Supersessionism in the Messianic Movement
Every human being ever born on this planet descended from just one original set of parents: Adam and Eve. No matter what our race is, no matter what our nationality, ethnicity or religion, this remains one inescapable fact. However, when G-d set out to create our original mutual father and mother He was far from being done in his work of shaping humanity. From the very beginning His plan was not to create one giant human family, but instead create many distinct families to fill the earth from corner to corner. We must be careful not to confuse the modern nations-states with biblical idea of a national family (Mishpacha in Hebrew, משפחה). A family signifies something far deeper, something that lasts for a long time if not forever.
However, not everyone today subscribes to the idea of an enduring national family. Many who have come to identify themselves with Messianic Movement, specifically One-Law and Two-House groups, do not believe in nations or families continuing in perpetuity. To be sure, they do acknowledge that there are indeed many nations in the modern world today, but they do not believe that this will still be the case when Messiah returns and G-d sets up His visible Kingdom on earth. Instead, they hold that in the future and certainly in eternity G-d will have only one “super nation” while all other nations will cease to be. They believe that this one nation will be called Israel, and everyone, be they Jews or Gentiles [who they hold have entered Israel through faith], anyone who is found worthy to live in G-d’s Kingdom will become part of that one nation and will be called “Israelite” while all other national identities will eliminated as superfluous.
Is this idea of believers from all nations becoming spiritual Israelites and making up one nation called “Israel” really new and is limited to those who make up certain Christian and messianic groups today? How did it come about and what are its origins? As I will show in this post, this belief is quite ancient and it’s deeply rooted in Christian Supersessionism. Some time after the sacking of Jerusalem and exile of Israel in the late first century many Christians have began to view themselves as the true “Spiritual Israel” , one no longer made up of only Jews but of all those, Jews and Gentiles, who have embraced the Christian faith. For example, some time around 100 to 165 CE Justin Martyr wrote the following words emphasizing that Israel is no longer made up of Jews only, but of all believers in Messiah:
For the true spiritual Israel … are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.
Just as many One Law and Two House groups do today, Justin Martyr, whose prolific works heavily influenced the development of Supersessionism and Replacement Theology within Christianity, was particularly resentful that Jews have hoarded the title of Israel for themselves:
Since then God blesses this people [i.e., believers from all nations], and calls them Israel, and declares them to be His inheritance, how is it that you [Jews] repent not of the deception you practice on yourselves, as if you alone were the Israel?”
The famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) Church Father Origen also believed that Israel is made up of all those who believe in G-d, and not just Jews:
We do not understand these words [Mat 15:24, "I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"] as those do who savour of earthly things . . . but we understand that there exists a race of souls which is termed ‘Israel,’ as is indicated by the interpretation of the name itself: for Israel is interpreted to mean a ‘mind,’ or ‘man seeing God.’
In the same vein and many centuries later, the father of Protestantism Martin Luther also quipped that it’s the believers in Messiah who make up “true Israel”. Just as Justin Martyr who preceded him, Luther was also quite indignant that Jews reserved the title of “Israel” for themselves and not also those from the nations who have been made to partake in Israel’s covenants through faith:
The Jews make a point of the name Israel and claim that they alone are Israel and we are Gentiles. Now this is true so far as the first part of the prophecy and the old covenant of Moses are concerned….. But according to the second part of the prophecy and the new covenant, the Jews are no longer Israel, for all things are to be new, and Israel must become new. Those alone are the true Israel who have accepted the new covenant, which was established and begun at Jerusalem.
Not quite content to stop there, Luther also wrote the following to support his idea of widening of Israel and of Gentiles becoming “spiritual Israelites”:
Thus all the Gentiles who are Christians are the true Israelites and new Jews, born of Christ, the noblest Jew.
Modern-day supresessionists point to Romans 9:6 as one of the verses that they see as supporting the idea that Israel is made up of both Jews and Gentiles who believe, and not just Jews. This passages reads as follows:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.
Supresessionists who read the above words interpret them as informing the reader that the “true Israel” has been expanded beyond boundaries of Jewish identity and that Apostle Shaul here makes a distinction between ethnic Israel of old and the new “Israel of G-d” that is supposedly composed of both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Messiah. However, on closer examination of the context this is not what the Apostle means at all. Theologians William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam make this very point in their work titled The Epistle to the Romans:
But St. Paul does not mean here to distinguish a spiritual Israel (i.e. the Christian Church) from the fleshly Israel, but to state that the promises made to Israel might be fulfilled even if some of his descendants were shut out from them. What he states is that not all the physical descendants of Jacob are necessarily inheritors of the Divine promises implied in the sacred name Israel.
Thus, far from supporting any sort of multi-ethnic spiritualized Israel that does away with Jewish exclusivity (as has been commonly interpreted all throughout the history of Christianity as well as in various offshoots of the Messianic Movement), the passage merely states that a “True Israelite” is a very real, physical flesh and blood Jew who is faithful to his G-d.
As I have demonstrated, a version of supersessionism one sees in many sectors of Messianic Movement today is really nothing new, but is deeply rooted in historic Christian supersessionism. In my future posts, however, I will explore how G-d created individual families of nations which are to be preserved in the Messianic Kingdom and even in eternity, for mutual blessing of Israel and the nations.