Supersessionism

November 5, 2018

 

SUPERSESSIONISM IS DEEPLY ROOTED in Christian thinking and tradition. This is the notion that because the Jewish people “rejected Christ” God rejected them as His chosen people and replaced Israel with the Church in His redemptive purposes in the earth. As the “New Israel” Christians supersede Jews as God’s elect, covenant people.

This widely held view is not found in the New Testament itself but is an interpretive paradigm imposed on Scripture by Church leaders at least since the time of Justin Martyr and Augustine (2nd-4th centuries). The New Testament is silent about supersessionism, with the notable exception of Romans 9-11, where St. Paul chastens boastful Gentiles for thinking that God has rejected Israel.

Notwithstanding Israel’s stumbling over the Messiah, the Jewish Apostle to the Roman world assures his readers that God’s covenant remains irrevocable – i.e., not contingent upon repentance. Though they may be fickle, God remains faithful to His sovereign election and covenant commitments to the Jewish people as a nation. To assert otherwise is to impugn the integrity and discredit the character of the God of Israel who abounds in hesed (steadfast love and covenant faithfulness).

Fortunately, not all Christians through the centuries have held to a “replacement” theological worldview. For them, when the New Testament speaks of “Israel,” it refers to the Jewish people as a nation and not the Church as the “New Israel.” Unlike in the Patristic tradition, Israel is more than mere preparation for the Gospel or a prefigurement of the Church.

A nonsupersessionist view takes seriously the Scriptures that speak of God’s love for Abraham’s progeny, of His sovereign and unconditional election of corporate Israel, of His irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people as a people, and the attendant promises to them as a nation that He continues to keep, even unto the Last Days. In this view, a blessing yet awaits all nations through a spiritually renewed national Israel, the apple of the Lord’s eye.

Such a “pro-Zion” stance, by the way, does not require a Dispensational reading of Scripture, which many anti-Zionists delight in denigrating. (In fact, the history of “Christian Zionism” well predates the 19th-century development of Dispensationalism.) Nor is a prophecy-driven biblical paradigm (so popular in recent generations) a sine qua non for standing with Israel.

There is a firmer footing, a more sure foundation on which to stand. The witness of Scripture testifies to it: God’s immutable and irresistible love of the Jewish people. Notwithstanding their (mysteriously ordained) opposition to the Gospel, Israel remains “beloved for the sake of the Patriarchs” (Romans 11:28). Indeed the covenant faithfulness of the Fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – is the very root into which Gentile believers in the “Righteous Branch” (Jeremiah 33:15) are engrafted, and Israel’s spiritual legacy is the “fatness of the olive tree” that is meant to nurture us (Romans 11:17).

The Jewish people are important to Christians, therefore, not because of their projected place in some future biblical dispensation, nor as a prophetic timepiece for an end-time apocalypse. The irreducible truth is this: they are essential because of their place in the Father’s heart.

What shall we say then? If God be for Israel shall we oppose Him? In view of the Almighty’s great love and unbounded mercies, renewed each morning, surely Christians should at the very least stand with and pray for the Jewish people. This may be an anguished prayer at times, as it was for the Apostle Paul. But our concerns, like his, should spring from an abiding affection and unconditional affirmation of Israel’s irrevocable covenant, involving Scriptures, Land and Peoplehood.

This is not to idealize Jews or exempt the modern State of Israel from biblical standards of justice and righteousness. Nor is it to assay the place in the world to come of any particular individual, whether Jew or non-Jew. But it is to remind us as followers of Jesus of Nazareth that we are perpetual debtors to Israel – for our Messiah, our Scriptures, even our God!

HERE IS AN IMPORTANT QUESTION to ponder in this regard. As “pro-Zion” Christians, how can we reconcile the particularity of God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people and the universality of the New Covenant in Christ Jesus?

Critics of Christian Zionism say that we cannot. The universal gospel of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, they argue, inherently fulfills all first-covenant particular promises to Israel and thereby supersedes them – even as the “New” Covenant displaces the “Old” (Mosaic) Covenant. Further, they argue that God no longer has a compelling interest in the “blood and soil” of Jewish ethnicity and the ancestral homeland of Israel. These particular past concerns are now swallowed up in the universal significance of the “blood of Christ” and the restoration of the cosmos.

On the other hand, those of us who reject this line of reasoning and affirm the Almighty’s irrevocable and continuing covenant with corporate Israel seldom reflect on our view’s intrinsic tension with the universal significance of God’s saving work through Messiah Jesus. We affirm both truths, albeit as independent theological dictums.

Deeper reflection, however, can bring us to a resolution of the seeming tension. Indeed a theological reconciliation is possible that interconnects these two great truths as inseparable, interdependent and mutually illuminating. This has been demonstrated, for example in the seminal work by R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Fortress, 1996).

On the one hand, we cannot know who Jesus is apart from God’s enduring covenantal relationship with the Jewish people and the continuing validity of the Hebrew Scriptures. After all, it was the God of Abraham that was “in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). And Jesus’ identity and mission were both formed and informed by the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44). He was the Torah incarnate; the Living Word made flesh.

 On the other hand, the Almighty’s steadfast love and everlasting loyalty toward Abraham and his Jewish offspring is the very foundation of our Christian confidence in God’s character and the trustworthiness of His promises. The universal love of God that we have experienced in Christ Jesus is so gracious, unmerited and compelling that it is inconceivable that the God of Israel would forsake the ones graven upon His hands and betrothed to Him forever in lovingkindness (hesed).

Rather than mutually exclusive affirmations, therefore, the seemingly competing truths of God’s universal salvation through Christ Jesus and His continuing covenant faithfulness specifically to the Jewish nation reinforce one another. Both universal and particular truths must be affirmed. Together they constitute a dynamic and indivisible unity for every person who calls Jesus Lord.

We can summarize the matter this way: Everything the God of Israel accomplishes in Messiah is constructed upon and confirms – not cancels – His eternal covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people. The advent of the universal apokalypsis (unveiling) of the eternal Word of God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth secures and reinforces God’s particular promises and everlasting word to His covenant people Israel.

As with the Apostle Paul, this profound revelation must drive us to doxological praise:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
(Romans 11:33)

Christian history, sadly, attests to the fact that when the universal Christ is removed from the Jewish matrix of his incarnate existence and the historical particularity of God’s irrevocable covenant with the Jewish nation, the results are supersessionism, an adversarial relationship with Judaism, and even anti-Semitism toward Jews. Surely the time has come to move beyond this history of contempt and humbly and gratefully acknowledge the indissoluble bond we Christians share with the Jewish people. To do so is to stand on the sure foundation of the love of God.

_______________________________________________________________________

 

This devotional study is from a professionally produced transcription
of Dwight's audio message. It is a full and accurate transcript,
formalized and edited for readability and clarity by JC Studies.

 

 

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