In last month’s Jewish Roots article we examined the root that Paul described in Romans 11, and proposed this definition of the root in that passage:
“The faithful remnant of Israel, especially the Apostolic Jerusalem ekklesia, who carried the full deposit of God’s holy covenants/promises to the rest of Israel, and who held a position in God’s family (the olive tree) of precedence, in that they came first – before the Gentiles.”
An Application for Today
Honor your roots! Honor those who have preceded you and brought you the Gospel!
In many places the Bible teaches us to honor those who have gone before us in the faith, those who stood for the truth – and suffered – for their testimony. Hebrews 11, starting with righteous Abel, speaks of a “cloud of witnesses” – a long list of Old Covenant “saints” whose testimonies and memories we are to learn from and honor. The Ten Commandments teaches us the importance of honoring our mother and father.
In Romans 11, Paul is more specific: the Gentile, Roman Christians were to honor the Jews among them, as those who represented the Biblical heritage of Israel and who represented the Jerusalem ekklesia with the first apostles, through whom they had received faith in Messiah.
But if Paul were alive today would he write the same thing? After a long hiatus of about 1600 years, there is once again a recognizable Jewish “remnant” in the Body of Christ. According to the olive tree metaphor of Romans 11, there are now (in increasing numbers!) Jewish branches that have been graciously “re-grafted” into our own olive tree (11:23). And what’s more, many of us live in a renewed, independent nation called “Israel” in the Land promised to our Biblical patriarchs, thereby representing the fulfillment of many Biblical prophecies. But do we share the same closeness to the root as those Jewish “branches” in the first century? Does the warning of the Apostle “ring” the same way today? Yes and no.
First the “yes”: in concluding the teaching of Romans 11, the apostle declared of the physical descendants of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc.),
“for the gifts and call of God are irrevocable” (v. 29).
We Jewish branches are still those descendants. Therefore, whatever irrevocable gift and call, whatever “rootedness” was represented by the identity of the Jewish believers of the first century, can still be claimed by Messianic Jews today. In our bodies, in the Land, and in the fullness of Messianic faith, we represent a continuity of, and proximity to, the full range of Biblical promises and covenants.
However, there is also a “no” here, a situation which is very different, even inverse from the first century. Then, Paul warned the Gentiles by saying: “Don’t forget your indebtedness to the Jews, and to the Jerusalem church – you received the Gospel from them!” But over the last few generations of Messianic Jewish revival, the vast majority of Jewish believers were loved, witnessed to, discipled and trained by Gentile Christians and their churches. We might say: two thousand years ago Israel gave birth to the church, but today the church has given birth to a renewed Israel!
I believe that if the Apostle were writing today, in addition to exhorting the Gentile Christians to honor the Jewish root, he might warn us Messianic Jews about a kind of arrogance towards the church. This arrogance says, “We’re the native branches, closest to the root; even though I came to faith in a Christian setting, now I know better, now I can find my identity as a Messianic Jew without reference to the church!”
I say this because there has emerged a tendency among some Messianic Jews to insulate themselves from identifying in any way with “Christianity” or the “church.” Some even speak of a “dual ecclesiology” as if there were two olive trees, or two wholly distinct parts of the Body of Christ – one Jewish and the other Gentile. Because of the anti-Jewish sentiments and doctrines of the historic church, it is easy to understand and even sympathize with this tendency. But we must resist any efforts to legitimize, or institutionalize, this attitude. Our Messiah, King, and Savior is a Jew. The Jewish apostles gave birth to the early expression of the body of the Messiah, which is one whole, organic olive tree continuing to grow and spread its branches among the nations. While we strongly believe in the existence of Messianic Jewish congregations, I believe the warning of the apostle would speak to us, pleading with us to stay connected and honor those Gentiles – and their churches – through whom we received the Christian/Messianic faith in our day.
So, as Jew and Gentile together in Messiah, we must both take the warning against pride very seriously! Romans 11:11-15 makes it clear that our restoration to the olive tree, likened to a resurrection from the dead (v. 15), is to be a great blessing of Gospel riches and reconciliation for all the nations!