Contra Replacement Theology: Who are the “People” in Mt. 21.43?

Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit (NIV)

This statement of Jesus comes on the heals of the Parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard. The parable is recorded in Mt. 21.33-45, Mk. 12.1-12, and Lk. 20.9-19. Mark and Luke use the term others instead of people in Matthew’s Gospel to refer to whom the kingdom will be given. Since Matthew’s focus in writing his gospel was to Jews, I argue that people refers to only other Jews and not Gentiles.

In Hosea’s prophecy, God calls Israel Lo Ammi, which means not my people. In the O.T., Israel is conceptualized as God’s people, while others were nations with whom God had no dealings, or very little dealings at that time. Therefore, when God speaks through Hosea, He calls them not my people because they didn’t resemble God’s children : Then the Lord said, “Call him Lo-Ammi (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your God (Hos. 1.9 NIV). Initially, in the O.T., the phrase my people meant the nation of Israel, with whom God chose to have a relationship. Israel, as a nation, had a special advantage, as seen in Is. 51.16: I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand—I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, ‘You are my people (NIV).

Paul speaks of Christians as those who now have citizenship in Israel: remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2.12 NIV). Though Gentiles were not native born Israelites, they have been naturalized similar to how foreign-born individuals become citizens of their desired country. Therefore, naturalized foreigners are an addition to the native born citizens of a country.

Several commentators, through the centuries of Christian thought, have propounded the idea that these people or others, in the parable of The Tenants, are Gentiles as opposed to Jews. They see the end result of Jesus’ teaching that the Gentiles have superseded or replaced the Jews in God’s program. Often, they claim the reason for this supersession is because the Jews have greater guilt in the killing of Jesus (see Jn. 19.11). This is a faulty reading of the text of scripture since these commentators misidentify both the perpetrators and the beneficiaries of Jesus’ death.

The Parable of the Tenants

A vineyard with tenant farmers would have been a common occurrence in Israel. It seems that the teachers of the Law, chief priests, and elders (Lk. 20.1) answered Jesus before they thought about to whom the parable referred. The other hearers of the parable recognized the import of Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew’s Gospel, the respondents are identified (Mt. 21.41), while this fact is not indicated in Mark’s and Luke’s account. I believe these leaders of the Jewish People were the respondents, since, in Luke’s Gospel, the reaction, “God forbid” (Lk. 20.16), to the answer is given by other listeners as opposed to those identified in Lk. 20.1, who sought to trap Jesus in His words. It seems they were so consumed with hatred and envy that they didn’t really analyze Jesus’ parable, whereas the other listeners did.

Israel was the vine God took out of Egypt and planted in a good land (see Ps. 80.8-17, Is. 5.1-7,et al). Ultimately, Jesus, as stated in Jn. 15.1-8, is the True Vine and those who belong to Him are branches intended to bear fruit. The wall represents God’s protection while the winepress probably refers to sacrificial opportunities to do good to one’s neighbor. The watchtower may picture that God is watching the relations between individuals in Israel. Therefore, Jesus’ parable of The Tenants, given the many references in scripture, would have been clear to those actually listening. The vineyard was the people of Israel and the tenant farmers were the priests and religious leaders over the nation. Those whom the owner (God) were sent to collect the fruit were the true prophets throughout history. Jesus was The True Son sent to Israel, in this parable, prophesying that He would be killed by these religious leaders and their mob of cronies. The aspect of seizing the inheritance in the parable refers to the leaders’ feeling that the whole world had gone after Him (Jn. 12.19 NIV). Even Pilate recognized that Jesus was delivered to his judgment because of these leaders’ envy (see Mt. 27.18).

The Stone the Builders Rejected Becomes The Cornerstone

God was known as The Rock in O.T. scripture (Gen. 49.24, Dt. 32.3-4, 2Sam. 22.2-3, et al). Therefore, When Jesus returned an answer to the leaders, after they said the tenants would be punished, He quoted Ps. 118.22-23, as the eventual fulfillment of their conspiracy: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes (NIV). Jesus becomes the Cornerstone of God’s Temple, the place where He dwells. God, the Holy Spirit indwells believers, and thus, they are His Temple. This truth is expressed in 1Cor. 3.16 where the term temple refers to a local group of believers. In 1Cor. 6.19, Paul speaks of each believer’s body as a temple where God dwells. It seems that though each believer is indwelt by God, there is an enhanced aspect of His presence when several disciples meet together in Jesus’ name: For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them (Mt. 18.20 NIV). 1Pet. 2.5-6 probably best describes the relationship of The Cornerstone and individual stones making up a temple: you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame (NIV). This response from Jesus is confirmatory (see Gen. 41.32 where Pharaoh’s revelation is given in two ways) since the New Vineyard and New Temple are two ways of speaking about The New Covenant in Jesus’ blood.

Notice, the text of the parable in Mt. 21.42 says builders. This was not the followers of Jesus or the populous at large. In Acts 4.11, Peter uses the same word and alludes to the same scripture that Jesus used in Matthew’s Gospel: This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone (ESV). Here, in this text, Peter and John stand, along with the healed man, before the Jewish Council. This illustrates both the builders and the people to whom God’s Kingdom would be given. The Kingdom is given to this new group of Christians, who were comprised of only Jews at that specific time.

Therefore, the people who would receive God’s Kingdom were believers in Jesus, who were, initially, all Jews. It was never about Jews versus Gentiles, but believers in Jesus and those who did not believe. Later, Samaritans and Gentiles became additions to this new faith, and not replacements of Jews, in any sense. It was the builders who would have their House (Temple) taken away just as prophesied in Dan. 9.26: After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed (NIV).

Biblical References Citing Inclusion of Gentiles

The prophecies concerning the Messiah in the O.T. describe Gentile inclusion and not replacement of the Jews: I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles (Is. 42.6b NIV). If God had meant to switch out the Jews with Gentiles He would have said it. Instead, clear inclusive language is used. Since God created all things, including all humans, His redemption is comprehensive, in order to bring, potentially, all humanity into His fold; He says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Is. 49.6 NIV).

Does the New Testament teach Replacement Theology? It does not. Paul, whom Jesus chose as a special vessel (see Acts 9.15), was the human person whom the Christians should emulate, both in life and methodology (see 1Cor. 11.1, Phil. 4.9). Paul, even though he was the Apostle to the Gentiles, put the Jews first in his ministry: Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first (Acts 13.46a NIV). The Jews knew the O.T. promises of the Messiah and had been waiting for Him a long time. In fact, part of the giving of the Law was a subsequent promise, through adoption (see Rom. 9.4), to keep the Law through becoming new creatures by the Spirit. Henceforth, they would not have to labor at the Law trying to keep it in their own strength, but by the Spirit’s enabling. This was a Jewish birthright. Those who had borne the yolk of the Law knew that, ultimately, they could not fulfill it: Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? (Acts 15.10 NIV). Paul tells us, in Gal. 4, that the adoption to sonship from under of the Law belonged to the Jews: to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (vs.5 ESV).

In fact, the Gospel is available to everyone who trusts in Christ: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 1.16 ESV). Later, in the same book, he asks if the Jews have been pushed off by God, since, obviously, a large bulk of the nation were still clinging to their old ideas: I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11.1 ESV). Though today, the greater part of Christians are Gentiles, this doesn’t mean that the Jews are completely excluded from participating in the New Covenant: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Rom. 11.25b ESV).

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