Israel in Church History

Dr. Michael Vlach

Dr. Michael Vlach, in his chapter Israel in Church History, presents a historical overview of “how the Christian church has viewed Israel and Israel’s land.” Sometimes the church affirmed the continuing significance of Israel, but at other times it believed the church replaced the promises God gave to Israel.

Here is an excerpt from his chapter:

Introduction

The Middle Ages (450–1517), almost invariably, continued to promote replacement theology, with few glimpses of hope for Israel’s restoration. The Reformation (1517–1650) initially rejected any hope for Israel, but later generations began to recognize ethnic Israel’s significance. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, led by Spurgeon and the rise of Dispensationalism, have witnessed a resurgence in the belief that “God has not rejected His people Israel and that Israel will experience a salvation and restoration.”

Israel and the land are important biblical and theological issues for Christians. But how the church has understood these issues historically is also worthy of study. The purpose of this chapter is to survey the history of how the Christian church has viewed Israel and Israel’s land. When it comes to Israel and the land, the church’s testimony is mixed. At times the church has affirmed the continuing significance of Israel and the land, but at other times it has denied these truths, opting for a replacement position in which the church is viewed as taking over Israel’s promises. 

Replacement or Restoration?

To start this discussion, it is necessary to point out two broad paradigms or models that the church has often adopted in regard to how it views and relates to Israel. There can be variations within these paradigms, but they serve as helpful models, nonetheless. The first is a replacement view. The second is a restoration perspective. Christians who have offered their ideas on Israel throughout church history usually can be identified with one or the other.

The replacement view holds that the New Testament church has replaced or superseded the nation Israel as the people of God.1 Whether through God’s displeasure with the nation or His intent to transition to a purely spiritual community once Jesus arrived, the replacement view asserts that the church is now the new or true Israel. And with this understanding, there is no longer significance for Israel as a nation in God’s plans. Some hold that God may save a large number of Jews in the end times, but He is no longer working with Israel as a national entity. He has transitioned to the church which is the true Israel. Thus, with the replacement view there is no remaining theological importance for the nation Israel or the land of Israel.

On the other hand, the restoration view asserts that God is not finished with the nation of Israel. Even though Israel is experiencing judgment for rejecting her Messiah, God has kept a remnant of believing Jews, and this remnant is evidence of what is to come for the nation as a whole. The current partial and temporary hardening of Israel will give way to national salvation and restoration. When Jesus the Messiah comes to rule the nations, Israel will exist as a nation that offers leadership and service to the rest of the nations, under the leadership of Jesus. The restoration view acknowledges the great importance of the church and its mission of gospel proclamation in this present age, yet it does not view this present age as the final stage of what God is doing. A day is coming when the nations as national entities will worship and serve Jesus the Messiah in an earthly kingdom, and Israel will have a function of leadership to them during this time. Thus, with the restoration view, there is theological significance for the nation Israel and the land of Israel.

Both the replacement and restoration views have been held throughout church history, sometimes simultaneously. And there have been times when one perspective is dominant. Conflicting statements can even be found within certain writers themselves. In the Patristic Era or era of the church fathers (AD 100–450), both the replacement and restoration views were held. During the Middle Ages (450–1517) the replacement view, with rare exception, was heavily dominant. The era of the Reformation (1517–1650) was mixed in that the first generation of Reformers held a replacement view while the second generation of the Reformation was more open to the significance of Israel and the land. The post-Reformation era has witnessed a great renewal of the restoration view, which is where we stand today. 

Restorationism in the New Testament

The era of Jesus and the apostles (first-century AD) affirmed the Old Testament expectation of a restoration of the nation Israel. The angel Gabriel told Mary, “The Lord God will give Him [Jesus] the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32–33). This is an explicit statement that Jesus will rule over Israel. When the disciples asked Jesus about rewards for following Him, Jesus said that when He sits on “His glorious throne,” the twelve apostles will “sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). This reaffirms the future significance of Israel and its twelve tribes. On the day of His ascension into heaven, the apostles asked Jesus, “Lord, is it at this time that you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus does not correct their understanding of a restoration of the kingdom to Israel, but He tells them that only the Father knows the timing of this event (see Acts 1:7). So after forty days of kingdom instruction from the risen Jesus (see Acts 1:3), the apostles expected a future kingdom to include a restored Israel. In addition, Paul affirmed that the promises and covenants of the Old Testament still belonged to Israel even after the church began and with Israel in a current state of unbelief (see Rom. 9:4–5).2 He declared that the salvation of all Israel would occur with the second coming of Jesus (Rom. 11:26). Also, like Jesus, the apostle John mentioned a future for the twelve tribes of Israel (see Rev. 7:4–8). So not only does the Old Testament teach a future for national Israel (see Deut. 30:1–10; Jer. 31–33; Ezek. 36–37), the New Testament writers affirm a future for Israel as well.

Patristic Era (AD 100–450)

The Rise of Replacement Theology

In spite of the testimony of both the Old and New Testaments, the mostly Gentile church started to gravitate toward the view that God rejected Israel and replaced Israel with the church as the people of God. Paul addressed this error in his letter to the Romans: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be!” (Rom. 11:1a). That Paul made such a statement reveals that some in the church were viewing Israel as permanently rejected by God. This was something that he had to emphatically address in Romans 11.

Around AD 160, Justin Martyr became the first to explicitly identify the church as “Israel.”3 He still affirmed a future salvation of Israel and a coming earthly kingdom in Jerusalem, but he did hold that the church was now Israel. And it would not be long before belief that the church was the true Israel would be widely held. There are three main reasons for this shift toward a replacement view. First, as Gentile membership in the church increased and Jewish membership decreased, the increasingly Gentile church viewed itself as taking over the title and blessings of Israel. According to Jeffrey Siker, Jewish Christians “were eventually absorbed into an overwhelmingly Gentile Christianity.”4 As a result, the church increasingly became the ecclesia ex gentibus (“church of the Gentiles”). This growing Gentile presence in the church led to “theological questions regarding the status of the Jews before God.”5

Second, the destructions of Jerusalem in AD 70 and 135 stimulated many Christians to conclude that God permanently rejected Israel. The result was, as Lee Martin McDonald notes, “The church fathers concluded from God’s evident rejection of the Jews, demonstrated by the destruction of their Temple, and their displacement from Jerusalem, that the Christians themselves constituted the ‘new Israel.’”6

And third, the rise of allegorical interpretation led many to take physical and national promises to Israel to mean spiritual blessings for the church. Tertullian (160–220), for example, allegorically interpreted Genesis 25:21–23 and its statement that “the older will serve the younger.” For him, this was evidence that national Israel would become subservient to the church: 

Accordingly, since the people or nation of the Jews is anterior in time, and “greater” through the grace of primary favor in the Law, whereas ours is understood to be “less” in the age of times, as having in the last era of the world attained the knowledge of divine mercy: beyond doubt, through the edict of divine utterance, the prior and “greater” people—that is, the Jewish—must necessarily serve the “less” and the “less” people—that is, the Christian—overcome the “greater.”7

The adoption of allegorical interpretation did much harm to the claims of the Bible concerning Israel and the land since it offered opportunity to deny the straightforward statements of Scripture on these matters and make them something else. It became easier to make the church Israel and to transfer physical and national blessings to spiritual blessings for the church. Together, these three factors were the ingredients that led to an entrenched Replacement Theology that would, for some, leave little room for the nation Israel in God’s plans.

The conversion and reign of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, (272–337) in the early fourth century, was also significant for the developing replacement view. Constantine converted to Christianity and created a strong merger between the Christian church and state. With this came the belief that the church was the kingdom of God on earth. Constantine’s historian, Eusebius (270–340), even viewed Constantine’s reign as the messianic banquet, a far cry from what the Bible indicated was the true messianic banquet (see Isa. 25:6–8; Matt. 8:11).

Read the full chapter and more. You will be able to interact with each contributor’s insight into the unfolding of God’s plan for Israel and how the Church should view the events in the Middle East. Buy it here >

End Notes

1. For a detailed discussion of Replacement Theology/Supersessionism see Michael J. Vlach, Has the Church Replaced Israel? A Theological Evaluation (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2010); Barry E. Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2008).

2. This is not a statement that unbelieving Israelites will experience the blessings of the covenants and promises. One must express faith for that to occur. But it does reveal that the covenants and promises to the nation Israel have not been forfeited.

3. Justin declared, “For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham . . . are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.” Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 11, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950–51), 1:200. Hereafter all references to this set will be ANF.

4. Jeffrey S. Siker, Disinheriting the Jews: Abraham in Early Christian Controversy (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 195.

5. Ibid.

6. Lee Martin McDonald, “Anti-Judaism in the Early Church Fathers,” in Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity: Issues of Polemic and Faith, eds. Craig A. Evans and Donald A. Hagner (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 230.

7. Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews 1, ANF 3:151.

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