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.
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
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 A.D. 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
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
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
- 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. Verses 25-26 go on to say, "For I do not
want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery…that a partial
hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has
come in; and thus all Israel will be saved, just as it is written, 'The
Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove 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.