It’s a high calling to intercede for Zion’s sake, to “not be silent” concerning the welfare and destiny of Jerusalem. Most people who intercede for the coming restoration of the Jewish people know that Israel’s place in God’s heart and in biblical strategy has not been usurped or replaced by the primarily Gentile body of Messiah. They would classify themselves as opposing Replacement Theology.
Yet quiet waters are said to run deep. Over the years one occasionally runs into certain comments that surface like dorsal-fins – comments that reveal what can be called a “Practical Replacement Theology” lurking just below the water level, even among Christians with a ‘kosher’ attitude to Israel.
What are manifestations of this “Practical Replacement Theology”? What light can the word of God shine on these issues?
Rocket Man and the Jews
In the 1960’s a generation was transfixed to watch the lift-off of space rockets from Cape Canaveral – Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. The white blasting clouds of rocket exhaust, the hurtling bright javelin of metal, the booster rockets burning out and falling off – it made for great TV.
A booster rocket is the first stage of a multi-stage rocket or launch vehicle. Its engine is used to increase thrust and payload capability – to get the spacecraft on its way out of Planet Earth’s atmosphere and heavy gravitational pull. When the booster rocket’s fuel is expended, it is released from the spacecraft and dropped into the ocean (a point known as booster engine cut-off – BECO). The rest of the launch vehicle continues on its mission with its core or upper-stage engines.
What does this have to do with Christian attitudes toward the Jewish people? A lot.
Many believers see the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish people as a booster rocket. They were helpful in bringing Jesus to the Gentiles, these people say, but now that we have the New Testament, now that Christianity has taken root and become a major world religion, there is no need for the original Jewish nature and context of the gospel. And there will certainly be no literal fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, to Jacob and to David.
As a snake sheds its old skin, so the Church (it is claimed) needs to forget about Old Testament ways and hopes. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah; He is now Christ the Savior of the world. Though we may feel some regret for the booster rocket which falls backward into earth’s blue oceans, our focus should be on the continuing flight of the core, the basically Gentile body of Christ. The booster rocket is not the main issue; the Gentile spacecraft is. To twist Paul’s turn of phrase in 1 Corinthians 13 (according to booster theology perspective), now that the Church has become a man, it is time to put away childish (i.e., Jewish) things!
Rocket science and the Apostle Paul
In Romans 11, Paul challenges his Gentile readers with four commands, meant to test the health and integrity of their attitudes toward the Jewish people:
- Do not be arrogant toward the Jewish people (the natural or original branches of God’s olive tree (see Jeremiah 11:16; Romans 11:17)
- Do not be conceited toward the Jewish people
- Do not be uninformed of this mystery regarding the Jewish people
- Do not be wise in your own estimation regarding the Jewish people
Paul is teaching the nations with apostolic authority, that Gentile believers have a spiritual obligation to make sure their own hearts are right vis-à-vis the Jewish people.
To those non-Jewish believers in Yeshua who have a “booster rocket theology” toward Israel, Paul explains, “You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in’” (Romans 11:19). Paul labels the heart-attitude behind this last statement as ‘conceit’ (verse 20). Rather than conceit, he suggests that the new believers from among the nations adopt a new and different heart-attitude – that of holy fear (verse 20).
- Booster rocket theology belittles the irrevocable calling of and gifts given to the Jewish people (Romans 11:28-29).
- It also falls into the category of activities being under the curse of Genesis 12:3. In that passage the Hebrew says that he who belittles (meqalelecha, from the verb qal, meaning ‘makes small’, ‘derides’, laughs at’ or ‘jokes about’) the Jewish people or treats them with contempt will be cursed (a’or, from a different root meaning ‘cursed’).
Paul’s perspective is not booster rocket theology. One could even say that it does not take a rocket scientist to understand it! His outlook would better be described as “olive tree theology.” God and His covenants are the root and trunk of the Romans 11 olive tree, while the Jewish people are the natural branches and the prototype of believers. Some Jewish people who turned their backs on Yeshua’s call were broken off from the place of salvation and obedience, while those Gentiles who followed Yeshua were grafted in (albeit as wild olive branches) to the Jewish olive tree. The tree remains Jewish, the natural Jewish branches remain Jewish, the covenants remain Jewish, and Messiah Yeshua Son of David also remains Jewish. What we have is a basically Jewish tree, with a vast majority of Gentile wild olive branches! This is what Paul describes as the current state of the “Commonwealth of Israel” in Ephesians 2:12-13; 3:5-6.
Nearly two thousand years ago Paul wrote a letter to believers living in what today is modern Turkey. That country, originally inhabited in King Solomon’s day by the Hittite Empire, was later overrun by Celtic tribes from France-Switzerland-Germany known as the Gauls – hence the area’s name became Galatia, and Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians was sent to them.
The Galatian believers were struggling with a false teaching coming out from a non-kosher and non-authorized Messianic Jewish stream based in Jerusalem, which taught that Gentile believers in Messiah Yeshua needed to ‘go all the way’ and convert to Pharisaic Judaism, taking on the obligation of keeping the Mosaic Torah (law, covenant or teaching of Moses) by solemn oath.
Paul’s immediate concern was to let these Gentile Galatian believers know that they had received full standing as Gentiles through the Good News of Yeshua the Messiah. They had been justified, set apart for God and were recipients of salvation and the Holy Spirit. Nothing more needed to be added to that finished work. It was not God’s intention to transform their Gentile DNA into Jewish DNA, nor was it Yeshua’s intention to make Gentiles (who were already partakers of the New Covenant) into followers of the Mosaic Covenant. Paul calls those false brethren (Galatians 2:4) the purveyors of “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). They were hypocrites who were bringing Gentiles into bondage by compelling them to be circumcised (in order to follow the Mosaic Covenant; Galatians 2:13, 3-4).
Gentiles who believe in Yeshua do not become Jews and are not under the Law of Moses (Galatians 4:21, 31), but can now be described as “Gentiles justified by faith” (Galatians 3:8).
From Paul’s perspective, Jews who believe in Yeshua become Messianic Jews or spiritual Jews; while Gentiles who believe in Yeshua become Messianic Gentiles or spiritual Gentiles.
With this background in place, we can now address the habit that some have of calling Gentiles who believe in Yeshua by the name ‘spiritual Israel.’ The presupposition behind this term is that being a spiritual Gentile is not enough; one has to ‘go all the way’ and somehow become Jewish in order to have God’s favor. It was precisely this type of confused thinking that moved Paul to focus so strongly on the liberating truth of the gospel for Gentile believers qua Gentiles.
It is true that Gentiles become part of the spiritual Commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:12-13). But this does not mean that Gentiles become Jews. To take a current illustration from the British Commonwealth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth_of_Nations): though the Commonwealth’s main office is found in Marlborough House, London, England, its members come in all shapes, sizes and colors – 54 nations, to be exact. Africans, Canadians, Cypriots, Tongans and Zambians – a veritable rainbow of cultures and hues!
It would be preposterous to declare that every member of the British Commonwealth has to dye their hair blond and apply blue contact lenses! In the same way, though the Commonwealth of Israel contains Jews and many, many Gentiles, it does not require participating males to become females, or for Gentiles to become Jews.
The Bible nowhere uses the term ‘spiritual Israel’ to describe Gentile believers, but it does use the term “Commonwealth of Israel” to describe the entity to which Gentile believers are joined. In light of the many problems associated with the term ‘spiritual Israel,’ clarity and accuracy would be best served by using biblical terms to describe biblical truths.
One of the elephants hiding in the broom closet regarding this issue has to do with how historical Christian anti-Semitism has created the term ‘spiritual Israel.’ Two of the original Church Fathers, the Samaritan Justin Martyr (of Flavia Neapolis, modern Nablus; 100-165 A.D.) and Origen Adamantius (of Alexandria and Caesarea Maritima; 184-254 A.D.), both taught that Gentile believers had replaced the Jewish people (Replacement Theology) and that now Jews were un-chosen. According to Justin and especially to Origen, the term Israel could now only be rightfully applied to Gentile believers in Jesus. They were the ‘Verus Israel’, the True Israel, the spiritual Israel.
Justin Martyr’s definition of spiritual Israel (in Dialogue with Trypho; www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html):
- “For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac and Abraham … are we who been led to God through this crucified Christ”(chapter 11)
- “We who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ are the true Israelite race” (chapter 135)
- “Those who were selected out of every nation have obeyed His will through Christ – whom He calls Jacob, and names Israel – and these, then, as I mentioned fully previously, must be Jacob and Israel” (chapter 130)
- “Since then God blesses this people (i.e., the Gentile Christians) and calls them Israel … how is it that you (i.e., non-Messianic Jews) repent not of the deception you practice on yourselves, as if you alone were Israel?” (chapter 123)
Origen’s definition of spiritual Israel:
- “Therefore no one from Jacob or Israel who sins can be called Jacob or Israel” (Origen in Homily on Numbers 15:3 discussing Numbers 23:9; in N.R.M. DeLange’s ‘Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine,’ 1976, Cambridge, p. 80).
- “The true Israelite, then, is everyone who knows Christ” (Origen, ‘Commentary on Romans’ 7:14)
- “After the advent of Jesus the Jews were altogether abandoned, and possess now none of what were considered their ancient glories, so that there is no indication of any Divinity abiding amongst them” (Origen, ‘Against Celsus,’ Book Two, Chapter Eight; www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen162.html)
- “And we say with confidence that they will never be restored to their former condition. For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind, in conspiring against the Savior of the human race” (Origen, ‘Against Celsus,’ Book Four, Chapter Twenty-two; www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen164.html)
These tragic historical examples of arrogance toward the Jewish people and of boasting against the branches show that the term ‘spiritual Israel’ has a non-kosher and intensely anti-Semitic origin. Believers who love Israel and respect her divine gifts and calling should stay far away from these terms lest they be inadvertently tarred with the same brush.
“This is that”
The majority of sermons preached in the world today take their message from the Bible, a book written overwhelmingly by Jews, and which describes the Jewish people in over 90% of its texts. Yet the surprising thing is that much of the time it is rare to hear about the Jewish people in most sermons, unless the reference is negative.
I remember being taught in a Pentecostal church a long time back that one can never lose the gift of tongues, because “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” It took me a few years to realize that the Apostle Paul was focusing on God’s irrevocable gifts and callings on Israel in Romans 11, and not on glossolalia! In a similar way, many Christians do not see that Jerusalem and Judea are referring to real places where real Jews live, since they have grown up hearing their teachers re-interpret Jewish places and people into non-Jewish generic Christian symbols.
This habit of subconsciously using a ‘Replacement theology’ hermeneutic is so strong, that sometimes even intercessors who love Israel find themselves re-interpreting clear prophecies about Jewish revival (like Isaiah 60) and morphing them into descriptions of the primarily Gentile church in revival. Even dead bones (and Jewish ones at that in Ezekiel 37) are pressed into service, and reinterpreted to mean a revival of the Gentile church – though the prophetic passage is strikingly clear in being ascribed to the Jewish people alone (Ezekiel 37:11-14).
The healthiest and most accurate way of interpreting Scriptures which deal with the Jewish people and their destiny, is to apply the passages to the Jews first and with priority.
That may sound revolutionary to some, but it is in exegetical accordance with God’s way, His heart and His word. Then, having honored God’s original intentions, one is free to apply the lessons of that passage to any and all situations in life – without violating copyright or authorial intent!
Caricaturing the Chosen People
The Bible says a lot about the Jewish people – their triumphs and tragedies, their poetry and their sins. No history book of any people is as ruthlessly honest as is the Bible. King David’s sins are not covered up, but detailed and dissected. The Ten Tribes’ unfaithfulness is categorized. At the same time, David’s victories and worship are also spotlighted, and the Jewish people’s faith and intercessory cries are documented throughout Scriptural history (Exodus 2:23-25; Hosea 12:3-4). One of the reasons this exhaustive biblical record is given by God, is in order to test the reader’s heart.
If a reader from among the nations concludes that Jews are worse than any other nation, he has come away with a distorted message, with a perverse interpretation. For the fact is that Jews are as human as any other nation. Jews sin as much as Gentiles; they triumph as much as Gentiles; they cry as much as Gentiles; and they laugh at least as much as Gentiles! Some Jewish people may have killed the prophets, but don’t forget that all of the prophets were Jewish people!
Since Jewish people have a priority status with God as His firstborn nation (see Genesis 49:3; Deuteronomy 21:15-17; Exodus 4:22; Isaiah 40:2; Amos 3:22 etc.), they are punished twice as severely for their sins. But they are also blessed twice as much for their obedience (Romans 1:16; 2:8, 10; Isaiah 61:6-7 etc.).
Yet it happens all too often that some believers obsess on a negative caricature of the Jewish people. One recent book aimed at intercessors describes the Jewish people in exclusively negative terms – as hostile to their Maker, having a historic unfaithfulness to the Covenant, as an undeserving and obstinate people who by and large resist and reject both God and His Messiah.
Such intemperate language is a negative caricature of God’s Chosen People, typecasting Jews as unbelievers and Christians as believers. Such language ignores the fact that there have been many Jewish people throughout biblical and post-biblical history who have been faithful and exemplary servants of God and of His Messiah. Such language glosses over the fact that today there is a thriving and growing community of Messianic Jews across the face of the globe. Indeed, in the last fifty years there has been a major and unprecedented revival of Jewish people coming to know their Messiah.
As the same time, there are many people who are labeled Christians, who have never accepted Yeshua’s atonement for their own personal sins. The Bible actually teaches that it is a remnant that believes, both from among the Jews and among the Gentiles (see Romans 11:4-5; 9:24, 27). Greater sensitivity must be used here in talking about Israel’s failures, and greater balance must be brought by remembering Israel’s mighty calling and stellar achievements both in the Bible and in history.
- To speak straight to the point, negative characterizing of the Jewish people is boasting against the branches; it betrays arrogance; and it comes under the curse of Genesis 12:3. Believers need to give such language and attitudes a wide berth.
How can we pray?
- Pray for the Holy Spirit to sensitize the hearts of believers across the globe about His strongly burning and continuing passion for the Jewish people
- Pray for believers to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in these areas, specifically in terms of recognizing and forsaking sins of the heart and of speech concerning Replacement theology, booster rocket theology and negative caricaturing vis-à-vis the Jewish people.
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do!
In Messiah Yeshua,
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