By Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D.
One text often used by supersessionists to support the idea of the permanent rejection of national Israel is Matt 21:43.In this verse, which Frederick Dale Bruner calls “one of the most important verses in Matthew,” Jesus addressed the unbelief of the leaders of the nation Israel and announced his rejection of them because of their stubborn unbelief: “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruit of it.”
What is the significance of Jesus’ words in Matt 21:43? Supersessionists often assert that Jesus was making two major points. The first was that the nation Israel had been permanently rejected as the people of God. The second is that the “nation” to whom the kingdom would be given is the church.
This view that Matt 21:43 teaches the replacement of Israel with the church was held in the Patristic Era. As Origen declared, “Our Lord, seeing the conduct of the Jews not to be at all in keeping with the teaching of the prophets, inculcated by a parable that the kingdom of God would be taken from them, and given to the converts from heathenism.” Irenaeus and Chrysostom, too, believed this text taught the permanent rejection of the Jews.This understanding of Matt 21:43, though, goes beyond just the Patristic Era. According to W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, this view that Matt 21:43 teaches the replacement of national Israel with the church is “the dominant interpretation in Christian history.”
This view of Matt 21:43, however, is improbable for several reasons. The first problem concerns the identity of the “you” from whom the kingdom would be taken. Several interpreters have pointed out that the “you” probably refers to the current leaders of Israel and not the nation as a whole as supersessionists have claimed. M. Eugene Boring, for instance, states: “Who is represented by the ‘you’ from whom the kingdom is taken? Who is the ‘nation’ to whom it is given? In the context, the addressees are clearly the chief priests and Pharisees . . . i.e., the Jewish leadership, not the people as a whole.” Making a similar point, David D. Kupp writes, “Jesus’ growing antipathy to the Jewish leaders has never spelled outright rejection of the Jewish crowds, the people of Israel. Even in 21.43 the target audience is explicitly the leaders, not the people.”
Boring and Kupp appear correct in their observations. Matt 21:45 states that the religious leaders “understood that He was speaking about them.” Anthony J. Saldarini argues that the supersessionist view is more in line with supersessionist presuppositions than with the actual meaning of Matthew 21:43: “This reading, which fits later Christian supercessionist interpretations of Jewish-Christian relations, is beset by several problems, the most obvious of which is that Matthew makes the chief priests and Pharisees apply the parable to themselves (21:45), not to Israel as a whole.” Since the context indicates that Jesus was speaking specifically to the religious leaders of his day, the supersessionist assertion that Jesus was announcing the permanent rejection of the nation Israel appears unlikely.
Another problem with the view that Jesus is declaring the permanent rejection of Israel is that other sections of Matthew’s gospel appear to reaffirm or hint at a future for Israel. As Sanders has pointed out, Matt 19:28 “confirms the view that Jesus looked for the restoration of Israel.”M. A. Elliott asserts that in Matthew’s gospel “nothing explicit is found regarding the rejection of Israel.”
A second problem concerns the supersessionist view that the nation to whom the kingdom would be given is the Christian church.The context of Matthew 21 makes it unlikely that the “nation” of whom Jesus is referring is the church. As Turner writes, “In verse 46 it is clear that the religious leaders believed Jesus was talking about them, not Israel as a whole. Thus it is reading too much into this verse to view it as indicating the replacement of Israel by the Gentile church.”Saldarini points out that theologians who interpret “nation” as the church “are reading in second-century Christian theology” into Matt 21:43.
Thus, Matthew 21:43 is not a supporting text for replacement theology.
By Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D.