Will God Eternally Bless Ethnic Israel? A Critique of “Replacement Theology”
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Will God Eternally Bless Ethnic Israel?
A Critique of “Replacement Theology”
John Hepp Jr.
In this writing unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible and emphasis is added. RT means Replacement Theology. NT means New Testament. OT means Old Testament. Israel usually means ethnic Israel, the nation physically descended from Abraham-Isaac-Jacob.
By means of His majestic creation, we can see that God is powerful and wise. But how can we know that He is good? merciful? patient? Why did He make us? How did evil overpower us and the world? What will the future bring? We can know the answers to such questions only by God’s Word. Only it can make us sure what God is like, what important actions He has taken, how and why He made us, or what our future will be. In this writing we will consider how to understand many of God’s prophecies that, when given, predicted the future of Israel.
Many biblical prophecies about that nation have not yet taken place in their obvious sense. Will they? Dispensationalism says yes, and Replacement Theology says no. The former is premillennial, teaching that when our Lord returns He will first reign a thousand years. The latter is amillennial, teaching that when He comes he will install the perfected form of His kingdom. I have read both kinds of theology for many years. Each has strong points and weak points.
Dispensationalism affirms that prophecies about Israel will be literally fulfilled for Israel in a program separate from the church’s program. RT says that the blessings of such prophecies are mostly for a different “Israel,” the present church. Therefore, they are being fulfilled, or will be fulfilled, in a way that was not obvious. This study is designed primarily to reveal some weaknesses of RT. Above all, it makes many Scriptures mean what they do not say. Its reason for doing so is based on questionable interpretations of a few NT Scriptures. Its proponents actually admit that some NT Scriptures disagree with their view. Waltke calls such Scriptures what “the primitive church…mistakenly thought.” (See the sixth argument listed for RT, p. 9.)
Dispensationalism is better because it interprets prophecies in a more normal way. However, it has its own weaknesses. It sometimes overlooks literary style, figurative language, or the need to update. It tends to downgrade some New Testament books (as not “church truth”). It alleges that the church will always be distinct from converted Israel, with superior character and hope.
I advocate a mediating position. Prophecies will be fulfilled literally unless other Scriptures quite clearly require analogy (see Appendix B, p. 19). Ethnic Israel will finally be converted and become a distinctive part of the church. In that position it will inherit just as promised.
RT views are mostly represented here by two books:
- Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003).
- Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).
Isaiah 11, a Sample Prophecy
The Biblical Context of Replacement Theology
Israel and Replacement Theology
God’s Kingdom Plan
Israel’s Murder of Messiah
Spread of Replacement Theology
Some Arguments Replacement Theology Uses
1. Israel is under cursings by the law and by Jesus.
2. The true church inherits much that Israel was promised.
3. Descriptions of Israel are applied to the church.
4. Apostolic teachings contradict the obvious meanings of OT prophecies.
5. The new covenant replaces the old covenant seen in some OT prophecies.
6. The land promised to Abraham was reinterpreted in both Testaments.
Some Arguments Against Replacement Theology
1. RT considers many prophecies misleading.
2. RT considers the apostles misguided even after Jesus “opened their minds.”
3. RT misunderstands Romans 11 and the salvation of Israel.
4. RT contradicts the earthly aspect of Abraham’s hope.
5. RT invalidates the NT use of Israel and Jew.
6. RT by its logic could deny the eternal existence of nations.
7. RT misunderstands the promised kingdom.
8. RT misunderstands the NT use of the OT.
Appendix A: Israel and the New Covenant
Appendix B: The Kingdom Described in Ezekiel 40–48
Isaiah 11, a Sample Prophecy
The following table shows that RT meanings are often not the obvious ones. Isaiah 11, quoted in the left column, describes the final world Ruler and His kingdom. Some obvious meanings of that chapter are summarized in the second column. These include material and political aspects for the kingdom, with great honor for ethnic Israel. RT proponents disagree in part. Some of their common (though not universal) interpretations of Isaiah 11 are summarized in the third column. Some I document, in notes, from Joseph Addison Alexander’s study of that chapter in his classic commentary on Isaiah. They include the following: (a) Messiah established this promised kingdom in His first coming—with no material and political aspects for now. We are in it. (b) The promises ostensibly for ethnic Israel (such as, vv. 11–16 and elsewhere) are really for the present church. In this writing I will explain why RT understands such prophecies, especially those about Israel, in such a non-obvious way.
Isaiah 11 (NIV), a Kingdom Prophecy Involving Israel
The Text by Verses & Paragraphs
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD –
3a and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
A descendant from David’s father is described as fully (a) anointed with the Lord’s Spirit and (b) dedicated to the Lord.
3b He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
Thus enabled, He will rule the earth with divine justice and power.
(not fulfilled, therefore, still future)
From heaven He will rule the earth spiritually.
(now being fulfilled)
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
In His kingdom animals will live together in harmony and children will play in safety. The whole world will be perfectly related to the Lord.
(refers mainly to the church, maybe to the eternal state after this earth is destroyed)
10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.
All nations will respond to Messiah as He rules in peace. (still future)
(refers to Gentiles recognizing His present rule from heaven)
11 In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea.
12 He will raise a banner for the nations
and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah
from the four quarters of the earth.
The Lord will then restore His chosen people, ethnic Israel, from their worldwide dispersion.
(Israel is restored in the sense that Jews become part of the church.)
13 Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish,
and Judah’s enemies will be cut off;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah,
nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.
14 They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will lay hands on Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.
The tribes of Israel will live together in peace and will rule over their former enemies—or enemies symbolized by them.
(refers to their being joined both now and in the future in the church, which conquers spiritually)
15 The LORD will dry up
the gulf of the Egyptian sea;
with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand
over the Euphrates River.
He will break it up into seven streams
so that men can cross over in sandals.
16 There will be a highway for the remnant of his people
that is left from Assyria,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from Egypt.
The Lord will miraculously restore His people to their land, similarly to when He restored them from Egypt.
(probably “the general progress of the gospel”)
This prophecy leads in Isaiah 12 to beautiful songs of praise for salvation, songs that will be sung “in that day.” We can sing them now in anticipation!
The Biblical Context of Replacement Theology
Israel and Replacement Theology. Ethnic Israel, descended physically from Abraham, is often referred to in the Bible as God’s chosen people (e.g., Deut. 4:32–38; Amos 3:2; Rom. 9:4; 11:2). Usually called Israel in the New Testament, that nation is a major theme in many parts of the Bible. The Old Testament tells its story and rarely diverges from it. On many occasions God obviously promised to bless (do good to) and/or punish Israel. For example, see promises of both blessings and cursings in Deuteronomy 27–30. Probably no one denies that for centuries prophets and godly Israelites thought that both such promises were for their nation.
RT, however, denies that long-standing conclusion. In many such cases of promised blessings, it (a) denies that they are for ethnic Israel and (b) changes their obvious meanings. God no longer plans to bless that nation as the prophets thought, says RT, or bless the world through it. Instead, it has forever been replaced by the true church, which is “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
Those who teach what I call RT object to the term and idea of replacement. They believe that God’s Israel was not replaced but defined differently by the apostles (as RT interprets Gal. 6:16). However, for those who take OT prophecies at face value, a changed definition can have the same effect as a replacement. What seemed clearly intended for ethnic Israel is, according to RT, not for them after all. Let us now consider how RT began.
God’s Kingdom Plan. When Christians pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we are asking God to finish the plan unveiled in the Bible. We are not asking Him to rule over the universe (Ps. 103:19) or even “in people’s hearts”; He has always done both. In fact, His universal kingdom does not change as time passes. But when God created the heavens and the earth, He began a new project with marked stages and changes. He clearly revealed on the sixth and last day of creation, what His new project would entail: Earth would be the center of a worldwide “material” kingdom with man ruling as God’s representative (Gen. 1:26–28; Ps. 8; Heb. 2:5–10).
Man’s sin quickly seemed to thwart God’s project by bringing a curse on himself and the earth (Gen. 3). However, man’s rebellion simply uncovered another aspect of God’s plan. In order to complete it and bring His blessings, God through man would undo the curse (Gen. 3:15). Centuries later He revealed what kind of man would accomplish this—an Anointed One (Messiah) from King David’s family. God Himself would anoint him to rule, as seen above in Isaiah 11. Such was the meaning of the Greek title represented by the English word Christ (Ps. 2:2; Matt. 1:1; Luke 9:20). Furthermore, God had decreed in Genesis 12 through what channel these promised blessings would come. They would all come through Abraham and the nation descended from Abraham—Israel.
At the time of the Exodus God inaugurated a preliminary stage of His kingdom on earth. That happened at Mount Sinai when He began ruling over Israel (Exod. 19:4–6; 25:22; Ps. 114:2). But Israel rarely cooperated with God. Just as He had warned, He eventually dissolved that kingdom and scattered Israel. But He promised that His kingdom would return in glory and be ruled by the Messiah (e.g., Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–10; Micah 4:1–8). To continue preparing for that glorious end, He brought a small remnant of the Jews back to the Holy Land (Haggai 2:6–9, 21–23).
Israel’s Murder of Messiah. When the time was ripe, the Messiah finally appeared, with all the power of the kingdom (Matt. 11:1–5; Heb. 6:5). But after seeing His credentials, Israel rejected Him and killed Him! Though they did not realize it, they thus fulfilled Scripture (Acts 3:13–18). Only through death could He obtain eternal forgiveness for His people. Triumphant over death, Messiah ascended to heaven to stay there until time to come back and rule (Acts 3:19–21; Luke 19:11–12, 15; Heb. 10:12–13). From His Father’s throne He poured out the Spirit upon His disciples (Acts 2:32–33). He thereby constituted them the assembly (ekklesia, church) for His coming kingdom (1 Cor. 12:13).
So what would God do to guilty Israel? Consider two of the sentences Messiah had already pronounced in anticipation. (a) In the first He spoke to Israel’s leaders: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (Matt. 21:40–44). That prediction was fulfilled throughout the Acts period as the kingdom program passed to non-Jews. (b) Lamenting over Jerusalem, Messiah had also predicted, “Your house [temple] is being left to you desolate” (Matt. 23:37–38). That happened right after the ending of Acts; ethnic Israel was severely punished and the temple destroyed by the Roman army in AD 70. Near AD 130 the Jews under the false messiah Bar Kochba attempted to recover their loss but suffered another great defeat. During all this, Jews in general became ever-more bitter enemies of Christianity.
Spread of Replacement Theology. Within a century after Jesus’ ascension, many or most church leaders had concluded that the promises to Israel had now passed to the church. They decided that ethnic Israel has forfeited God’s blessings but that believers in Jesus (mostly Gentiles) are getting them instead. In effect they said that the church has forever replaced ethnic Israel in God’s plans and become “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). This RT has quite transformed the way many understand prophecies in general and especially those about the kingdom. It has continued strong in many or most forms of Christianity. I will list some of the arguments used for it, with refutations. Then I will give some other arguments against it.
Some Arguments Replacement Theology Uses
1. Israel is under cursings by the law and by Jesus. In the Pentateuch the main statements of the old covenant cursings against Israel are Leviticus 26:14–39 and Deuteronomy 28:15–68. For Jesus’ sentence against Israel, see above under “Israel Murdered Messiah.” RT concludes that Israel will never regain its former position.
REFUTATION: Such cursings were not final but followed by promises of subsequent blessings. For example, each Pentateuchal cursing passage cited above is followed by one for subsequent blessings: Leviticus 26:40–45 and Deuteronomy 30:1–10. In the first example God assured Israel that “if they confess their sins and the sins of their fathers…I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.…I will not reject them or abhor them” (Lev. 26:40, 42, 44). In other words, He promised to finally bless Israel (a) when they would repent, (b) not because of the temporary covenant He made at Sinai but the one with Abraham. Similarly, even when sentencing Israel, Jesus also assured that nation of future blessing: “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matt. 23:39).
2. The true church inherits much that Israel was promised. Below I reference several of the New Testament passages that so teach. The RT conclusion is that the church inherits in place of Israel.
- Those who “belong to Messiah…are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).
- Gentiles who were “strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:11–12) and “who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Messiah” (2:13). “So then [we] are no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow-citizens with the saints” (2:19).
- Gentiles were “grafted in among them [the Jews] and became partaker[s] with them of the rich root of the olive tree” (Rom. 11:17). The tree we are now in is “their [the Jews’] own olive tree” (11:24).
- When God swore to Abraham to bless and multiply him (Heb. 6:13–16), He did it not just for Abraham’s sake. It was also “to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose…in order that…we may have strong encouragement” (6:17–19).
- Abraham and his descendants with faith “were looking for the city which has foundations” and for “a better country, that is a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:10, 16). That is the same city we look for: “here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (13:14).
REFUTATION: All parts of this argument are correct except the conclusion. Sharing the eternal inheritance with Israel does not displace Israel. By no means will all heirs get the same parts of the inheritance. In Jesus’ coming kingdom different servants will achieve different rewards, as He often indicated (e.g., Luke 19:15–19).
3. Descriptions of Israel are applied to the church. See some valid and some invalid examples below. The RT conclusion is that God no longer intends to make Israel fit these descriptions.
- The words that describe us in 1 Peter 2:9 come from God’s preface to making Israel His OT kingdom (Exod. 19:4–6). The church is “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”
- James 1:1 calls that book’s addressees “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.”
- Many believe that we are “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16. Some apply to Gentiles Romans 2:29: “He is a Jew who is one inwardly.”
REFUTATION: It is true that language about Israel is sometimes used about the church. But applying it in a new setting does not cancel its original meaning. Take the example, given above, of 1 Peter 2:9, which does quote Exodus 19:6 to describe the church. Does Peter thereby imply that Israel will never attain that purpose? By no means. Many prophecies, such as Zechariah 2:10–12 and 8:20–23, picture a restored Israel that will fulfill the same description. In fact, Peter quotes such an example in his next verse (1 Peter 2:10). In it he applies to the mostly Gentile church the promise of Hosea 2:23 about Israel: Those who were “not a people” have become “the people of God.” It is obvious that Hosea used both expressions for what in his day was Israel of the future. Why should we think that applying them to us cancels that promise for Israel?
Each passage describing the church in OT terms should be considered in context. For example, why was the Book of James addressed to “the twelve tribes”? Because in that early stage of the church nearly all believers were Jews. Who are “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 and the “Jew who is one inwardly” in Romans 2:29? Believing Jews, as you will see later.
4. Apostolic teachings contradict the obvious meanings of OT prophecies. This RT conclusion is based primarily on the assumption that Jesus inaugurated His kingdom. If He did, then many OT prophecies cannot mean what they say. You saw an example of this at the beginning. For RT the predictions in Isaiah 11 (and elsewhere) of political and material features for the kingdom must be spiritualized. Another example is Isaiah 2:1–4, which includes the promise that “the nations…will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” No doubt the armaments and implements will be more modern. Yet, the point of the prophecy is obvious: God will rule over the nations in a world at peace. RT cannot accept that meaning, because it thinks Messiah is already reigning without that kind of peace.
REFUTATION: If this argument could be sustained in every aspect, it would be strong for RT . But it cannot; the apostles did not teach a purely spiritual kingdom. I will deal with this subject later.
5. The new covenant replaces the old covenant seen in some OT prophecies. RT says that literal fulfillment of those prophecies would cancel the new covenant. It would reinstate old covenant sacrifices, temple, and priesthood whose goal was reached in Messiah (Rom. 10:4). The best source for this RT argument is the Book of Hebrews. Notice two examples.
- Hebrews proclaims that “when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law” (Heb. 7:12). Indeed, the priesthood has changed. Though descended from Judah rather than Levi (7:13–14), Jesus is now the “great priest over the house of God” (Heb. 10:21). Yet, OT prophecies seem to promise a return to the old covenant and Levitical priesthood (e.g., Deut. 30:8; Jer. 33:17–22; Zech. 14:16–19).
- Hebrews 10:18 emphasizes that after the forgiveness accomplished by Messiah, “there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” Yet, Ezekiel 43:19–25 repeatedly foresees sacrifices for sin in a restored temple.
REFUTATION: This argument indeed adds another dimension to OT prophecies. The “old covenant,” the law inaugurated at Sinai, has indeed come to an end. It has been replaced by the new covenant, inaugurated at Calvary. As a result, some features of the old covenant have been passed along, but others have been transformed. “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did…” (Rom. 8:3–4). Recognizing this fact does seem to require interpreting some prophetic features by analogy (as, for example, Ezekiel 40-48; see Appendix B, p. 19). The fulfillment of a prediction can be the same thing on a higher level. However, there must be safeguards to using such a method. (a) Not everything can change in meaning. There must be clear evidence for changes. (b) A temporary covenant cannot alter an eternal covenant. The ultimate reference for prophecies about Israel is not the law. Rather, it is God’s eternal covenant with Abraham, which included His choice of that nation (Gen. 12:1-3). Even the new covenant does not abrogate nor transform that basic covenant but fulfills it.
6. The land promised to Abraham was reinterpreted in both Testaments. Amillennialists often allege this. For example, Riddlebarger on pages 71-73 says that the promise “was reinterpreted by Isaiah to refer to a new heavens and a new earth, not just the land of Canaan.” He cites Romans 4:13, Hebrews 11:10, and 2 Peter 3:13 as giving the same new meaning. Waltke, considering this of great importance, dedicates three chapters to “The Gift of the Land.” He then draws conclusions including the five that follow (in Waltke’s own words). Notice that twice he refers to “the primitive church” as mistaken. This refers to NT Scriptures that RT disagrees with, such as the prophecies in Luke 1-2 and the question in Acts 1:6.
- Second, the primitive church, lacking the teachings of Jesus and the illumination of the Spirit, mistakenly thought along with all of Jewry that the glories of Messiah Jesus would also be fulfilled literally in the land of Canaan.
- Third, the Synoptic Gospels’ predictions…make a literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies regarding Messiah’s glory impossible.
- Fourth, Christ inaugurated his everlasting reign at his resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven.
- Fifth, apart from the primitive church, the rest of the New Testament represents the glorifed Christ as ruling the nations.…
- Seventh, upon reflection the church realizes that the Old Testament promises regarding the Land typify Jesus Christ and the life of saints in Christ.
REFUTATION: All these conclusions are incorrect and/or misleading (see later). Perhaps the most significant is the claim, common nowadays, that Jesus is already reigning from heaven. Instead, Hebrews 10:13 says that there “he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool” (cf. 1 Cor. 4:8) But even if He were already reigning, we would not be justified in transferring Israel’s promises to another group.
Some Arguments Against Replacement Theology
1. RT considers many prophecies misleading. At this point I will give examples in one OT chapter (Ezekiel 37) and one NT chapter (Luke 1). If RT is true, then God’s Word in some such cases is misleading or even deceitful. It often promises ethnic Israel eternal blessings that it will not get. Yet, God gave such promises not only when Israel was being faithful to Him but in spite of their chronic unfaithfulness. In fact, He often emphasized the fact that rebellion would continue until the promise was fulfilled. Furthermore, no prophet predicted that Israel would be rejected forever. RT, in contrast, teaches that God did so reject them.
a. Ezekiel 37 is an example of an OT prophecy emphasizing that God would eternally bless ethnic Israel in spite of rebellion. If RT were correct, God would have known that the obvious meaning of this prophecy was mistaken. In that case, it seems that He deceived the hearers. (A similar example, Jeremiah 31, is considered in Appendix A.)
Ezekiel 37 narrates the prophet’s vision of dry bones brought back to life by God’s breath. The bones “are the whole house of Israel,” God’s people (37:11). God had identified them in His first words of Ezekiel’s first vision. He had called them “the sons of Israel…a rebellious people who have…transgressed against Me to this very day” (2:3). He had proceeded to have Ezekiel preach against this rebellious “house of Israel” (3:1, 4, 5, 7). During Ezekiel’s ministry most of the survivors in Israel had been killed or had followed him into the Babylonian Captivity.
But now in chapter 37 God pictured a huge change for His people, this “whole house of Israel” (v. 11). He brings these rebels out of their graves and back “into the land of Israel” (37:12-14), “their own land” (v. 22). That, He continues, is “the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where [their] fathers lived.…They will live there forever” (v. 25). “They will never again be two nations” but one (vv. 15-22).
And they will be godly. “They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (v. 23). They will enjoy the Lord’s “covenant of peace… an everlasting covenant” (v. 25a) and His “sanctuary among them forever” (vv. 26b-28). They “will follow my laws,” He promised, “and be careful to keep my decrees” (v. 24b). The Lord’s “servant David will be king over them…their prince forever” (vv. 22-25b). “Then the nations will know,” He concluded, “that I the Lord make Israel holy” (v. 28).
Years later some of them felt that such promises were about to be fulfilled. Under Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, God brought a small remnant back to the Holy Land. But they were disappointed; important features of the Ezekiel 37 prophecy were missing. For example:
- Zerubbabel did not truly become their Davidic king.
- They did not walk in God’s laws and decrees.
- God did not put His dwelling place “among them forever.” (In fact, His glory never returned.)
- The nations were not convinced that divine grace made Israel holy.
Since God means what He says, He will still fulfill all these promises to the same nation that has been rebellious.
Replacement Theology (RT) agrees only in part, as I will show quoting from Bruce Waltke. He admits that the first part of the chapter applies to ethnic Israel but considers that part already fulfilled when God enabled a remnant to return. “Ezekiel’s vision pictures the spiritual state of the Babylonian exiles, who are dead in cynicism and despair…but are revived to hope through God’s word and God’s spirit, a hope that lifts them from their graveyard in Babylon and lands them in the Sworn Land (see Ezek. 37:1-14).” Waltke also notes their disappointment. “The prophetic hope for both the political renewal of the Davidic dynasty and a spiritual renewal of a new covenant does not come to fruition upon their return from Babylon.” Instead, he sees a “present fulfillment” in “Christ and his church.” He assumes that Christ has begun to rule from heaven—a rule to be perfected at His Second Coming. “Moreover, Jesus Christ and his church fulfill the prophetic hope of a glorious messianic age.…The present fulfillment is but a foretaste of the consummated political and spiritual deliverance that will take place at Christ’s parousia.…One day the people of God will sit down at the messianic banquet, which inaugurates the new age, the consummated kingdom of God.”
Did you notice the sleight of hand? RT replaces “the whole house of Israel” (Ezek. 37:11), to whom these promises were made, with a different group. Ezekiel 37 insistently describes that rebellious nation; yet, God really meant (says RT) to bless others instead. What He meant was to bless the present church—the church composed mostly of Gentiles but excluding Israel as a nation. From studying Ezekiel, who could have guessed that meaning? But parts of the New Testament require it; we have RT’s word for it!
God will do all He promised because He chose Israel, as we will discuss later. He chose them unconditionally and promised to bless them in spite of rebellion. In no prophecies did He suggest that He would replace Israel. But if RT’s interpretation is right, He should have so warned them and us.
b. Luke 1 gives some NT examples of promises for ethnic Israel. Godly prophets were inaugurating the NT era, but RT implies that their prophecies were misleading. This was true first of all for the angel Gabriel. If RT is right, Gabriel misled the Virgin Mary. He knew that she would misunderstand his prediction: “[Your son] will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and his kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:33). She could only think he meant over ethnic Israel, which according to RT is wrong.
In the same way, though Zacharias spoke a prophecy when “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:67), he would misunderstand the prophecy he spoke. Consider how he and other godly Jews would interpret the following sample excerpts from his speech:
The Lord God of Israel…
has…accomplished redemption for His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us…
As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—
Salvation FROM OUR ENEMIES,
AND FROM THE HAND OF ALL WHO HATE US
To show mercy toward our fathers,
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
To grant us, that we being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear.… (Luke 1:68–74)
Does anyone doubt that Spirit-filled Zacharias expected blessings on his own people, ethnic Israel? He looked for a kingdom with material and political aspects, such as the prophets had predicted. Who dares to affirm that he was mistaken? RT does. In his chapter on “The Kingdom of God,” Riddlebarger notes (p. 106) that
several messianic expectations were widely held throughout Palestine in the days of Jesus. First, when the Messiah appeared, he would bring salvation and blessing to his people and judgment on the wicked nations that had oppressed Israel. Second, God would return this long-promised messianic king to David’s royal throne. Third, this messianic king would liberate Palestine from Israel’s Gentile oppressors, especially the Romans. When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand, these were the expectations his hearers used to interpret his words.
But this would have been a thoroughly secularized and politicized kingdom. In many ways it is the kingdom envisioned by dispensationalists and postmillenarians. Jesus spoke of a different kingdom, where God would bring deliverance from humanity’s true enemy, the guilt and power of sin. Because Jesus did not offer the economic, political, and nationalistic kingdom so many in Israel longed for, he was put to death.
Is Riddlebarger aware that much of what he calls “thoroughly secularized and politicized” is what Spirit-filled Zacharias said? Yes, he is. In another context he quotes Gabriel’s prophecy (p. 76), then comments negatively on Luke 1–2 (see words I emphasize):
According to Matthew and Luke, the prophecies of Samuel, Isaiah, and the Psalmist were fulfilled in Jesus. But how does his birth fulfill the prophecy of an everlasting kingdom? The answer to this is also found in Luke’s writings, though not in the infancy narratives. When Peter delivered the Pentecost sermon…[he] pointed out that the eternal kingdom promised to David’s son was finally realized in the resurrection of Jesus.
Thus, Riddlebarger assumes that by sitting at God’s right hand Jesus is now ruling on David’s throne. To Riddlebarger that is proof that the obvious meaning of OT kingdom promises, reflected by Zacharias, is mistaken.
2. RT considers the apostles misguided even after Jesus “opened their minds.” RT assumes that the apostles were wrong as late as the day Messiah was taken back to heaven. On that occasion they asked Him, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). By “Israel” they could mean only ethnic Israel; no other “Israel” had lost the kingdom. The “kingdom” they expected to be restored would be an enhanced form of the kingdom Israel had before. RT loudly disagrees. It teaches that Jesus has already started a different (purely “spiritual”) kingdom with a different Israel (the church). As an example, listen to RT teacher John Stott strongly criticize the apostles. He thinks their question
must have filled Jesus with dismay. Were they still so lacking in perception?…The verb, the noun and the adverb of their sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom. For the verb restore shows that they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate establishment. In his reply (7–9) Jesus corrected their mistaken notions of the kingdom’s nature, extent and arrival.
But in fact, the apostles were right about the kingdom in Acts 1:6. It was still future, still glorious, and still to be Israel’s. Jesus had repeatedly described it in ways that substantiated their Jewish expectations. For example, He had called it “the regeneration [rebirth of the world], when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne.” At that time, he had added, the apostles “shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). He had nearly always referred to His kingdom as future, never as established. Verify this for yourself by looking up every reference to the Lord’s kingdom in the final chapters of Luke’s Gospel: Luke 19:11, 12, 15; 21:31; 22:16, 18, 29, 30; 23:42, 51. Every reference is to the future. In fact, the Lord specifically designed a parable in Luke 19:11–27 to show that the kingdom would not come until His return.
The kingdom had also been Jesus’ subject during the forty days after His resurrection. He had taught His apostles “the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Did they understand His teaching? Of course they did. He had “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). So how could they be wrong asking in Acts 1:6 if it was time to restore the kingdom to Israel? If they had been wrong, He would have corrected their assumption. Instead, He reinforced it: “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power…and you shall be My witnesses” (Acts 1:7–8a). If the Father has not fixed a time to restore the kingdom to Israel, why did Jesus imply that He has?
In short, the apostles, taught and enlightened by the Lord, still expected ethnic Israel to regain the kingdom. Their only mistake was to think they could know the time. Who are more likely to be mistaken, they or the propagators of RT?
3. RT misunderstands Romans 11 and the salvation of Israel. Some proponents of RT are quite confused in Romans 11. Some miss the main point of Paul’s whole theodicy (Rom. 9–11), which concludes there. In those chapters Paul does not deal with the church but with ethnic Israel.
As Paul points out, the determining factor is divine election. God will save the nation of Israel because He chose them. He was not obligated to choose them nor to make the promises He made. He could have chosen them under specified conditions, then rejected them for violating the conditions. Instead, He chose Israel with no conditions at all, and promised to bless in spite of rebellion. In no prophecies did He suggest that He would replace Israel. But if RT is right, He should have so warned them and us.
The problem answered in Romans 9–11 is presented in 9:1–5: Since God chose Israel and gave them the promises, why did Messiah’s coming not bless them? Does their unbelief mean that the gospel is mistaken? Or has God’s word failed? Paul’s answer is in chapters 9–11. He by no means suggests that God has taken back His election of ethnic Israel and replaced them with others. Instead, He has set Israel aside, not fully nor eternally but partially and temporarily.
A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness 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…” (Rom. 11:25b–26, which quotes from Isa. 59:20–21 and 27:9).
According to many in RT, this promise for “all Israel” is a promise for the church. God’s new people will be saved, they say, through the means already mentioned: (a) the present believing remnant of ethnic Israel (11:5–7) and (b) the engrafted Gentiles (11:17–21). But this RT interpretation turns Paul’s whole argument upside down.
Look closely at 11:25–26, just quoted. The “Israel” that “will be saved” (v. 26) has been “partially hardened” (v. 25). How could that describe Gentiles? Instead, it is the same ethnic “Israel” as in verses 1 and 2, where Paul twice assured us that “God has not rejected His people.” He will not reject them because He “foreknew” them (v. 2). That verb means the same that it did in 8:29, that He chose them. Paul reiterates that same thought—and again identifies Israel—in the summation he gives after 11:26:
From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved…for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. (11:28–31)
There will be many nations in God’s eternal kingdom (Rev. 21:24, 26; 22:2). Among them will be one descended physically from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They will be saved as a nation (not every individual) after “the fulness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25) and “The Deliverer” has come to them (v. 26; see Zech. 12:10; 13:1; 14:1–7). Can RT give an adequate reason why God would forget that He elected Israel? Can RT justify transferring Israel’s promises to someone else?
4. RT contradicts the earthly aspect of Abraham’s hope. Of course, RT has to be selective in its use of both OT and NT Scriptures, since it contradicts many of them. This is true even in an RT “proof text” like Hebrews 11:8–16. RT rightly notes that Abraham and his successors died without receiving their inheritance (11:13, 39). It observes that they were seeking the eternal heavenly “country” and city, just as we are. This is “the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God,” to which we have all come by faith (Heb. 12:22). But RT cannot understand another fact from the same passage: Abraham was “called to go to a place that he would later receive as his inheritance” (11:8). This points back to the first of many mentions of the Promised Land. Since Abraham inherited nothing, God will raise him from the dead and give him and his nation special assignment to that area. Why should RT neglect or contradict that aspect of God’s plan?
5. RT invalidates the NT use of Israel and Jew. You have already seen that many proponents of RT misunderstand the theodicy in Romans 9–11. That would not have happened if they had observed how the apostle Paul uses the terms Israel and Israelite in those chapters. In every case there (Rom. 9:3–4, 6, 27, 31; 10:19, 21; 11:1, 2, 7, 25, 26), those terms can mean only the physical descendants of Abraham. In fact, that is the meaning of Israel every time it is used in the NT. Test that claim by reading every passage in which Luke uses the term. As in Romans 11:11–16, Israel is often contrasted to Gentiles but never equated with them.
Nevertheless, RT leans on one ambiguous verse (Gal. 6:16) plus other specious arguments (e.g., from James 1:1) to overturn this pattern. It argues that Israel now refers to the church. But why contradict a well-established pattern for a doubtful theological reason?
The same thing goes for New Testament use of the term Jew. It always refers to a physical descendant of Abraham—even in Romans 2:17 to 3:8, where Paul uses it often. Speaking to Jews, he says, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law.” But if not, obedient Gentiles are better off, “regarded as though they were circumcised” (Rom. 2:25, 26). Spiritual circumcision makes us acceptable but does not make us Jews. “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly” (v. 29) still refers to a physically Jewish man. Paul’s very next verse (3:1) continues to use Jew and circumcision in that physical sense.
6. RT by its logic could deny the eternal existence of nations. Many prophecies, like Isaiah 11 quoted earlier, picture ethnic Israel living in peace with other nations. RT considers some of these prophecies as being fulfilled now. Others, such as Revelation 21:24, 26; and 22:2, clearly belong to the eternal state. In either case RT denies any present or future claims for Israel and implies that the other nations have no material or political reality. What, then, are they? Only representatives. Thus, RT transforms each such prophecy.
It is true that prophecies use symbols and other figures of speech. Yet, there must be a minimum of literality; otherwise, we could know nothing for sure about the end. Since there is no evidence to the contrary, the nations will be just as real—with ethnic Israel as one of them.
RT emphasizes the fact that there will be one people of God, with one grand future. But that does not forbid diversity within God’s people—the many nations that the prophets foresaw. Messiah’s kingdom assembly, the ekklesia, can include many colors. Among them will be redeemed Israel. And God will fulfill what He promised to them. Instead of being forever replaced, they will glorify Him forever. Won’t that be marvelous!
7. RT misunderstands the promised kingdom. I have touched on this fact in most of these arguments, especially #2. Here I will sketch some arguments I deal with at length elsewhere.
Consider evidence from the Gospel of Matthew, which has the King and His kingdom as its main theme. On three separate occasions Matthew informs us that the same message was being repeated:
- John the Baptist was preaching that the kingdom had drawn near—Matthew 3:2.
- Jesus was preaching that the kingdom had drawn near—Matthew 4:17.
- The apostles were preaching that the kingdom had drawn near—Matthew 10:7.
The Greek verb engidzo is used in these three key passages in Matthew, also in Luke 10:9, 11 on the final journey to Jerusalem. It never means to arrive or be present but to draw near, as should be obvious in James 5:8 and 1 Peter 4:7.
So John, Jesus, and the apostles repeatedly preached that the kingdom had come near. How did they define the near kingdom? They did not! Why not? Why did they consider no definition necessary or suitable? The best answer is that the Jews knew what the kingdom would be. The Jewish definition, gained from the prophecies, was basically right.
Another answer, a misguided one, has been devised: that Jesus did not define the kingdom but inaugurated it. In that case, its very presence proved that it was spiritual, transformed from the prophetic pictures. In that case, Jesus didn’t tell the Jews but showed them that they were wrong. But if that were the case, Matthew would have said so clearly. He would have recorded when and where the kingdom began. Matthew did record a great deal about the kingdom: its importance, requirements for entering it, its ultimate triumph. He even noted that it touched earth in its representatives (12:28). But nowhere did he record that it began. Rather, he assigned that to the Second Coming (e.g., Matthew 13:40–43; 19:28; 25:31), always picturing it just as the OT did.
So can you find a transformed kingdom in Matthew? Only by overlooking the main argument and skewing certain verses out of context!
Nevertheless, great numbers of preachers and teachers now assume that the kingdom began in an unexpected form. They do so based on a mistake that affects not only Bible interpretations but some translations. Their mistake is to define Messiah’s promised kingdom according to current theology rather than according to biblical prophecies. The usual definition nowadays is that it is the spiritual rule of God in the individual, with no material or political aspects. By assuming that meaning, most modern interpreters feel free to assert that Messiah has begun His rule.
To repeat, the modern definition of Jesus’ kingdom disagrees with the many OT prophecies that anticipated it. It also disagrees with the consequent Jewish expectations for the kingdom, based on those prophecies. Rather than correct those expectations, Jesus often affirmed them.
How do RT teachers reconcile their kingdom theology with such Scriptures? Many “spiritualize” the prophecies and/or claim that there are both present and future forms of His kingdom. Instead, we ought to believe the prophecies and alter our theology. I have dealt with many relevant Scriptures in writings available on my website, www.kingdominbible.com.
8. RT misunderstands the NT use of the OT. The principal RT argument is that the apostles show us how to interpret the Scriptures. That is sometimes correct, when we understand what they are doing. But by no means do they intend to give the only or even the best meaning every time they quote.
Consider the following example, in which Matthew 2:15 comments on Hosea 11:1. Matthew says that the holy family went to Egypt “that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying ‘OUT OF EGYPT DID I CALL MY SON.’” Now look at Hosea 11:1 in context (see at least 11:1-2). It is simply a statement about the past history of the nation—no prediction at all. Does Matthew’s comment obligate us to interpret it primarily as a messianic prophecy? If it did, how could we understand anything in the OT without such help? But Matthew is not interpreting that verse. Instead, he is showing us that even Israel’s history is recapitulated in Jesus, who is the true Israel. He does not change the meaning or value of what Hosea said about Israel. The same goes for many other “prophecies” fulfilled in Jesus. Their original reference to Israel is still valid, not canceled by NT “explanations.” When we see an additional level of meaning, why reject the first level?
Appendix A: Israel and the New Covenant
Jeremiah 31:27–37, like Ezekiel 37, proclaims promises God made to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:27, 31; see also 13:11). These were the two components of “the whole house of Israel” referred to in Ezekiel 37:11; 39:25; and 45:6. Most prophecies in Jeremiah and Ezekiel deal with that nation God had ruled over. The first component of that nation, “the house of Israel,” had gone into captivity years before Jeremiah was born. During Jeremiah’s ministry the second component, “the house of Judah,” was going into captivity.
Their God had “watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy, and to bring disaster” (Jer. 31:28a). But just as surely He would “watch over them to build and to plant” (v. 28b). He would “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (v. 30). This would be better than the covenant made with their fathers (vv. 31–33), because it would be written in their hearts. It would be possible to make the new covenant because He would forgive their sin (vv. 34–35).
This new covenant is now in operation for us (2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8:6-13). It was inaugurated by Jesus’ death. We celebrate it in every Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:25). In fact, this Jeremiah passage is quoted and given a present application throughout Hebrews 8–10 (see especially 8:8–13 and 10:14–18). Seeing that the covenant is already in force, RT draws wrong conclusions about Jeremiah 31. It says that the (mostly Gentile) church (a) is the new Israel and (b) has taken over that promise. Both RT conclusions are unwarranted. The new covenant will not be limited to one or even several groups. It reaches all the universe, including “heavenly things themselves” (Heb. 9:23; cf. 8:5; 9:12). Therefore, why should its present application cancel the obvious meaning of Jeremiah 31? In Jeremiah it is promised to the same nation that did the wrong described throughout the book. That is what God announced in His conclusion to the prophecy:
“If the heavens above can be measured,
And the foundations of the earth be searched out below,
Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel
For all that they have done,” declares the Lord. (v. 37)
RT comes to a different conclusion: God has indeed cast off “the offspring of Israel” and made the covenant with the present church instead of them. Such a conclusion implies that the covenant is limited and the prophecy is misleading. Instead, why not suppose that the covenant is big enough for us and for Israel, too? Remember that the same covenant was first and often promised to converted Israel. When they are baptized in the Spirit, they too will become part of the ekklesia (church), the body of Messiah. In Him there will be many levels of inheritance.
Appendix B: The Kingdom Described in Ezekiel 40–48
This summarizes an appendix to my study on Ezekiel. It shows, by means of questions in four categories, some great difficulties in interpreting chapters 40–48 literally. It then discusses three proposed solutions.
A. Ezekiel pictures barriers in place
that have been demolished.
1. Why would God reestablish in the temple barriers to accessing Himself, such as, thick gates (40:5, 6), guards (40:7), and areas for priests only (42:14; 44:13–19)?
Instead, He emphasizes, in several epistles, the right of every believer to approach Him (e.g., Rom. 5:1–2; Heb. 4:16; 10:19–22).
2. Why would God rebuild barriers between Israel and the nations (44:7–9)?
Instead, He tore those barriers down (Acts 10:28; Gal. 2:11–18).
3. Why would God revert to distinctions between clean and unclean foods (44:23)?
Instead, He made all foods clean (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:14–16).
B. Ezekiel pictures only unglorified participants,
whereas only glorified people can inherit the kingdom.
Glorified people will be all those with incorruptible, eternal bodies obtained in the resurrection of the just.
4. Why would God ordain unglorified people to rule in this restored kingdom, implying that their subjects will also be unglorified? For examples, (a) even the prince would marry and have children (44:16–18, 22) and (b) those in priestly families would die (44:25–27).
Instead, God will give glorified bodies to all who will actually “inherit the kingdom” (1 Cor. 15:50–54). To “receive the promised eternal inheritance,” those under the ”first covenant” must pass under the “new covenant” (Heb. 9:15). Their inheritance, as Jesus declared, will become available when He inaugurates the kingdom at His Second Coming:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, then He will sit on His glorious throne .…Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.…” And the righteous [will go] into eternal life. (Matt. 25:31, 34, 46, emphasis added; cf. Rev. 11:18)
Having suffered with Him, they will now rule with Him (Rom. 8:17; 2 Tim. 2:11–12). Since glorified people will neither marry nor die (Luke 20:34–36), they cannot be the rulers described in Ezekiel 44. In fact, Ezekiel’s picture leaves no room for such heirs.
5. Why would God ordain as “prince” an unglorified person rather than Messiah? As seen before, the prince will have children. Not a priest himself, he will also require sin offerings made by others (45:22–23).
Instead, God has already designated as Ruler Jesus the Messiah. Jesus’ very title (Christ = Messiah) means that. Being Priest as well as King (Heb. 7:1), He needs no one to offer for Him. But there is no hint of Him in Ezekiel 40–48.
C. Ezekiel pictures worship led by Levitical priests and including animal sacrifices,
both of which have been superseded.
6. Why would God return to the Levitical priesthood (40:46; 43:19; 44:15–16; 48:11)?
Instead God has named Messiah to be priest (Heb. 5:5–10). Though not Levitical, He is the far better priest of the new order. Hebrews 7:11–28 explains this in detail, verse 12 saying that “the priesthood is changed.” Why change back?
7. Why would God again require animal sacrifices for sin (43:19, 27; 45:15, 17, 20)? Ezekiel 45:15, 17, 20 says their purpose will be “to make atonement.” This is the same language expressing the same purpose as in the former kingdom (Lev. 1:4; 4:20, 26, 31; 6:30).
Instead, God has accepted Messiah’s perfect sacrifice, and “there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb. 10:18). Can the purpose-language in Ezekiel refer merely to memorials of Messiah’s sacrifice? If so, how would they relate to the current memorial in the Lord’s Supper, given “until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26)?
8. Why would God require that special days, such as, the first day of the year, be observed (45:18–20)?
Instead, God labeled such days as “weak and miserable principles,” mere shadows of the reality in Messiah (Gal. 4:9–11; Col. 2:16–17). If in the kingdom they will become reminders of spiritual truth, why not now? Why did the apostle Paul fear for the Galatians when they observed them?
D. Ezekiel pictures the capital city as earthly Jerusalem (48:30–35)
rather than “the Jerusalem that is above [that] is our mother” (Gal. 4:26).
9. Why would earthly Jerusalem be the eternal (or even temporary) capital?
Instead, God has prepared “the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). Though superficially similar to the earthly city, this “New Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:2, 10) is far more impressive. It was clearly Abraham’s goal: “He was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). It is our goal, too: “Here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (Heb. 13:14).
The preceding questions have illustrated some interpretive difficulties occasioned by Ezekiel 40–48 (and similar prophecies). If it were all to be fulfilled literally, it would sometimes contradict the New Testament. It would perpetuate the conditions of the old covenant, which has passed away (Gal. 3:19, 24–25; Heb. 7:12; 9:13). Instead, His kingdom is based on the new covenant (Heb. 7:18–19). How do we resolve these problems? I will list with related warnings three views that have been suggested of the kingdom Ezekiel pictures.
- 1. Does Ezekiel describe a kingdom that will never exist? Some consider Ezekiel 40–48 an offer made at the prophet’s time but not a definite prediction. Their view fits the fact that Ezekiel’s generation was apparently invited (in 43:10d–11) to secure what he described. However, this first view treats Ezekiel 40–48 as a holy fiction. It seems unlikely that God would indulge in so much fiction anywhere—but especially in Ezekiel. These chapters are the grand finale and climax of the book, in which God’s glory returns to stay forever. It would seem misleading and unworthy to describe here in detail the core of a kingdom that will never exist!
- 2. Does Ezekiel describe a kingdom for Jews but not for the church? Many dispensationalists so affirm. It will be fulfilled literally, they say, for converted Israel. In contrast, the church will share the rule with Christ, as His bride. Furthermore, they recognize that the kingdom described by Ezekiel will be imperfect even for Israel. They think of it as lasting only a thousand years (“the millennium” or “the millennial kingdom”), to be followed by the eternal condition for all believers: “According to His promise, we are looking for new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet. 3:11–14).
This second, “Jewish,” view of Ezekiel 40-48 misunderstands our final goal. Both the church and Israel have essentially the same goal, for which we pray, “Our Father…your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:9–10; 25:34, 46; Acts 14:22; James 2:5; Heb. 2:5–10; 11:16). That kingdom will be eternal heaven on earth under the eternal new covenant and ruled by the eternal Messiah. With Him His servants “will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).
The kingdom we wait for will have an introductory, transitional phase, and different assignments to God’s servants and godly nations. But once started, it “will never end” (Luke 1:33). Scripturally we are obliged to call even its imperfect stage the “new heavens and new earth.” For when Peter says “according to His promise” (see above), he specifically refers to Isaiah 65 and 66. That basic promise in Isaiah certainly includes what dispensationalists identify as the millennium. It is the earthly, eternal rule so often promised to the Messiah. When Messiah was here, He promised to return and immediately—not after an additional thousand years—create a new world (Matt. 19:28; cf. Acts 3:20–21). A glorified ruler over a glorified, new covenant world. But Ezekiel 40–48 pictures no glorified Messiah, no glorified citizens, no new covenant world. Assigning Ezekiel’s kingdom to the Jews explains neither the absence of glorified Messiah and glorified citizens nor the reversion to the covenant that has disappeared (Heb. 8:13).
- 3. Does Ezekiel describe a kingdom that will exist in a different form? This view says that the picture of the kingdom in Ezekiel 40–48 must be transformed to a later, new covenant version. Prophecies like Ezekiel 40–48 are similar to “types” that must be “updated.” Such prophecies pictured the world as it existed then but will not be the same in the end. For example, they used horses instead of tanks, suffered from national enemies that have since disappeared, and counted on first-covenant priests and their sacrifices. We must modify their expectations by comparing New Testament teachings and prophecies.
J. Sidlow Baxter recognized this need in Explore the Book when he commented on Ezekiel 40-48. Though renowned as a premillennialist and dispensationalist, he confessed,
We believe it to be a sound principle of exegesis in general that unless there is some serious objection to the literal interpretation of a passage, this should be given first preference. Are there, then, serious objections to our taking Ezekiel’s description literally? There are. Certain of its main features are such that a literal fulfilment of them is surely unthinkable.
With reluctance and with several reservations, I accept this third view. It seems valid if used with great care. The picture in a given prophecy will be transformed if there is clear scriptural authorization. However, its features that are supported by God’s covenants and statements of purpose, will remain the same. Consider two of the factors that must not be changed.
- The locale for God’s eternal kingdom will be earth, not heaven. Genesis 1, reflected in Psalm 8, Hebrews 2, and in many other prophecies, makes God’s design obvious. So transferring Ezekiel’s picture to heaven would contradict His plan.
- God will fulfill His promises for ethnic Israel. Such promises are obvious in repetitions of the Abrahamic covenant and in many other prophecies (including Romans 11). So we are not free to reinterpret kingdom prophecies so as to exclude that nation.
There are other features in Ezekiel 40–48 that will remain the same. Among them:
- God and His glory will dwell on earth forever.
- The whole world will worship Him.
 I will discuss the label Replacement Theology under the biblical context of RT. Though considered tendentious by its adherents, the term is convenient and not unfair.
 Joseph A. Alexander, Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953), 248-262. This is a reprint of Alexander’s two volumes in 1846-1847 revised in 1875 by John Eadie. Though I usually refer to Riddlebarger or Waltke, neither of them provides an explanation of Isaiah 11 as a whole.
 Among Alexander’s comments (Isaiah, p. 253) on Isaiah 11:5-6:
Most Christian writers…explain the prophecy as wholly metaphorical, and descriptive of the peace to be enjoyed by God’s people…under the new dispensation…commonly regarded as descriptive of the change wrought by Christianity in wicked men themselves.…Calvin and Hengstenberg suppose the passage to include a promise of a future change in the material creation, restoring it to its original condition (Rom. viii. 19-22), while they agree with other writers in regarding the pacific effects of true religion as the primary subject of the prophecy.
Waltke (An Old Testament Theology, p. 819) affirms that “Diverse hyperboles give rise to apparent discrepancies. Some prophets describe the peace of the messianic times…by the domestication of wild beasts (Isa. 11:6-8; 65:25) and still others, by their riddance (Ezek 34:25).”
 Alexander (Isaiah, p 256) on Isaiah 11:10: “The reference is not to Christ’s crucifixion, but to his manifestation to the Gentiles through the preaching of the gospel.”
 Alexander (Isaiah, p 261, emphasis added) on Isaiah 11:13: “The only fulfillment it has ever had is in the abolition of all national and sectional distinctions in the Christian Church (Gal. iii.27, 29, v. 6), to which converted Jews as well as others must submit. Its full accomplishment is yet to come, in the re-union of the tribes of Israel under Christ their common head (Hosea i.11).”
 Alexander (Isaiah, p 261) on Isaiah 11:14: “Most Christian writers understand it spiritually of the conquests to be achieved by the true religion, and suppose the nations here named to be simply put for enemies in general, or for the heathen world.…”
 Alexander (Isaiah, p. 262) on Isaiah 11:16.
 Riddlebarger complains about the RT label in an internet response (http//kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/a-reply-to-john-macarthur/). He labels his view as “Reformed amillennialism” and complains that the term RT is
a label slapped on us by those who disagree with our eschatology. But this is not (and never has been) how we identify ourselves.…Reformed amillennarians do not believe that the church “replaces” Israel.…Rather, we do believe that there is one people of God, the elect. In the Old Testament most of the elect are members of the covenant line, culminating [in] the formation of national Israel at Mt. Sinai.…Thus under the New Covenant believers are now called out from among all nations (including Israel) to belong to Christ’s church, which is the visible manifestation of the New Covenant people of God.
 Later we will consider how RT deals with promises of blessing that even to them must refer to ethnic Israel.
 Christ represents Cristos in Greek, which is equivalent to Mashiac in Hebrew or Messiah in Aramaic. All these terms refer to one anointed to be king, as David was.
 This is the main point of the first verse of the NT, Matthew 1:1, and those that follow. They document the fact that Jesus the Messiah was indeed descended from David and Abraham.
 “You killed the author of life” (Acts 3:13–15). Regardless of whoever else was guilty, Israel had His blood on them (Matt. 27:25). The reasons for this tragic response are probed in all four Gospels, especially in John chapters 1 to 12.
 In all four Gospels—as in Acts—the Great Confession was that Jesus is the expected king (Messiah). Matthew records that Jesus congratulated Simon for making that confession—and changed Simon’s name to Peter. Then He announced that He would build the ekklesia to share His authority in the future kingdom. See Matthew 16 in my course on that Gospel.
 Another strong possibility for the “nation” to receive the kingdom (program) is future converted Israel!
 Here is one example of many Church Fathers who espoused RT. About A.D. 180 in “Against Heresies,” Irenaeus wrote, “They who boast themselves as being the house of Jacob and the people of Israel, are disinherited from the grace of God.” (The Anti-Nicene Fathers, ed. A Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 4 [1885; reprint, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1993], 3.21.1.)
 RT does recognize that some promises of blessing were definitely for ethnic Israel (as stated in Rom. 9:4). The contexts for such promises were unambiguous. How can RT understand them? It can allege that some of them were fulfilled but others were abrogated because of conditions (sometimes implied) that Israel did not meet. The allegations RT makes should be tested. Certainly God is not careless when He speaks; He knows how to give clear promises to clear recipients and fulfill them clearly. And He would not add conditions that later change the character of His promises (Gal. 3:15, 17). Therefore, we would expect Israel to see unconditional blessings fulfilled at the right time regardless of her intervening failures.
 For the same reason, RT expects no literal millennium. Probably all RT adherents think that the kingdom described in Revelation 20 is already in progress.
 I have written many papers on the character of the kingdom. See my website, www.kingdominbible.com.
 This argument extends the one just considered. See further discussion of it in Appendix B.
 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, pp. 584-585.
 Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, pp. 191-193.
 Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, does not comment on details of Zacharias’s prophecy, except the word “servant” (p. 69).
 In his second speech in Acts, Peter told Israel that by repenting they might get God to send back the Messiah. He then described the kingdom that would result, in language equivalent to Matthew 19:28. It would be “the restoration of all things, about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3:21). RT admits that the world will be restored but denies that ethnic Israel will be exalted.
 John Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World: The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 41.
 This question by the apostles in Acts 1:6 is a bone in the throat of amillennialists. Though not as harsh as Stott, Waltke agrees with him. “The disciples still think like the primitive church,” he says, and have “Jewish expectations.” In other words, the apostles did not profit from being taught and enlightened by the Lord. They still did not understand either the kingdom or Israel’s fate. But in “the book of Acts,” Waltke assures us,
we can trace…Luke’s redefinition of the kingdom of God from a reference to life in territorial space to a reference to life in Christ. The primitive church expected Jesus Messiah to rule from David’s throne in Jerusalem and reestablish Israel’s glory.…However, the Spirit-enlightened and Spirit-empowered church came to understand that Messiah Jesus rules the world from David’s throne in heaven in a universal kingdom without national boundaries.… (Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, pp. 570-571, emphasis added)
 It is fascinating to read the discussion of Romans 9–11 by Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, pp. 183–194. In Romans 9 he follows the typical RT argument that the true Israel, elected by God, is the church.. Yet, he is convinced by Romans 11—and gives solid arguments—that there is a future for ethnic Israel.
 Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, insists that Romans 4 reinterprets the Promised Land to mean the whole world. “The inheritance promised to Abraham, which was couched in premessianic terms as a reference to the land of Canaan, was…subsequently reinterpreted by Isaiah, Paul, the author of Hebrews, and Peter as a new heaven and earth” (p. 72). “It was Paul who spiritualized the promise of a land, which originally extended from the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18) to now include the whole world (Rom. 4:13)” (p. 235).
Indeed, eventual inheritance of the Promised Land—as core of Messiah’s worldwide kingdom—will imply world dominion. But in this case the thing implied (the world) need not cancel the thing that implies it (the Promised Land). The promise of a specific land for Abraham and his nation could hardly be clearer either in Genesis or in Hebrews 11.
 In all its sixty-seven NT uses, there are only one or two where Israel can even be considered to mean other than ethnic Israel. Israelite, used nine times, is equally unambiguous: John 1:48; Acts 2:22; 3:12; 5:35; 13:16; 21:28; Romans 9:4; 11:1; 2 Corinthians 11:22.
 Luke uses Israel twenty-seven times in his Gospel and Acts: (a) twelve times in the Gospel—Luke 1:16, 54, 68, 80; 2:25, 32, 34; 4:25, 27; 7:9; 22:30; 24:21; (b) fifteen times in Acts—1:6; 2:36; 4:10, 27; 5:21, 31; 7:23, 37, 42; 9:15; 10:36; 13:17, 23, 24; 28:20.
 For two other examples picturing Israel and the nations in the future kingdom, see Isaiah 19:23–25 and Zechariah 8:20–23. How does Riddlebarger deal with these passages and those I will refer to in Revelation? He does not.
 Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, is ambivalent about the time pictured by Isaiah 2:2–4 (and Micah 4:1–5). On p. 73 he says, “The author of Hebrews said the prophecy was already fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.” But in a later chapter he says, “What is described in Isaiah 2:4 has to do with the renewed earth, not the millennial age [which he considers to be now]” (p. 207). Apparently Riddlebarger can take either view, depending on his interpretation of a particular passage. “When we speak of the premessianic prophetic expectations regarding the city of Jerusalem and the mountain of the Lord as fulfilled in Christ but awaiting a final consummation at the end of the age, we are speaking of the earthly Jerusalem serving as a type or a copy of the heavenly reality, which now is realized in principle” (p. 74). Many use the same logic to prove that the kingdom is “already…but not yet.”
 By the use of unchecked spiritualization, some have even denied physical resurrection and physical places to live in forever.
 “Since no explicit definition of this kingdom is found in either the Old or New Testaments, the kingdom of God has been interpreted in different ways depending largely on the presuppositions of the interpreter.” (Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, p. 100). Certainly many prophecies, such as, Psalm 2, Isaiah 2, Daniel 2, describe a future kingdom of God. Why not accept those practical definitions, which find much support in the NT?
 Most commonly it is claimed that the kingdom has “already” come but “not yet” in its fullness, which will be later. “On the one hand, Christ’s kingdom is a present reality; it arrived in Jesus’ person…” (Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, p. 98. He proceeds to cite proof texts, such as, Matt. 3:2; 12:28; Luke 10:17–20; Matt. 11:2–19; John 18:36; Luke 17:20–21; Rom. 14:17). But “let us not forget that this present, spiritual kingdom also has an eschatological consummation yet to come” (p. 99). One big result of this dual definition is to redirect attention from the coming kingdom to the supposed present one.
 For NT teaching about the kingdom, see, for example, my course on Matthew and extracts from that course. Also, listed with the Gospel of Luke is a document called “What Kingdom of God Did Jesus Proclaim in Luke?” It deals with 36 passages in Luke that clearly refer to the kingdom. Only two or three of them “picture” His kingdom as somehow present when He was here.
 Right after quoting Hosea 11:1, Matthew treats another historical note in the same way (Matt. 2:17–18). Similarly, as I pointed out before, 1 Peter 2:9–10 applied to the church OT verses that clearly referred to Israel.
 Some dispensationalists recognize that the kingdom will last forever. However, few of them really believe that the eternal state is essentially the same as the millennial kingdom.
 The church (Greek ekklesia) and Israel will not always be completely separate (see my writings on Matthew). Messiah will baptize in the Spirit every member of the future converted Israel. That same baptism was originally promised to Israel (Matt. 3:11, reflecting OT prophecies, such as, Ezek. 36:27). Thus, they will all become part of His ekklesia, His “body,” which He builds by that procedure (1 Cor. 12:12–13). The resulting body of Messiah, the ekklesia, is His “assembly” for His coming kingdom. Jesus’ disciples certainly knew the Greek term in that meaning—as a common designation for God’s kingdom assembly in the OT (e.g., Deut. 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:1–3; 31:30; 2 Chron. 7:8; 20:5, 14; Acts 7:38).
 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book: A Basic and Broadly Interpretative Course of Bible Study from Genesis to Revelation, six volumes (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, LTD, 1951), IV:31.