Is Israel God’s kingdom today? (Matthew 21:40-46)

How does the nation of Israel fit into God’s plans today?

They were God’s chosen people in Old Testament times. Now gentiles (non-Jews) are included in God’s people, for the Jewish Messiah is God’s anointed ruler for the world. So, what about the Jews: do they still have a special place, a special future?

For 2000 years, Christians have disagreed over this question. Some say the church has replaced Israel as the people of God, treating Jews as now irrelevant … or worse. Anti-Semitism reached its peak under Hitler, in a country that claimed to be Christian.

The holocaust tipped public opinion in favour of re-establishing Israel as a nation. After 1800 years with no homeland (2500 under foreign rule), some viewed this return as the fulfilment of God’s promise through Ezekiel when they first went into exile:

Ezekiel 37:25 (NIV)
25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.

For some Christians (especially in the United States), this was evidence of Israel’s enduring place in God’s plans. Movies proclaimed it as the Exodus in our lifetime. Books described it as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies for The Late Great Planet Earth.

As a teenager, I was personally caught up in this fervour. It was only when I checked the context of these prophecies that I realized they did not fit current events. For example, the context of the verse above is the restoration of the Davidic kingship. The preceding verse says, My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd (37:24). Israel today is a democracy, not the restoration of the Davidic kingship.

So what are we to make of Israel today? Are they no longer God’s people? It that what Jesus meant when he spoke of God evicting the tenants from his vineyard?

Matthew 21:43 (my translation, compare NIV)
43 The point I’m making is that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation that produces its fruit.

Of all the Evangelists, Matthew is most interested in the church, but he does not say, “God has rejected Israel, superseding it with the church.” What Matthew says is that the chief priests and Pharisees realized he was talking about them (21:45). Jesus was not denouncing his people as a whole, for many of the crowd had recognized him as the son of David … who comes in the name of the Lord (21:9). What he denounced was the leaders who would crucify God’s anointed to keep their power: they would have no place in his kingdom.

Matthew’s context makes it clear the kingdom revolves around the king. Without realizing that Jesus was the Son, those who rejected his authority had already pronounced their own doom (21:41).

Jesus responded by appealing to a Psalm that encapsulated Israel’s experience as God’s kingdom. Psalm 118 celebrates the Lord’s unfailing love for his nation, even though the builders of other kingdoms had thrown down the cornerstone of God’s restoration project, leaving them as no more than a gravestone in the dust of history. But the Psalm insists that the collapse of God’s house was not the end. The architect of history had not consigned his people to the graveyard:

Psalm 118:17–26 (NIV)
17 I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
18 The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.
19 Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation.

22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
23 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.
25 Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success!
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

This is the Psalm the crowds quoted as they saw the son of David entering the capital: Hosanna (Lord, save us) … Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Matthew 21:9).

This is the Psalm Jesus quoted as he faced the leaders who rejected his authority (21:23), the wicked in God’s vineyard who would kill the Son to keep the inheritance for themselves (21:38). These Jerusalem leaders aligned themselves with the empire builders rather than God’s anointed, calling for the Son to be cast down.

But the king does not join their fight. He takes the place of God’s rejected people. The cornerstone of God’s kingship becomes the gravestone of their demise. In a tragic play on the Hebrew words, the treasured son (ben) is cast down as the rejected stone (eben).

But even if he sank into death, Jesus believed God would raise him up (16:21; 17:9, 23; 20:19). The rejected son would become the foundation stone for God’s reign on earth. What Jesus announced was not the demise of Israel to the nations, but their resurrection: raised up in him, the restoration of divine kingship for the world, in himself.

The kingdom exists in the king. People have a place in the kingdom — or not — depending on their loyalty to the king. All authority resides with God’s anointed (28:18). It follows that those who reject the son lose their authority, while his kingship extends to all who live productively in God’s vineyard.

Matthew 21:42-44
42 Jesus says to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘A stone, rejected by the builders, was raised up as the chief architectural stone. This came about through the Lord’s action, and it is astounding to watch.
43 The point I’m making is that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation that produces its fruit. 44 The one who falls over this stone will fall to pieces; the one on whom it falls will be crushed.”

The kingdom of God has always been about humans living in God’s sovereignty. That was the case in the beginning, before the nations went their own way, before God chose Abraham, before David was king, before the nations terminated David’s kingship, before the leaders of Jerusalem colluded with the empire builders to cast down his cornerstone.

That’s why God raised up his anointed, giving kingship over the earth to his Son, establishing him the cornerstone of God’s house in the world, his dynasty among us. He is the stone that shatters every other claim to authority (Daniel 2:34-35), so the earth becomes God’s productive vineyard.

Does Israel have a part to play in the Messiah’s reign? Absolutely: they’ve had a role ever since God’s promises to Abraham; the blessing of divine reign comes to the earth through them (Genesis 12:1-3). Do the nations have a part in the Messiah’s reign? Absolutely: God’s covenant with Noah was a declaration that his reign would always extend to all people, all creatures, the earth itself, forever (Genesis 9:8-16). The kingdom of God was always to be Israel and the nations together — united in God’s anointed — the people producing the fruit God intends for his garden. That’s the goal of history!

Identification with God’s kingdom is not about having Jacob’s genes. It’s the people who are in the Messiah who are his family. He’s the foundation stone, so those who are not in him are not part of his vineyard, while people from all nations who participate in him are grafted in as his people. The kingdom is in the king. There is no other name given by heaven to humanity through whom the world can be saved (Acts 4:12).

That Israel exists as a democracy today is testament to God’s faithfulness across the millennia. But the Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled not in the modern democracy but in the Messiah, in the people who are in the son of David. All God’s promises find their Yes in him (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Open Psalm 118 or Matthew 21:40-46.

What others are saying

Jeannine K. Brown, Matthew, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 199–200:

Since the Jewish leadership has rejected Jesus, “the kingdom of God will be taken from [them] and given to a people who are producing its fruit” (21:43). This text, contrary to frequent popular interpretation, does not signal a replacement theology of church for Israel. Instead, as Boxall puts it, Jesus here accents a shepherd replacement — the Jewish leadership forfeits its role as shepherds of Israel (21:45; cf. 9:36).

Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 229–230:

In Psalm 118:22 it is Israel that is exalted as the stone the builders (the nations) rejected and which has nevertheless become the capstone. Jesus turns that claim upside down. This time it is Israel that does the rejecting: he is the capstone they have refused. Secondly, people would never be able to forget this teaching, for Psalm 118 was sung at all the great festivals. It would be indelibly inscribed on their memory. And it would underline the disloyalty of the ‘builders’, the finality of the ‘Son’ or ‘stone’, and the sovereign hand of God over the roller-coaster of history.

Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1995), 624:

What is most astonishing, however, is the salvation-historical perspective contained in the reference to the transferring of the vineyard from the original tenants to new ones—spelled out specifically as the transference of the kingdom of God to a new people (v. 43). For Matthew’s Christian-Jewish readers, this served to explain both the present futility of the contemporary Judaism of the synagogue and the emergence of the new entity, largely but not exclusively Gentile in composition, the church. Finally determinative for this sequence of events was the response given to the Son sent by the Father. Those who reject the Son, who has become the cornerstone of the new reality of the church, which becomes in effect the new Israel, forfeit their favored position and bring themselves into judgment (v. 44), while those who receive the Son receive with him the blessed reality of the now-dawning kingdom of God (for the decisive importance of relation to the Son, cf. 10:32–33). Then, as now, relationship to Jesus is finally what matters.

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Update 2022-04-08: Original translation added (instead of NIV).

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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