The Church’s Biggest Challenge

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Christians are increasingly coming to appreciate their “Jewish Connection”. Many have gone beyond merely acknowledging that Jesus was a Jew, that the early disciples and apostles were Jewish, that Christianity has come out of Judaism. They are searching out the Jewish roots of their own faith. They are respecting and even loving the Jews. They are doing what they can to bless the Jewish people, in recognition of Genesis 12:3,

“I will bless those who bless you, but I will curse anyone who curses you; and by you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

But there is a deeper reason for paying attention to the Jewish people, a reason that ultimately must shake the very identity of a Christian to its core. The foundational text is Ephesians 2:11-13:

“Therefore, remember your former state: you Gentiles by birth – called the Uncircumcised by those who, merely because of an operation on their flesh, are called the Circumcised – at that time had no Messiah. You were estranged from the national life of Israel. You were foreigners to the covenants embodying God’s promise. You were in this world without hope and without God. But now, you who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of the Messiah’s blood.”

So, according to this passage, what is it that God, through His Messiah Yeshua, does for human beings? The answer: (1) He makes them concious of what sin is, and through Yeshua the Messiah He offers forgiveness of sin (this is taught in the ten verses preceding the above citation). Then, if they are Gentiles (such as Paul is addressing here) and therefore do not already belong to His own special people, the People of God, (2) He makes them part of the People of God, (3) He makes them participate in His covenants, (4) He fulfills His promises, (5) He gives them hope in this difficult world, and finally, (6) He makes His very Self known to them. If they are Jews and therefore do belong to the People of God, they already have items (2) through (6) and do not need to be given them again.

Thus assured forgiveness of sin is the last thing Jews get. Gentiles get forgiveness of sin first, but it is only through the Yeshua connection that Gentiles gain the covenants, the promises, hope and intimacy with God; and it is only because and when they have been joined to the Jews that they get these things. Jews have them already – but without forgiveness of sins through Yeshua’s atoning death they gain nothing thereby in the world to come.

Thus there is sequencing to these six things, and the sequencing is different for Jews than for Gentiles. Sequencing may seem an unimportant detail, but I submit that at this time getting it right is the more important challenge facing the Body of Messiah!

Salvation – Individual & Communal – for Gentiles

As the apostle Paul proclaims the sequence for Gentiles in Ephesians 2:11-13 he is very explicit: he is addressing Gentiles, not Jews. Verse 12 puts the Messiah first. Now that you Gentiles “have” Him, you receive the following five things in the following order: (1) inclusion into the national life of Israel, (2) inclusion in God’s covenants, which include (3) His promise(s), (4) inclusion among those who have a secure hope for the goodness of the future, and finally, lastly, (5) inclusion among those who “have” God.

How many churches teach that the Messiah’s first gift to Gentile believers in Him is inclusion in the national life of Israel – which is to say, the national life of the Jewish people (or, as the King James Version puts it, the “commonwealth of Israel”)? How many Christians embrace the Jewish people fully – or even tentatively? Very few. Is this point made in any creed? Not that I know of. In fact, very few Gentile Christians even know that they have been brought into the national life of Israel, that by faith in Jesus they are inseparably and eternally joined to the Jewish people.

Yet Paul explains precisely in Ephesians 3:4-6:

“… how I understand this secret plan concerning the Messiah. In past generations it was not made known to mankind as the Spirit is now revealing it to His emissaries and prophets, that in union with the Messiah and through the Good News the Gentiles were to be joint heirs, a joint body and joint sharers with the Jews in what God had promised.”

Replacement Theology

Historically, the Church has managed instead to erase this truth from the content of Christian faith through Replacement Theology. Example: the creeds include the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and the second Person of the Trinity, but does any creed mention that He is King of the Jews? Instead, throughout most of its existence the Church has taught that Christians have not joined up with the people of Israel, the Jewish people, but have replaced them and become Israel themselves! Thus the Church has tried to skip over the first of the Messiah’s five gifts to Gentiles. It claims to “have” God and His hope and His promises and His covenants while remaining alienated from the national life of Israel!

But it doesn’t work that way! And it never did! More than a thousand years before Yeshua appeared, Ruth already knew this – which is why, in beseeching Naomi to let her accompany her from Moab back to Bethlehem in the Land of Israel, Ruth said,

“Your people are my people and your God is my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

First she joined the people to whom Naomi belonged. Only then did she receive as her own God the God of the Jews, the only God there is.

Christians must learn – whether from Ruth or from Paul – that in Jesus they become part of a great big Jewish family, and it is within this family relationship that they find God, along with His covenants, promises and hope. This is what is meant by the olive tree metaphor of Romans 11:17-24, which says that Gentile “wild branches” have been grafted into God’s olive tree (the Jewish people) among the natural branches (Jews). What is spoken of here is not mystical but practical. Through faith in the Jewish Messiah a Gentile can have God-enhanced, God-blessed human relationships with Jews and with other Gentiles who have found Yeshua and accept Him as the atonement for their sins, as well as with Jews who haven’t yet accepted Him.

If Jews fail to welcome Christians as “family,” it’s not the fault of the Jews but the fault of Christians who do not understand who they really are in Messiah Yeshua! And it therefore becomes the Christians’ responsibility to re-think their identity so that they can do whatever will be necessary to undo centuries of misunderstanding between Jews and Christians and ultimately to make real their closeness and identification with the Jewish people.

Thus the Gospel for Gentiles is: (1) accept Yeshua, and with repentance have forgiveness of sins; (2) join spiritually and practically with the Jewish people, who now become family; (3) participate as family members in God’s covenants with the Jewish people; (4) rejoice as family members in God’s promises to the Jewish people and participate in His promises to Gentile believers in Yeshua; (5) participate in the hope God gives His people, and (6) participate in God Himself!

Salvation – Individual & Communal – for Jews

But the Gospel for Jews works differently. It’s the same Gospel, but because the Jews are already God’s people, the Gospel of Yeshua the Messiah comes in a different way. It is still the case that through the Messiah, and only through Him, individual Jews receive atonement and forgiveness of sin –

“For there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by whom we must be saved!” (Acts 4:12).

But Jews are not alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, they are the commonwealth of Israel! They already have the covenants and the promises; and therefore in a communal sense they already have hope and “have” God. Before accepting Yeshua, Jews do not “have” God and His hope in the same sense as after accepting Him. After accepting Yeshua they have hope and God in an individual, salvific sense – they have forgiveness of their sins, God sees them as righteous because of Yeshua’s atoning death, and they have the certain hope of eternal life with God. Before accepting Yeshua a Jew does not have the certain hope of eternal life with God, but he does share in the communal promises to the Jewish people as a whole – for example, a share in the Land of Israel. A Jew needs God in both the communal and individual senses because this is how God has ordained that it should be.

The Christian attitude toward the Jewish people should be, “The Jews are my home, my family.” Whether the Jewish people will accept Christians as family will depend on how the Gospel is presented to them, and it is the task of Christians and Messianic Jews to find the right way. But an essential aspect of this presentation will be defining the Gentile Christian in the way I have done – rather than in the way Christians have, by their words and deeds, defined themselves: either as enemies of the Jewish people, alienated from their national life, or as people who have no connection with the Jews and can be oblivious to them, or even as outsiders who respect and love the Jews a lot. These definitions not only contradict texts Christians claim to believe, but often foster behavior toward the Jewish people that is sinful, behavior which distances Jewish people from the Gospel and from the Gentile branch of the People of God.

Christians need to redefine who they are in relation to the Jewish people – and then act on the consequences of that redefinition with a renewed commitment to bringing the gospel to Jews. This is the biggest challenge facing the Church.

All biblical quotes taken from “The Complete Jewish Bible”

 
(Editor’s Note: Dr David Stern is one of the elder statesmen of the Israeli Messianic movement. He is best known for authoring “The Complete Jewish Bible”. This article is excerpted from Dr. Stern’s book, ‘Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel’, available from Messianic Jewish Resources International (www.messianicjewish.net; 800-420-7367)

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