[Editor’s note: I invited Dr. Alan Hultberg to publicly respond to Dr. Larry Pettegrew’s accusation that Dr. Hultberg is supersessionistic. The following is his response to Dr. Pettegrew.]
Larry Pettegrew, in “The Messiah’s Lecture on the Future of Israel” (in Forsaking Israel: How it Happened and Why It Matters, 2nd ed., ed. Larry D. Pettegrew [Woodlands, TX: Kress], 2021, 285-86), suggests that my argument on the audience of the Olivet Discourse in Three Views on the Rapture, 113-115, implies that Jesus is a supersessionist. This is because I affirm, among other things, that Matthew presents Jesus as fulfilling the role of Israel (though Dr. Pettegrew says “replacing” Israel, which I don’t affirm) and that the church has in some sense become heir to the kingdom. I can understand why Doctor Pettegrew believes this, since supersessionists regularly make these same or similar points. However, Dr. Pettegrew’s conclusion, at least in my case, is mistaken. Let me explain why.
First, with regard to Jesus fulfilling the role of Israel, Matthew does indeed present Jesus as doing so. But that doesn’t mean that Matthew thinks Jesus replaces Israel; that is, that the nation has no further significance as a nation or has lost its national promises. Matthew merely says that Jesus, as the Messiah, the representative of the nation (as the OT affirms in such places as Isa 42-53 and Dan 7:13-14, not to mention Matthew’s use of Hos 11:10), succeeds where Israel failed, making him central to (but not numerically equal to) the reconstituted, redeemed nation.
Second, with regard to the church as “in some sense” the heir to the kingdom, Matthew also in fact affirms this reality. But again, that doesn’t mean that the church replaces Israel (as I note myself on page 114, fn 17). In my discussion on the audience of the Olivet Discourse, my point was that Matthew does not envisage the radical discontinuity between the church and Israel that classic dispensationalists require to apply the Olivet Discourse (and the Sermon on the Mount!) to Israel and not to the church. Rather, Matthew understands the church to be in continuity with Israel, though not itself a replacement of Israel. The church of Jew and Gentile is a proleptic or inaugurated version of the messianic kingdom.
Old Testament visions of the kingdom include a regathered and reconstituted (under the new covenant) ethnic nation of Israel, reconciled to God and ruled by her king, the Messiah. It also includes Gentile nations who come to Israel to worship YHWH and who live in submission to the Messiah. Matthew presents Jesus as the Jewish Messiah inaugurating this messianic kingdom. Thus, Jesus, the messianic king, initially calls twelve, ethnically Jewish disciples (representing the twelve tribes) and other faithful Jews into a relationship with him as Lord. These inaugurate the redemption and reconstitution of the nation of Israel. (Paul will make a similar point with the idea of the remnant in Romans 10-11.) The rest of the nation is unbelieving, rejecting their king, and thus losing their opportunity to inherit the kingdom (Matt 21:43; 27:25). When Jesus says that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to a nation producing the proper fruit, he isn’t rejecting the nation of Israel per se, but that majority of the nation who refused to submit to him. (Dr. Pettegrew notes that I use the language in my essay that Jesus has rejected “Israel as a whole.” I will grant that this can easily be misunderstood to affirm a total rejection of Israel for all time, but that is not what I meant by the language. Rather, it was meant to affirm, as I say there, that Jesus was not merely rejecting the Jewish leadership in Matt 21:43, but the entire unbelieving nation. The believing nation, as he was reconstituting it, was still the heir of the kingdom.) But, in line with the Old Testament vision, Jesus also sent out these Jewish disciples to bring the Gentile nations into submission to him (Matt 28:19-20; cf. Jesus as fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, Matt 1:1). Thus, in Matthew, the church (Jesus “congregation/ekklesia/qahal”) is presently an inaugurated version of the kingdom. It includes redeemed ethnic Israel and the redeemed nations under the rulership of the Jewish Messiah.
However, the church is presently only the inaugurated version of the kingdom. Matthew envisages a second coming of the Messiah to fulfill or finalize the kingdom promises (16:27; 19:28; 24:27-30; 25:31; 26:64), including, presumably, the repentance of the larger ethnic nation (23:39). This also fits Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, in which a faithful remnant preserves the national promises to ethnic Israel (the rest of whom are currently hardened) until the eschatological moment when all Israel (as opposed to the remnant) turns in faith to their Messiah, for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:25-29). At that time, though neither Matthew nor Paul talks about this in detail, the fullness of the kingdom will be realized. Israel will have been regathered and redeemed, the Messiah will reign from Jerusalem, and the nations will worship YHWH and submit to the worldwide rule of the Messiah.
This is what I maintain and what I understand Matthew to maintain. In other words, neither I nor Matthew nor Jesus affirm, or even intend to imply, supersessionism.