When something is out of context it messes with our interpretation of what we see (photo by tom_kelly_archive on freeimages.com)
All the way back in part 2 of this series a cursory reading of the apostle Paul had led me to think he was a replacement theologian. However, after looking closely at his writings in the books of Romans and Galatians, we soon realised that my initial interpretation had in reality been very wrong indeed.
Among my many errors I had failed to realise I was making unsubstantiated assertions. On top of this, I was reading things from outside the text into the text, otherwise known as the cardinal sin of eisegesis. I was also neglecting to take account of other valid perspectives. Embarrassingly, I was simply assuming that the way I was naturally reading the text was resulting in me knowing what it actually meant. The harsh reality was that I was being arrogant towards the text.
Thankfully I was pulled away from my assumed certainty by simply asking questions about the text, and particularly concerning its context. Importantly, I wasn’t so arrogant that I refused to listen to what the text showed to me. I listened and changed by position. We noted that this is what good interpreters do – in fact it is a crucial ability to have if we are to develop into good interpreters.
By the end of our study of Paul we were able to clearly see that Paul wasn’t anywhere teaching any form of replacement theology. However, the apostle Paul was not the only person in the New Testament to be our source of texts seeming to support replacement theology. We also quoted from what we have to admit is the ultimate authority – Jesus Himself. So despite my disappointment at discovering that Paul does not support my replacementist views, I still have the chance of being proved correct by the ultimate authority Himself (although such a situation would give us a big problem in Paul and Jesus contradicting each other!). So let us now turn to the words of Jesus.
What does Jesus say about the kingdom?
In Acts 1 we read,
‘Then they [the disciples] gathered around him [Jesus] and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”’ (Acts 1:6-8 NIV)
In commenting on these verses, the famous 16th century interpreter John Calvin described Jesus’ disciples as foolish, rude and ignorant for asking Jesus their question in verse 6. In fact, I distinctly remember listening to a preacher in a church in the north of England repeating Calvin’s assessment. He mocked the disciples, concluding they were really quite stupid for asking the question. The reason for the mocking tone is that it appears Jesus had to correct His disciples for foolishly thinking that Israel had a future role in the purposes of God.
The disciples obviously had a pretty short memory, as only a couple of months earlier Jesus had delivered the parable of the tenants (recorded in Matthew 21:33-46). In this parable He had clearly alluded to the fact that Israel would soon (following Jesus’ death and resurrection) be replaced by the Church. Where Israel had failed to produce the fruit of the kingdom, the Church would succeed:
Matthew 21:43 ‘[Jesus said] “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”’ (NIV)
Clearly Jesus believed in replacement theology…
But this is what I had thought about Paul, at least until we took a closer look at the Scriptures. Could I be wrong again, this time about Jesus? Having been proven wrong in my earlier assertions in this series, this time I want to be careful to avoid being arrogant towards the Scripture. To do this, I need to ask some questions and examine the context of both passages. Only when I have listened to the results of this process will I be in a position to know whether I am correct or not. So here goes…
Questions of context
In looking at Acts 1:6, the first thing I notice about the apostles’ question is that it has two elements. The first is the nature of the kingdom, and the second concerns the timing of its restoration. I didn’t notice it at first, but Jesus only addresses one of these elements – the timing of the kingdom’s restoration to Israel.
Why did He not address the nature of the kingdom? Why did Jesus not mock the disciples for being foolish, rude and ignorant like John Calvin did for their presumed naïveté concerning the nature of the kingdom? With our earlier example of Paul, we discovered that examining the context of the passage gave us the answer. So, let’s do the same here with Jesus.
My first observation concerning the context is that John Calvin and the preacher in the north of England, along with everyone else I have ever heard teaching replacement theology from this passage, do the same thing – they isolate verse 6 from the verses that come before. Interesting! This is exceedingly naughty, because it separates Acts 1:6-8 from its context. As all good interpreters know, separating a text from its context is inviting error to enter into our interpretation.
Now I am concerned! By starting in Acts 1:6, have I failed to take account of the context and allowed error to creep in to my interpretation? Let’s see…
What do the verses before Acts 1:6 say? Well, Acts 1:3 says that over the forty day period between His resurrection and ascension Jesus concentrated on teaching the disciples about one topic, and one topic only – the kingdom of God. This strongly suggests that when the disciples then ask Jesus when this kingdom would be restored to Israel they had a clear understanding of its nature.
In other words, they were asking Jesus, “Lord, is it at this time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel (in the way you have repeatedly been telling us about over the last forty days)?”
If replacement theology is correct, Christ would surely have corrected any misunderstanding concerning the nature of the kingdom. Yet He didn’t, which is very interesting indeed! This is quite a contrast with the many times earlier in the Gospels when Jesus patiently corrected the disciples whenever they misunderstood His teaching and got things wrong. If the disciples’ question was foolish, rude, and ignorant then why didn’t Jesus correct them as He normally did when they got things wrong?
What more does the context tell us?
The 40 day period of Jesus teaching His disciples about the nature of the kingdom of God began with the account we know as the Road to Emmaus. There we read that on the day Jesus was raised from the dead (Luke 24:45), Christ opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures. In other words, they were no longer the group of men portrayed earlier in the Gospels who kept failing to understand what Jesus taught them about Himself and the kingdom of God. This a part of the context of Acts 1:6-8, but curiously not mentioned by Calvin and other replacement theologians. Why not? Could it be because it doesn’t fit with what they want to be true?
It’s becoming clear to me that Jesus doesn’t anywhere say that Israel forfeited the kingdom. Instead, He replies that the disciples were not to know the timing of when the kingdom would be restored to Israel. Nowhere does He challenge their understanding concerning a future restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Christ’s response hardly sounds as though Israel lost the kingdom forever. In fact it is quite the opposite. Significantly, this is also entirely consistent with what Paul says in Romans 11:25-29.
Does Jesus indicate the Church is now Israel?
Now that we have examined the context of Acts 1:6-8, we are now in a position to accurately interpret what Jesus meant in our final passage of the parable of the tenants in Matthew 21. Many believe that here Jesus is alluding to the Church being the new Israel. Let’s take a look to see if this is true.
In the parable, the landowner, representing God, rents his vineyard out to vine-growers, and at harvest time sends his slaves to collect the produce. However, the vine-growers kill the slaves, and then kill the landowner’s son and heir. Jesus then says, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people [Greek: ethnei, literally “nation”], producing the fruit of it” (Matthew 21:43 NASB).
Replacement theology claims that God’s kingdom was taken away from Israel and given to a new “nation,” the Church; a new “reconstituted Israel” made up of both Jews and Gentiles with faith in Christ. If replacement theology is correct it must prove two things. Firstly, that the rejection of Israel was permanent, and also that the Church is the “nation” that will be given the kingdom.
Matthew 21:45 reveals Jesus was speaking about the Pharisees and chief priests who were there listening to Him. Therefore the text implies Jesus was speaking about judgment against that particular generation of Israel who were in unbelief, represented by its religious leaders.
Matthew 19:28 says in the end time “regeneration” when Christ will physically reign on earth, that the disciples “shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (NASB). This clearly indicates that Jesus anticipated Israel would experience a future restoration. If replacement theology is true, the disciples would be judging the future glorified Church, which of course doesn’t at all make sense.
Matthew 23:37-39 reveals that Israel’s house will be desolate until a future time when they will accept Christ and be restored. Israel’s future restoration agrees with both the Old Testament (e.g., Amos 9:11-15) and the New Testament (e.g., Romans 11:26).
Is the Church the “nation” that will receive the kingdom? Well, the Church clearly does not answer to the description of a “nation”. Furthermore, in the absence of a credible alternative, and given the New Testament’s agreement with the Old Testament concerning the future restoration of ethnic Israel, surely the most natural interpretation is that the “nation” that will one day receive the kingdom is a future nation of Israel, a nation that has come to believe in its Messiah.
Even famous interpreters from history can get it wrong!
Contrary to my expectations at the beginning of our study, we have found no justification for replacement theology, in any of its guises, within the New Testament. My unexamined first impressions suggested that replacement theology could be possible. However, when we adopted an attitude of humility towards the text our interpretation changed. When we stopped assuming that we accurately know it all, when we learned to ask relevant questions, became open to other possibilities, and simply investigated the context of our passages, the Scriptures soon ruled out the various forms of replacement theology.
It seems that the famous 16th century interpreter, John Calvin was human after all. Our study has revealed that calling the disciples foolish, rude and ignorant was at best itself ignorant; indeed, the context reveals that the opposite was the case. This just goes to show that because someone is considered a great interpreter of Church history it doesn’t make them immune from making interpretational mistakes. We must always question what they say, no matter how famous the interpreter. Putting such interpreters up on a pedestal, listening to what they have to say without properly listening to the Scripture itself is a recipe for getting things wrong.
The preacher in the north of England I listened to all those years ago made what we could call an interpretational mess of his sermon. Instead of following good principles of interpretation, he neglected to listen to what the text was actually saying. Unfortunately, he instead preferred to listen to a fallible man, resulting in the denial of the Scripture’s context and the unconscious introduction of a theological bias into his interpretation. In short, he unknowingly made an interpretational mess of things, resulting in him misleading the people of God.
May we be on guard against allowing the same sort of mistakes to slip unnoticed into our interpretations.