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Christianity and Jewishness

January 6, 2016 1 comment

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I have struggled with whether or not it would be appropriate – or more accurately stated, appropriately received – for me to write about an issue that has been on my mind a lot in recent years. It’s a potentially inflaming issue, though I don’t believe it should be. Rather, I think it’s a unifying idea that might begin to bridge an unfortunate multi-generational gap between Jews and Christians.

So here goes…

I meet almost weekly with a group of guys I go to church with. While part of it is unapologetically frivolous, most of our time is spent in deep conversation trying to reach a better understanding of God, his mission to humanity, and the Bible, which we believe is the divinely-inspired story of God and humanity’s reconciliation to him.

As an aside: I ask that any who stumble across this page who may not share that conviction please put aside any postmodern skepticism you may have as to that particular point. There are other issues at work here that will be overlooked if you hang up on that. I do not claim to be an expert apologist to extol the historicity of the Bible, though I believe it is far more historically supported than any other sacred text. At some point faith in anything – even in atheism – requires that one transcend that which can be irrefutably proven according to modern scientific or rhetorical methods. 

That is not to say that Christians (or Bahai, or Muslims, Jews, or other religious adherents) should suspend rational thought and blindly accept what their clergy say. Furthermore, intellectual integrity requires that we test what we believe against common sense – however flawed that sense may be – the weight of history and science, and yes, sacred texts that have been handed down through millennia. But with all religions, philosophies, and scientific theories, a measure of “faith” is required when we cannot perfectly prove that which we believe to be true.

But I have digressed…

During the past many months our discussion group has focused on Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (canonized in the New Testament as the book of Romans). I’ll spend time in future writings focusing on other issues in Romans because it’s a very meaty letter. In fact, much of the Christian perspective of salvation through grace is articulated there, and frankly, I think that most of us Christians get it wrong most of the time.

The issue I want to explore here deals with God’s offer to extend grace and reconciliation to us “Gentiles” as Paul discusses in Romans 11. I believe that for many generations less enlightened Christians have believed that God turned his back on his chosen nation of Israel when the Jewish leaders in the ancient Roman empire rejected Jesus as the messiah of Israel and persuaded Rome to have Jesus executed. Many Christians have taken that whole transaction to mean that God no longer “chooses” Israel and that the Jews are no longer his chosen people.

A plain reading of Romans 11 should put this argument to rest. The most prolific author of the New Testament goes to great lengths to establish that instead of turning away from the Jews, God used Israel’s rejection of Jesus as an opportunity to expand his grace and reconciliation beyond the Hebrews to the non-Semitic world. As Paul writes in verses 11 and 15,

[11] “Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves.”

[continuing to v. 15] “…since their rejection (of Jesus as messiah) meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance (someday, for those who choose to believe) will be even more wonderful.” (New Living Translation)

(Note: I believe my parenthetical additions in v. 15 are consistent with the context of Romans.)

Paul goes on to discuss the roots of God’s original covenant with Abraham, referring to the Jews as the original branches of Abraham’s “tree.” He extends the metaphor to explain that, although they were original children of God’s covenant with Abraham, God broke off branches from that tree and grafted in a different type of tree to be part of Abraham’s blessing. (See vv. 17-18) It is this act of grafting in those of us who are not Jews that provides God’s favor through our faith in Jesus. Paul reminds us not to become haughty or take this for granted, because we remain foreign additions to the chosen people of God. (vv. 19-21) It is only by his sovereign mercy that any of us ever came to faith in Jesus, covered by his grace and free from the law. (Go read Romans 6-8)

And so here is how I have come to reconcile the story of the Jews, Jesus, and the Gentiles:

Just as God was willing to sacrifice his own son Jesus to deliver the Jews from the overwhelming and impossible burden of keeping the law, so too did God willingly sacrifice his chosen people of Israel to make a way for salvation to the rest of humanity. And just as God restored Jesus to glory as the risen Christ, so too will God restore his favor to people of his original covenant as they are humbled to accept the free gift of grace that was originally intended for them.

Paul – who after all, was a Jewish rabbi and a member of the council who actively executed first century Christians – wants the Jews to see that faith in Christ is deliverance from the law, not a call to reject their Jewishness. In fact, Paul explains that faith in Jesus is the ultimate completion of Jewishness. At its core, it seems that being Jewish is about being set apart and in covenant with God. Because this was impossible through keeping “the law”, God made it possible through grace.

Following Jesus does not require a Jew to become un-Jewish. To the contrary, it is the very fulfillment of Jewishness. It simply requires that the Jew – and by God’s grace, us “Gentiles” – acknowledge through faith that Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf.

I’m sure this is imperfect and full of logical, rhetorical, and theological holes that I’m not seeing. After all, I’m not clergy and am not trained in this stuff. I’m curious, I read a lot, and I like to ponder stuff like this over a few fingers of good bourbon.

If faith were easy, there would be no reason for thousands of years of argument, wars, scholarship, rhetoric, and countless faiths and sects all trying to figure this stuff out.