Jesus and the Jewish Covenant

By

This article is part of a series on Jesus the Jewish Messiah by Gerald McDermott. Click here to view other articles in this series.

Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and will be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. (Matthew 21:43)

Did Jesus reject the covenant God made with the Jewish people? Did he teach that God was transferring all the promises he had made to Abraham and his heirs to the mostly-Gentile Church? Because the Jewish leaders of the first century rejected their Messiah?

Sponsored

Jews Replaced by Gentiles?

This is what most Christians believed from the fourth century to the last century when Vatican II in Nostra Aetate (1965) declared that God’s covenant with Jewish Israel is still in place: “According to the Apostle [Paul], the Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for He does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (Rom 11:28-29).”[1]

This idea—that God replaced his love for the Jewish people with love for the Gentile Church—was taught by many Church leaders in the Byzantine and medieval periods, and was repeated by Protestant reformers. In his 1526 lectures on Jonah, Martin Luther argued that Jesus “preached against [Judaism] and abolished the Law . . . . Therefore, Judaism withered and decayed all over the world.”[2] John Calvin wrote in his Institutes that God disputed with Jews over his covenant “but that when they do not reciprocate, they deserve to be repudiated.”[3]

Could this be true, that God repudiated the covenant which he said would stand as long as the sun gives light by day and the moon and stars light by night (Jer 31:35-36)? Did Jesus teach this repudiation?

Our studies in this series on Matthew suggest otherwise. We have seen that Jesus criticized the temple’s leadership but not the temple per se (Matt 23:21), that Jesus said Jerusalem would one day welcome him and Matthew calls Jerusalem the holy city (Matt 4:5), that Jesus taught the healed leper to bring an offering that Leviticus commanded (Matt 8:4), that Jesus wore the tassels that Torah commanded all observant Jewish men to wear (Matt 14:35-36), and that rather than rejecting Jewish law Jesus actually said the least commandment in Torah should be taught (Matt 5:19).

Wicked Tenants Parable as Prooftext

The verse at the top of this article is drawn from Matthew’s recounting of the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt 21:33-46). Importantly, those who still teach that God has replaced the Jewish covenant use this parable as a prooftext.[4] They say that Jesus makes clear here that God’s affections for Jewish Israel have been superseded by affection for the Gentile Church that has accepted the Jewish Messiah. This is why this replacement view is also called supersessionism.

But is that what this parable teaches?  

Let’s review the story. A vineyard owner leased it to tenants and went to another country. (This is a familiar story from the Old Testament, with YHWH standing for the vineyard owner, and Israel for the vineyard; see Isaiah 5, for example.) When he sent servants to collect its fruit, the wicked tenants beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.  When he sent more servants, they too were abused and murdered. Finally, he sent his son, whom the tenants murdered. Jesus them told the moral of the story: God will let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons (v. 41).  

Supersessionists say this is clear—that Jesus is saying God has ended his covenant with Jews who have not accepted the Son, and is turning it over to the Church that does.

Faithful vs Unfaithful Jews

But is that the best interpretation? One more faithful to the Jewish context would recognize that this is a familiar intra-Jewish story distinguishing between faithful and unfaithful Jews. This was a story told and retold throughout the Old Testament, especially the prophets who repeatedly called on a faithful remnant to keep the covenant even while a majority was flouting it.  

After all, the two sets of servants who were beaten and killed were Jewish prophets. Jesus was not addressing the general Jewish population but the chief priests and Pharisees who were seeking to arrest him but feared the crowds because they held him to be a prophet (v.46).

Notice that there are no Gentiles in view, and most of the Jews here like Jesus. Jesus is denouncing the Jewish leaders while the majority of Jews in the story (the crowds) regard him as a prophet from God.  

The most telling part of the story is the verse quoted at our beginning: the other tenants (v. 41) who will produce fruit (v.43) are no doubt the Jewish apostles of Jesus. They will be the new tenants whom Jesus authorized three chapters before: Whatever you [apostles] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt 18:18).  Binding and loosing were Jewish terms for interpreting Torah in an authoritative way, to give rules for God’s people that God would endorse. Jesus was saying that his apostles would be the leaders of the new community and would have that authority over it.  

This new community is probably what Jesus means by the nation producing fruit in verse 43. The Gentiles are never called a nation in Scripture. Jesus refers to them only as the nations in the Great Commission (Matt 28:19).  As we will see in the next article on Jesus and the Land, the apostles expected a restoration of the kingdom to the nation of Israel as suggested by Acts 1:6, and scholars are now beginning to recognize this. This would be an eschatological restoration when Jesus returns at the end of the world, and one headed by the apostles: At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, you [apostles] will be seated on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28).

For Matthew, then, the new messianic community was formed in the first century under the leadership of the apostles. At the end of time this community of Jesus disciples will be reconstituted, and will once more be headed by the Jewish apostles.

A New Community Led by Jews

So the real transfer that Jesus was referring to in this parable of the wicked tenants was from corrupt Jewish leadership to new messianic Jewish leadership. From unfaithful Jews to faithful Jews.  From those who rejected the Messiah to those who accepted the Messiah.

Jesus would later tell these apostles to make disciples in all the Gentile nations, not just among Jews in Israel. But in this parable of the wicked tenants there is no transfer from Jews to Gentiles.  

And Jesus gives no indication of rejecting God’s covenant with his Jewish people. Just as the prophets had taught, unfaithful Jews would not inherit the kingdom in the Age to Come. But God would be faithful to his covenant with the Jewish people.

[1] Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter Abbott (New York: America Press, 1966), 664.

[2] Luther, “Lectures on Jonah,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 19 (St Louis: Concordia, 1963), 3-104.

[3] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.2.3.

[4] NT Wright refers to this as “the key parable” that shows that Jewish boundary-markers such as circumcision, Sabbath, and kosher are “out of date” and “to be jettisoned now that the new day had dawned.” Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 565; Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 55.

Published on

May 23, 2023

Author

Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott serves as Distinguished Professor of Theology at Jerusalem Seminary, priest-in-residence at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Crozet, VA.

View more from Gerald McDermott

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

1 Comment
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments