“...You do not support the root, but the root supports you.” - Romans 11:18
The Roots of Supersessionism
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 Apostolic writings, in fact, are silent about supersessionism, with the salient 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 non-supersessionist view takes seriously the Scriptures that speak consistently 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 demurral of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, 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 those from the nations who are graciously grafted in (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 important because of their place in the Father’s heart.
The Love of God
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 willingly stand with and pray for Israel and 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 inordinately 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. This is a reminder, however, that as followers of Jesus of Nazareth we are perpetual debtors to Israel – for our Messiah, our Scriptures, even our God!
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 that Christians share with the Jewish people. To do so is to stand on the sure foundation of the love of God.