAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day. Despite the perplexing problems that so pervade that part of the world, I see this day as a symbol of God’s grace toward His ancient people. I rejoice that time and history have proven God faithful to His promises. The Jewish people live—and many live in the Land God promised us—despite threats and continued efforts of neighbors who vastly outnumber us to drive us into the sea. How could this be possible apart from our covenant-keeping God?
The Apostle Paul sang a hymn of amazement at the inscrutable grace of God: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).
Praise God for His faithfulness! His promises to Israel are true…and as He has been faithful to Israel, so we can rejoice that He will be faithful to all who have received Israel’s Messiah.