The Lord Jesus Christ made two startling announcements, through the Apostle John, to the recipients of the book of Revelation.
Speaking to His congregation at Smyrna, He stated: “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9).
Then, He addressed the Philadelphian church regarding “those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie” (Rev. 3:9).
Could it be that Jesus was here providing a stern warning regarding one of the most seductive temptations with which His church would ever struggle—namely, the inclination to suppose that the church has cancelled Israel out, receiving the blessings first promised to her?1
Warning the Church
The Lord knew that this particular strain of false teaching would haunt the church from its earliest days. The Apostle Paul had also warned the Ephesian elders strictly in Acts 20:29-30, providing an outline of the coming centuries:
For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.
Indeed, the church has a long history of struggling with her own identity in relationship to the people of Israel.2 Many of her greatest leaders, going nearly all the way back to the apostolic days, have vainly but confidently asserted that the church has cancelled Israel, taking her place in God’s plan. Such teaching has been absolutely pervasive—making it all the more deceptive.
The theological term for this belief is supersessionism. A more succinct term is replacement theology. Advocates view this as pejorative, and prefer terms such as fulfillment theology or remnant theology—even expansion theology. However, replacement theology may well sum up this teaching best. We might even call it cancel theology.
Beginning in the Garden
Ultimately, as we have seen from the book of Revelation, the origins of replacement theology go back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden—the one who will seek to destroy Israel completely during the future seven-year tribulation period (see Rev. 12:1-17). His very first challenge to Adam and Eve—which quickly led to their fall—hinged on the literal interpretation of God’s Word (see 2 Cor. 11:3).
“Has God indeed said,” he asked, striking to the crux of the matter (Gen. 3:1). He was questioning God’s command, intending to twist its meaning within their minds, thereby causing them to desire a different identity than that which their Creator had designed for them (see Gen. 3:5b).
Satan detests the boundaries that God has ordained for His creatures, and he specifically despises Israel, and seeks her destruction at every turn. Short of that, he desires to blur important distinctions concerning her God-ordained identity and destiny.
Reforming the Reformers
Replacement theology was unquestionably the standard teaching of the church for more than 1,000 years, at least since the days of Augustine. Sadly, it became even more deeply engrained as the Dark Ages gave way to the Reformation.
The first- and second-generation Reformers were largely unable—within their lifetimes—to correct the errors of replacement theology. Instead, they accepted them uncritically, reinforcing their credibility for centuries.
In so doing, they violated the literal meaning of Scripture. In Romans 11, Paul argues that God is “certainly not” finished with Israel (vv. 1, 11). He clearly speaks of her national restoration in verse 26: “All Israel will be saved.”
Yet, when the great Reformer John Calvin commented on this very verse, he wrote:
Many understand this of the Jewish people, as though Paul had said, that religion would again be restored among them as before: but I extend the word Israel to all the people of God…. This interpretation seems to me the most suitable, because Paul intended here to set forth the completion of the kingdom of Christ, which is by no means to be confined to the Jews, but is to include the whole world.3
We see here the danger of allegorical (non-literal) interpretation. Ultimately, it makes the interpreter his own authority. When we interpret the Bible literally—seeking to know what the original author meant in his historical context, according to the grammar that he used—there is no room for us to impose our own theological preferences.
God’s future plan for Israel is based entirely upon the unconditional promises that He made in the Abrahamic Covenant (see Gen. 12:1-3), which is reinforced countless times in Scripture (see. Heb. 6:13-18). We must receive the Bible in its plain, literal sense. And, when we do, we are overwhelmed with the enormity of the importance of Israel (see Zech. 2:8).
1 What exactly is “the synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 3:9)? I will examine this fascinating and significant issue in the final installment in this series.
2 I wrote a three-part blog series for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry called “The Danger of Replacing Israel,” in which I outlined the origin, nature and history of Replacement Theology. You can find Part 1 at https://www.foi.org/2021/09/24/the-danger-of-replacing-israel-part-1/. Internet, accessed 20 July 2023.
3 John Calvin; “Commentary on Romans—Romans 11:25-27;” Christian Classic Ethereal Library, https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom38/calcom38.xv.vi.html. Internet, accessed 20 July 2023.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, based in Columbus, WI, and serving in the Midwest. For more information on his ministry, visit sermonaudio.com/pscharf or foi.org/scharf, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.