There is an old joke Messianic Jewish preachers sometimes use to break the ice with Gentile audiences. It goes something like this: “Look, God doesn’t like Jews more than Gentiles. No, God must love the Gentiles very much … after all, He made so many of you!”
I think we sometimes employ this gag because underneath the humor it sends an important message, “Please don’t misunderstand our focus on Israel and the Jewish people as an attempt to elevate ourselves above you. We know you are as important and beloved as we are.” Addressing issues of distinction and particularity can be a delicate matter. Attention to uniqueness can easily move from a celebration of diversity to a qualitative comparison, especially when there is a history of wrong doings and misunderstandings.
Messianic Jews can become insecure about our acceptance among Gentile Christians because for so long we heard a message that we no longer matter, that we have been replaced by those who are more worthy of the Kingdom. Gentile Christians can also become insecure when they reflect on their own failings against the Jewish people and embrace the shame of that tragic history. Insecurity often leads to a sense of inferiority but it can swing the other way, towards embracing a proud superiority as a way to compensate for a sense of inadequacy. Yes, distinction can be a delicate matter and some have sought to resolve it by focusing on the message of sameness. “There is no distinction” is an important principle repeated several times in the New Covenant scriptures and if heeded properly, puts an end to all debate about status and worth.
Consider Galatians 3:28,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This is an important statement relating to our equality and unity but it does not cancel out particularity. New believers do not suddenly morph into androgynous beings. The Jewish people still retain their irrevocable calling. There is no distinction as to our worth and status, but because our God loves diversity and unity together, our particularity remains. But particularity must be held with great humility towards the other and great appreciation to God for making us who we are – whether we be Jew or Gentile. As Jews we honor God by being true to our Jewish call, but we know full well that our security finds its source in the same Heavenly Father who loves our Gentile brothers and sisters equally as much as He loves us.
Here is our great example to emulate:
“You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:5-8 NET)
Much has been made of the theology of Yeshua’s divine/human nature inherent in this passage but Paul’s message here is not so much about explaining Christology as it is about holding up Yeshua’s example as the pattern to follow:
“complete my joy by having a common purpose and a common love, by being one in heart and mind. Do nothing out of rivalry or vanity; but, in humility, regard each other as better than yourselves – look out for each other’s interests and not just for your own” (Phil. 2:2-4).
If The Lord took on the “form of a slave” for our sakes, how much more should we be willing to serve and honor others?
The root of replacement theology can be traced back to a failure to follow this example. Paul was emphatic that the proper attitude for Gentile believers towards the Jewish people was “do not boast” (Rom. 11:18); instead regard your Jewish brethren with proper humility and avoid any notions of proud rivalry. Similarly, the Book of Hebrews reminds us Messianic Jews that we have nothing to boast about either; by way of introduction, the writer explains that it is because the Lord “found fault” with us, that through the prophet Jeremiah He proclaimed a New Covenant (Heb. 8:8,9).
The prophet Ezekiel describes this same New Covenant as returning us to the land, pouring clean water on us, removing our hard hearts and filling us with the Holy Spirit (See, Ezek. 36:24-26). The passage is emphatic that God is not doing this because of any faithfulness on our part:
“Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went.'” (Ezek. 36:22)
It is for His “name’s sake” that He will do this – boasting is excluded entirely. What is the outcome of this transformation process:
“Then the nations shall know that I am the Lord.”(Ezek. 36:23)
The process of our transformation is for God’s honor and the nations’ instruction. Similarly, with respect to the Gentiles, Paul makes an incredible statement, that salvation has come to them “to provoke Israel to jealously.” (Rom. 11:11) Mercy has come to the Gentiles in order that Israel “may obtain mercy.” (Rom. 11:31) How amazing is this? In a sense, the purpose of salvation of both the Jews and the Gentiles is for the sake of the other! Our only proper response to this is humility and deep esteem for each other, just like the example Yeshua left us.
The process of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles also displays this same interdependence. The release of all the riches stored up for the Gentiles as an inheritance is dependent on us Jews coming into our fullness (Rom. 11:12). Our national illumination, eyes to finally see clearly that Yeshua is our long awaited hope is dependent on the Gentiles entering into their fullness (Rom. 11:25). Yeshua does not return until both Israel acknowledges His Lordship (Matt. 23:39) and the Gospel is preached to every nation (Matt. 24:14). As Ezekiel 36 teaches us, our spiritual restoration is dependent on our physical returning to the land, but it is the Gentiles who carry our sons and daughters back to Israel “in their arms” and “on their shoulders.” (Isa. 49:22) This is all God’s choosing; we need each other to be made complete. “Do not boast” cuts both ways.
This helps us as Jews and Gentiles to appreciate who God made us to be and to relate to one another with mutual respect and admiration. Neither Jewish identity nor Gentile identity is any more or less holy, important or admirable than the other. If we Jews would so honor our Gentile brothers and sisters as per Philippians 2, and recognize our own need of their part in God’s plan, then jealousy would have no room to grow in their hearts and any subtle boasting would be excluded on our part. Likewise, as Gentile believers also take up Yeshua’s example and take to heart their need for Israel’s part in releasing their inheritance, they will recognize the need for our particularity and not boast against the root that sustains their grafted in branches. How wonderful is God’s plan to have us cross the finish line together, honoring each other as the one who saw us through to our completion and fullness. No wonder Paul concludes his explanation of Jews and Gentiles together in God’s salvation purposes with praise and wonder:
“Oh, the depth of the riches
both of the wisdom
and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are His judgments
and His ways past finding out!”