Caterpillars, Butterflies, and Replacement Theology


Sam Storms:

Many times I’ve been asked by church members if I believe in “replacement” theology. Although this is a massively complex subject, I’ve tried to provide a brief answer.

All biblical interpreters recognize development between the Old Testament and the New. Some say the Old Testament is the seed which becomes the flower in the New. Others speak of the relationship as one of symbol to substance, or type to anti-type.

The point is we must strive to understand the obvious progress in redemptive history. And when I look at the relationship between Israel and the church, I see something similar to the relationship between the caterpillar and the butterfly.

The butterfly doesn’t replace the caterpillar; the butterfly is the caterpillar in a more developed and consummate form. The butterfly is what God intended the caterpillar to become. Likewise, the church doesn’t replace Israel; the church is Israel as God always intended it to be.

What we see in the New Testament, then, isn’t the replacement of Israel but an expanded definition of who Israel is. During Old Testament times, a person was an Israelite (primarily) because they were a physical, biological descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Ethnicity was the deciding factor.

But with the coming of Christ and the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles, the meaning of what constitutes a “true Jew” has undergone revision—or perhaps a better word is “expansion.” Not one believing Jewish person has been replaced. Not one believing Jewish person has been set aside or lost their promised inheritance.

True Jewishness

God now says a true Jew is one who is circumcised in heart and not just in the physical body (Rom. 2:28–29). The key passages are Galatians 3:16–18 and 3:25–29. Paul says the promises were made “to Abraham and to his offspring” (v. 16). (I prefer the translation “seed” instead of “offspring,” but the point is the same either way.)

In other words, when God gave the promises to Abraham and his seed in Genesis 12–17, it appeared he had in mind Abraham and all his physical progeny. But we later learn it was limited to the progeny of Isaac, and not Ishmael. Then we learn it’s been narrowed down even further to be the progeny of Jacob, and not Esau. When we get to the New Testament, Paul says it’s been narrowed down even further, to one Jewish person:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring/seed. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)

God’s ultimate meaning in the Abrahamic covenant was that all the promises would be fulfilled in only one of Abraham’s physical seed/progeny: Jesus Christ. Just when you conclude that’s impossibly narrow, however, Paul opens it up:

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. . . . And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:28–29)

So, the relevant question now isn’t whose blood is in your veins (physically speaking), but whose faith is in your heart (spiritually speaking). If you have faith in Jesus and thus are “in” him, you become the seed of Abraham who will inherit the promises. When it comes to who inherits the promised blessings, being an ethnic Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter. The only thing that finally matters is whether or not you’re in Christ by faith.

So, a true seed of Abraham or “true Jew” isn’t a matter of physical descent, but of spiritual new birth. No one has been replaced. All ethnic Jews who are in Christ by faith are the seed of Abraham—and no less so is it true of all ethnic Gentiles who are in Christ by faith.

This is why Paul had the audacity to say believing Gentiles are now equal members of the “commonwealth of Israel” (Eph. 2:12) and “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).

Christ Dismantled the Wall 

In Christ, the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been torn down; he “has made us both one” (Eph. 2:14) and created “in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15). This “one new man” is the church of Jesus Christ, filled with believing Jews and believing Gentiles alive, co-heirs of the promises made to the Old Testament patriarchs.

The old covenant into which God entered with Abraham’s physical descendants was always designed to be temporary until the coming of Messiah and the new covenant. This is the consistent message of the book of Hebrews. Now, any person of any ethnicity enjoys equal status as heirs of God’s promises so long as they believe in Jesus.

Whether or not God will save the last generation of ethnic Jews living just before Christ’s second coming is a matter of debate. I hope that’s true! Who could possibly protest? But there are texts on both sides of the issue, and God-honoring, Bible-believing Christians end up with differing answers (especially Romans 11:25–29).

Regardless of one’s conclusion on that matter, though, I still believe whoever gets saved—whether now, during the course of history, or when Christ returns—will be members of the one body of Christ, the church, equal heirs of all his promises.

Inclusion Theology  

So I don’t believe God’s saving work among ethnic Jews means he will reconstitute the old covenant theocracy of Israel. I believe that all believing ethnic Jews, together with all believing ethnic Gentiles, will together constitute the elect, the church, “the one holy nation” in covenant with God (1 Pet. 2:9). And because they are all in Christ, the true seed of Abraham, they are all the seed of Abraham and heirs of the promise.

I don’t believe in replacement theology; I believe in inclusion theology: Gentiles have now been included in the commonwealth of Israel and are as much “true Jews” as are believing ethnic Jews. It isn’t replacement but fulfillment, just as the butterfly fulfills and completes what God intended when he first crafted a caterpillar.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.