Where the Church Went Wrong about Israel—and How It Came Right

By Professor Gerald McDermott

[Excerpts from McDermott’s seminar presentation at Feast of Tabernacles, 2023]

My subject is not only where the church went wrong about Israel and why but also how the church in the last 400 years since the sixteenth century has been regaining a proper approach to Israel.

This reconsideration by Christians of Israel and God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people started to take place after the Holocaust. Tragically, Germany—the most Christianized country in history, the birthplace of the Reformation—destroyed 6 million Jews, one-third of all Jewry. After the Holocaust, Christian Bible scholars and theologians from the 1950s to 1970s tried to rethink: How could this have happened? Where did we go wrong? Obviously, we went tragically wrong.

One famous Bible scholar was W. D. Davies, a Welshman, who concluded as he reread Romans 9–11 after the Holocaust that Paul never calls the church the “New Israel”—not once! He never calls the Jews the “Old Israel.” Unfortunately, for more than 1,700 years, Christian leaders, theologians, and pastors called the church the “New Israel” that replaced Jewish Israel. But Paul never did that, not even in Galatians 6:16.

The great British New Testament scholar Charles Cranfield wrote a massive two-volume commentary on Romans. He says Romans 9–11 forbids the church to call itself the “New Israel.” And by God’s election, the Jewish people are beloved of the fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their gifts and calling from God are never to be revoked.

For almost 2,000 years, Christians who accepted Replacement Theology have used Matthew 21, the parable of the wicked tenants, as a proof-text for Replacement Theology, also called “Supersessionism.” This is where the wicked tenants, according to Jesus, are replaced by other tenants who will produce fruit. Christian scholars and theologians interpreted the other tenants as gentiles. But in this reconsideration, since the Holocaust, many have realized that the killed servants were faithful Jewish prophets. And the new tenants are faithful Jews—the apostles and their spiritual descendants, not to count out faithful descendants of the Pharisees, Rabbinic Jews today, or Orthodox Jews throughout the centuries who kept their faith with the Jewish covenant because God had given it to them.

For centuries in the Christian church, starting in the fourth century under Constantine, if you were a Jew and you believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but you wanted to continue to practice a Jewish lifestyle as a Jew, you were either excommunicated, persecuted, or killed by the church for living as a Jew. How did this happen? How did everything go so wrong?

The simple answer is that at the start of the second century, gentiles took over leadership of the church. These non-Jewish leaders did not know the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, starting with Justin Martyr and other Church Fathers, like Irenaeus and Tertullian … And it became the mainstream story for the church, up until the Reformation, that God had ended His covenant with the Jewish people and had forsaken the Land.

But then, in the sixteenth century, the Puritans in England and the Pietists on the continent started questioning these things. The Puritans were Calvinists, yet they disagreed with Calvin, a Supersessionist, a replacement theologian. He reinterpreted all the promises of God to the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible and applied them to the gentile church. But beginning with the Reformation, the biblical hermeneutical principle arose that the plain sense of Scripture is to be taken first. There are other spiritual senses, but you always look at the plain or literal sense first.

When taking the plain sense of the Hebrew Bible, too many prophecies about the future of Israel clearly cannot—and should not—be applied to the gentile church. They clearly are about the future of Israel and the Jewish people. The Geneva Bible of 1560, produced by the Calvinists, talks about the spiritual return of the Jewish people and implies a literal return to the Land of the Jewish people.

Then, in the seventeenth century, Puritans in England affirmed the Jews would return to the Land someday, that the Jewish people were still God’s chosen people—and Christians were debtors to them.

The tide is continuing to shift—seen in the thousands of Christian pilgrims at this year’s 2023 Feast.

Join us in Israel for the 2024 Feast of Tabernacles celebration. Call 866-393-5890 for more information today!