The Early Church and Israel  (from Chapter Seven)

Associated with this move came the tendency to exalt the Church and depreciate Israel in Christian thinking. In the A.D. 50s, Paul could assume that Israel was still the main player in the eschatological drama. Gentile Christians had been grafted into Israel (Rom. 11:17-24), and some Jews were presently cut off, but the expectation remained that "all Israel" would someday be saved (v. 26). The Gentile Church was something of an expedient, necessitated by the fact that Israel had not repented and so Christ had not returned. It is perfectly clear in Romans 11 that the action is centered on Israel. That is no longer the case in most of the NT writings of the late first-century. There the move toward Christian supersessionism, that is, the belief that the Church has superseded Israel in Godís plan, is well and truly underway. Amongst the Synoptic Gospels, this change is most evident in Matthew. Compare Matthew with Luke and Mark in the following two passages:

Luke 13:28-29

There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you [evildoers] see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.

Matthew 8:11-12

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Mark 12:10-11

Have you not read this scripture: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?"

Matthew 21:42-43

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Similar sentiments are found in Matthewís version of the parable of the wedding banquet, which makes this chilling statement about Godís attitude toward the Jews:

The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, "The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy." (Matt. 22:7-8)

Post-Holocaust, it has become increasingly difficult for Christian theologians to affirm these and similar NT statements about the Jews and Judaism. One of the most helpful and refreshing trends in New Testament studies is the reclamation of Romans 11 as a starting point for Christian reflection about Israel. When push came to shove, Paul could not write off the Jews, and neither should we.

The Churchís diminishing regard for Israel finds a corollary in its increasing estimate of itself. It is the Church toward which Godís purposes were always directed; it is the Church that succeeds where Israel had failed. The exaltation of the Church is an especially noteworthy feature of Ephesians, probably written in the late first century. For example, Ephesians 3:9-11 speaks of

the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord...

Of course, the rancorous divorce between Judaism and Christianity was a major factor in the move toward Christian supersessionism and "triumphalism." It might well have encouraged the Church to think in terms of a more realized eschatology, thereby accentuating the perceived differences between Jewish hope and Christian reality. In other words, the more Christ can be said to have accomplished, the more superior the position of Christians to Jews. That is the tactic employed by the author of Hebrews, who, for example, contrasts the perpetually unfinished work of the Jewish priesthood with the completed work of Christ (Heb. 10:1-18). Unlike Jews, Christians may now enter Godís presence in the eternal Holy of Holies "by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)" (10:19-20).

The move away from Israel, especially understandable in an increasingly Gentile Church, fits hand in glove with a move toward a more heavenly and less earthly eschatological expectation. The "restoration of Israel" was less concrete expectation and more spiritual metaphor as time went by. The recovery of the twelve tribes became a non-issue, as did the repossession of the land. Altogether, there was more talk of heavenly and less talk of earthly paradise, although the latter did not disappear entirely (as in Rev. 21).2 This change in perspective is so ingrained that many of my students find it hard to accept that Christians ever believed in a literal, earthly dominion of God. They did, and some still do.

[Back]